Easy Escapes: Dubai, UAE

Dubai is a 21st century desert wonderland that has to be seen. Tracey Nightingale guides us round

Dubai is a 21st century desert wonderland that has to be seen. Tracey Nightingale guides us round

Why go? Sunshine, shopping and sumptuous hotels are obvious draws, but Dubai’s not just about poolside tanning and retail therapy. There’s astonishing architecture, pristine beaches, glistening souks, desert adventures and an intoxicating modern energy. If you’re flying to Australia and the Far East, chances are you’ll connect here – and while Dubai might be the world’s busiest aviation transport hub, it’s also well worth visiting in its own right.

On a wave: the iconic landmark of Burj Al Arab

When? Dubai is hot all year. The best months to visit are from October until March, when temperatures are moderate and there’s less humidity. The most affordable time is from June to September (although Dubai is not cheap), when you should be prepared for heat so blistering they cool the swimming pools. The month-long Dubai Shopping Festival (dubaishoppingfestival.com) runs from 1 January 2016, and next year Ramadan starts on 6 June for 30 days. 

You really must: See Dubai from the sky. It’s the best way to get a taste of this fast-expanding, world record-breaking city where the phrase ‘bigger is better’ has never been so apt. The unmissable starting point is the soaring Burj Khalifa skyscraper in swanky Downtown – the tallest building on the planet. Zoom up in the lift to ‘At The Top Sky’ on the 148th floor (£52, book in advance at burjkhalifa.ae), the highest observation deck in the world. It isn’t literally at the top (it’s at 555 metres), but it’s as far as you can go up this awe-inspiring feat of architecture that pierces the clouds at 825 metres. This VIP experience includes refreshments and a magnificent, unobstructed 360-degree view over the city and beyond through floor-to-ceiling glass windows. 

Alternatively, there are also terrific views from the 124th floor (£22) and in At.Mosphere (atmosphereburjkhalifa.com), the world’s highest restaurant on the 122nd floor. Book a window table here to enjoy fine dining and fabulous vistas without an entrance fee. You can go for dinner and take in the city at night, or opt for a set lunch (from £80) or afternoon tea (from £95). There’s also a lounge with a minimum £45 lunch spend for a prime table.

Way to go: take a scenic flight with Seawings

For the ultimate Dubai-from-above experience, board a Seawings seaplane (seawings.ae). The Dubai Creek Silver option (£300) is a thrilling 40-minute scenic flight with highlights including the famous Burj Al Arab, the phenomenal man-made Palm Jumeirah and The World islands, Dubai Creek, Downtown Dubai and Burj Khalifa. The photo ops are endless and it’s a great way to get your bearings. Flying over the construction sites below, you also get a sense of the entrepreneurial spirit that has fuelled Dubai’s meteoric rise from Bedouin village to one of the world’s fastest-growing economies.

To fully appreciate how far the UAE has come, go back to the country’s roots. The Dubai Museum (50p, dubaiculture.gov.ae) is housed in the impressive Al Fahidi Fort, built in 1787 and the oldest surviving building in the city. From date farming to pearl diving, this fascinating exhibition space recreates the traditional way of life before the discovery of oil. There are replica mud huts and wooden dhows, ancient artefacts, film footage charting the rise of Dubai to the present day and streets leading to a model mosque and recreated souk. 

If you crave the real thing, Dubai’s souks are a date stone’s throw from the museum. Simply hop on an abra (a small wooden boat) across the bustling creek to the Deira side. It’s easy to navigate the souks, Dubai Creek and museum independently, but if you want to take an organised trip, Skymax (skymaxholidays.com) has comprehensive tours. Take time to wander round the buzzing Spice Souk and have fun bartering for exotic spices, traditional filled dates and camel milk chocolate (yes, really!). Then lose yourself in the narrow streets that lead to the Gold Souk. Soak up the busy atmosphere, buy gold up to 40 per cent cheaper than in the West, design your own jewellery or simply marvel at the glittering shop-window displays. In the alleys beyond the Gold Souk, pick up pashminas, sequinned slippers and kitsch souvenirs for a bargain price.

The desert blooms: the bright lights of Dubai crowned by Burj Khalifa

On the subject of shopping, you can’t ignore one of Dubai’s biggest attractions – mega-malls. These monumental retail palaces are more than just somewhere to exercise your credit card in air-conditioned comfort, they’re also a place to hang out and socialise. Yes, they have just about every retailer you can think of, but prices aren’t much cheaper than the UK (unless you visit during the Dubai Shopping Festival). The Dubai Mall (thedubaimall.com) is the largest in the world and located beneath Burj Khalifa, adjacent to the enormous 30-acre Burj Khalifa Lake with its dazzling dancing fountain show. Inside, there’s a jaw-dropping 24-metre drop waterfall, a huge aquarium and underwater zoo, a cinema and ice rink. The USP of the opulent Mall of the Emirates (malloftheemirates.com) is its indoor ski slope – only in Dubai can you ski before hitting the beach.

The lure of the Arabian Sea and its clean beaches is also hard to resist. Most visitors stay in luxe resorts with immaculate private stretches, but the city is also blessed with miles of golden sands. Cool beach clubs include Anantara The Palm Dubai Resort & Spa (£45, see below), ideal for water-sports lovers; Zero Gravity, next to Skydive Dubai (from £27 with £9 food and drink voucher, 0-gravity.ae), for its hip day-to-evening vibe, impressive lounges, restaurant and comfy sunbeds; and the huge Club Mina at Le Méridien Mina Seyahi (from £40, lemeridien-minaseyahi.com). For a free swim and unbeatable views of the Burj Al Arab, Umm Suqeim is a popular public beach and a must for sunset selfies.

If you can tear yourself away from your sunbed, the desert is under an hour’s drive from the shimmering city skyscrapers, yet feels a million miles away when you’re sitting in the back of a vintage jeep at dusk, watching the sun dip slowly behind the dunes. Platinum Heritage (platinum-heritage.com) offers stylish safaris in 1950s Land Rovers. Its Heritage Dinner Safari (from £96) provides wildlife drives, falconry displays, henna tattoos and camel rides, followed by dinner in an exclusive camp. Here you can enjoy traditional Bedouin dancing while feasting under the stars on hummus served with home-made bread, kebabs with yogurt dip and succulent lamb cooked in clay pots.

Take the plunge: a two-bedroom beach villa at Anantara The Palm Dubai Resort & Spa

Stay at: For five-star fabulousness and a quiet location on The Palm, check in to the Asian-inspired Anantara The Palm Dubai Resort & Spa (dubai-palm.anantara.com). One-bedroom apartments cost from £324 for up to three adults and one child sharing. Thai influences can be seen in the pagoda roofs and the tuk tuks that transport guests along paved pathways, past lagoon pools that snake around clusters of luxurious rooms; they’re also there in the popular South-East Asian restaurant, Mekong, and in the Thai long-tail boat on which you can take a scenic trip between the resort and the Dubai Marina (£13 one-way). With 260 lagoon-view and lagoon-access rooms, 12 beach pool villas and 18 over-water villas, you’re never far from the water. Hit the pristine beach and try out the many water sports available, relax by the pool, complete with swim-up bar overlooking the sea, or take a dip in one of the lagoons. Rooms with direct lagoon access are a real treat, as is the new spa complete with hammam facility. You’re just a 20-minute drive from the city here, but far enough from the hubbub to kick back and relax. And the dining options are plentiful – buffet breakfasts fit for a sheikh, tasty Mediterranean cuisine at the laid-back Beach House and sizzling steaks at the Oz-inspired Bushman’s Restaurant & Bar. 

If you’re more of a boutique hotel kind of girl, PER AQUUM Desert Palm (desertpalm.peraquum.com) won’t disappoint. Here Palm deluxe rooms cost from £147 based on two adults sharing with advance booking. This bucks the trend of big beachside resorts with its understated luxury and lush 160-acre polo ground setting. A green oasis, Desert Palm oozes tranquility and is the perfect antidote to the city, only a short drive away. The estate is home to over 300 horses, a polo club (polo season runs from October to April) and riding school, while the hotel has 38 luxury rooms, ranging from deluxe doubles to private pool villas and suites with huge windows overlooking the polo ground. All have iPod docks preloaded with music, crisp bed linen and spacious bathrooms with Ren toiletries. There’s also a superb spa – treatments include a divine 60-minute LIME intuitive massage (from £67) – and a lovely infinity pool and 24-hour brasserie. If you’re too chilled out to head to town in the evening, the dishes at Rare are exceptional – try its succulent signature wagyu beef – while the bartenders at Red mix up a mean cocktail.

Splashdown: the swimming pool at PER AQUUM Desert Palm

Dine at: From celebrity chefs to all-you-can eat excess, you can dine around the world in Dubai. Licensing laws are slightly more relaxed than in some other parts of this Muslim region, however alcohol sale is still restricted to hotels. All the gastronomic big guns have outposts in Dubai – Nobu, Hakkasan, The Ivy, Giorgio Locatelli – and the last couple of months has seen the launch of Jason Atherton’s Marina Social, Novikov, Tom Aiken’s Pots, Pans & Boards and Gordon Ramsay’s Bread Street Cafe. With so much choice, eating out is a joy. Expats, who make up 80 per cent of the population, tend to dine around 9pm, while for Emiratis it’s 10pm. Unsurprisingly, in this land of plenty there’s no shortage of no-expense-spared establishments, and whether you’re stopping by for dinner, lunch or afternoon tea, dining out in the iconic Burj Al Arab (jumeirah.com) is high up any must-do list. Given its ‘seven-star’ status, the ultra-luxe sail-shaped hotel has a number of upmarket restaurant options. For sensational seafood, book Al Mahara, which has a stunning dining room with giant floor-to-ceiling aquarium. The menu (three-course dinner from £120) regularly changes, but expect exquisite dishes such as lobster salad, Atlantic wild turbot in vine leaves and white chocolate cheesecake with passion fruit.

If you’re here on a Friday (the first day of the Arabic weekend), don’t miss brunch when the alcohol flows freely and restaurants offer eat-till-you-burst buffets – think unlimited champagne, lavish seafood spreads, mountains of meat, desserts to die for and whole rooms dedicated to cheese. For an alternative al fresco experience, try the fantastic Asian-fusion Zeta Fountain Brunch (12-4pm, £55 with soft drinks; £75 with unlimited alcoholic drinks) at Zeta at The Address Downtown (theaddress.com). This ultra-hip hangout in a spectacular setting overlooking the Dubai fountains and Burj Khalifa serves up delicious sushi, chicken in Bento boxes, tasty tapas, mini mango pavlovas and chocolate torte to a background of cool, funky beats. There are also unlimited cocktails, live music, fire-eaters and a free photo machine to capture that incredible view with bubbly in hand.

Dune roaming: take a desert safari in a vintage Land Rover

Getting around: Dubai isn’t too spread out, so getting about is relatively easy. Taxis are safe, cheap and plentiful, making them the most common and convenient way to get around town. Fares start at around £3.50 for a short journey, and up to £15 to go from one end of the city to another. There are also ‘pink’ ladies taxis driven by women for women and families. When it comes to public transport, the space-age, state-of-the-art metro system is comfortable, fast and efficient, with clean, air-conditioned trains and platforms. Fares start at about 30p, depending on distance, and all the major malls are connected by the metro, so it’s particularly useful for shopping trips. Buses are also air-conditioned and are becoming increasingly popular. There are women-only sections on both buses and the metro. For more details on public transport routes, fares and travel-card options, see rta.ae.

Bring home: Gold jewellery, spices (saffron is cheaper here), filled dates, traditional slippers, silk pashminas and a winter tan. 

What to wear: Although Dubai has a liberal attitude, respect the religion and culture of the city by wearing appropriately modest clothing in public places and places of worship. Avoid clothing that may be considered revealing, such as low-cut dresses or very short skirts. At the pool or on the beach, trunks, swimsuits and bikinis are acceptable.

Book now: Dubai is served by 175 direct flights per week from the UK and Ireland. Flight time is about 6hrs 30mins, and there are no visa requirements for UK and Irish passport holders. Return flights from London Heathrow with Emirates (emirates.com) cost from £389, or £2,265 business class.

Info: Pocket Dubai (£7.99; Lonely Planet) is a handy guide, useful websites are timeoutdubai.com and visitdubai.com.

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