48 Hours In: Dubai

With its duty-free shopping, year-round sun and spectacular beach hotels, this ancient port is ahead of the pack, says Frank Partridge



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WHY GO NOW?

The climate is perfect, with daytime highs in the upper 20s, and light winds taking the edge off the heat. Even if you have visited Dubai in the past few years, the city is changing at a staggering rate. Ultra-modernity is combining with a fresh interest in Dubai's colourful past, and the result is a fascinating destination.

TOUCH DOWN

Emirates (0870 243 2222; www.emirates.com) has the widest range of services, with departures to the Middle East's busiest airport (1) from Heathrow, Birmingham, Gatwick, Manchester and Glasgow. From Heathrow, you can also fly on British Airways (0870 850 9 850; www.ba.com) and Royal Brunei (020-7584 6660; www.bruneiair.com), with Virgin Atlantic (0870 380 2007; www.virgin-atlantic.com) beginning flights on the route next month.

Although there are buses to the city centre, taxis are cheap: the fare to Deira and Bar Dubai should be no more than Dhs25 (£3.90), and Dhs60 (£9.50) to Jumeirah beach.

GET YOUR BEARINGS

Dubai started as a trading port, occupying the banks of the attractive creek that winds into the Arabian Gulf. Deira and Bur Dubai, which face each other across the waterway, remain the commercial hubs, but latest development stretches to the south-west, and even into the sea with a series of man-made islands. The main tourist office (00 971 4 228 5000) has a prime location at Baniyas Square in Deira (2). It opens 9am-11pm Sat-Wed.

CHECK IN

Designed like an ancient sailing ship, the Dhow Palace (3) (00 971 4 359 9992; www.dhowpalacehoteldubai.com) in Bur Dubai will be the city's latest top hotel - when it's finished - with doubles from Dhs1,799 (£280) including breakfast. Another newcomer, the Moscow Hotel (4) (Al Maktoum Road; 00 971 4 228 8222; www.moscowhoteldubai.com) has negotiable rates. I paid Dhs500 (£78) for a double room including breakfast. Dubai's greatest concentration of luxury hotels is in the south-west, including the opulent Mina A' Salam (5) on Al Sofouh Road (0870 730 1332; www.jumeirah.com), part of the Madinat Jumeirah complex. It is a mix of Marrakech and Venice, by way of Las Vegas. Each of the rooms faces a man-made lagoon or the Gulf, and guests are ferried about on faux gondolas. Doubles cost Dhs3,648 (£578); lower rates may be available as part of a package.

TAKE A HIKE

Capture the essence of old Dubai in a two-hour walk circumscribed by the C-shape formed by the mouth of the creek. Beginning at the Covered Souk on Al Sabkha Rd (6), wend your way through narrow streets, taking in the Gold (7) and Spice (8) Souks, before emerging by the water. Turn left along the bank, passing a flotilla of laden dhows that seem barely seaworthy, but carry vast amounts of cargo as far away as India and North Africa. Dubai may have moved on, but they are the reason it exists.

TAKE A RIDE

In this city of high rollers, a trip across the creek in a motorised abra represents phenomenal value. The canopied water taxis chug back all day and most of the night, to and from two well-marked stations on either bank, charging just Dhs0.50 (8p) for the joy of being on the water, great views and brief respite from the traffic. Abras can be hired privately: an 80-minute tour with Deira Marine Tours (00 971 4 324 1114) costs Dhs120 (£19).

LUNCH ON THE RUN

There are numerous Lebanese bakeries and Indian stalls in and around the souks. On the waterfront, the Blue Barjeel (9) offers sandwiches and juices, quick service, and outdoor tables with great views.

WINDOW SHOPPING

Not here. Say "Du-bai" slowly a few times and you are intoning the city's mantra, for this is the self-styled HQ of Planet Shopping, with 48 malls, a seven-storey gold market and an airport duty-free big enough to sponsor its own international tennis tournament. For sheer scale, head for the Mall of the Emirates (10) in Jumeirah, containing more than 400 shops and 65 restaurants. The Deira City Centre mall (11) is more central and manageable, with a Carrefour hypermarket for low-priced electronics goods; it is also a 10-minute cab ride from the airport, if you want to buy here before you fly. Most malls open between 10am-10pm every day except Friday (2-10pm).

AN APERITIF

If you get twitchy after too many non-alcoholic "mocktails", your only options are the big hotels, where the prices tend to reflect their opulence. The wood-panelled lounge bar in the Dhow Palace (3) is a pleasant retreat from the heat and noise, but a bottle of European beer costs Dhs25 (£4). In Bur Dubai, the anglicised York Club in the York International (12) (00 971 4 355 5500; www.dubaiyorkhotel.com) boasts the longest bar in town, with lower prices.

DINING WITH THE LOCALS

The best of the waterfront restaurants is Al Areesh (13), (00 971 4 393 1113) on the Bur Dubai side , serving fresh seafood and Lebanese cuisine. After, try one of its hookah pipes (Dhs16/ £2.50) in the pretty rear courtyard.

By steering clear of places catering for Western tastes, it's possible to eat extremely well for very little. It's worth a detour to the Al Karama district to experience Dubai's first vegetarian Indian restaurant, Woodlands (14) at 318, 20B Street (00 971 4 337 0253), where unlimited quantities of flavoursome thali are served for Dhs14 (£2.20).

In the Karama district, Kamat (00 971 4 396 7288), near the Burjuman mall (15), is another fine Indian establishment. A meal for two, with drinks, is around Dhs70 (£11).

SUNDAY MORNING: VISIT A MOSQUE

Non-Muslims are generally discouraged from entering mosques, but Dubai's principal place of worship, the beautiful Jumeirah Mosque (16), adopts an open-door policy, offering guided tours beneath its vast dome and minarets to foster international understanding of Islam. The one-hour tours start at 10.15am on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Turn up on the day, or book in advance on 00 971 4 353 6666. Admission is Dhs10 (£1.60).

OUT TO BRUNCH

Across the river, on the edge of the old Bastakia quarter, refuel in the cool, shady courtyard of the Basta Art Café (17). "Breakfast English Way", with all the trimmings, is served between 10am-10pm for Dhs32 (£5).

CULTURAL AFTERNOON

History and art are almost next door to each other in Bastakia. The excellent Dubai Museum (18), inside a restored 18th-century fort, vividly brings to life Dubai's transformation from fishing village to metropolis. Open daily 8.30am-8.30pm (Friday 2.30-8.30pm), admission Dhs3 (50p). The English-owned Majlis Gallery (19), set in a traditional villa with an open courtyard and restored wind-tower, has monthly exhibitions of paintings, ceramics and fabrics. Ring 00 971 4 353 6233 to check its irregular opening hours.

TAKE A VIEW

The traditional tourist panorama is from the 39th floor of the World Trade Centre (00 971 4 332 1000) (20), but the gallery has been sadly neglected, and it costs Dhs10 (£1.60) to get in; the price includes a soft drink. Alternatively, try the revolving restaurant, Al-Dawaar, on the 25th floor of the Hyatt Regency (21) (00 971 4 317 2222; www.dubai.regency.hyatt.com), which serves buffet lunches and dinners. A full revolution, taking in both the Creek and the Gulf, takes almost two hours.

THE ICING ON THE CAKE

Snow and ice were strangers to Dubai until the developers of the new Mall of the Emirates (10) decided to tack on the world's largest indoor ski resort. Even in this city of fantasy, Ski Dubai (00 971 4 409 4000; www.skidxb.com) is an eye-opener, as you stand in the air-conditioned mall peering through plate glass at an Arab woman in crash helmet and anorak, queuing for the chairlift while her bobble-hatted children have a snowball fight on the nursery slope. A two-hour slope pass costs Dhs115 (£18) including all equipment and clothing.

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