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We pit Old Dubai against New Dubai to discover a desert getaway offering everything from ancient free diving to drinks with TOWIE

Dubai is better known for its excesses than its history. As well as boasting the world’s tallest building, largest mall and biggest fountain, it is also the proud home of the world’s most expensive cocktail, the 27,321 (named for its price in UAE dirhams), which clocks in at roughly £4750 and is served in an 18-karat gold glass you get to keep.

But perhaps most opulent are the ATMs at all the city’s major tourist sites that only dispense 24-karat gold (a nifty, if pricey, souvenir, no?).

In a city so obsessed with the biggest and most expensive, it’s easy to forget that Dubai has a past, let alone one that’s worth exploring.

Though the emirate’s heritage does, at times, seem to be at war with its aspirations, a well-planned travel itinerary should be able to take in both. Here’s how.

Best for: water babies

New: Shark diving

Usually, scuba divers hope to avoid sharks, or else only see them from the confines of a metal cage. At The Dubai Mall, daredevils can get up close, without a protective buffer. The 10-million-litre Dubai Aquarium houses 33,000 aquatic animals, including more than 400 sharks and rays.

The aquarium hosts daily shark dives and provides all equipment. Granted, the experience can sometimes feel like being an exhibit in a zoo (the mall gets more than 750,000 visitors a week, and ogling madcap divers is half the fun), but it’s well worth it for the rare chance to swim with these magnificent predators of the ocean.

Swimming with sharks isn’t the only wild way to get wet in Dubai. Underneath the majestic, sail-shaped, seven-star Burj Al Arab, a rugged group of enthusiasts are regularly found kite surfing – so popular is the pursuit, the stretch of sand is known to locals as ‘Kite Beach’.

For those lacking the co-ordination to strap on a kite, Dubai’s surf makes it a prime spot for wakeboarding.
http://www.thedubaiaquarium.com, dives from £100; dubaikitesurfschool.com, lessons from £43; markandrewkiteschool.com , wakeboarding from £44

Old: Pearl diving

Long before the invention of the scuba tank, Bedouins in Dubai were free-diving virtuosos.

Most Emiratis can trace their lineage back to pearl diving; the first recorded reference to the Gulf trading in gems was made in 2000BC.

The pastime involved donning long-sleeved, hooded suits to protect from stingrays, and plunging up to 40m to the floor of the Gulf.

A diver would scoop up as many oysters as possible before running out of air, at which point, he’d tug on a rope, and a ‘helper’ on board a traditional dhow would reel him in.

The industry dried up in the 1930s, when Japan started producing artificial pearls. But now the Emirates Marine Environmental Group (EMEG) is reviving the tradition for tourists.

One of the initiative’s main instigators is Major Ali Saqar Al Suweidi, the president of EMEG and the son and grandson of pearl divers.

“This is our culture and it’s something we’re very proud of. We wanted to show people how we used to live,” Al Suweidi says.

Joining in one of EMEG’s pearl diving tours is certainly more unique than traditional scuba diving. Plus, divers get to keep anything they find.

Al Suweidi says the last trip yielded eight pearls. Think of it as an underwater treasure hunt.

jumeirah.com/pearl-diving ; from £122

 


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Bedouins and bling: We explore the new and old Dubai
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