If you’ve bought into the whole flashy Dubai image, then take a look at the glam resorts along the coast. The Jumeirah beach strip is sun-bathing central — and while the stretch is monopolised by resorts, there are some public beaches dotted amongst them. The frenetic pace of development is best felt amid Dubai Marina’s impressive skyscrapers and their famous neighhbour, the Palm — the giant reclaimed land project. You might go wanting to hate the crass, ostentatious money-flinging, but the scale, quality and detail should impress all but the blackest of hearts.
We recommend: Al Qasr at the Madinat Jumeirah
The Madinat Jumeirah is a small city in itself, an absurd fantasy vision of mythical Arabia with winding canals, arched souks and windtowers designed to look cool rather than keep you cool.Of the accommodation options within the complex, the 292-room Al Qasr is the most impressively opulent. The pool is enormous and the lobby groans under the weight of multiple giant crystal chandeliers. It screams wealth, but somehow manages to do so with class and impeccable detailing. Shimmering golden curtains, enormous beds, tassled drapes and marble bathrooms give the rooms a palatial feel. Yet it’s not all just for show — there’s a luxurious liveability about the Al Qasr too. It feels warm and inviting, and attention to boring practicalities hasn’t been ignored in the desire to show off — plug sockets are in precisely the right places, for example. It’s a consummate representation of the new Dubai — audacious, expensive and of such quality your cynicism vanishes instantly.
■ Rooms: Doubles from 1,170 dirhams (£205). Jumeirah Road. www.jumeirah.com
■ X-Factor: With 44 restaurants inside the Madinat Jumeirah — many of which are excellent — there’s really no need to leave.
Best for romance: One and Only, The Palm
Isolated on the edge of The Palm, the One and Only has a private island feel, and the design of everything from the restaurants to the enormous spa suites is angelic. Grandstanding high points, from the deep, free-standing oversized baths to huge balconies, are married with thoughtful touches such as headphone sockets by the bed so one person can watch TV or listen to music while the other sleeps.
■ Rooms: Doubles from 1,500 dirhams (£263). West Crescent, Palm Dubai. T: 00 971 4 440 1010. http://thepalm.oneandonlyresorts.com
Best for families: Jumeirah Beach Hotel
The trump card is the free entry to the adjacent Wild Wadi water park, but there’s more than enough to keep everyone busy without the flumes and slides. Sinbad’s Kids’ Club is huge, with its own pool and bouncy castle, while tennis courts, a climbing wall and a 3,000ft beach are other plus points. All rooms face the sea, and they’re well kitted out, down to the free beach bags for your sun cream and books.
■ Rooms: Doubles from 1,144 dirhams (£201) per night. Jumeirah Road. T: 00 971 4 348 0000. www.jumeirah.com
Downtown is where Dubai gets its swagger on. It’s home to the world’s largest shopping mall — the Dubai Mall has room for a giant aquarium and an ice rink. There’s also the world’s tallest building and the planet’s largest dancing fountains display — the people who designed the Bellagio Fountains were paid to come in and top their Vegas masterpiece. Something new is always being built — much of the area around the 2,717ft Burj Khalifa is still a construction site, while new skyscrapers continually pop up along the Sheikh Zayed Road. Would-be pedestrians are in for a nasty shock, however — prepare to cross roads by cab.
We recommend: Dusit Thani
It’s by no means the hippest option, but this Thai chain’s Dubai outpost does offer excellent value for money in an area of heart-stopping price tags. The Thai influence is glaringly obvious — many of the staff have clearly flown in from Bangkok while musicians pluck, bow and drum away on traditional Thai instruments next to mini pagodas. The building is shaped to look like the Thai wai greeting, where the hands are pressed together and arms are left slightly apart. It’s hard to miss from the outside. Recent refurbishments have done wonders for the inside, too — deep-sunken baths and silky-feeling purple chaises longues add a dose of luxe to the 321 rooms. The practicalities — multi-region plug sockets by desk and bed, free wi-fi, CaffItaly coffee machines and possibly Dubai’s most reasonable minibar prices — are bang on too. The location opposite Sheikh Zayed Road’s ugliest intersection is a downside, but free shuttle buses to most places of interest are thrown in for guests.
■ Rooms: Doubles from 480 dirhams (£84). 133 Sheikh Zayed Road. T: 00 971 4 343 3333. www.dusit.com
■ X-Factor: The pool — it’s on the roof of the 36-floor tower.
Best for business: Fairmont Dubai
Opposite the World Trade Centre and Dubai International Convention Centre, the 394-room Fairmont is stunning from an interior design perspective. The central atrium effectively offers a dazzling free light show as the glass lifts soar up 34 storeys. Perhaps the most comfortable beds in Dubai await after your ascent, along with polished granite floors. The Fairmont also offers some of the finest dining in Dubai, with the globe-trotting menu and eight interactive kitchens at Spectrum On One being the most acclaimed.
■ Rooms: Doubles from 1,119 dirhams (£196). Sheikh Zayed Road. T: 00 971 4 332 5555. www.fairmont.com/dubai
Best for shopping: Al Murooj Rotana
A five-minute walk from the Dubai Mall, the 247-room Al Murooj Rotana is the perfect spot if you want to hammer the credit card in the shops instead of at the hotel check-out. It has significantly cheaper rates than the flash competition nearby, and a semi-resort feel due to being part of a large residential complex. That means bigger pools than most Downtown hotels and a lively bar. Rooms are smart without being dazzling, but they’re surprisingly spacious — offering plenty of room to sling the shopping bags down in.
■ Rooms: Doubles from 576 dirhams (£101). Al Saffa Street. T: 00 971 4 321 1111. www.rotana.com/almuroojrotana
Anyone labouring under the impression that Dubai is all bling should take a trip to Deira, north east of the Dubai Creek. This tends to be where the guest workers who keep Dubai moving live; a place of shabby ethnic restaurants offering surprisingly good meals. Deira is also home to sprawling souks — with the spice market coming out top for atmosphere and the gold souk winning on spectacle. It’s the largest gold market in the world and is unbeatable for high stakes haggling. No one will call Deira pretty, but it is the place to sample raw-form cultures from around the world.
We recommend: Ahmedia Heritage Guesthouse
Opened in late 2012, the Ahmedia is a rare slice of genuine heritage in Dubai, its coral stone and gypsum exterior a fine example of the favoured architectural style before the skyscraper boom kicked in. It’s in a pedestrianised area, so you have to walk a couple of blocks to the nearest road. The hotel is spread over two buildings, built around tranquil interior courtyards and blessed with upper level sun terraces. Dark wood double doors, locked from the inside with a clunking old-fashioned timber bolt, lead to red and gold curtain drapes, a multitude of hanging lamps, carved mirror frames and traditional patterned air vents in Dubai’s closest equivalent to a Marrakesh riad. It’s not attempting luxury — although flatscreen TVs and minibars are provided — but it does a good job of being lovely.
■ Rooms: Doubles from 330 dirhams (£58). Next to Al Hamadiya School, Al Ras. T: 00 971 4 225 0085. www.ahmediaguesthouse.com
■ X-Factor: It’s a five-minute walk to the souks and the abras — traditional wooden boats crossing the Dubai Creek.
Best for affordable layovers: Premier Inn Dubai International Airport
Let’s not sex this up — it’s a Premier Inn. But what it lacks in knock-your-socks-off flair, it makes up for in surprisingly good facilities. There’s no charge for wi-fi — rare for Dubai — it’s a short walk to the nearest Metro station, shuttle buses to the beaches and malls are free, the rooftop pool has splendid views, and the airport is opposite. For one or two nights on the way to somewhere else, this hotel is ideal.
■ Rooms: Doubles from 350 dirhams (£60). Opposite Terminal 3, Al Garhoud. T: 00 971 4 260 4000. www.premierinn.ae
Best for a boozy brunch: Le Méridien
The lavish, Champagne-fuelled Friday afternoon brunch has become something of an ungodly Dubai tradition among the legions of expats. The best is arguably at Traiteur in the Park Hyatt, but the most fun is at Le Méridien’s Yalumba. The sheer wealth of eating options — from Japanese to modern European — in the hotel’s village of restaurants is a trump card too. Ask for a newly renovated room — they’re smartly designed and have an inviting warmth.
■ Rooms: Superior deluxe rooms from 500 dirhams (£88). Airport Road. T: 00 971 4 217 0000. www.lemeridien-dubai.com
On the other side of the Creek from Deira, Bur Dubai is where most of the cultural attractions are. The traditional houses of the Shindagha area host small museums and ‘heritage villages’, while Bastakiya has galleries and courtyard cafes. Between the two are the Dubai Museum inside the Al Fahidi Fort, the textile souk and the Grand Mosque. These pockets are the best base for visitors wanting more than resorts, skyscrapers and malls — although Bur Dubai does become grittier the further you move away from the Creek. They also offer the very un-Dubai pleasure of being able to walk around without being cut off by multiple-lane freeways.
We recommend: Raffles
If you’re in the market for a shy, circumspect hotel, the 246-room Raffles is not for you. Shaped like a pyramid, it goes all out on the Egyptian theme. Glass doors are splashed with cod hieroglyphics, giant Nubian-style vases line the lobby and statues of pharaohs guard the lifts. King Tut would be less at home in the rooms, where the diamond Giza theme is toned down, but they have an unmistakable swagger. A perfume hit greets you, couches big enough to sit five or six lure you into the comfort zone and the oversized wedge-shaped baths are ideally suited for would-be Antony and Cleopatras to cosy up in. Almost all of the rooms have balconies — although the views of the city and the scrubby desert it increasingly encroaches on aren’t the sexiest — while every room has its own butler. On the fourth floor, a sizeable outdoor pool backs onto what is optimistically billed as a ‘botanic garden’. Not quite, but it makes for delightful strolling nonetheless.
■ Rooms: Doubles from 1,134 dirhams (£199). Sheikh Rashid Road, Wafi. T: 00 971 4324 8888. www.raffles.com/dubai
■ X-Factor: Bring out your tigers and lions to practise swinging them around — even the smallest rooms are 753sq ft.
Best for art: XVA Art Hotel
For flair, the XVA is the best of Dubai’s small hotels. It’s also an art gallery and vegetarian cafe — you’ll walk past all manner of bizarre, multi-coloured installations on the way to one of the seven individually decorated rooms. The heritage aspects of the traditional Bastakiya house — the wooden ceilings, double doors and tranquil central courtyard — have been sensitively maintained, however.
■ Rooms: Doubles from 780 dirhams (£137). Bastakiya, Bur Dubai. T: 00 971 4 353 5383. www.xvahotel.com
Best for heritage: Barjeel Heritage Guesthouse
Newly opened in January, this nine-room stunner occupies a pre-oil Dubai building in Shindagha. Antique furniture, dangling lanterns and its own traditional windtower contribute to the romantic old-Arabia feel. The facilities are never going to match up to those at the big hotels, but intimate charm is the key here, and the 150-seater terrace restaurant on the upper floor has killer views out over the Creek.
■ Rooms: Doubles from 588 dirhams (£103), suite 708 dirhams (£124). Al Ghubaiba. T: 00 971 4 393 8700. www.barjeelguesthouse.com
Published in the April 2013 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)