“Is it worth stopping off in Dubai?” – it’s a question so many people ask and especially since the Emirates-Qantas link-up.
I made my first visit to Dubai in 1999, when it hadn’t quite started on its massive development. It was another five years before I visited again but in the ensuing 11 years, I have been going semi-regularly (for work and leisure) and I never tire of it. It’s a city that is over the top (OTT) but it also doesn’t try to be anything other than that – and, for that reason, it works.
So my answer to the question of whether it’s worth a stopover is always “yes”. Having said that I know some people – on my recommendation – who stayed for between one and three days, who have also hated it. A relative returned from a six-week holiday in the southern Mediterranean and almost spat at me when she exclaimed: “And Dubai! It’s the worst place in the world. I never want to go there again. It’s revolting.”
Strong words – but different opinions make the world go round.
What I enjoy about it goes beyond the skyscrapers, the luxury hotels, the man-made islands, the mega-resorts and the OTT attractions.
For a start, it’s a good introduction to the Middle East. Granted, it’s not a typical Middle Eastern city but there is the melodious call to prayer and the Mosques – grand and humble – throughout the city. If nothing else, it’s good for kids to be exposed to these sights and sounds (if not already at home) and to realise how unremarkable they are.
The food is also terrific. It’s just got better and better over the years with chefs from all over the world bringing their home cuisine and style to restaurants, to the point that you could stay there for a month and effortlessly have a different cuisine every night. But it’s always worth trying the local cuisine – even if in a hotel. It’s generally beautifully prepared, tasty and good for you.
If you’re wanting a typical stopover experience – 24 hours at the most – in this glittering city, here are my top tips for a perfect day.
Start the day with a pre-dawn drive into the desert to experience a different side of Dubai. Only 30-45 minutes from the city centre, you’ll still feel miles away. A hot-air balloon ride over the desert dunes is unforgettable. Expect to float over camel farms, look for wild gazelles, and witness a spectacular sunrise over the Al Hajar Mountains.
If you can’t stay long enough to do an early morning tour, then get your desert experience at the other end of the day. There are daily tours to the desert dunes departing the city mid-afternoon which include an overland desert dune ride, camel rides, a traditional desert meal and even the opportunity for a traditional henna tattoo or shisha.
Breakfast by the beach
Head to the Jumeirah district, home to many stunning hotels. There are so many to choose from where you can enjoy the views of the Arabian Gulf and looking out on to the man-made Palm Island. If you’re there on a Friday, remember it is equivalent to our Sunday, and the thing to do is to have Friday Brunch. It’s quite a grand affair to be enjoyed with family and friends.
For a unique insight into the city’s Islamic heritage, visit the elegant Grand Jumeirah Mosque in the Jumeirah area. Tours begin at 10:00 am, six days a week (Saturday to Thursday), through the ‘Open doors. Open minds’. programme at the Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Centre for Cultural Understanding.
The city isn’t pronounced this way, but there is a reason why people think about it as a shopping paradise. Last year, the city retained its spot as the world’s second most important retail destination, just behind London but ahead of New York, Moscow and Shanghai.
Even if you don’t want to shop, some of the shopping malls are destinations in themselves! The Mall of the Emirates has a giant indoor ski slope; Wafi has Egyptian-inspired pyramids; the Ibn Battuta Mall has an ‘around-the-world’ theme. The largest mall, the Dubai Mall, has a giant aquarium as its centrepiece and provides access to the tallest building in the world, the Burj Khalifa. It also has a choreographed dancing fountain with a spectacular sound and light show each evening, and water shooting up to 150m high.
Dubai shops have everything from stylish local labels, the ‘dollar shops’ and top global and luxury brands. The bargain prices are not as prevalent as they were 15 or even 10 years ago, but you will generally get most things cheaper.
Take a peek at the Creek
If you want to skip the designer boutiques – after all, you can find them anywhere and everywhere – head for the old town and take a stroll along Dubai Creek, an atmospheric old quarter where squat wind-towered buildings and rickety dhows jostle for space along the water’s edge. Take an abra, a local wooden water taxi, and visit the spice souk, the gold souk and the textile souk. If you’re looking for a bargain, you will find one at the gold souk, but be prepared to be touted for business every step of the way.
The city has a lot of trendy bars and lounges that are popular with expat (western) workers as well as tourists. If you want to see all you can possibly see, try At.mosphere on the 122nd floor of the Burj Khalifa; or try the Skyview Bar at the Burj Al Arab – the iconic dhow-shaped so-called 7-star hotel that was the first to be built on its own small island (our main pic). For a change of pace, if you’d like a quieter scene, try The Terrace at the Park Hyatt Dubai. It’s away from the popular tourist spots, towards the airport along the creek and overlooks the Marina in a calm and classy setting in modern Arabic style.
As I have already mentioned, there are so many options for dining, it’s a matter of what you want to eat and when do you want to eat it. Nearly all hotels (of all star ratings) have multiple options; and most welcome children and have a children’s menu. In fact, you shouldn’t be at all concerned about taking kids into almost any restaurant, as they are warmly welcomed. If you can’t find something you like to eat in Dubai, you’re either not looking far or you’re a truly fussy eater!
I’ve flown to Dubai with Emirates, Qantas and Cathay Pacific (via Hong Kong) over the years. You can’t fault Emirates when travelling to Dubai, especially if you’re fortunate enough to afford Business or First Class with their bar/lounge at the back of the top deck of the A380. With the relationship between Emirates and Qantas, you can travel on an Emirates flight but book it through Qantas if you prefer (or vice-versa).
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