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
Bes for: Airbourne Antics
In Dubai, a mall has to have a gimmick. At Mirdiff City Centre, it’s iFly, an indoor skydiving centre. iFly has a 10m-high wind tunnel with two high-powered fans that keep divers suspended 3m in the air. Warning: the practice will make your face look like a melting waxwork.
Of course, iFly is a kiddie park compared to the real thing. Skydive Dubai is owned by the Dubai’s Crown Prince, who himself is an avid skydiver.
Skydiving newbies are strapped to an able expert, so you can concentrate on the surreal view of the manmade Palm Island and (as yet incomplete) World islands.
Skydiving isn’t the UAE’s only airborne tradition. For centuries, Emiratis have been sending highly trained birds of prey to scour the sky for fresh meat.
Falconing is one of the earliest forms of hunting; pre-dating guns, the birds would attack, but not kill, their prey – a distinction that is especially important today, as meat isn’t considered halal if not properly slaughtered.
The birds are highly prized in the local culture, and some fetch upwards of £25,000. Falconing was inaccessible to travellers until last year, when Royal Shaheen Event paired with the Banyan Tree Wadi Hotel to offer the only open falconry courses in the region.
Handling a hungry falcon (and they’re kept hungry, to keep them tame) is no joke. In 2003, a falcon belonging to Dubai’s ruler, Sheikh Mohamed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, took down a desert gazelle.
The birds are independent and fierce, and on Royal Shaheen’s two-day course, you not only handle one, but act as its sole source of food.
Imagine throwing a large bird in the air, then having it soar back towards you, talons at the ready, to pluck a piece of raw meat from your gloved hand. Terrifying, but thrilling.
banyantree.com; £697 for a two-day course (16hrs training), or stay at the five-star hotel to receive a discount
Best for: Party People
New: Clubbing, Mayfair style
This year has seen a surge in Mayfair brands making their way to Dubai. Polynesian nightclub Mahiki opened at the start of 2012, though it doesn’t draw quite the same calibre of celebrity clientele (no Prince Harry, we’re afraid, but the Made In Chelsea cast visited).
On Tuesdays, women get unlimited free cocktails from 9pm, and can get the party started even earlier at Embassy, where they get four free cocktails from 7pm. The crowd is a little more WAG than red carpet (though don’t tell the TOWIE cast … they’re regulars).
Old: Expat dives
Dubai’s drinking scene was once dominated by dingy Irish pubs – the sort of darkened dens that were a lifeline to homesick expats in the Eighties and Nineties.
Though a dying breed, cheap locals still dot the city, mainly around the once-popular areas of Bur Dubai and Deira.
At Fibber Magee’s, hidden behind the Costa Coffee on Sheikh Zayed Road, Depression-era drinks deals keep the place packed (nowhere else serves up cocktails for as little as £3).
The Tuesday night pub quiz, which involves sculpting plasticine (sometimes rudely) is hands-down the best in the city.
Best for: Gourmet Geeks
Ever since Gordon Ramsay chose Dubai as the launch point for his first international venue, the city has become so full of Michelin-starred chefs it’s a veritable gourmet Milky Way.
Ramsay’s Verre has, alas, recently been put out to pasture, but there are offerings from the likes of Jamie Oliver, Gary Rhodes and the late Santi Santamaria.
However, the best deal on haute grub comes from one of the city’s most expensive restaurants. French celebrity chef Pierre Gagnaire promotes himself as an artist in the kitchen.
The food he serves up at Reflets par Pierre Gagnaire is irresistibly playful (think langoustines sprinkled in a spice mix made from their own barbecued shells).
The lunchtime deal here can’t be beaten. For £31, you can fill up on three courses of Dubai’s very best fine dining.
Old: Emirati eats
The UAE may be the only country where the locals are a minority. The influx in recent decades of expats and labourers means that Emiratis only make up 10 per cent of Dubai’s population.
As a result, many locals tend to keep their culture – and that includes their food – close to their chests. For locals, Emirati dishes represent a taste of home. As such, they’ll go home to eat it, not sit in a restaurant and order it.
As a visitor, it’s nigh-on impossible to get a taste of Emirati food: no restaurants serve it, even if they claim to. Camel burgers and camel curry at Bastakiya’s cunningly named Local House do not count.
The best place to experience the real stuff is at the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding, which regularly hosts Emirati breakfasts and lunches.
Serving up a massive buffet that includes luqaimat (deep-fried dough balls covered in date syrup), harees (a meaty porridge) and saloona (a rich, chicken stew), while you fatten up, staff field questions about the local culture and religion.
They’re not skittish, and have addressed topics as controversial as terrorism, sex, the Islamic dress code and marrying multiple wives.
http://www.cultures.ae; the breakfast is £10, lunch is £12
Old and New: Future travel in the past
It’s not easy to meet the locals as a visitor to the desert city – you won’t see Emiratis driving taxis or working in shops. As a result, for most tourists, interaction with the locals is limited to going through customs.
To remedy this, two Emirati entrepreneurs have launched a company called Buksha, which will offer travellers the chance to stay in an Emirati home.
In the pilot programme, guests stayed in a majlis (or tent) on a mountaintop farm, ate dinner with the owner, and were even able to attend two local weddings.
While still in the developing stages, it’ll offer a Dubai experience wholly unlike any other.
Return direct flights from London Heathrow to Dubai start at about £360 with Royal Brunei.
When to go: In the summer months, Dubai heats up to the point that it defies credulity (think upwards of 45˚C). In winter, it can be a bit chilly for the beach. Autumn and spring are the best times to visit.
Currency: £1 = AED 5.73
Accommodation: The Dubai Youth Hostel (the only one of its kind in Dubai) is fairly removed from the centre, but the rooms are cheap, and there’s a pool and gym. From £17pn.
The Arabian Courtyard Hotel is more central, but you pay for the convenience. Rooms from £45pn.
Photos: Getty, Thinkstock, Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding, Royal Shaheen Events