Dubai is one of those places about which everyone has an opinion, regardless of whether they’ve been there. For some it’s the epitome of a celebrity playground, others see it as a shopper's paradise, while others see it as an oppressive state with strict laws about alcohol and decency. So, what’s the appeal and what does Dubai have to offer?
Now, I’m as guilty as the next person for thinking I knew what to expect from Dubai, but I was pleasantly surprised. Yes, it is a shopper’s paradise with dozens of malls to choose from. And yes, holiday makers and celebrities do go there for the promise of winter sunshine. But Dubai is relaxed about alcohol, and provided people don’t make public exhibitions of themselves, tolerant of public drinking.
My first surprise was the size of the shopping malls. People spend entire days in them – something that sounds like torture to me at the start, but I quickly understand the appeal. The malls are not just for shopping – many house cinemas, skating rinks, or aquaria. Another surprise is that most of the nightlife takes place in hotel bars and restaurants, but when you see the size of some of these, you can understand why.
What to do
But once you’ve indulged your shopping habit, and topped up your tan, is there anything else to do? I found there was plenty to do that would entertain both couples on holiday and even those travelling with small children.
For the family, there are waterparks, four-wheel-drive desert excursions, Sega Republic , KidZania, fish feeding and much more. Many of the hotels are destinations in their own right and worth a visit even if you’re not staying there. The Atlantis hotel, at the top of The Palm, is home to The Aquaventure waterpark , a great place to entertain kids who are passed the bucket and spade stage. Water slides and water roller coasters will test the nerve of even a die-hard fanatic – one slide, aptly named The Leap of Faith, is a jaw-dropping free fall down a slide into a shark pool, although over so fast you don’t really notice the sharks.
One of the most bizarre experiences I can recommend is the ray feeding. The cownose and eagle rays know why you’re there and are not shy or retiring but single-minded in their attempts to get the food. Being mobbed by three-foot wide aliens may not be everyone’s idea of a good time, but it is strangely enjoyable.
A desert excursion is one of the most popular trips and well worth trying. A convoy of four-wheel–drive vehicles will transport you through the dunes to an established camp where you can sample shisha pipes, enjoy a barbeque and watch whirling dervishes and belly dancers. We used Desert Adventures, who picked us up and dropped us back at our hotel.
If you want to find out more about life in Dubai, book a session at The Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding. Working under the banner 'Open Doors, Open Minds', this centre aims to raise awareness of the local culture, customs and religion. You can enjoy a typical breakfast or lunch with Emirati hosts who are happy to answer any questions you may have about their lives, beliefs and customs. The centre is in one of the oldest sections of Dubai, known as Bur Dubai.
The old town itself is also worth exploring if you want to get a glimpse of life away from the glitz of the skyscrapers and top class hotels. There’s a different atmosphere here and you can wander through streets of normal sized buildings and explore the souks where you can buy spices, textiles, or gold, depending on your budget. Desert Adventures also run a City Tour which takes in the old town and the guide will tell you more about the history of the place.
In complete contrast to the old town, Dubai’s other must-see destination is the world’s tallest building, Burj Khalifa. Standing at 828 metres tall, it’s impossible to miss and dominates the skyline. For an £18 entry fee, you can ride the super-fast lift to the 124th floor and visit the observation deck, called At the Top. This claims another ‘world’s best’ title as it is the highest outdoor viewing platform of any building in the world.
Where to stay
You’re spoiled for choice when it comes to hotels in Dubai. If it’s opulence you’re after, the Raffles, with its distinctive pyramids, delivers. The lobby itself is impressive enough with its white marble floors flecked with gold, and the sheer scale will take your breath away. Families might prefer the Fairmont the Palm (http://www.fairmont.com/palm-dubai/), a new venture for the Fairmont chain, with spacious grounds and child-friendly swimming pools. We stayed at the Fairmont Dubai (http://www.fairmont.com/dubai/), which suits both business and holiday travellers with its location and comfort.
Dubai isn’t just a playground for the wannabe famous – it has an interesting story of its own to tell. Don’t let your preconceptions stop you from going there – you might just be pleasantly surprised.
Need to know
For more information about Dubai call Dubai Tourism and Commerce Marketing on 020 7321 6110 or visit www.definitelydubai.com
Fairmont Dubai is part of Fairmont Hotels & Resorts. Rates start at AED 1078.80 (including tax and service charge) for a double room. Rates for a similar room with the Fairmont Gold service start at AED 1438.80 (including tax and service charge). For more information and reservations, please call 00 800 0441 1414 in the UK or visit www.fairmont.com.
Emirates airline operates 112 non-stop flights per week from the UK to Dubai – five services a day from Heathrow, three daily from London Gatwick and Manchester, two per day from Birmingham and Glasgow and a daily service from Newcastle. In Dubai, passengers can connect to flights to Emirates’ global network which spans over 130 destinations across six continents in 76 countries. Fly Emirates from London Heathrow to Dubai for as little as £447.34.