Our insider’s guide to Dubai
Home to dazzling hotels, the world’s tallest skyscraper, Michelin-starred restaurants, desolate deserts and sandy beaches, Dubai is one of the seven emirates that make up the United Arab Emirates, and an impressive one it is. Once an oil rich desert, it has quickly transformed into a highly popular metropolis. There is no doubt that this fast-paced and ever-changing city can be overwhelming for a first-time visitor, and that’s where we step in – to guide you to the best places to stay and eat, and advise you on how to fill your days. Let’s face it, Dubai has it all…
I think a great way to kick-start a whistle-stop stay here, and to put the city into perspective, is to visit the Dubai Creek area, which serves as a reminder of the past – a time when Dubai was known as a seafaring trading hub for pearls, fish and textiles. We suggest taking a short walk to reach the Al Fahidi Historical Neighbourhood, an area where rich merchants once resided and distinguished today with traditional wind towers, winding alleys and contemporary art galleries. This is a great way to take a step back from the big city lights.
No visit to Dubai would be complete without a quick wander around the opulent Arabic Souqs, formerly known as Al Souq Al Kabeer, and in another era, the city’s largest marketplace. While the souks here are reminiscent of a foregone age, today it is still bustling with people buying textiles, perfume and in particular, spices. But watch out – a large proportion of things sold in the market today is actually imported from China, so listen to your knowledgeable local guide, as he or she will know where to pick up the genuine gold and most fragrant spices.
Visiting the Burj Khalifa is on the top of most people’s list when visiting Dubai, and it’s well worth the splurge, as the soaring height gives a phenomenal vantage point of the city. To avoid the crowds which build particularly at sunset, I tend to suggest enjoying afternoon tea at Atmosphere, the world’s tallest restaurant on the 122nd floor. It’s a real treat, and with no time pressure, it’s a much more relaxing experience.
For dinner, you can’t go wrong with Thiptara, serving lip-smackingly good Thai cuisine in a beautiful setting. The patio tables are sought after, with some of the best views of the fountain light show in the evening, which we always ensure we request for our clients. For a sophisticated evening of music, ballet or theatre, Dubai Opera can’t go amiss. The incredible, state-of-the-art structure was built in the shape of a dhow boat and overlooks the Dubai Fountain, across from the Palace Downtown hotel. A sheer spectacle. Alternatively, if you are looking for something of a faster pace, families of all ages will love La Perle by Dragone (the city’s version of Cirque du Soleil), a breathtaking showcase of gravity-defying acrobatic performances.
For those with a little more time on their hands, we love the tranquillity and remoteness of the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve, only an hour’s drive from the city centre. Within this reserve lies the Al Maha, an exclusive, beautifully appointed camp offering understated luxury with charming Arabic decor. From the moment you step into this desert retreat, the personalised service is fantastic and what you would expect from a hotel of this calibre. Although the food can come at a high price point, the quality is excellent, using the very finest and freshest of ingredients, and the endless complimentary activities run by specialist rangers and wildlife experts certainly justifies the deep pockets needed. If it’s just a taster of the desert you are looking for, we can arrange an afternoon in the desert with a private guide and driver, and a delicious dinner in a Bedouin camp.
My visit to Dubai certainly confirmed that it makes a bold statement. While the audacious architecture and realms of entertainment are not for everyone, the city is a cosmopolitan hub of excitement and a great place to while away anything from 24 hours up to a week.
Where to stay
Dubai is jam-packed full of high-end luxury hotels, and there are new properties popping up almost everywhere you look. Our long-standing favourite, particularly for quick stopovers, has to be the Palace Downtown, and it certainly lived up to the hype. Located in an excellent position from which to sample the fine-dining establishments, shopping and café culture for which this city is known, the hotel is classically designed, with Arabic touches and excellent service.
For something altogether different – but only right for those with more time and solely looking for sun and sea – The Oberoi Beach Resort Al Zorah in Ajman is a super-sleek and contemporary escape, with palatial, Scandi-style rooms and a superb beach.