It had been at least four years since I last visited Dubai. I left in 2005, after five years, and went back for a short visit in 2006, but there have been many changes in Dubai since then
My daughter and I were met at Dubai’s International airport by Sarah, an old friend, in her Jeep Cherokee. Most people here drive 4x4s, either for safety reasons or for the weekend hobby of off-roading in the dunes. Sarah and I haven’t seen each other for a couple of years but we pick up where we left off. As we drive along the new 4/5 lane road system that seems to have materialised, she points out the new developments such as the recently opened Festival Centre (and huge Ikea store) stretching three kilometres along Dubai Creek (www.dubaifestivalcity.com; +971 4 232 5444).
In the week to come I would find myself constantly marvelling at the scale, creativity and speed of the city’s development. The new metro, for example, standing high above the city on pillars. When all stations are open it will connect Jebel Ali with Dubai International Airport, a distance of 32 miles. The metro terminals look like futuristic time travel pods, where else in the world have you seen such intrepid design for public infrastructure?
Dubai is an architectural paradise, you soon run out of superlatives. I suppose someone must have a master plan, but it’s almost like the world’s architects were each given a plot of land and a brief to build the most iconic skyscraper that their imaginations could devise, so many are there – not just along the Sheikh Zayed Road, Dubai’s first highway and where it all started, but now all the way out to Jebel Ali. And this was all once just desert. It may not be to everyone’s taste but you have to admire the audacity of it all.
Next day another old friend, Rosemarie, couldn’t wait to take me to see the transformation to the area previously known as the 100 villas. This was a 1970's development of low cost out of town villas close to the beach towards Jebel Ali. The villas were knocked down and mass development of the area began. The last time I’d visited Dubai the nearby Jumeirah Beach Residence apartments were still being constructed and it was a traffic nightmare. Now the area is as much finished as Dubai can ever be, they’ve built another lot of skyscrapers and the area is buzzing with cafes and seems to be quite the ‘in’ place to eat. The website www.dubaiasitusedtobe.com has before and after photographs of the area. Astonishing!
My visit was to be characterised by a lot of waterside eating and drinking – no complaints about that! One evening I met up with friends at The Agency bar at Madinat Jumeirah (+971 4 366 6730). The Madinat was always one of my favourite places. It incorporates the 5 star Mina A Salam and Al Qasr hotels (www.jumeirah.com; +971 4 366 8888) and is a hedonistic area of cafes, restaurants and bars surrounding a man-made lake with abras (old style water taxis) to ferry tourists to and from their hotels. There is also an imitation souk selling pretty things at tourist prices, but it has atmosphere and is perfect for holidaymakers in Dubai for winter sun and a bit of glamour.
On another day we picked up Polly and her two teenagers and headed for the Heritage museum in Deira and lunch by the creek at a Lebanese restaurant. These restaurants don’t serve alcohol but the food is freshly cooked and excellent – being a creature of habit I usually go for the shish tawook (grilled chicken kebab). Five of us ate for Dhs 192 (about £34). We walked beside the creek to Deira Souk, this is the oldest part of Dubai but it has undergone modernisation, upgrading and general ‘sterilisation’, it’s still attractive and teaming with life. This area, plus Bur Dubai on the other side of the creek is where real life goes on and real work is done, it’s far from the glitzy tourism at the other end of the dity. We took an abra taxi to the other side of the creek for the vast sum of Dhs 1 each way. You can hire a private abra for a tour of the creek for about Dhs 50 – or whatever you can negotiate it down to. Haggling is an essential part of the Dubai experience.
Back in the car we head up to visit the Palm Jumeirah w(ww.palmjumeirah.ae). We’d viewed it the night before from the observatory bar on the 52nd floor of the 5 star Marriott Harbour Hotel (www.marriott.co.uk; +971 4 319 4000), the view is spectacular - go there for sundowners, although they don’t serve alcohol till after 6pm.
The Palm Jumeirah was still under construction when we left Dubai, but is now virtually complete. Only residents are allowed to drive onto the ‘palm fronds’, but follow the signs for the 5 star Atlantis hotel (www.atlantisthepalm.com; +971 4 426 2000) and you can park all along the crescent and stroll along by the sea. Don’t forget that this marvel of engineering with hundreds of villas and apartments was nothing but sea just 8 and a half years ago! From a distance the Atlantis hotel does look a bit like a Disney fantasy, but children will enjoy the waterpark and the giant aquarium. There was also a sense of peace and tranquillity which is generally lacking in the rest of Dubai. So that’s the Palm Jumeirah, awesome is probably the only word for it!
Back at the Madinat Jumeirah, we met up again with Rosemarie and her daughter for dinner at The Noodle House (www.thenoodlehouse.com; +971 4 366 6730) excellent food and of course smooth, efficient and unobtrusive service – Dubai restaurants seem to do it all so effortlessly and if the number of people eating out is any indication then it doesn’t seem as if the recession has affected Dubai. Two courses and a round of drinks for 4 came to Dhs 333 (£58).
New Year’s Eve, our last full day in Dubai. I met up with my old boss for lunch at Zheng He’s (www.jumeirah.com; +971 4 366 6159) a Chinese restaurant that is part of the Mina A Salam hotel – this is no ordinary Chinese restaurant, this is possibly the most gorgeous and most expensive Chinese restaurant that you will ever eat at! The décor is sumptuous and the Chinese waitresses are efficient, helpful and pleasant. We were eating exceptionally good food, on the terrace next to the Madinat Jumeirah lake with a view of the 7 star Burj Al Arab hotel (www.burj-al-arab.com; +971 4 301 7777), with the sun shining and a perfect temperature of about 25°C and I was thinking, "it doesn’t get much better than this".
But this is Dubai, there’s the beautiful, the spectacular, the unbelievable, and then of course there’s the truly astounding - the Burj Dubai (www.burjdubai.com), which opened three days after we flew home and has been renamed the Burj Khalifa. It is the tallest building in the world, an incredible feat of engineering reputedly costing $20 billion to build. When I left in 2005 the tower had just been started and the area around it was desert, now there is the Dubai Mall (www.thedubaimall.com; +971 4 437 3200), where Bloomingdales is about to open shop, and the exclusive 5 star The Address hotel (www.theaddress.com; +971 4 438 8888). The Mall itself is pretty impressive, there are designer shops on one side and a faux souk on the other and between is a huge manmade lake. A major attraction of the Dubai Mall, apart from its proximity to the Burj Khalifa, is the free of charge fountain displays set to music which take place every 20 minutes in the evenings, truly mesmerizing. As is usual for Dubai, the lake is surrounded by cafes/restaurants and all were busy. We ate excellent food outdoors at More café (www.morecafe.biz; +971 4 339 8934), right next to the Burj Khalifa and the fountains. The bill for a main course and drinks for four was Dhs 236 (£42).
Don’t take Dubai too seriously or expect history and culture, there’s not much of that, but there’s glamour and glitz in spades - and remarkable architecture - that’s what Dubai does best.