Known for its over-the-top opulence and brand new Lamborghinis abandoned at the airport, long time resident Cameron Mehrabanpour explores this city of superlatives rising from the dunes.
Dubai is one of seven emirates that make up the UAE, United Arab Emirates, a country that only came into existence forty one years ago. The discovery of vast oil reserves soon after rapidly created a millionaires’ paradise. Twenty five years ago Dubai was a small desert town famed for pearl diving, but with the help of oil revenue the city many love to loathe erupted from the desert. Gleaming skyscrapers, obscene luxury and extravagant mod cons, Dubai presents itself as one of the financial and tourism capitals of the world, and with over 80% of the population expatriates (the majority from India, Pakistan and the Philippines), the city certainly has a global feel… but there a dark side if you choose to look.
Following America’s lead, the UAE certainly believes bigger is better. The record breaking Downtown Dubai boasts the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building, Dubai Mall, the world’s largest shopping mall and The Dubai Fountain – yep, you guessed it, the world’s largest fountain… built right here in a water-starved desert. Can I get drunk, I hear you ask? There are some of the world’s best restaurants, bars and clubs where you can drink to your heart’s content. No women don’t need to cover up but it is recommended to dress demurely in public.
The city runs along the coastline and is easily navigated by the 14 lane behemoth known as Sheikh Zayed Road. Starting in Deira, known as old Dubai you can see how Dubai used to be. Next is Downtown Dubai where most tourists spend all their money and time shopping. Further on is the man-made Palm Jumeriah Island and the Marina. The metro runs along the road all the way and is the budget way to get around although taxis are numerous and remarkably cheap, $15 for an hour long trip! Unless you enjoy sweating profusely from every pore in your body do not attempt a visit between June and September, the season the locals call hell, as it can get to 55C.
Best of the Beaten Track
For most Downtown Dubai, the home of all the brand new mega attractions, is the obvious place to start exploring. Although impressive some say it lacks soul… and of course it’s designed to sap your cash reserves. My favourite part of town is the souks. The traditional marketplaces of yesteryear have been renovated, in true Dubai style, to make them bigger and better and are definitely worth getting lost in. There are gold, spice, garment and tourist tat areas and a dishevelled Hindu temple. Be prepared to haggle as they will always give you at least 50% off if you have the bartering skills.
Many visitors come to Dubai for the shopping, and one of my favourite malls is Wafi. Someone with more money than sense decided to recreate the Great Pyramid of Giza, Abu Simbel and other Egyptian monuments and turn them into a hotel and shopping complex, and – if you ignore the obvious ridiculousness -it’s actually quite impressive! Amongst the entertainment (every Dubai shopping centre provides entertainment!) are free movies under the stars at their rooftop gardens. Meanwhile Mall of the Emirates houses Ski Dubai where you can pet penguins, go zorbing in the snow or hit the slopes on five different graded runs.
Once you’re shopped out you can hit the beaches and Dubai has miles of well kept, sunny spots to enjoy. Jumeirah beach park is one of the city’s finest containing 12 hectares of landscaped kid’s areas, BBQ spots and of course a sizeable beach and the gloriously warm Arabian Gulf. Another great spot is Nasimi Beach which is at the Atlantis Hotel on the Palm Jumeriah. Most tourists just come to take their picture in front of the hotel but why not enjoy a swim and, lack of sandstorm permitting, panoramic views of the city.
Sounds crazy but most ‘tourists’ are too busy shopping and sun baking to visit the enjoyable and eye opening Dubai Museum. Housed in an old fort close to the souks it’ll give you a good idea of what Dubai was and how people lived before they were glued to mobiles, driving sports cars and sipping lattes. Just a short walk away is Bastakiya a charming labyrinth of alleyways and small shops, where you can take a great walking tour. From here go to the creek where you can see all the Abras: traditional Arabic boats still used to transport goods, there are various stops where you can hop on for a relaxing cruise across the creek.
You’ll be lucky to interact with any of the vastly outnumbered locals but a great way to meet some is to book a slot to learn about Islam and its traditions at the Jumeirah Mosque. Sad to say but it’s probably the only chance, other than passport control, as a tourist you’ll get to interact with real Emirati locals. They do tours of the mosque and cultural meals which serve great food and the local guides are informative, fun and incredibly courteous. Elsewhere at Marina Walk you can mingle with the more affluent expats and enjoy international cafes and restaurants with a stunning view of the Marina. Sunset is a good time to go and people watch. After you’re happily stuffed you can rent a bike or peddle quad and mow down idle bystanders as you cruise down the Marina… all in the name of fun of course.
Experience & Events
No trip to Dubai is complete without venturing out of the perfectly manicured concrete jungle into the wild desolate desert. The more foolhardy can rent a car and head out into the sands, whilst the slightly more sensible will opt for “desert safari” from one of many local tour operators. You will be picked up at your hotel and taken into the desert for a savage dune bashing: but beware they drive like they’ve stolen their Landcruisers and some drivers even let guests have a go at the wheel, so if you suffer from motion sickness this might not be for you. After you’ve had enough of being thrown about you in a 4×4 you are taken to a fake Bedouin camp where you can wear local clothes, ride a camel, go sand boarding and have dinner while watching belly dancers and fire jugglers. Not the most authentic Arabic experience… but a real good laugh if you go with a fun group.
Dubai’s calendar is rammed full of events to keep the residents entertained – and spending money. Some of the best are the Emirates Rugby 7’s, the Dubai Film Festival, which draws both local and Hollywood stars, and the Dubai World Cup – of course the world’s richest horse race. There are too many to name so check out the Dubai calendar which has extensive listings.
It’s over the top and not to everyone’s taste due to the heavy use of gold decoration and bedroom ceiling mirrors but it does boast a menu of seventeen different pillows and each suite has use of a butler.
The only seven star hotel in the world and the most expensive in Dubai is the Burj Al Arab. For a truly superior desert experience there is Bab Al Shams a hotel nestled in the sloping sand dunes forty minutes out of town and completely given over to luxury, with four pools surrounded by dunes, the award winning Satori Spa and seven restaurants on site. XVA is a charming boutique hotel (just seven rooms) in the historic Bastakiya district, which also has a Gordon Ramsay-approved cafe.
Dubai is a foodies’ mecca with some of the best international names and Michelin-starred chefs opening up eateries including La Petite Maison, Zuma, Reflets Par Pierre Gagnaire, The Ivy and the list goes on. All the top end hotels have three or four restaurants so it’s best to do your research before heading out. For those who don’t want to break the bank there is a great selection of homegrown restaurants that reflect the multinational feel of the city. For Iranian try Iran Zamin with branches in Deira and the Marina. Ravi’s famous for its Indian and Pakistani dishes, has branches everywhere and is a favourite with taxi drivers for tasty cheap eats. Of course all the malls have food courts with reasonably priced quality food.
Dubai has more than its fair share of swanky clubs with the super elite spending money on champagne that’s delivered with sparklers blazing and a vast number of servers. Receipts are kept as trophies and published online, the most ridiculous being $182,000 in one night. If that’s your style then your new favourite haunts might include Armani, Crystal, Cavalli and Boudoir to name a few. One of the nicer chic clubs is 360 as it’s an open deck pavilion in the water with 360 degree views of the sea and nightscape. Barasti Beach Bar calls itself an icon of the Dubai social scene, has five bars, live music every night and beach access all day. Most locals refer to it as “Bar Nasty” as it’s a favourite haunt for drunken expats… and yet somehow we always find ourselves going back again and again. (For more suggestions, plus a bit of Gangnam style, find out what happened when Urban Travel Blog set out to explore Dubai’s nightlife!).
Dubai is a global travel hub and most carriers stop here for trips onward to South East Asia and Australasia. The local airline Emirates is excellent, flies from most destinations and has it’s own terminal – so luxury all the way. They also have their very own Emirates Skywards Loyalty Program, don’t forget to sign if up you fly with Emirates. Fly Dubai is the budget airline and sometime has great deals. Otherwise to get here it’s a long walk across the dunes. For getting from the airport to your hotel (and back again), you can easily reserve a transfer online with Book Taxi Dubai. Your driver tracks your flight time and meets you at arrivals.
One of the best sites for local info and reviews is Time Out Dubai with current daily and weekly listings. The Government of Dubai has useful portal answering all questions tourists may be concerned about, and you can even email in and they’ll reply with a day.
The Explorer is a UAE publishing company and does the best guidebook to the city which can be purchased at the airport, every bookstore and many newsagents. It’s more in depth than the Lonely Planet and in my view easier to use. Camels Love Dubai, by Stephen Wilkins, is the story of Mohan Adikaram from Sri Lanka who loses his family in the 2004 Tsunami, and then moves to Dubai and goes to university there after being fostered by a rich local resident. Desperate in Dubai, by Ameera Al Hakawati, tells the tale of Lady Luxe and several other women living in Dubai, on the hunt for husbands, or, failing that, nocturnal diversions…
Famous/credible films set or shot in Dubai are few and far between. Probably the best is City of Life, which offers an interesting look at the diverse lives that meet here in UAE, whilst Mission Impossible – Ghost Protocol, Code 46 and Ridley Scott’s Body of Lies all feature scenes from the city. They say a TOWIE movie could be in the making…