Kaye Holland has the low-down on why you should add the Middle Eastern metropolis-on-sea to your travel bucket list for 2017
As recently as two decades ago very few of us had heard of, yet alone been to, Dubai. Now the emirate is a permanent fixture on the winter sun scene thanks to its promise of guaranteed rays, without the need to fly halfway around the globe. But there’s more to this ambitious Arab emirate than merely sun and sand. Scratch beneath the shiny surface and you’ll find another side to the ‘city of gold’. Alongside iconic modern skyscrapers like the Burj Al Arab (the seven star hotel shaped like the sail of a dhow) sit historical sites such as Bastakia and the creek where you can watch abras and dhows (traditional Arab sailing boats) weave their way across the water as they have done for centuries.
The emirate might not be entirely to your taste – much like Marmite, you’ll either love it or hate it – but one thing you can never accuse Dubai of being is dull…
Ascend the Burj Khalifa
Soaring 828 metres above Dubai, the Burj Khalifa – currently the world’s tallest building – represents a union of art, engineering and heritage. It’s home to thou-sands of metres of office space, 900 private residences, the 160-room Armani Hotel and At The TopSKY, a record-breaking observation deck on the 148th floor that offers dizzying views of Dubai’s skyline, punctuated as it is by skeletal hotels and stellar shopping malls. The Burj Khalifa is also an art lover’s paradise: expect to see more than 1,000 specially commissioned works of art from Middle Eastern and international artists alike, on display throughout the building.
Shop till you drop
If shopping was an Olympic event, Dubai would virtually be guaranteed a gold medal: there’s a whole host of super sized shiny malls dedicated to the joys of consumerism. The Mall of the Emirates (home to a ski slope complete with 6,000 tonnes of real snow that falls over night at around minus 10 degrees Celsius) has long been the king of the castle, but is now been given a run for its money in the shape of The Dubai Mall. The largest mall in the world by total area, it boasts enough shops (1,625 no less) to clothe you for life, together with buzzy bars and restaurants. The mega mall also houses an onsite aquarium (the largest in the world) should you be interested in scuba diving with sharks, an Olympic sized ice rink and the world’s highest dancing fountains. Make no mistake: Dubai’s charismatic ruler, Sheikh Mo, definitely subscribes to the theory that bigger is better.
Marvel at The Palm
The desert destination’s man-made islands are arguably the most audacious of all of Dubai’s breathtaking projects. The three palm-shaped artificial archipelago are often referred to as the eighth wonder of the world as they are one of the few engineering feats that can be seen from space. The best way to see these awe in-spiring islands – home to scores of sumptuous resorts such as the marine themed, celeb studded Atlantis that’s loved by the Made in Chelsea cast – is by boat. You’ll find plenty of private tour companies who will happily take you out on either a yacht or speedboat. Alternatively jump on the Palm Monorail (www.palm-monorail.com) that runs to the Atlantis resort (www.atlantisthepalm.com).
Check out the creek
Given the emirate’s enthusiasm for glitz and glamour, people tend to have the wrong idea about Dubai – believing it to be all about shopping and skyscrapers, malls and modernity. Not so. Don’t get us wrong: Dubai definitely loves its de-signer shopping and futuristic skyline, but the beating heartbeat of the former fishing post has to be the creek. On the Bur Dubai side, you’ll discover the col-ourful Textile souk selling curly Aladdin-esque slippers and fine silks for a snip while on the Deira side, follow your nose to the Spice souk where exotic spices and dried fruits are sold out of large open sacks making for a sensory overload. Then go to the Gold souk – regardless of whether you looking for a statement jewellery piece for peanuts (the price of gold is generally a lot lower than in Eu-rope) the Gold souk is a must see when in the ‘the city of gold’.
Visit Jumeirah Mosque
For further local flavour, factor in a tour of Jumeirah Mosque (Dubai is after all an Islamic state even if it isn’t quite how you’d envisage Arabia) on Beach Road. Snowy white (the mosque was built entirely from white stone in the medieval Fatimid tradition), this intricately detailed house of worship – twin minarets frame a large central dome – is easily Dubai’s most beautiful mosque and, crucially, the only one that welcomes non-Muslims (women must wear a scarf) six days a week. One-hour guided tours are run by the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding and conclude with a Q&A session where you are free to ask any question about Islamic religion and culture.
If all you want to do is fly and flop (and let’s face it, we wouldn’t blame you given the arctic weather in Blighty), Dubai won’t disappoint. Dubai has brilliant beaches boasting sand whiter than a dentist’s chair, although most are owned by the city’s hotel and resorts. Translation? If you’re Airbnb-ing it, you won’t be able to access them. But don’t despair! For just a few dirhams, you can stretch out on the sand at Jumeirah Beach Park where facilities include showers, sun-beds, changing rooms, children’s playground areas and an array of F&B outlets selling snacks. However if you want a slice of sand to yourself, make for Al Mamzar – the beach park that most of Dubai forgets owing to its slightly off-the-beaten track location (it’s situated on the outskirts of the city).
When you want to escape the concrete jungle – and after a few days, chances are you will – sign up for a desert safari. Every tour operator under the sun offers safari tours, which typically include a camel ride and cultural activities – think music, dance, henna, falconry and local food – at a traditional Bedouin desert camp. Trust TNT when we say that as experiences go, a desert safari should top any Middle East itinerary list.
Gawp at the skyline
The Dubai skyline changes on (an almost) daily basis – change is the only con-stant in this glitzy, desert oasis – but mustn’t miss skyscrapers include the Burj Al Arab (the self proclaimed seven star hotel, shaped like the sail of a dhow), the triangular tips of the Emirates Towers on Sheikh Zayed Road and the wave like Jumeirah Beach Hotel. Bottom line? Whether you’re on the beach or downtown around the Burj Khalifa, an amazing view of the city’s twisting towers, majestic mosques and lavish modern souks is pretty much guaranteed.
It’s detractors may say that a pot of yoghurt has more culture than Dubai but, thanks to the arrival of a new opera house, it’s legion of fans beg to differ. Located in the glittering Downtown area, Dubai Opera – which opened on the 31 August 2016 with a powerhouse performance by the Spanish tenor, Placido Domingo – is billed as the city’s first purpose-built multi-format performing arts theatre. Developer, Emaar Properties, says that the dramatic dhow shaped exterior could one day be as iconic as the Sydney Opera House. Forthcoming shows include White Nights in Dubai (March-April 2017) starring Welsh mezzo-soprano, Katherine Jenkins. Check out the full programme at www.dubaiopera.com
The United Arab Emirates’ second largest city hasn’t always been associated with art but times – they are a-changin. The epicentre of Dubai’s art scene is arguably Alserkal Avenue (www.alserkalavenue.ae). Dubbed Dubai’s answer to Shoreditch, this edgy warehouse district is chock full of contemporary art galleries and impressive outdoor installations. And be sure to check out Cuadro Fine Art Gallery (www.cuadroart.com) over in the Gallery Village art hub, where you’ll find work by artists like Gita Meg and Dale Chubby. But whichever part of the city you find yourself in, keep your eyes open for Dubai Walls (#Dubai_Walls) – an initiative launched last March to promote street art in the Middle East.