We're driving past a giant building site which stretches as far as the eye can see. Nothing is moving so it looks abandoned, though this could be because it's a Sunday.

There's something almost Armageddon-like about the scene; the day after the disaster of a Hollywood blockbuster.

"This will be the largest shopping mall in the world when it is finished," says our guide Vinod.

"It will be called Dubai Land and will total 3 billion square metres."

Vinod tells us it will have a Disneyland, tropical gardens, a snow planet, various other theme parks and everything else you would imagine at a shopping mall.

Apparently it was going to be three times the size but because of the world's financial wobbles, the plans have been scaled back.

That is the first hint of reserve I've seen in Dubai ... and it's still a scheme on a scale of almost unimaginable grandeur.

Vinod drives us past another behemoth of development, though this one is finished. This is Dubai Mall, he tells us, which used to be the biggest mall in the world, but now we need a bigger one.

Why? Because other people have built bigger ones of course, Vinod tells me as if I'm stupid.

I'm not convinced Dubai Mall was ever the biggest in the world, but it doesn't really matter. The point is Dubai - one of seven states making up the United Arab Emirates - has to have the most extreme of everything.

"Everything has to be the biggest, the longest, the largest, the best," says Vinod with pride.

Three of us travellers are stopping over in Dubai en route to South Africa on Emirates Airlines' new route into Durban. It means only a few hours for a whistlestop tour of the business and tourism centre of the Middle East.

Vinod has a desperate optimism bordering on the manic. He seems much like Dubai itself - manic and enthusiastic and determined to bombard the senses.

The new airport under construction will be the largest in the world with six runways.

The Silicon Oasis on the outskirts is based on Silicon Valley - but it's bigger. The university is built like a submarine; the Emirates building is plane-shaped - both, doubtless, unique.

Do you know the Chrysler Building in New York? Dubai has two matching ones.

And, of course, the world's largest building the Burj Khalifa - formerly the Burj Dubai - has just been opened in Dubai.

"It's like Manhattan on steroids. Blink and you'll miss it," Vinod says.

It's all fun to marvel at, wander around and talk about - but it also feels a little shallow.

Vinod has been here 15 years and under Dubai laws is allowed to stay as long as he has a job. Perhaps that fuels his desperate optimism."You need to promote Dubai as a destination, not a stopover," he says. The problem is Dubai continues to feel like a work in progress. There are countless unfinished structures, some with workers, some without.

One giant empty lot has a sign in front saying 4000 apartments will be built by the end of 2009. And little seems to have changed in almost two years at The World Island where 300 man-made islands will form the shape of the world's continents.

The old part of town - where the gold and spice markets are - is interesting but feels like a parody of itself. There are other curious mixes between Arab tradition and the new world being created; in front of the spice markets are bus stops which are air-conditioned; we drive past a camel racing course which is still hugely popular despite the camels being raced by remote-controlled robots driven by the camel's owner (Vinod mutters darkly of "some controversy about child abuse" being to blame for the absence of the glory days when child jockeys rode the camels).

The development of Dubai is incredible. It only started in earnest 15 years ago and is a sight to behold. But it is like the new kid at school - trying too hard to be liked.

It's a fascinating stopover but not yet a satisfying destination. When it grows up a bit it may become a valid holiday spot, but it is not yet clear what it will become as it matures. It's fun to watch.

CHECKLIST
Getting there: Emirates flies four times daily from New Zealand to Dubai and beyond to Europe, Africa and other centres in the Middle East. There are three daily services from Auckland and one from Christchurch.

Getting around: There are a range of operators offering sightseeing city tours of Dubai. Try falconoasis.com or yahootourism.com.

Things to do: A city tour will give you a good feel of what Dubai has to offer. You can't miss the Burj Khalifa but make sure you get the ground-level look around.

Dubai is famed for its shopping. Visit the gold and spice markets.

Go on a desert safari, which includes "dune bashing".

Further information: See dubaitourism.ae.

Stuart Dye visited Dubai as guest of Emirates.