Where can you slide down giant sand dunes, ski on snowy slopes, exhaust yourself shopping, swim in deliciously warm seas and enjoy sumptuous luxury - all in one day? It could only be Dubai!
Dubai has been a fashionable destination for the past five years, attracting those who like fine hotels, cloudless skies, good beaches and endless shopping experiences - with desert adventure thrown in for good measure.
The emirate (one of seven that make up the United Arab Emirates) seems to have succeeded in outdoing the USA on the ‘everything is bigger and better’ front. The tallest building in the world (Burj Khalifa - www.burjkhalifa.ae) is now complete; the iconic and lavish Burj al Arab hotel claims to be the only seven-star hotel in the world; the fronds of the Jumeirah Palm have expanded the length of the Dubai waterfront by 78 km (and it's only the first of three ‘palms’); and The World is a man-made series of offshore islands in the rough shape of the world map. No project is too ambitious.
Things to do
Having been a regular visitor to a home in Dubai, I'd recommend these as my top 10 (or did I mean 11) things to do.
Don’t miss the creek area. Many tourists stay on the outskirts and only venture out to visit shopping malls or go on organised desert trips. Take an abra across from Bur Dubai (on the south side of the creek) to the Deira (north) side. Wander down the wharf and be amazed at just what is unloaded from the dhows. If you’re into gold, visit the gold souk.
The sand and water are clean and warm. If the weather is hot, head for Jumeirah Beach just before sunset and watch the sun go down while swimming in the warm Arabian Gulf.
3. Dune bashing
There are organised four-wheel drive safaris (try www.desertsafaridubai.com) that take you up large sand dunes beside the road to Hatta, 40 minutes inland. If you are at all vulnerable to car sickness, grab a seat in the front: you’ve been warned! If you prefer to be in control, quad bikes can be rented nearby. Many of the organised trips include the chance to try sand-skiing and, on evening trips, a desert barbecue.
4. Desert adventure
The more adventurous can hire a 4x4 and make their own tracks through the desert wadis, using routes detailed in specialist guides such as Off Road in the Emirates or available online at www.offroaduae.com/off-road/routes. There's a choice of circuits (graded according to difficulty), starting from the routes inland to Hatta and Al Ain, some through high dunes and some through rock desert. One of my favourites was the route to Fossil Rock. Going with a second vehicle helps in case you get stuck!
5. Afternoon tea in the Burj al Arab
Only registered guests can cross the causeway to the hotel so if staying or dining in the hotel is beyond your budget, try going for afternoon tea instead - but bear in mind that you'll need to book in advance. www.jumeirah.com/Hotels-and-Resorts/Destinations/Dubai/Burj-Al-Arab
6. Wild Wadi
Wetter than the inland versions, this water park (next to the Jumeirah Beach Hotel) is great fun for all ages, and you don’t even have to clamber up to the top of most rides – strong water jets force you back up chutes ready for your next descent. www.jumeirah.com/Hotels-and-Resorts/Wild-Wadi1
7. Ski Dubai
Yes, I know it is bizarre wrapping up warmly when it is 100°F outside, but winter sports enthusiasts can’t pass up the chance of tackling the 400m downhill run or the toboggan slope within the Mall of the Emirates, on Sheik Zayed Road. www.skidxb.com
8. Wining and dining
There are some fantastic eating experiences in the major hotels, many of them fairly expensive. Friday brunch is a good choice with most hotels offering a fantastic choice of dishes from an extensive buffet.. The champagne brunch at the Fairmont (www.fairmont.com/dubai) is great if you don't need to be fit for anything for the rest of the day! We also enjoyed the less expensive brunch at the Sheraton Creek and Towers (http://deals.sheraton.com/Sheraton-Dubai-Creek-Hotel-408/dining.htm). Alternatively try Arabic specialities in the local suburban restaurants? The bill will be a third of that in the hotels.
9. Camel racing
This can be watched on an organised tour, but if you have a hire car, you can avoid the other tourists: get up early, drive out to the Nad al Sheba racetrack (the camel race track is near the horse track) and watch the racing camels being exercised, some carrying robotic jockeys. There are also weekend races at 7:30 am and 2:30 pm October to April.
10. Musandam peninsula
This is an overnight or lengthy day trip by hire car to a detached part of Oman, so you will need passports and a small visa fee to cross the border. Pass through villages in Ras al Khaimah (the most northerly emirate) and below hilltop forts. The arid coastal scenery is spectacular, and a half-day dhow trip from Khasab along the fjord-like inlets (where you can watch dolphins) is a highlight. Try the Golden Tulip Resort on a headland just outside Khasab for an overnight stay.
11. Burj Khalifa
At over 828 metres and more than 160 stories high, the Burj Khalifa is the tallest building in the world supported by 110,000 tones of concrete foundation, 50 m deep. It stands in Old Town beside the Dubai Mall from where visitors can gain access. The best (and cheapest) way to enjoy the ‘At the Top’ experience (actually not at the top but to an observation deck three-quarters of the way up) is to book a timed visit online for 100 dirhams (about £18 - www.burjkhalifa.ae/observation-deck/ticket-information.aspx), even if that means taking a gamble on clear weather.
Where to stay
There are many five-star hotels in prime locations but also cheaper hotels (including Premier Inn and Holiday Inn Express). Where you choose to stay will depend on what you want from your holiday. The Creek area is the most atmospheric and a reasonably priced quality hotel on it is the Radisson Blu Deira Creek. The hub station of the Metro, Union Square, is just behind the hotel which makes for easy access to and from the airport and Dubai attractions and there is plenty of street shopping nearby. All rooms have at least a side view of the creek but, for the best views, ask for a room on the west side near the front of the hotel. Beach lovers will inevitably end up eight or more miles out, because there is no high-rise development and only a couple of hotels along Jumeirah Beach until the Jumeirah Beach/Burj al Arab/Madinat Jumeirah cluster. My favourite of those three is the Madinat Jumeirah, which has two hotels - the Mina A'Salam and Al Qasr - as well as its own souk, resturarant area, canals and electric abras to transport residents to their rooms. Further out again (past the Jumeirah Palm) is Dubai marina and the area that is becoming known as New Dubai, which is again worthy of consideration since much of the nearby construction activity has ceased.
A great way to get around since 2010 is the new Dubai Metro, currently with two lines. The most useful for many runs from the airport through downtown Diera/Dubai and out to the south past Old Town and Mall of the Emirates, terminating in Jebel Ali. Fares are inexpensive – about 50p adult single in the central zone and £1.20 for the 80 minute journey along the whole length. An unlimited travel day ticket is 14 dirham (about £2.50) – www.dubaimetro.eu/tickets-card).
When to go (or not to go)
The weather ranges from sunny and warm to extremely hot all year round, but most people prefer to avoid the summer months of June to mid-September, when the mercury soars to 40°-45°C each day. Even the native Emiratis are known to flee abroad in July and August to avoid the heat. Ramadam, the lunar month that precedes Eid al Fitr, the Muslim public holiday, can be restricting as Muslims fast during the hours of daylight and many cafes and restaurants might be closed or operating to a different schedule. Check Eid and Ramadam dates on www.when-is.com. October to May is a great time to visit. There will be a few days in January and February when a jumper might be needed if sitting outside in the late evening; it can even rain on rare occasions, and there is sometimes a dust haze created by desert winds - but generally visitors will enjoy hot and sunny weather.