Travel: The shop of the desert

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The Independent Culture
This week Dubai became a tempting short break destination: British Airways cut its fare to pounds 299. Pat and Liza McCarthy say the cloudless skies of January and February make the Gulf city ideal for a winter weekend.

Canary Wharf meets the desert - and a great deal more. Dubai is full of surprises. It may not be an obvious destination for a short winter break, but beneath the city's veil you glimpse an ancient culture geared to the 21st century.

Dubai is split in two by a creek that has the appearance of a wide and sometimes choppy river. Primitive motorboats ply their way across it, and there's usually one waiting to ferry you over.

Passengers sit on the engine cover in orderly rows, and for a fare of about 10p are treated to a 10-minute scenic boat ride. It's reminiscent of the Star Ferry ride in Hong Kong harbour; not the only connection Dubai has with that trading capital of the world.

The skyline is clearly in competition with its South-east Asian cousin. Architects in the United Arab Emirates started with an almost clean slate, and each new building looks more daring than the last. However, there are older buildings; the ones by the waterfront are currently being restored. They come with a wind tower, like a steeple, providing a natural air- conditioning system.

Yet by far the most impressive building in the city is the Fort, the oldest standing structure. It now houses the historical museum.

But the creek continues to dominate. Along the wharves are moored colourful old dhows with every imaginable cargo, from rice to video recorders. The atmosphere is relaxed, and tourists can stroll without fear of being pestered - possibly because expatriates comprise 80 per cent of Dubai's population. The mix of nationalities creates an energetic atmosphere.

It also means that there are numerous restaurants reflecting cuisines from around the world. For as little as pounds 2-pounds 3 we were able to eat colossal portions of Indian and Iranian food. But if you're looking for alcohol, head for the international hotels - each of which has a bar selling lager at rather less than the prices found in central London.

One of the more unusual sights is the Irish Village attached to the Aviation Club. And in the Spinney's chain of supermarkets you could be forgiven for thinking you were in Britain, even down to the Tesco's beer glasses on the shelves - though there is no alcohol on sale.

Dubai's national pastime seems to be shopping; addicts can find malls open until late in the evening. Popular British high street stores and exclusive designer houses compete alongside each other.

Specialised shopping is also catered for in the Gold Souk and Spice Souk. In the nearby emirate of Sharjah, the New Souk is a fantastic building like two ornate oil cylinders, connected by bridges and topped by wind towers. Haggling is expected, but the atmosphere is relaxed.

Our fears that we would not find enough to do for a week were soon dispelled. Signs near the airport indicated that the Dubai Open Tennis Championship was taking place. This is a part of the ATP men's circuit, so we had an opportunity to watch all the major stars in a compact, modern stadium for about pounds 8. Sports aficionados should choose the timing of their visit carefully. Top racehorses winter in Dubai and leading jockeys, such as Frankie Dettori, are frequently to be seen in the evening meetings. In March, the Open Golf Classic attracts leading players; later in the year there is an international cricket competition. Traditional sports, such as camel-racing, take place in the early morning and create a spectacular sight.

Nothing, though, can compete with the thrill of the desert. One day we hired a four-wheel-drive vehicle (complete with expert driver) for an expedition of "dune bashing". This felt like a cross between power-assisted skiing and a thrilling roller-coaster ride. We picnicked in a wadi, a dried river bed, and visited several camel-breeding farms.

Dubai itself has a long beach strip. There are public areas but most visitors choose the facilities provided by the major hotels. One of these, the Chicago Beach Hotel, is trying to win the competition for the world's tallest building.

It's worth visiting this giant off-shore edifice simply to witness the ambitions of the architect. The sand is manicured, and the Arabian sea is tempting - but cool at this time of year. Although the beach is some distance from the city, it is accessible by taxis which are metered - and are excellent value. Rather like Dubai itself.

Getting there: The British Airways World Offer fare from Heathrow to Dubai is pounds 299; book through travel agents or direct from BA on 0345 222111. Other airlines are likely to cut prices for either non-stop or indirect services between the UK and Dubai.

Accommodation: The Independent's travel editor recommends the Palm Beach Hotel (00 97 14 525550, fax 528320), a comfortable three-star hotel some way from the beach. The official room rate here is about pounds 100 for a double, but the tourist information office at the airport negotiated a discount rate of pounds 60. There are plenty of cheaper options in the city centre.

More information: Dubai Department of Tourism and Commerce Marketing, 125 Pall Mall, London SW1Y 5AE (0171-839 0580).