Dubai: Downtown to dunes

The top 10 OTT experiences in the big bling city revealed, plus one really wild adventure in the sand

By David Whitley
Published 13 Aug 2013, 15:25 BST, Updated 30 Jun 2021, 14:27 BST

Ten over the top experiences

01 Head out into the desert on a private dune-bashing tour, and have an intimate dinner after sundown inside a specially-erected personal Bedouin tent on the sand.

02 Take high tea in At.mosphere — at 1,450ft up, on the 122nd level of the Burj Khalifa, it's the world's highest restaurant. 

03 Sink an £871 'Diamonds Are Forever' cocktail at the Burj Al Arab's Skyview bar (you get to keep the Swarovski crystal glass). 

04 Get a seaplane view of Dubai's man-made marvels: the Palm Jumeirah, Burj Al Arab and Burj Khalifa skyscrapers.

05 At Atlantis, The Palm you can swim or scuba dive with dolphins, enjoy a helicopter ride over the city, hand-feed rays and take a behind-the-scenes tour of the Lost Chambers Aquarium. 

06 Don your finest designer togs and sun-shading millinery to rub shoulders with some of the world's wealthiest people at the Dubai World Cup, in March. Held at the Meydan Racecourse, it offers the biggest prize jackpot in horse-racing. 

07 Do a tandem skydive and get a bird's-eye view of the Palm Jumeirah — a highlight of the scenic descent over the coast once your canopy opens. 

08 Charter a yacht — from a 35ft fishing boat to a 90ft catamaran — before heading into deep water for a sport-fishing expedition, with gourmet grub served on board. 

09 Lord it up in the gigantic private spa suite at One&Only The Palm, which comes with its own hidden garden terrace and offers ultra-decadent treatment and lunch packages. 

10 See the desert sand from on high, watching the sunrise from a hot air balloon

Eyewitness: Beyond the Burj

The falcon turns to face the wind and takes off. Within seconds, she's swirling overhead, darting between the date palms and dunes at an ever-increasing speed. The windmilling arm of her handler sends the meat lure round in a hypnotic circle at the end of a thin rope. Her eyes are on the prize, no matter how far she soars. The handler's eyes are on the falcon; but his attentiveness is deceptive: he knows the bond between the pair is an illusion.

"She's my best friend for a few seconds," he says. "She knows the easiest meal comes from her trainer."

A peregrine in full dive is the fastest living thing on earth — hitting over 200mph (at which point it's covering 100m in the time it takes Usain Bolt to get out the blocks). At such speed, the prey stands little chance.

After a few trial runs, the handler is caught by surprise and the falcon grabs lunch. "I have to let her have it," the vanquished meat-swirler concedes. But he does have a trick up his sleeve — when he covers the meat with sand, she thinks it's disappeared.

There's not exactly a shortage of sand to cover it with, either. We're in the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve, an 87sq mile national park that takes up almost 5% of Dubai's total area. It was set up in 2003 to help protect the desert ecology from the sort of rapid development that's transformed the emirate in the past 20 years.

Emirati people share a strong emotional tie to this wilderness, coupled with a desire to cling to their Bedouin roots. This perhaps explains their love of falconry, which, no matter how many in-roads football and cricket make, is still regarded as the national sport. The display on the dunes is just a taster; a glimpse of a Dubai that goes beyond the common conceptions.

To many minds, Dubai is a 21st-century city of ostentatious wealth and self-aggrandising construction feats. For visitors wanting little more than a luxurious resort to catch the sun in for a week, Dubai does that arguably better than anywhere else in the world. But the real surprise is how much there is to do once you venture beyond the confines of the hotel. 

Dunes and humps

You don't have to go too far inland to start seeing the unmistakable signs of the desert the furiously expanding city is built upon. Lines of white sand start to flit across the road, and fences blockade the edges — not to stop cars from veering off track, but to stop camels from lurching onto it. The camel comes second only to the falcon in these parts, as a couple of hours at the racetrack in Al Lisaili shows. Most races are held on Fridays, but turn up at dawn pretty much any day of the year and you'll find scores of camels being put through their paces.

The beasts gallop alongside the rails in their comically inelegant fashion. But it's what's on top of them and what's following them that's more interesting. Traditionally, the camels were ridden by children, but this practice was outlawed a few years ago following outcry that many of the pint-sized jockeys (mainly from India and Africa) were being sent home disabled after suffering injuries from falls.

In the saddle these days are robot jockeys, controlled by men (and it's always men) who follow the camels around the track in 4WD vehicles. It's a surreal sight, and one that encapsulates the marriage of traditional and modern Dubai rather beautifully.

Petrol is cheap here, and dune-bashing is a popular pastime for those not crazy about falcons or camels. This unfortunately leads to stretches of the desert being decorated with litter, fallen bumpers and strips of blown tyre.

This is not the case in the Desert Conservation Reserve, where access is limited to a few approved tour companies. These include Arabian Adventures, which, following the falconry show, sends guests out over the dunes in convoys of Toyota Land Cruisers.

It's great fun, although perhaps not for the car-sick. The vehicles clamber up dunes and snake along ridge lines for blood-pumping views of the endless desert landscape. The mountains of sand rise and fall in waves — interrupted only by the occasional passing oryx.

After some flashy wheel spins down the sides of dunes, which see sheets of sand fly across the windscreen, we pull over for the sunset. With no electric light to tarnish it and no clouds to hide it, the perfect red circle of fire gradually drops down through the sky, its light bathing every grain of sand in a different colour.

It doesn't take long in the desert to understand the draw of such inhospitable terrain. But it's not the only place in Dubai that can challenge perceptions.

At the creek

By the Dubai Creek, the Bastakiya Quarter harks back to what the city was once like. The glass-and-steel towers of downtown are notable by their absence; instead, simple coral stone and gypsum homes built around central courtyards stand, preserved, as a bulwark against the encroaching tide of progress.

A few traditional wind towers remain, but the buildings now play home to cafes, guesthouses and arts organisations. At its heart is the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding, which hosts regular cultural breakfasts and lunches.

After sharing Arabic coffee and munching through piles of dates, traditional Arabic dishes are served up. But it's what happens between mouthfuls that's important. The purpose of meals is not just filling the stomach, but opening the mind. Host Nasif Kayed insists "there's no disrespect in a peaceful question" — and that means guests can pose questions about Arabic or Muslim culture.

That includes the position of women in Arabic society, and the debate on how far they should cover up. Nasif explains that much of the clothing worn by women is about history and practicality, rather than oppression. The burqa in this part of the world, for example, is traditionally a brightly coloured face mask — "the Emirati version of sunglasses". As with the head coverings, the masks are historically about protection from sandstorms.

As for the full niqab face veils? Nasif says this was practised in the Byzantine empire before Islam arrived. In times of war, the wives of the enemy would be targets — covering up meant they couldn't be identified.

"Now it's a matter of choice. It's about the woman's comfort zone," he adds. "And why black? Because we believe it keeps the heat off better. For men, wearing white came in during the '20s and '30s — but it is better camouflage for hunting in the desert."

The discussion veers all over the place, but it's wonderfully warm-hearted and frequently eye-opening. We learn about the steps on the road to an arranged marriage, and how men taking multiple wives is traditionally about supporting multiple families rather than greed or libido. Less than 10% of Emirati men have more than one wife, Nasif adds.

There are scores of little details — for example, how Emirati law changed two years ago so women can keep their citizenship if marrying a non-Emirati; how eating using hands is a way to preserve precious water (no washing up).

Food finds

The importance of protocol is evident in the pouring of coffee: it's spiced with the likes of saffron and cardamom to show generosity, and poured in small measures, so the recipient can hold the cup without burning his or her fingers. The household's youngest male must pour and refill — to be served by the host's wife would be seen as dishonourable.

The real insights into Middle Eastern food and drink, however, come on the Frying Pan Adventures' Arabian Foodie Pilgrimage. Set up in January by local food blogger Arva Ahmed, the walking tours venture into the sort of restaurants most visitors wouldn't even see, let alone look twice at.

The tour shows off Deira, the sleeves-rolled-up, less flashy end of Dubai that plays home to guest workers from around the world. It's not glamorous, but it is the area that best shows Dubai's extraordinary multi-cultural mix.

Arva has a contagious passion for her subject. She knows which restaurant does which dish best. Hence the fantastic falafel mahshi at first stop Qwaider Al Nabulsi, a humdrum-looking Palestinian place. The balls are stuffed with onions, chilli paste and salt to give them an explosively moreish edge.

In Al Samadi Sweets, a Lebanese bakery, we taste the baklava that Arva had sent to her while she was studying in the US. She also lets us in on the secret treat that's never on display in such bakeries. Halawet el Jibn — a phenomenally tasty sweet cheese dough with fresh cream inside — is kept in the fridge and has to be specifically asked for.

The tour finishes inside in an Iranian restaurant at a nondescript shopping centre. The bread is made fresh — we watch the baker putting it into a massive stone oven on a paddle — and the richness of the fesenjoon (chicken cooked in a gravy of walnuts and pomegranate molasses) builds on the meatiness of the chelo kabab.

But in terms of experience, Al Tawasol offers the biggest surprise. A Yemeni place, it doesn't look much from the outside, but head in and it's a hodgepodge of private, carpeted tents. Our group sits on the floor, tucking into a buttery chicken mandi with our fingers. There's an art to scooping up the rice, chicken and extra spicy sauce without causing a prodigious mess over face, floor and clothing.

Up next is an Arabian Adventures trip out to Hatta. To get to this part of Dubai, you need to pass through sister emirate Sharjah and a chunk of Northern Oman. It's a reminder that nation states are a fairly new thing in this part of the world — borders in the desert are often hazy lines or exclave-riddled patchworks. Our small-group 4WD adventure again sees the Land Cruiser climbing up and down dunes of increasingly intense redness, but there's the added element of mountains. The dry, barren foothills of the Hajar range appear in the distance as the journey goes past small oasis orchards and Bedouin camel farms. Newer camels have their legs tied together for three to four months, until they get used to their new home — they'd amble off in the direction of their previous farm otherwise.

Hatta is home to an old fort that's been converted into a small, somewhat amateurish museum about how life used to be. But bumping over shifting sands, past rocks made from 80-million-year-old-fossils and Bedouin compounds that have superceded traditional tents, it quickly becomes clear that the journey is more important than the destination.

Just before Hatta, we pull over at Wadi Shuwayhah. Cut between mountains, it's a canyon of staggering beauty, with myriad clear, natural pools and date palms.

As we stop to skim stones, it's a moment of simple bliss that can't be matched by any five-star resort or lavish engineering project. It's just us, nature at its most striking, and the soaring untamed falcons overhead.


Getting there
Regular direct flights to Dubai are available from Heathrow with British Airways, Qantas and Virgin Atlantic. Emirates flies direct from Glasgow, Newcastle, Manchester, Birmingham, Gatwick and Heathrow.

Getting around
Pedestrians face a sweaty, traffic-choked obstacle course. Using the Metro can dodge traffic on the cheap, and it connects a string of major sites. Taxis are metered and relatively cheap and can be hailed on the street. A 18-mile cross-city journey from Dubai Creek to Dubai Marina should cost around 64 dirham (£11.25).

When to go
For pleasant warmth rather than excruciating heat and humidity, aim for between November and March. Temperatures routinely top 40C from May-September, although hotel prices plummet during this period.

Need to know
Visas: Free 30-day visas are available on arrival for UK citizens.
Currency: Dirham (AED). £1 = 69 dirham.
International dial code: 971.
Time: GMT + 4.

More info
Definitely Dubai.
Dubai and Abu Dhabi (Lonely Planet City Guides): RRP £9.59.
Time Out Dubai.
The National

How to do it
Beach Dubai: Four nights half-board at the five-star One&Only Royal Mirage resort, including return flights from Heathrow with Virgin Atlantic and transfers, costs from £1,015 per person with Virgin Holidays.

City Dubai: Seven nights at the Armani Hotel inside the Burj Khalifa, including breakfast, transfers and business-class return flights with British Airways from Heathrow, costs from £3,680 per person with Kuoni

Published in the National Geographic Traveller – Luxury 2013 special issue

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