Travel Writing Awards Entry

By Kelly Robertson

Twenty years ago, the city of Dubai was a bit of a Middle Eastern backwater. In fact, photos from the time show Sheikh Zayed Road, now one of the busiest thoroughfares in Dubai, as a dusty road, scraped from the dry earth, framed by a couple of skyscrapers. Fast forward to 2008, and Sheikh Zayed Road is home to the majority of Dubai’s obscenely tall buildings, and Dubai itself is a playground of pleasures and extremes in the desert, having risen like a glimmering mirage from the desert sands.
Dubai currently has a bit of a reputation as a hot spot for the rich and the famous with footballers and Wags galore having been spotted amongst the palm trees, but with lower flight prices and increasing numbers of “budget” hotels opening their doors, Dubai is starting to cater for a more varied clientele. It’s particularly cheap to visit in the summer months of July to September, and while you are there Dubai doesn’t need to be expensive with “all you can eat and drink” deals like nowhere else. Almost every hotel will offer them on various days of the week, including Yalumba’s at Le Meridien Dubai, whose Friday champagne brunches are legendary amongst visitors in the know and expats alike. Costing around £40 for all you can eat and drink for four hours, including as much champagne as you can physically hold, you can certainly get your money’s worth.
From its luxury hotels and fantastic cocktail bars to its bathwater warm and calm Persian Gulf, there’s something in Dubai for every hedonist to enjoy. Snowboarding when it’s 45 degrees outside, Arabian Nights fantasies to be played out on camel rides through the desert, or just a long, lazy beach holiday with plenty of cold drinks and sunshine. It’s all here.
However, many of the visitors who touch down in Dubai won’t leave the opulent luxury of their 5 star hotels and will probably go home with the feeling that Dubai doesn’t really have a heart or soul. So, does Dubai still have a beating heart, or is just it a shallow façade of oil money and shiny glass?
The truth is, Dubai’s heart is hidden away in dusty streets and old market places, or ‘Souks’ as they are known in Arabia, and the misconception of Dubai as a soul and culture free metropolis is simply untrue. Old Dubai still has a lot to offer. Its vibrant spice market will tempt the senses, with hundreds of jewel coloured spices laid out in large sacks, and the hustle and bustle of bartering ringing loudly in the air. You will find everything on sale from cloves, cinnamon and incense to dried fruit and nuts from all over the region.
Once your senses recover from the spice sensation assault, you can head to the perfume Souk and confuse your nose with the thousands of different aromas wafting through the air. The perfume Souk offers everything from traditional strong and spicy Arabic perfumes to fresh, fruity and modern scents. If all the different scents become too much for you, you can head for one of Dubai’s many finely crafted mosques with beautiful marble minarets and hypnotic wailing resonating from their loud speakers. Dubai’s finest mosque is the Grand Mosque in Bur Dubai. While non-Muslim visitors aren’t allowed inside, the traditional Persian detailing on the 54 domes of varying sizes, the cornflower blue mosaic and the handmade stained glass will still blow you away.
An equally unmissable experience if you go to Dubai is a desert safari. Although the only animals you are likely to see are camels, you will still feel like an intrepid explorer as you hang on for dear life while your driver speeds you up and down massive, undulating sand dunes.  The experience may differ depending on who you book with but usually includes camel rides, desert barbeques, belly dancing and watching the spectacular sunset over the desert and attracts both Western and Middle Eastern tourists. While it is a “tourist attraction” with all that implies, the desert safari exposes you to elements of traditional Bedouin life, including dinner in a traditional style Bedouin encampment. You will find sand in your shoes, bag, wallet and crevices on your body you didn’t even know existed for days but it’s well worth it. The food served is likely to include traditional Arabian Mezze plates, which are perfect for sharing, and will also give you a little taste of traditional Dubai life.
There’s no denying the fact that Dubai is glitzy, glam and a little bit pretentious, but if you make the time to scrape away some of the gilt you will see the under belly and the true spirit of old Dubai. Put your sunglasses on, people watch and enjoy the luxury and unbeatable Pina Coladas on offer in any of the swanky hotel bars in Dubai, but be sure to make time for the old areas of the city where you can still feel Dubai’s heart beating strong.