Words: Len Rutledge Pictures: Phensri Rutledge
Many travellers are finding themselves in Dubai as it emerges as a major airport hub for flights between Asia, Europe and Africa. Most continue on their journey without stopping but in doing so they miss out on one of the highlights of the region.
Dubai is both a city and one of seven emirates that make up the country of United Arab Emirates. Dubai City in recent years has developed into a global metropolis and a great cultural experience for most visitors.
The city has attracted world attention for its skyscrapers, artificial islands, huge construction projects and world-class shopping malls. What many visitors don’t understand is that all this has happened in a desert which just happens to be by the sea.
In summer you will notice the heat, so be prepared. During this period the average high is 42 degrees and the overnight low is 29 degrees. When we last visited the mercury hit 45 degrees. The short winter is better with highs of 23 and lows of 14.
Hotel choice starts with the Burj Al Arab Hotel built on an artificial island and goes way down to small rooms with little more than a bed. Most of us will decide the US$1225 +10% + 10% rate per night at the Burj Al Arab is too high. Fortunately, you can find reasonable 3-4 star accommodation for around US$100.
Half-day tours cost around US$30 but by paying a little more my wife and I managed a personalised tour in a limousine and this let us set our own itinerary and stop where we wanted.
We visited Dubai Creek and saw the traditional dhows, Dubai Fort and museum, Jumeirah Mosque, and attractive Jumeirah Beach. Driving out onto the artificial Palm Islands was an unreal experience while Dubai Marina with its surrounding high-rise apartments is a town planners dream.
Dubai is surprisingly spread-out so getting around is not easy. Fortunately, public transport has improved considerably since the opening of the Metro railway system. The driverless trains are easy to use and we quickly learned to move around like locals.
Nothing in Dubai is particularly old but when visiting the souks you seem to travel back in time. This experience is as far removed from the western world as you can get. In the Gold Souk the narrow lanes are lined with shop windows glittering with items in 22 and 24-carat gold. Prices tumbled after haggling and we cheered when they finally reached our budget.
In the Spices Souk, frankincense, turmeric, saffron and the many herbs used in Arabic and South Asian food are on display in a riot of colour. It was fun to talk to the sellers and we were tempted to buy, then we remembered we were travelling across many borders on our trip and decided to just look.
The oldest building in the city is Al Fahidi Fort, now the Dubai Museum. This showed us the traditional way of life in Dubai and it has excellent dioramas and artefacts that go back 5000 years.
A complete contrast is provided by modern Dubai which has a love of all things glitzy and glamorous. The city’s malls have been built as unrestrained fantasy, offering surreal attractions to lure you in.
At the gargantuan Mall of the Emirates, we watched in amazement as hundreds who apparently needed a quick slalom between shopping and hitting the beach took to the indoor ski slope with real snow.
The Dubai Mall with over 1200 shops is the world’s largest shopping mall. We unsuccessfully searched for traditional Dubai cuisine amongst the 120 restaurants and cafes but found just about every other cuisine in the world, 22 movie theatres, an aquarium and an ice rink.
Its biggest attraction for us, however, was the $200million, 275m-long Dubai Fountain which shoots water up to 160m in time with music. Our first experience of this was breathtaking so we returned on three other occasions to see different shows. Don’t miss it.
Also here is Burj Khalifa; at 830m it is the tallest man-made structure in the world. There is an observation deck on the 124th floor but there was a rush for tickets when we were there and several days were entirely sold out, so consider booking ahead.
We enjoyed just a fraction of the things to do in the city; the Wild Wadi Water Park, sailing, sky diving, wind surfing, diving and ballooning all await the next trip. Outside the city, there are desert safaris, camel riding and sand boarding. Short-term visitors will not be disappointed.
WHEN YOU GO:
Dubai Airport is on one side of the city so it is quite a distance to many of the beach hotels. Taxis are readily available and the Metro has a stop outside the international terminal.
We stayed near Union Station which is a junction station for the two metro lines and this proved extremely convenient for sightseeing and shopping.
Many passport holders can obtain a free 30-day or 90-day visitor visa on arrival at Dubai International Airport but you need to check before you leave home.
He has worked with Pelican Publishing, Viking Penguin, Berlitz, the Rough Guide, and the Nile Guide amongst others.
Along the way, he has started a newspaper, a travel magazine, a Visitor and TV Guide, and completed a PhD in tourism. His travels have taken him to more than 100 countries and his writings have collected a PATA award, an ASEAN award, an IgoUgo Hall of Fame award, and other recognition.
He is the author of the Experience Guidebook series which currently includes Experience Thailand, Experience Norway, Experience Northern Italy, Experience Myanmar, Experience Istanbul, Experience Singapore, Experience Melbourne, and Experience Ireland. They are available as ebooks or paperbacks from amazon.com