The other Dubai

5 September 2014

Kate Turkington is dazzled by Dubai but finds out there’s much more to this desert Emirate than shopping and golf …

So you’ve almost certainly heard that the shopping and golf are both fabulous in Dubai. The upmarket shopping malls – the best in the Middle East – are elegant and spacious and showcase the most prestigious array of designer labels.

The award-winning Dubai Duty Free at the sparkling international modern airport is also among the best in the world, thronged with passing travellers looking for bargains on everything from jewellery to electronic goods. Dubai’s Gold Souk – the largest retail gold market in the world – is legendary.

14 The gold souk Dubai's gold souk. Photo by Pete the painter.

Be sure to wear your sunglasses, though, because the glittering window displays of gleaming gold will literally dazzle your eyes. If you prefer more downmarket shopping, then slip into one of the traditional street markets or souks in Old Dubai to search and haggle for Arabian coffee pots, silver, gorgeous fabrics, Persian carpets and cotton rugs, or even inlaid rosewood and walnut furniture. Or assail your senses in the Spice Souk.

All the golf courses are stunning, including the Dubai Creek Golf & Yacht Club, designed in the shape of the billowing sails of an Arabian dhow. Its 45m-high clubhouse soaring airily into the always-blue sky imaginatively captures the spirit of Dubai’s seafaring traditions and is one of Dubai’s many iconic landmarks.

Dubai Creek Golf Club Dubai Creek Golf Club. Photo by Khalid Belhaji.

More than just shopping and golf

But there’s more to Dubai than just shopping and golf.

Firstly, wherever you are or whatever you’re doing or planning to do in Dubai, it’s a very safe place to be. You can walk the streets at night, even if you’re on your own, in complete safety.

So what else is there to see and do?

Well, the architecture is amazing. Nowhere else in the world have I seen so many examples of imaginatively designed modern buildings. Some buildings, of course, are already 20th-century architectural legends, such as the Emirates Towers: twin towers – one a hotel, the other a commercial centre – that dominate Dubai’s city skyline, apparently moving closer to one another or drifting further away from each other, depending on your viewpoint.

Sunset at Dubai Marina The modern Dubai Marina. Photo by Martin Müller.

The remarkable Burj Al Arab hotel, another architectural icon, rises majestically out of the still blue waters of the Arabian Gulf. Also built in the shape of an Arabian dhow’s sail and taller than the Eiffel Tower, its colours change dramatically as the long, hot day progresses.

7 Star Luxury The Burj Al Arab hotel. Photo by Chris Hopkins Images.

The opulence of its interior, with its 202 suites furnished and decorated with the best the world can offer – exclusive marble from Brazil, the finest linen from Ireland, gold leaf dripping from the walls – makes even an Indian raja’s palace look like low-cost housing. Oh, and by the way, you can fit the Statue of Liberty into the hotel’s soaring atrium and have a bit of room left to spare.

Fun for the family

Dubai as a family and children’s destination? Hard to believe, but it’s a great place for the kids. Firstly, in the summer months, June though October, when it’s hot (but if you take care when you go in the sun and on the beach, not too hot) most hotels offer Sizzling Summer Specials, where kids under 12 stay free, and airfares are drastically reduced.

Then there’s Magic Planet in the giant Deira City mall – a unique children’s entertainment centre with 10-pin bowling, lots of electronic games, and even a mini pitch-and-putt course. There’s also Children’s City …

If you can tear yourself away from the souks and the sea, then go on a desert adventure, where you can ride camels, go sandboarding or dune driving.

desert safari A desert safari in the dunes. Photo by ashraful kadir.

Back in the city, you can visit the Heritage Village, where you’ll see how things were done in the past – there’s a tented Bedouin village where potters and weavers ply their trade, and a pearl-diving exhibition (pearls provided much of Dubai’s wealth in those long-lost days pre-oil).

heritagevillagecamel The traditional Heritage Village. Photo by Daniela.

Or take yourself off to Dubai Museum, housed in Al Fahidi Fort. Built near the end of the 1770s, the fort, which once guarded the city’s landward approaches and has served variously as a palace, garrison and prison, is now an attractive and visitor-friendly museum.

Musé_01 The Dubai Museum. Photo by Chuckas_McFly.

You can also enjoy a ride on an “abra” – a water taxi – or a traditional dinner on a brightly lit dhow as you drift down the creek to the sea.

Onboard an Abra on Dubai Creek Catch an "abra" down Dubai Creek. Photo by David Jones.

Never thought of Dubai as a destination before? Well, now you might change your mind …

Kate Turkington

Kate Turkington is one of South Africa’s best-known broadcasters, travellers and travel writers.