A Traveller’s Guide to Dubai

Blissfully balmy by day, cool and breezy by evening, the weather is what brings visitors to Dubai at the start of the year. Temperatures in the emirate drop considerably from a peak of about 45°C in July, and the humidity and heat dissipates. The day is now warm enough to take a dip in the Arabian Sea or top up your tan, whilst the nights are decidedly cooler, averaging about 15°C. For the locals, life moves back out of air-conditioned rooms, and into the outdoors.

Dubai is one of seven emirates – the others being Abu Dhabi, Fujairah, Ajman, Umm Al Quwain, Sharjah and Ras Al Khaimah, – the group that form the United Arab Emirates. A winter highlight is the racing season, and winter is also the season when Emiratis participate in traditional events. Among these are weekend gatherings during the evenings, held at the Heritage Villages, to read poetry or dance the Ayyalah and Liwa, renowned Khaleeji folk dances, from all around the Arabian Peninsula. In conjunction with these events, the visitor also has the chance to see rifle-throwing competitions and to witness elaborate re-enactments of traditional Bedouin weddings.

A good place to start, would be at Dubai’s Heritage and Diving Village on the waterfront at Al Shindagha, which is the oldest area of Dubai, and lies at the mouth of Dubai Creek. A simple pearling and fishing village of barasti huts has sprawled along this waterfront for many hundreds of years.

For visitors, golf is another huge lure, and there are several courses where you can take a swing – at some courses mingling with big-name players. Alternatively you can watch some of the biggest names in the world of golf, tee off in professional tournaments, such as the Dubai Desert Classic, at the Emirates Golf Club.

Dubai airport has an astonishing number of non-stop flights daily from Heathrow airport; airlines include Royal Brunei, British Airways, Emirates and Virgin Atlantic. Emirates also fly daily from Gatwick, Birmingham, Glasgow, Manchester and Newcastle. Etihad Airways flies from Manchester and Heathrow Airports to Abu Dhabi, with a free coach connection to Dubai, about an hour’s drive away. A number of other airlines include Turkish Airlines, Qatar Airways and Air France, flying from various UK cities via their hubs to Dubai.

Hot hotels

The Bastakiya quarter, alongside Dubai Creek, provides accommodation to rent, in two restored old merchant’s houses. Both of these are blessed with traditional wind-towers. Wind-towers are enormous chimney-like structures with four channels to siphon cool air into buildings, thought to be an early form of air-conditioning.

Arty types would prefer the minimalist rooms at XVA, which is also home to one of the city’s finest contemporary art galleries, and a courtyard cafe. Doubles here start at AED 1,000 (£176) and also include breakfast.

The four-star Al Manzil Hotel is conveniently situated for shopping, and is only a short stroll to Dubai Mall. It is designed in the contemporary Arabian style so ubiquitous of this city. It also boasts some of the city’s best value for money accommodation. Spacious, stylish rooms – some of which have spectacular views of the tallest building in the world – Burj Khalifa – start at AED 455 (£80), room only.

If you are in Dubai for sunshine, try the opulent Andalusian-inspired OneandOnly the Palm, Dubai’s extraordinary man-made island. There is a vast pool, a beach, cabanas, sumptuous gardens, and several water activities. Doubles from AED 1,800 (£321) room only. Le Royal Meridien Beach Resort & Spa is a family favourite, with three pools, long stretches of sand, water sports and a Penguin Club for the children. Doubles start at AED 1,100 (£194) room only.

Sand, Sea and snow

Dubai’s four and five-star resorts all have superb swimming pools in which to cool off. But for those who prefer to soak up the local atmosphere, the emirate has superb stretches of sand to chill-out on. One of the best of these is the busy Open Beach, due to its popularity with Russian tourists. Umm Suqeim is a good spot to view the sunset behind the sail-shipped Burj Arab hotel. For adrenaline junkies, visit a water park, such as the Arabian-themed Wild Wadi, admission from AED 205 (£37), as well as a gigantic aquarium at Atlantis from AED 200 (£36).

Not a fan of sunburn then? Well admire the white sand beaches and aquamarine sea from above, on a scenic flight in a seaplane with sea wings, from AED 1,325 (£237) per person for a 40 minute flight, or take a helicopter tour with Heli Dubai, from AED 765 (£137) for a 15 minute ‘Fun Ride’. You might also take in the jaw-dropping views of Dubai from the observation deck of the world’s tallest building, the 825 m high Burj Khalifa, admission charges from AED 100 (£18). If you are missing the cold, there’s the option of hitting the white slopes of the indoor snow park, Ski Dubai, admission from AED 100 (£18); an extra charge is levied to hire gear or have lessons. This will soon have you hankering for the sunshine again!

Dubai dinners

To sample some of the finest Arabian food in the city – plus a live band and belly dancing – head to Awtar at the Grand Hyatt, Dubai Creek. Order mezze, a mixed grill and fatoush salad. Dishes here start at only AED 30 (£5). Tagines at the One&Only Royal Mirage are set in an atmospheric interior, decorated like a Moroccan palace, and delicious local cuisine is served against a backdrop of live music, together with waiters who join in with the band from time to time. If you need to refuel on shopping trips, Dubai’s retail malls have excellent food courts, cafes and casual eateries. Try the delicious Maghrebi food at Almaz by Momo at Mall of the Emirates. Remember to bear in mind that alcohol is not served in malls or eateries on the streets. If you fancy a cold beer, you will need to stick to the hotel restaurants, swim up bars, or your hotel‘s sun lounger. Alcohol is also forbidden in public places, e.g. parks. For a perfect sundowner, relax in a chair on the veranda of the colonial style Bahri Bar for a glass of chilled wine or an icy beer with sea views, at Mina A’Salam Hotel.

Time for sands

Dotted with camels grazing amid the dunes, the desert of Dubai is vast. You need a 4 wheel drive as well as experience of driving across the dunes if you dare to plan exploring yourself. Alternatively, there are several ways to experience it. The most popular is a desert safari, with a tour specialist such as Arabian Adventures; a typical trip begins with a rollercoaster ride of a drive over the dunes, known as ‘dune-bashing’. Many people discover dashing above the crests of sandy dunes extremely exciting. After you are hooked up at a Bedouin camp, there is frequently a falconry display, an opportunity for a camel ride in the sunset, as well as sand-boarding, tours start at AED 350 (£63) per person; most tours leave at about 3 pm and return at approx. 10 pm. Lodging at one of Dubai’s classy desert retreats offers similar opportunities, residing in elegant surroundings. With many activities, Bab Al Shams is certainly a dream come true! Double rooms start at AED 1,275 (£225) room only. Situated in the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve, Al Maha resort offers tours to observe the endangered scimitar-horned oryx. Accommodation happens to be in extravagant tents accompanied by private pools, and cost from AED 6,120 (£1078) for two, including breakfast.

Up the creek

From the neighbourhood of Shindagha, it is merely a brief stroll along Dubai Creek, to the Dubai Museum, in this city’s oldest building, the majestic Al Fahidi Fort, which date back to 1787. Allow yourself a good hour to browse and enjoy the kitsch dioramas and educational interactive displays. Around the corner from here is the labyrinthine Bastakiya quarter, where you’ll find a number of splendid old wind-tower residences displaying their intricate architectural details! The alleys here are dotted with cafes and art galleries, one delight being the Bastra Art Cafe situated in the leafy courtyard of a traditional wind-tower residence. Order a Bastra Special (mint and lime juice) to quench your thirst. The cafe also serves great food-breakfasts, fresh salads and sandwiches. From the dock near the textile souk, take an abra (a traditional public water taxi), across Dubai Creek and proceed to amble through the spice souk and the ramshackle covered souk, to the gold souk, for its dazzling displays of jewellery.

A head for heights

Anytime Dubai’s locals hunger for a little fresh air and a clear sky, chances are they’ll retreat for a day or two to the Hajar Mountains at Hatta, an enclave of the United Arab Emirates which requires a short drive through Oman (no border formalities). The journey there is as interesting as the destination, with plenty of photographic opportunities, from camels meandering through the dunes, to palm-shaded oases set against scenic scorching mountains. You are also able to travel there by public bus No. 8, for a modest fare of AED 7 (£1.50). The main attraction of diminutive Hatta is its moderate climate, beautiful mountain scenery, together with rock pools and waterfalls (only following rain). There is also a fantastic Heritage Village, sign-posted 3 km from Fort Roundabout, which features restored ancient buildings, some dating from the 16th century. There is a mosque, a fort, watchtowers, and a courtyard residence as well as village houses to view, and, at weekends, traditional dance performances. Other activities include hiking, desert safaris and picnics, as well as the joy of bird watching; all of these are able to be arranged only through the only hotel in the area, the Hatta Fort Hotel. This hotel has its own swimming pools, golf course, and several restaurants as well as tennis courts. Double rooms start at AED 450 (£80), including breakfast.