Atmospheric souks, three flavours of chocolate fountain and dune bashing. Twenty reasons to holiday in Dubai...
Getting happily lost in the narrow alleyways of Bastikiya. But fear not, it will only be for a matter of minutes, as this former Persian fishing village next to The Creek and Dubai Museum is only a small patch of what Dubai would have been like before the arrival of oil and airlines and the like.
Souvenir shops down an alleyway in Bastikiya. Photo My Bathroom Wall
It's been restored and turned over to arty boutiques, cafes, and guesthouses. I mooched between its coral-built houses and pushed open a magnificent wooden front door or two. Indoors I discovered romantic courtyards and spaces cooled by traditional wind towers that ingeniously funnel down even the faintest whisper of breeze. One door revealed the gorgeously arty courtyard of the XVA Hotel, gallery and cafe, another the The Majlis Gallery with it’s wonderful collection of water colours, fabrics, and a 3m long bronze fish mobile. I spent an unintentional but blissful few hours at the Basta Art Café here too – settled with a book on an outdoor sofa, in the shade of a Narra tree, slurping creative melanges of fresh fruit juices and picking at a chicken and apricot salad.
Getting face to face with an Arabian Oryx. The open-sided safari Range Rovers drive close to this beautiful white antelope with two foot straight horns. They are probably the origin of the Unicorn myth too – either seeing one from the side when the horns appear to merge, or from an injured single horned creature.
The Unicorn fable apparently started when sailors spied very still and side-on Oryx. Really? Photo Sir Bani
Yas Desert Islands
Sir Bani Yas Island is 160 miles southwest of Abu Dhabi, where Sheikh Zayed - founder of the UAE – kept his private island and made a reserve and saved the Arabian Oryx from extinction. He had a great eye for beautiful and secluded desert islands, and now it’s open to tourists too. The rugged island is home to the largest herd of Oryx in the world, a lovely 64-room hotel, and no other buildings except for the high-walled Sheikhs palace. My balcony had intricate wooden carvings and overlooked the swimming pool and bright blue waters of the Gulf beyond - the occasional oil tanker gliding by to anchor the scene. I kayaked through the mangroves; mountain biked over crags, and took far too many Oryx pics on the jeep safari. See www.sirbaniyasisland.com
Swaying in front of the best sushi display I’ve ever seen. It was a tipsy sway too, thanks to the waiters rapid refilling of my champagne flute, but I took aim and plucked more perfect parcels of fish from the ice-field of a counter. Friday brunch at a restaurant or swanky hotel is an institution in the Emirates – as the Muslim weekend falls on Friday and Saturday.
The chocolate fountain station at the Abu Dhabi Shangri-La brunch. Photo Time Out
My favourite all you can eat extravaganza of crab and curries, carved meats and couscous, is the giant spread offered by the Abu Dhabi Shangri La (www.shangri-la.com/abudhabi, £42pp with alcohol, £59pp with champagne). How to top the many flavour of ice cream left me in a quandary – should I aim for the milk chocolate fountain, the dark one, or the white one? It has won the Best Brunch award several times, but the local Time Out magazine lists the latest venues – currently more than 85 of them.
Descending into history underneath Dubai’s oldest building. I was surprised to discover a state-of-the-art-museum beneath the coral built Al Fahidi Fort. It’s a pretty Beau Geste like castle by the Creek, dating from 1787, yet underground is a large area of interconnecting displays and of Emerati life through the ages.
The lighting is twighlight, and there’s sand on the floor and sound effects as you walk-through life size dioramas of merchant shops, dhow loading and pearl diving. Uncannily convincing enough to mistakenly ask directions of, and all you need to know about Bedouin life. Dubai Museum (Al Fahidi Fort, Bastikiya).
Rounding a corner revealed the cheery sight of everyday Emirati's on ice. Girls in head scarves and lads in brilliant white dishdasha’s were whizzing round the shopping mall’s the ice rink. There are hundreds of souks and small shops in Old Dubai, but the mega malls are so daft they are fun, and full of bonkers surprises too. The Mall of the Emirates has an indoor ski slope and ice rink and Dubai Mall (thedubaimall.com) has the largest aquarium-viewing panel in the world.
Not a Shanghai junk shop, but the China Court of the Ibn Battuta Mall in Dubai. Photo Ibn Battuta Mall
My favourite is the Ibn Battuta Mall, with country-themed sections in tribute to one of the world's greatest travellers. A stroll past some of its 400 shops is made much less daunting thanks to the cheery decor in the sections devoted to India, China, Persia, Egypt, Andalucia and Tunisia.
Learn about Islam
Discovering the funny side of Islam. I learned more than I bargained for in the Grand Jumeirah Mosque because the local Muslim guide was so funny. She wisecracked about the LED display not being today’s money change rates, but actually prayer times and won us over. She explained the pre-prayer washing ritual by an outside fountain, talked us through the prayer technique, and then sat us all down on the mosque’s Persian rugs for ‘any questions’ session.
A talk for tourists inside the Grand Jumeirah Mosque. Photo Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding
I’ve been into dozens of mosques around the world, but this was a more intimate and informative an insight than any. This introduction to Islam is run by the not for profit Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding. Visits last 75 minutes on Sunday, Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday, at 10am, and cost £1.70; no reservation necessary.
Feeling the quick-to-cool desert sand flow through my fingers at sunset. There’s nothing quite like tearing off into the desert Emirati-style, to enjoy a sunset picnic on the dunes.
A fiery Dubai desert sunset. Photo John Karwoski/Flickr
You don’t need local pals either; as there are several desert hotels to help, including the desert fort like design of the Qasra Al Sarab, the grand-arched infinity pool overlooking the desert at the four-star Tilal Liwa Hotel, and the giant tented suites at Al Maha. I try not to miss sunset gazing each evening wherever I’m in the UAE, but desert facing is always the best.
Relishing the view from the tallest building on earth. The views are astonishing, with the Dubai Fountain immediately below, more lowly skyscrapers stretching along the coast, and cargo ships out in the Gulf. In fact the Burj Khalifa is the world’s tallest building by far – 642 feet taller than its nearest rival to be precise. The tip of its mast scrapes the sky at an extraordinary 2,722 feet.
Photo Burj Khalifa
The lift whisks you from inside the Dubai Mall to the observation deck on the 124th floor. Painfully large wall to wall and floor to ceiling windows are fantastic for drinking in the skyline way below, not so great for vertigo sufferers like me. And for better and worse, there is an outside open to the elements area with wooden decking too. Days can be hazy, so to contrast daytime and the brilliant night time lights of the city, aim to visit a little before sunset. Be sure to book your slot online at www.burjkhalifa.ae before you arrive, at £17pp, as tickets bought on the day are £68pp.
Al fresco cinema
Watching cinema under the stars on a clear winter’s night. The Wafi shopping centre shows free film screenings on its rooftop every winter Sunday. I plumped a giant lime green bean bag, sank into perfect viewing comfort, and tucked into a plate of large nachos here. By the unmistakable Wafi Pyramid shopping centre, the gardens are a great live music and chill out venue too, with fake rocks and some real grass and palms crafted into a vague amphitheatre. Bring a light jumper for the cooler winter evenings – generally from 15 to 20 degrees.
Bean bags and the al fresco screen at Wafi. Photo Wafi Dubai
Films start at 8:30pm and entry is free; see www.wafi.com. Alternatively Vox Outdoor shows outdoor films, on the roof of the Galleria Mall, see www.uae.voxcinemas.com.
Staying cool at a futuristic Metro station. The giant golden scarab-like design of Dubai’s overhead metro stations are a pleasure to look at and use. Two lines zip past many of Dubai’s hotels and sights, with one to and from the airport. I always smile to see the gridlock of yellow Lamborghini’s, red Ferraris, and black Bentleys below, having forked out my 34p for the metro.
The typically understated design used for most of the metro stations. Photo Aedas/Flickr
There are women-only and family carriages, and with summertime highs topping 50 degrees, air-conditioning is ubiquitous; even in the overground metro stations and bush shelters. (www.dubaimetro.ae)
Swanky cocktails. Sipping cocktails with one of best skylines in the world for a backdrop. The manmade tree-shaped island that juts into the Persian Gulf, called The Palm Jumeirah, is more impressive from the air than from the ground. It’s one of several grandiose reclamation schemes to turn patches of the Persian Gulf into a island outlines of The World, The Universe, and three giant Palms. The views of Dubai from the Palm Jumeirah – especially from The One & Only’s floating 101 bar – a trendy tented and wood decked bar at the tip of the first frond – are fabulous though (wwww.oneandonlyresorts.com).
The Skyline Deck. Photo One & Only Resorts
A sassy South African barmaid talked me through the cocktails on my first visit here, and helpfully tipped me off to the free speedboat service to the Royal Mirage Hotel back on the mainland – itself with a great Moroccan themed roof bar for late night boozing and schmoozing. (www.thepalm.ae)
Driving into the desert
Driving towards a desert mirage. Away from the cities, and the infamous Sheikh Zaid Road (which connects Dubai with Abu Dhabi and alternates between gridlocked and larey), driving in the UAE is a breeze. The desert roads are often dead straight, quiet, and dissolve into mirages. With open road to the horizon, sand dunes to the sides, dirt-cheap petrol, and some of the best direction givers on the planet, driving here is a hassle free fun.
Perhaps stick to the roads though, but the desert is just on Dubai's doorstep. Photo Land Rover MENA/flickr
Like the locals I soon got obsessed with finding shade to park in – on one day temperatures reached 53 degrees and I had to wrap the fiery hot steering wheel in a t-shirt before I could handle it. Oh, and locals give exquisitely detailed directions – several times I was asked to follow the bloke I’d asked, who lead me right to the place. It comes from the desert past, where telling a stranger good or bad directions to the next watering hole or oasis could be the difference between life and death. You’ll need an International Drivers Permit, your own driving licence, and there is zero tolerance for any alcohol in the bloodstream.
Visit an oasis
Breathing in the cooling shade and sound of water in a picture book oasis. The desert Oasis town of El Ain is 75 miles south of Dubai. It’s a pleasant place partly shared by the UAE and Oman and surrounded by scorched desert. It reminded me weirdly of Carmel in California, with smart shops, diagonally parked cars, and a certain sophistication that belied it’s remote and unforgiving location.
An olive grove inside the Al Ain oasis. Photo Geneva_wirth/Flickr
The green palm grove at its centre is silent save for the swish of fronds and the tinkle of ancient irrigation channels. I took a walk through here and imagined how mesmerising it would have been to stumble on such lush cooling freshness in after days on a camel. The nearby Jebel Hafeet mountain is graced by the finest short drive I know – a three-lane road snakes from the desert floor to the 4,100ft summit in just seven miles.
Lurching back into the seat on the world’s fastest rollercoaster. I swore, a lot, when the aircraft carrier grade catapult let fly and my face pressed onto my skull. Careering out over the empty desert towards the first fearful turn was faster and scarier than his F1 Ferrari, according to Alonso. At Abu Dhabi’s Ferrari World, the Ferrari red on the rollercoaster cars is applied at the Modena factory in Italy, and the thrill of accelerating up to 240 kilometres per hour and experiencing 4.8G is just as genuine too.
The extraordinary design of Abu Dhabi's Ferrari World
There are many Ferrari themed rides, from a pootle round a miniature Italy in a model Ferrari California, to a multi lane ‘racing’ rollercoaster. Paradise for petrol heads, but I was taken by other details too, like the replica of the worker’s trattoria that’s adjacent to the real Ferrari plant, serving pizza and pasta, but not beer though. www.ferrariworldabudhabi.com; entry, over 1.5m £38pp, under 1.5m £28.
Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque
Standing aghast on a 48 ton Persian rug. I reigned in my lower jaw and paced the length of the vast marble prayer hall inside the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi. The two cities are 98 miles apart – just under a two hour drive on a good day. The hand knotted carpet is the largest in the world, and the building itself rivals the Taj Mahal in grace and craftsmanship.
Photo My Bathroom Wall
It’s a modern, stunning structure, with more than 80 domes, miles of marble, and vast chandeliers. The intricate inlay work is mesmerising, as is the gigantic scale of the prayer hall, which can hold 14,000 people. I stayed here way longer than I had planned, sitting on the carpet watching other people being enthralled by the place. www.szgmc.ae; entry free
Rounding off a meal with an apple flavoured sheesha. After a feast of grilled meats and mezze, the done thing at most local restaurants is to order a sheesha pipe to share. The Sheesha – known in different regions of the world as hookah or nargileh, or perhaps hubbly-bubbly, is an intricately designed way to smoke flavoured tobacco by sucking the smoke from an ember tray at the top, down through water and along a pipe to your mouth.
Arabic breakfast selections at Reem al Bawadi. Photo Reem al Bawadi
Restaurants are as posh, pricey, and as international as you like in Dubai, but don’t miss out by overlooking its fine Arabian and Middle Eastern cuisine too. There are several of them now, but the original Reem al Bawadi on the Jumeirah Beach Road, is a great place for good food in a convivial semi-rustic atmosphere. Staff are very friendly, and the Lebanese mezze and local grilled dishes are excellent. (www.reemalbawadi.com)
Crossing the Creek on a rickety wooden boat. Crossing the main artery of Old Dubai, called The Creek, is a blast, on a long wooden boat known as an Abra. It costs 17 pence one-way and is the best way of getting from the Dubai Museum, Bastikiya and the Textile Souk, across to the Perfume, Gold, and Spice souks.
Abra-cadabra; the fun way to cross the Creek
I always say hello to my neighbour – they often beat me to it too – revealing cosmopolitan Dubai - tourists from Turkey, Taiwan, or Tadcaster; immigrant workers from the Levant, Lahore, or Lemington Spa. Abra's cross the Creek every few minutes, with a journey time of about 10 minutes and a one-way fare of 17p.
Sheikh Saeed Al Maktoum House
Loudly slurping thick Arabic coffee and eating sticky dates, Bedouin style. Towards the mouth of The Creek, on its south side, is the Sheikh Saeed Al Maktoum House (Shindagha waterfront), a fine 19th century mansion with a large courtyard and several wind towers. The grandfather of the current ruler of Dubai lived here until his death in 1958.
Inside the Sheikh Saeed Al Maktoum House. Photo Instagram/@dubaiculture
There is a great collection of pre oil pictures of Dubai, showing the meagre roads and modest landing strip. Behind it, and also worth a look is the Heritage and Diving Village; a slightly scruffy stab at demonstrating traditional life – you can sample Bedouin pancakes, have your picture taken with a falconer, or climb onto a camel. During Eid celebrations you might even stumble on a rifle-throwing competition.
Jumeirah Madinat Resort
Glide on a boat through bayou style backwaters. I really rate the evening atmosphere at the Jumeira Madinat Resort, with boats passing ornamental lamps, in between faux souks, and restaurants serving cuisine from all over the world. It’s hard to believe that like everywhere else beyond Old Dubai, it is utterly and fabulously fake.
The fabulously fake bayou of the Madinat Resort. Photo Jumeira
Go with the flow I say and join locals, expats, and tourists, in enjoying a sashay through some of the most magnificent hotel lobbies, bars and restaurants in the world. Head to the Jumeirah Beach Hotel for great views of the Burj Al Arab (www.jumeirah.com/burj-al-arab), or to the Burj for dining in an underwater Al Mahara restaurant, or for a nightcap at the Skyview Bar 650 feet above the Persian Gulf. Or pop into Abu Dhabi’s Emirates Palace for coffee under the chandeliers. Staff at all of the swanky hotels are welcoming and courteous, service generally excellent. I conquered my case of posh hotel lobby apprehension syndrome in the UAE, and you can do too. For a good list of other hotels, see definitelydubai.ae and visitabudhabi.ae.
The other Emirates
Dipping over the mountains towards the gin clear Gulf of Oman. I pointed the car east, crossed some impressively craggy mountains, and entered a pocket of Omani territory too – no border crossing at this one though – and drove along the impressive Fujairah corniche. Seven Emirates make up the UAE, and exploring them by car is a great way to discover the patchwork of land that make up the country.
Trekking in the mountains of Ras al Khaimah. Photo Visit Ras Al Khaimah
As well as Dubai and Abu Dhabi, there’s Sharjah with its nicely restored souk, Ras Al Khaimah for a scattering of new hotels - including the Waldorf Astoria and Banyan Tree, Ajman for the Kempinski (www.kempinski.com/ajman) and dhow building, and sleepy Umm Al-Quwain, except for the Dreamland water park (www.dreamlanduae.com). The bling is spreading farther and wider across the UAE, but venturing away from the coastal strips of ultra modernity in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, is a highlight for me. I’ve magical memories of the super courteous Emirati’s and the rugged desert land they live in.
|Reasons to be cheerful: the city has come a long way since Wilfred Thesiger passed by in 1940s, when it was a small fishing village of about 2,000 people. There is now an outstanding choice of restaurants, shopping malls, and attractions. Taxis are cheap and the metro system is efficient.|
|You can't always get what you want: a bit of a Marmite destination is Dubai - as people either love it or hate it. It's true that there are still areas blighted by ongoing construction, plus the traffic along the Sheikh Zaid Road can be terrible. And shopping and eating out have become very expensive|
|Fitting Dubai into a holiday: most holidaymakers use Dubai as a stopover destination in between long haul flights, or alternatively a beach break holiday. Car hire is cheap in the UAE and so self driving to Abu Dhabi and the other Emirates is very easy.|
|Getting there: the main gateway airport is the Dubai International Airport, which handled almost 83 million passengers in 2016. There are direct flights to many world cities, including Bangkok, Barcelona, Delhi, Dublin, Hong Kong, London, Nairobi, New York, Stockholm, Shanghai, and Tokyo with Emirates. Other airlines include Aeroflot, Air India, FlyDubai, KLM and Singapore Airlines.|
|When to visit: Dubai has fearsomely hot summers, when daytime highs can reach 50 degrees or more. Some hotels have to chill their swimming pools and spray mist over sunbathers. November to mid April is a better time to visit, though it is the high season, when temperatures are hot rather than boiling.|
|More info: see www.visitdubai.com|
|Visa and safety: always check your government's travel advice before booking, and ensure that your travel insurance is valid in this part of the country. See the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office travel advice.|