If you’re heading to Asia or Australasia, there’s a good chance you’ll be changing planes in Dubai. Instead of spending your transfer time in the airport, why not stay for a couple of days in this crazy metropolis in the desert.
I spent five days in Dubai recently, and managed to do the ‘big five’ at my own leisure, one a day. If you’re pressed for time, you can’t go wrong with any (or all) of the following:
1. Desert safari
You can’t come all this way, and not spend some time in the desert. There are loads of tour companies to choose from, but we booked our desert safari on-line with Viator before we left the UK. After a lazy morning lounging around our hotel pool, we were picked up at 2.30pm and taken an hour or so away from the city’s gridlocked roads in a white Toyota Landcruiser.
Our driver deflated his tyres when we met up with a convoy of a dozen other Landcruisers, and we set off on the sand for some ‘dune-bashing’ – driving at speed up and down sand dunes.
There were regular stops for photo opportunities as the sun set in what was not quite the middle of nowhere – there was a line of electricity pylons and cables nearby, and a procession of planes on the approach to Dubai International Airport, which has recently overtaken Heathrow as the world’s busiest.
Eventually we were taken to our ‘camp’ for the evening, where we could go on quad-bikes, go sand-boarding, have a henna tattoo, hold a falcon or the highlight for me – a camel ride.
As day turned to night, we tucked into an Arabic barbecue and were entertained by traditional dancers. The night-time temperature out in the desert is a lot more pleasant than that in the city, and I enjoyed walking barefoot in the cool sands of the camp (although I was careful not to step in any camel poo). Before being driven back to our hotel, we had a nightcap of Arabic coffee with dates under the stars – a perfect end to a perfect day.
2. Marina to Palm boat-trip
If you only go on one boat trip, make it Dubai Ferry‘s hour-long sunset cruise from the Marina to Palm Jumeirah and back. The boat leaves at 5pm from Dubai Marina Ferry Station – for the first ten minutes or so, admire the Hong Kong-like skyscrapers and flash yachts of this area, and watch out for skydivers flying past.
The UK’s obsession with health and safety has not arrived on these shores yet. Passengers can either stay seated in air-conditioned comfort indoors, or stand unprotected outdoors on the edge of the boat. I lost count of how many times I nearly fell into the sea taking photos, as we bobbed up and down at speed.
On one side you’ll see the best sunset you’ll ever see, as a huge red sun dips into the Persian Gulf. On the other you’ll see the Atlantis luxury hotel and beach resort at the end of The Palm – a man-made island in the shape of a palm tree. Night comes pretty quickly here, and as you head back to the Marina you’ll be greeted by the twinkling skyline that gives this area its ‘Manhattan of the Middle East’ nickname.
Not everyone who comes to Dubai expects to see an old town area where people actually live and work. The areas either side of Dubai Creek are the oldest and some may say the most genuine and atmospheric parts of town.
This is how Dubai looked before the discovery of oil – the Creek allowed the settlement’s pearling and fishing industries to develop. The Al Fahidi Historical District has been restored to resemble a traditional Arabic neighbourhood, with its windtowers (a primitive form of air-conditioning for homes), shaded courtyards and jumble of pedestrianised lanes.
There are plenty of museums, art galleries and cafés to pop-in to when it inevitably gets too hot. Further along the Creek there are souks selling gold, spices, souvenirs and fresh fish. You can be taken in a motorised wooden boat called an abra across the Creek for just 1 AED (20p), munch on tasty street-food and think you are in a different country (and century) to the one you left in modern Dubai.
4. Madinat Jumeirah
If you don’t get chance to see the windtowers by the Creek, this is your next best opportunity. The Madinat Jumeirah is a vast replica Arabian village with canals, luxury hotels and indoor souks.
For 50 AED, you can go on a canal cruise in an abra for probably the best views and photo opportunities in Dubai. Our guide showed us some of the best and most expensive hotel rooms as we went past the Mina A’Salam, and were told this was where Tom Cruise and his entourage stayed when filming Mission Impossible Ghost Protocol.
You’ll get a glimpse of the symbol of Dubai, the Burj Al Arab hotel. Shaped like the sail of a dhow and gleaming brilliant white in the sunshine, this is out of reach of your average holidaymaker, unless you like paying around £2,000 for a night. You can’t even enter unless you’re staying there or have a reservation to eat or drink. I was told off for getting too close by a guard in a hut on the approach road to this self-proclaimed 7* beauty set on its own island, but not before I managed to take this photo of an approaching Rolls Royce.
We were sad to eventually leave the paradisical Madinat Jumeirah, and headed up the road to see one of Dubai’s best public beaches, Kite Beach. Here we plopped on the soft golden sand before taking a dip in the warm bath-like water of the Persian Gulf.
5. Downtown delights
This is what we came to Dubai for – mental fourteen lane superhighways and futuristic uber-skyscrapers straight out of Blade Runner. To see it at its best, book ahead to get access to ‘At The Top’ – the observation deck at the stupidly tall Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building at 828m. Although the observation deck on the 125th floor is only at 456m, it’s not possible to get any higher than this without wings (unless you pay silly money to get to the 148th floor).
The Burj Khalifa looks just as good from ground level – at the base, you’ll find a lake with a regular choreographed fountain show called, imaginatively, the Dubai Fountain. Watch jets of water shoot and dance 150m into the air to classical music with the immense tower as a backdrop.
When you’ve had enough of that, wander around in awe at the Dubai Mall – the world’s biggest shopping centre. This makes places like the Trafford Centre look like your local corner-shop. I’m not even a fan of shopping, but it’s great fun here – the 1,200 shops actually come second to the entertainment. There’s a huge waterfall in the middle, a shark-filled aquarium, a real dinosaur skeleton, an Olympic-sized ice rink and more restaurants than your average UK city, you could spend a week here without getting bored.
There are loads of other things to do in Dubai – waterparks, Michelin-star dining, indoor skiing, world class horse-racing, sky-diving – if I’m lucky enough to head east again, I’ll be booking a stopover in this desert delight.