48 hours in Dubai
The Gulf's favourite destination is chaotic, cosmopolitan and cheap - ideal for finding shopping bargains on a stopover on your way East, or as a short break in its own right.
Saturday 01 February 2003
Dubai: Why go now?
Why go now?
The liveliest Arab emirate has become the global village's trading hub. Over the next fortnight, that role is celebrated with the Dubai Shopping Festival. It might not live up to its claim to be "the most exciting festival in the world", but the next couple of weeks see hundreds of special events adding to the emirate's profile. For more information, call the tourist board on 020-7839 0580 or visit www.dubaitourism.co.ae.
The main airline is Emirates (0870 243 2222, www.emirates.com) which flies three times daily from Heathrow, twice from Gatwick, and once from Birmingham and Manchester. British Airways (0845 77 333 77, www.ba.com) flies twice daily from Heathrow, Biman Bangladesh (020-7629 0161, www.bimanair.com) six times a week and Royal Brunei (020-7584 6360, www.bruneiair.com) four times a week. Connecting flights from many UK airports are offered by a dozen more airlines. Lowest fares are likely to be around £300 return from discount agents while packages including several nights' accommodation are available for about £500.
Get your bearings
The liveliest and most compact part of town is Deira, which occupies the east bank of Dubai Creek; the west bank, known as Bur Dubai, is more spread out. Many of the big new hotels are west of here, strung out along the Gulf coast. A tourist office faces you as you emerge from the customs hall at the superb new airport terminal. From the airport, a taxi for the 4km to the centre of Deira will cost around Dhs40 (£7), rising to Dhs100 (£17) for a ride out to the Jumeirah Beach and Burj Al Arab hotels. Bus 401 runs into Deira for Dhs3 (50p) every half-hour, but buses 4 and 11 are twice as frequent and half the fare. Note that "Deira City Centre" is a shopping mall near the airport, a long way from the real centre.
Forty years ago, Dubai had just three hotels; now it has nearly 300, including self-styled six- and seven-starred properties. But before you sign up for the first one offered, consider the location; quality (and prices) rise the further you get from the centre of the action in Deira, and you may not want to be faced with a cab ride in each day. At the extremely central Al Karnak Hotel on Sikkat Al Khail Street (00 971 4 226 8799), a basic double room costs Dhs120 (£20). Standards and prices are higher at the Paris Hotel on Al Mussalla Road (00 971 4 221 2181), which largely caters for the busy Indian tourist and business trade; a double costs Dhs200 (£35). For a ritzy location, try the Metropolitan Palace on Al Maktoum Road (00 971 4 227 0000, www.methotels.com/metpalace), which often has deals available online; for the next few days it is quoting Dhs660 (£110), including transfers to and from the airport.
Take a hike
Start on the north side of Baniyas Square and head west along Al Maktoum Hospital Road. After 100m, turn right into the electronics souq . Follow the L-shaped arcade and you emerge on to Al Sabkha Street. This is one of the liveliest souqs in Dubai, selling everything from clothes to cases to take them home with. Turn left into Sikkat Al Khail Street; after 100m, turn right into an alley marked 25b Street. Suddenly you are in a much older environment, with low, simple homes. Continue north across the next main road. You should spot a tall, gold-windowed building; this is where you are heading. Weave your way through to Gold Land, wander inside to enjoy the glitter. Head out the other side and follow the sign saying "Footbridge to Fish Market", where seafood, fresh fruit and vegetables are traded. From here you can get a bus at the Gold Souq Bus Station, or walk into the Gold Souq and be hustled by men offering designer watches.
Lunch on the run
The average street in Dubai boasts more places to eat than the entire island of Cuba, so you are unlikely to go hungry. On Baniyas Square you cannot go wrong with Raoff, on the north side; join the crowds inside for a sit-down feast, or take away a kebab for as little as Dhs2.50 (40p).
Take a ride
Dubai owes its prosperity to its Creek. Dozens of dhows arrive each day from Iran, Oman and elsewhere in the Gulf to fuel the area's frenetic trade. The best way to see the city is from the water. A pair of abra (waterbus) routes operate across the Creek. Unlike the traghetti of the Grand Canal in Venice, these do not simply cross the Creek; instead they cover quite a distance for the fare of Dhs0.50 (8p).
Souqs abound in Dubai: sometimes they are ancient warrens of alleyways, as with the spice souq, but increasingly they are plush arcades – like the gold and electronics souqs – or a collection of like-minded stores, such as the car accessories souq. One of the less touristy and more fun is the Naif Souq, a faux desert fort with a good line in Harry Potter merchandise (I suspect JK Rowling will not enjoy her due royalties on this stuff.) At almost all these places you will need to bargain. If you prefer fixed prices and Western stores, catch bus 8 west to the Mercato mall in Jumeirah: the first Italian Renaissance shopping experience in the Gulf.
You can work up quite a thirst in a desert city. Almost every hotel of any size has a bar. Many of these are furtively concealed; one that isn't is the chic Issimo on the ground floor of the stylish Hilton Dubai Creek, where a beer is a reasonable (for here) Dhs22 (£4). For a thoroughly Dubai experience, head along to the Velvet Lounge on the 10th floor of the Al Khaleej Palace Hotel on Al Maktoum Road. Besides red velvet, there is a mirrored ceiling straight out of Las Vegas, portraits of English royalty and a Latvian bartender.
Dining with the locals
Dozens of cuisines, from Thai to Tex-Mex, are on offer. But it makes sense to opt for something hard to find in Britain yet widely available in Dubai: Persian or Iranian food. Hatam is an Iranian chain of sorts, with several restaurants dotted around Dubai. The one that fronts on to Baniyas Road is as good as any and easy to reach. The Hatam Special Kebab comes with soup, salad and bread. Down on Al Maktoum Road, Sadaf was Dubai's first upmarket Iranian restaurant; book on 00 971 4 222 1622, and don't plan on any alcohol.
Sunday morning: go to a mosque
Many of the places of worship in Dubai are new and outwardly unappealing. One of the grandest is the Jumeirah Mosque, 8km west of the Creek, to which non-Muslims are invited on Sundays and Thursdays.
Out to brunch
Catch bus 8 from the Gold Souq bus station or the Bur Dubai bus station . For Dhs2.50 (40p) it will take you 15km west of the Creek to the Jumeirah Beach Hotel. It is adjacent to the exclusive Burj Al Arab Hotel, the one perched on its own private island that features on Dubai number plates; casual visitors are deterred by the need to book and pay in advance for a meal there. The Jumeirah Beach Hotel has a grand breakfast buffet, from waffles to smoked salmon, that will fill you up for the rest of the day. It is available 6.30-10.30am daily, for Dhs82 (£14). Afterwards, take the lift to the 25th floor for a spectacular view of the surroundings and a vertiginous glance down the atrium.
A walk by the creek
In the past 10 years, Dubai has rediscovered its waterfront. The west bank of the Creek is the cultural hub of the city. Start at the Heritage and Diving Village, a sham-Bedouin retail offering. Almost adjacent is the Shaikh Saeed al-Maktoum house, a beautiful late 19th-century structure with elegant wind-towers that served as rudimentary air-conditioning. You can visit the house and see memorabilia such as the 1938 British request for seaplane landing rights in the Creek. It opens 8.30am-8.30pm daily except Friday (3-10pm), but only women are allowed on Sundays. Admission: Dhs2 (35p). A little further along is the Creek Star Cafeteria, facing out on the water, where Dhs10 (£1.70) will buy you a smoke of a hookah pipe. After the second abra dock, you find yourself in another market maze; this is the Dubai Souq .
Just along from the Dubai Souq is the fort housing the Dubai Museum , which opens 8.30am-8.30pm daily except Fridays (3-9pm), admission Dhs3 (50p). The fort itself contains relics from some of the earliest inhabitants of Dubai, while the new section – ingeniously hidden underground – deals with more recent history.
Write a postcard
Perch on some of the steps leading down to the Creek and let the ripples inspire your prose. A stamp to the UK costs Dhs2.25 (40p).
The icing on the cake
The new airport terminal is a startling piece of architecture, which also happens to contain an alluring collection of shops; the average passenger spends £20 in the airport duty-free shops.
And why are 'southern' ways of speaking spreading north?
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