No longer just a stopover destination, Robin McKelvie finds that Dubai has plenty to offer.
The first time I flew to Dubai in 1999, tourism was in its infancy and there were few direct flights from the UK. I could only go into the Burj Al Arab, the distinctive seven star tower hotel that became a symbol of modern tourist Dubai, on a hard hat tour. Things couldn’t be more different today as Dubai has become a world-class year round destination that you can now fly to non stop from Edinburgh.
I’ve been back to Dubai half a dozen times since and on each occasion there has been something new to experience. The spirit of innovation and dynamism here is impressive – I gave up doubting Dubai could pull things off when they opened a ski centre in the desert. Dubai is that sort of place – larger than life and never less than fascinating, an emirate where you can be riding a camel in the desert one minute and fine dining atop a skyscraper the next.
Since my first visit, Dubai has rocketed beyond the lifeblood creek and the tourist beaches of Jumeirah. A whole new city has sprung up and offshore islands have taken shape in the milky blue waters of the Arabian Gulf. There are vast new malls and the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building, has vaulted for the heavens, towering to 828m, almost the height of a Scottish Munro mountain.
This is all the more remarkable given that many people in Dubai lived a semi-nomadic life up until the discovery of oil in the 1960s. Dubai declared full independence from Britain in 1971 and was one of the founding members of the United Arab Emirates. It has scarcely looked back, channelling its fossil fuel wealth into ambitious infrastructure projects and tourism.
To get a feel for how Dubai has grown, but also retained a sense of traditional character, just head out on a cruise on the bustling Dubai Creek and watch the skyscrapers blink back at you as they jockey for position with older buildings. The most atmospheric boat trips are on the traditional wooden dhows that have plied the local waters for centuries. Trips range from simple one-hour hops, through to an evening dinner cruise. New this year are traditional abras that have been updated to be more eco-friendly, something Dubai is deeply conscious of. A trip on these wooden passenger vessels costs about £1.
Another place you can get in touch with the country’s rich past is Dubai Museum. It will fill you in on all you need to know. Atmospherically set within the Al Fahidi Fort, which was built in 1787, it’s the oldest existing building in Dubai. The museum was opened as modern Dubai was formed back in 1971 and is the emirate’s premier heritage attraction.
Today’s tourist facilities are superb, and Dubai has become much more than just a stopover destination, though it is ideal for sunny stopovers too for Scottish-based travellers heading to all points east and south. A personal favourite is the Wild Wadi Water Park, arguably the world’s most impressive water resort. The rides range from the family friendly to the adrenaline pumping. Keen golfers meanwhile can enjoy a flurry of world-class courses.
There is so much to do in town these days you won’t want to leave, but day trips are attractive. ‘Dune bashing’ 4X4 tours out in the shifting sands of Dubai’s deserts are brilliant fun, best combined with a Bedouin-style sunset dinner afterwards, with the option of a camel ride. In terms of scenery, the rugged hills and wadis (water holes) of the Hajar Mountains are an impressive natural attraction of Dubai and feel a world away from the glitz of the modern city.
Back in the centre, Dubai boasts an array of thrilling dining experiences. These range from little street stalls in Bur Dubai that serve delicious Emirati and Indian fast food, through to all the typical global chain restaurants and beyond to Michelin star quality temples of fine dining, set up by internationally famous chefs. Scanning a list of brand new restaurants there is everything from an Italian restaurant at Le Royal Meridien and a Greek eatery at Souk Madinat Jumeirah, to a new fine dining gastronomic temple from Alain Ducasse at the new Kempinski.
Dubai is not a place to ever rest on its laurels as I witness every time I visit. New developments to look out for include Jumeirah Beach Road being turned into an open-air street art museum and a flurry of new hotels, including a new Hilton Garden Inn, Wyndham and an 800-bedroom beachfront resort from that comes complete with its own waterpark, which is Spanish hotel chain, RIU’s first Middle Eastern hotel.
You might hear negative stories about the attitude towards drinking alcohol in Dubai. The good news is that alcohol is allowed in many hotels, restaurants and bars. Avoiding public drunkenness and being aware of local sensibilities, laws and customs is always a good idea wherever you travel, of course, so topless sunbathing, for example, is out in Dubai. I’ve never had a problem at all during my multiple visits.
If you are looking for a destination that offers year round warmth, a range of great hotels and restaurants, as well as myriad things to see and do, then look no further than this energetic emirate. Dubai today is emerging as the complete tourist destination and with flights direct from Edinburgh it has never been more tempting for savvy Scottish travellers.