From boom to almost bust, and now, seemingly, on the cusp of a boom again, Dubai seems to be back. Its gung-ho march from small desert settlement to world domination was abruptly halted in 2008, when the global recession threatened to bring the emirate to its knees. I lived in Dubai for three years, but when I left in 2010, the mood was low. Ambitious building projects had ground to a halt, people had lost money and jobs; a metaphorical sandstorm had engulfed the normally sunny city and there was little sign of it blowing away. On my visit four years later, however, it’s immediately apparent that Dubai seems to have its zest back — sparked largely by a successful bid to stage the World Expo in 2020.
When Dubai was awarded host status last November, locals celebrated in the customary manner, cramming into cars for a spontaneous parade of horn honking, flag waving and general nationalistic exuberance. Little matter that many didn’t know what World Expo actually was — that the world had chosen Dubai was what counted. Now banners and hoardings lauding the event adorn buildings across town, and almost everyone I speak to brings the Expo into the conversation.
It’s given Dubai a new focus. A raft of expansive developments have been announced by ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, stagnating building projects have restarted, investors and employers are renewing their interest, and expats are returning. All this isn’t without its disadvantages for residents: rents are up, and traffic congestion is back. On the whole, though, they accept all this as a side-effect of Dubai regaining its mojo.
This is still the place to come for indulgence: five-star resorts, golden beaches, international fine-dining restaurants, giant glitzy malls, sky-piercing buildings, world-class golf courses, and decadent nightlife, all in one easily-accessible, sun-soaked city. Nobody does ‘feel-good destination’ quite like Dubai.
But there’s more to the emirate than that. For all its negative press, it is largely a welcoming, international city. Expats from all over the world make up around 90% of the UAE’s population. The company I worked for employed people from 19 different countries, and global friendships are easily made. On Fridays, large groups of families and friends of all nationalities spend the day picnicking and playing in Dubai’s pristine parks, while the more adventurous head to the desert for camping, barbecues and sand-based fun.
There are activities and culture to tap into too, including hiking and off-roading in the nearby Hajar Mountains, diving and snorkelling on the UAE’s east coast, and kitesurfing on Dubai’s beaches. Art, food and music festivals dot the events calendar, and the more traditional parts of town around the Creek are deserving of exploration.
The best way to appreciate Dubai is to come armed with sunscreen and an open mind. Be prepared to let yourself enjoy the opulence, but also, if the inclination takes you, to dig a little deeper and discover the fabric of cultures and lives that make up this one-of-a-kind city.
See & do
The Creek: Hop-on abras (ferries) carry passengers across the water, painted-blue wooden dhows unload their hauls of imported goods on to the wharves, and souks bustle with traders and shoppers. Come to soak up this distinctly different Dubai atmosphere, and wander the alleyways of Al Fahidi, where interesting galleries and boutique hotels occupy traditional windtower houses.
Aquaventure: Atlantis, The Palm’s water park, offers everything from sun-soaked relaxation on an artificial beach to water-induced terror on heart-thumping white-knuckle rides such as Poseidon’s Revenge and the Leap of Faith, all serviced by a mile-long ‘lazy river’ interspersed with rapids. atlantisthepalm.com
Desert exploration: The desert begins where the city stops, and one of the best ways to explore it is on a night safari and stargazing trip with Platinum Heritage. A 1950s Land Rover will drive you into the restricted Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve, where a guide will lead you on foot, armed with night-vision binoculars, in search of Arabian oryx, lizards and scorpions, followed by shisha and stargazing at a secluded camp. platinum-heritage.com
The Walk, Jumeirah Beach Residence: Dubai’s Venice Beach, this mile-long seafront promenade is lined with al fresco cafes, boutique shops, and, of course, luxury beach hotels. Families stroll by day, the flash crew cruise along in supercars and Hummers at night, and at the weekend crowds sunbathe on the beach. facebook.com/thewalkatjbr
Dishing up Deira: This low-rise, working quarter of Dubai is not normally on the itinerary of luxury-seeking visitors. But a walking exploration of Deira’s multiple Middle Eastern eateries with Frying Pan Adventures, led by enthusiastic local food writer Arva Ahmed, reveals its vast culinary scene. Palestinian mezze, Egyptian feteer pastries, Emirati lamb and rice dishes, and Syrian and Iranian sweets are all on the menu, so be sure to go on an empty stomach. fryingpanadventures.com
Aerial view: The best perspective on Dubai’s outrageous architectural feats such as man-made islands The Palm Islands and The World, plus its ever-growing skyscraper skyline, is from the air on a scenic flight. HeliDubai choppers take off from Festival City, near the airport, while the Seawings seaplane departs from either end of town. helidubai.com seawings.ae
Spa treatment: For personal pampering, Dubai’s plethora of five-star hotels offer pretty much every spa option going. Recommendations include the Quirogolf massage at Ritz-Carlton Dubai (ritzcarlton.com), a hammam scrub at JA Jebel Ali Golf Resort (jaresortshotels.com), and a couples massage at Amara, Park Hyatt (dubai.park.hyatt.com).
£ XVA Art Hotel: A beautiful boutique hotel in Al Fahidi, Dubai’s oldest district, located amid a maze of alleyways and traditional windtower buildings near the Creek. Rooms surround a courtyard, and the property doubles as a contemporary Middle East art gallery. xvahotel.com
££ Vida Downtown Dubai: This stylish six-storey hotel is superbly located in the heart of the Downtown development, with plazas, restaurants, The Dubai Mall and The Dubai Fountain all a stroll away. vida-hotels.com
£££ One&Only Royal Mirage: One of Dubai’s finest beach resorts, the Royal Mirage oozes Arabian palatial grandeur, with marble corridors, petal-filled fountains, and perfumed gardens. royalmirage.oneandonlyresorts.com
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Pink taxis: There are not many of them compared with regular taxis, but these female-driven pink-topped cabs are for women and families only. The Metro also has women-only carriages.
Ramadan: During the Muslim holy month, there are restrictions on restaurant opening times, the serving of alcohol, and eating and drinking in public. This year, Ramadan is from 28 June to 27 July; in 2015 it starts 10 days earlier.
Summer deals: As the mercury rises in summer, hotel prices tend to come down; it’s a good time for a bargain break — if you can stand the oven-like heat.
Creekside souks: These traditional covered markets straddle the Creek, trading textiles on the Bur Dubai (south) side, and gold and spices on the Deira side. They’re good fun, but haggle hard. Also in Deira, next to the Hyatt Regency Dubai, is the Fish Souk; an early morning visit here is an enjoyable assault on several senses.
Souk Madinat Jumeirah: Combining elements of both of the above is this modern recreation of an Arabian market. You can’t barter, but you can pick up some appealing regional artifacts. jumeirah.com
£ Al Mallah: One of several Lebanese pavement cafes on the energetic Al Diyafah Road, Satwa, which buzzes late into the night. Go to town on the classic mezze dishes: falafel, tabouleh, houmous, moutabel, vine leaves and stacks of fresh-baked flat bread. T: 00 971 4 398 4723
££ Bussola: Possibly Dubai’s best al fresco eatery, the beachside Bussola has a relaxed pizzeria on the veranda, and a more formal, pricier Italian restaurant downstairs. Perfect for balmy evenings by the sea. bussoladubai.com
£££ Tomo: Since opening in 2012, this gourmet Japanese restaurant, at the top of the Raffles Dubai hotel, has earned plaudits for its sushi, seafood and Wagyu beef dishes. Sit on the terrace for great skyline views. tomo.ae
At.mosphere: The cocktails are most certainly tall at this 122nd-floor lounge and restaurant, 1,450ft up the world’s tallest building, Burj Khalifa. Accessed via the tower’s Armani Hotel Dubai, the vibe is sophisticated relaxation, the drinks and bites excellent, and the vistas over the city far below simply breathtaking. atmosphereburjkhalifa.com
360º: A great spot for chilled sunset drinks, or, later, more energetic clubbing, this circular rooftop bar and club at Jumeirah Beach Hotel sits out to sea at the end of a half-mile-long pier. Views of the Burj Al Arab and Dubai shoreline are magical. After dark, DJs crank things up several levels. jumeirah.com
The Jetty Lounge: One of Dubai’s newer, and best, beachside bars, located at One&Only Royal Mirage. Relaxed and refreshing, with large white sofas dotted among the palm trees, ambient lighting and music, and the lapping sea just yards away. royalmirage.oneandonlyresorts.com
Qantas, British Airways, Emirates and Virgin all fly from Heathrow. Emirates also operates from Birmingham, Manchester, Newcastle, Glasgow and Dublin. qantas.com ba.com emirates.com virgin-atlantic.com
Average flight time: 7h.
Metered taxis are reasonably priced and plentiful. dtc.dubai.ae
The new Dubai Metro is cheap and fast, with connecting buses serving stations. metro.rtaprojects.me
A traditional abra boat ride remains the best way to cross Dubai Creek. rta.ae
When to go
October through to early April is the most popular time to visit, with agreeable temperatures hovering in the 20-30C range. Rainy days are rare, but you can expect the odd downpour between January and March. Summers can be unbearably hot and humid.
Need to know
Visas: Thirty-day visas are issued free on arrival to UK citizens.
Currency: UAE Dirham (AED; unofficially abbreviation: Dhs). 1 AED = £0.16.
International dial code: 00 971 4.
Time difference: GMT +4.
How to do it
Kuoni offers seven nights’ B&B at One&Only Royal Mirage, including flights from Heathrow, from £1,110 per person, based on two sharing. kuoni.co.uk
Arabian Adventures provides a reliable tailored transfer service around Dubai, as well as excursions and tours. arabian-adventures.com
Click here to visit the website and book this great travel deal or call, quoting the correct promo code. T: 020 7644 1738. Promo code: THPDubai
Published in the Jul/Aug 2014 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)