48 Hours In: Dubai in association with Emirates - Middle East - Travel - The Independent

48 Hours In: Dubai in association with Emirates

Cosmopolitan, chaotic, cheap and hot, this fast expanding Middle Eastern city is the perfect winter destination - and not just for shopping. Simon Calder reports


WHY GO NOW?

Look out of the window. The temperature outside is unlikely to be a comfortable 26C, with a gentle breeze and clear skies. Midwinter is the ideal time to be dazzled in Dubai - by the sun, the sea and the skyline, which changes by the day. Or wait until 4 January, when the month-long Dubai Shopping Festival begins.

TOUCH DOWN

From Heathrow, you can fly on British Airways (0870 850 9 850; www.ba.com), Emirates (0870 243 2222; www.emirates.com) and Royal Brunei (020-7584 6660; www.bruneiair.com). Emirates also flies from Gatwick, Birmingham, Manchester and Glasgow.

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 where most of the city's heritage can be found - including the fascinating Bastakiya area. Dubai's centre of gravity is rapidly moving south-west, as new developments - especially ever more lavish hotels - are springing up parallel to the shore.

The airport (1) is handily located for the city centre. A tourist office faces you as you emerge from the customs hall. (For advice before you go, contact Dubai Tourism on 020-7839 0580 or www.dubaitourism.ae.) 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 hotels at Jumeirah Beach. Note that "Deira City Centre" (2) is a shopping mall close to the airport, some way from the proper city centre.

CHECK IN

Forty years ago, Dubai had just three hotels; now it has nearly 400. The most luxurious are in the south-west, including the opulent Mina A' Salam (3) on Al Sofouh Road (00 971 4 366 8888; www.jumeirah.com), an amalgam of Marrakesh and Venice, by way of Las Vegas. Each of the 230 bedrooms faces out to a man-made lagoon or the Gulf, and guests are ferried about aboard faux gondolas. The price is an impressive Dhs3,648 (£578), though much lower rates may be available as part of packages.

I stayed at the central Al Karnak Hotel (4) on Sikkat Al Khail Street (00 971 4 226 8799); a basic double room costs Dhs160 (£25) excluding breakfast.

The closest that Dubai gets to a traditional Moroccan-style riad is the beautiful XVA (5) tucked away in the Bastakiya district (00 971 4 353 5383; www.xvagallery.com). A room overlooking the courtyard costs Dhs700 (£120), including breakfast.

TAKE A VIEW

Each day at 9.30am and 4.30pm, you can pay Dhs10 (£1.80) to visit the gallery at the top of the 39-storey Dubai World Trade Centre (6) (00 971 4 332 1000); the price includes a drink. You are escorted to the former restaurant on the top floor, from which the dramatic scale and pace of change in the city is obvious; this tower used to dominate the skyline, but now surrounding skyscrapers dwarf it.

TAKE A RIDE

With Dubai's streets often choked by traffic, the creek provides the only guarantee of smooth transportation. A fleet of abras (waterbuses) shuttle across the creek between the Al Sabkha station on the north bank (7) and the souk at Bur Dubai (8). These decrepit vessels do not simply traverse the creek; they cover quite a distance for the fare of Dhs0.50 (8p).

TAKE A HIKE

The final curl in the creek presents a fine walk with much of interest. Start at Heritage and Diving Village (9), a sham-Bedouin retail offering; it opens 8am-10pm daily except Fridays, when it is closed between 11am and 4pm. Almost adjacent is the Sheikh Saeed al-Maktoum house (10) (00 971 4 393 7139), a beautiful late 19th-century structure with elegant windtowers 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 Dubai Creek. It opens 8.30am-9pm daily except Friday (3-10pm). Admission: Dhs2 (35p). A little further along is the Blue Bar (11), facing out on the water, where Dhs10 (£1.70) will buy you a smoke of a hookah pipe. You soon reach Bur Dubai souk (8), one of the more tranquil of the Emirate's markets. You should emerge close to the Grand Mosque (12). This is on the doorstep of the Bastakiya quarter, the ideal place to take a break.

LUNCH ON THE RUN

The Basta Art Cafe (13) on the south-western corner of Bastikiya district (00 971 4 353 5071) is, to use the cliché, an oasis. A shady courtyard is decorated with potted plants, and you feel you could sit and sip and nibble all day. For lunch, you can choose from jacket potatoes with elaborate fillings (Dh20/£3.60), baguettes and ciabatta sandwiches, or soup, salad and coffee for Dh40 (£7.20).

CULTURAL AFTERNOON

After lunch, wander through this former Persian district. Sunlight and breezes spill through the narrow alleys, as you discover gems such as XVA (5) - a hotel, restaurant and gallery - and the beautiful Majlis Gallery (14).

For a better understanding of the extraordinary story of the Emirate, visit the fort housing the Dubai Museum (15), which opens 8.30am-8.30pm daily (Fridays from 2.30pm), admission Dhs3 (50p). The fort itself contains relics from some of the earliest inhabitants of Dubai, while the new section - hidden underground - deals with more recent history.

AN APERITIF

What could be better than quenching your thirst with an exotic cocktail on either bank of the creek, at the Al Areesh Lebanese restaurant (16) (00 971 4 324 3000) or the Creek View (17) (00 971 4 223 3223)? Well, perhaps enjoying something alcoholic. The only place where you can get a beer or a glass of wine is in a hotel bar. One of the more appealing is Issimo on the ground floor of the stylish Hilton Dubai Creek (18) (00 971 4 227 1111; www.hilton.com), where a beer is Dhs22 (£4).

DINING WITH THE LOCALS

So beautiful are the surroundings at Bastakiah Nights (19) (00 971 4 353 7772) that you will not mind the absence of alcohol. This century-old mansion has breathtaking interior rooms set around a courtyard, but the ideal location is the roof terrace. Feast on Middle Eastern meze.

SUNDAY MORNING: VISIT A MOSQUE

The Jumeirah Mosque (20) (00 971 4 344 7755) is the finest in Dubai, its dramatic modern architecture as elaborate as it is vast. Furthermore, it is open to (conservatively dressed) visitors. To get a better understanding of Islam and its place in Arab society, tourists are invited to visit the Jumeirah Mosque at 10am on Sundays and Thursdays.

A WALK ON THE BEACH

Close by is one of the few strips of shoreline that is actually a public beach. Russian Beach (21) is popular with expatriates, and is kept clean and safe.

OUT TO BRUNCH

Much of Dubai's population is from the Indian sub-continent, and consequently the Emirate has some outstanding restaurants from the region. India House (22) on Al Hisn Street (00 971 4 352 6006) offers excellent south Indian thalis any day between 7am and midnight (with a break on Fridays, 11.30am-1.30pm).

WINDOW SHOPPING

You can barely walk a block in Dubai without tripping over another shopping mall. Some of them are tourist attractions in their own right. For a reasonable air-conditioned approximation to a real market, for example, visit the Souk Madinat, adjoining the Mina A' Salam (2); at the end of the run for bus number 8. If you like to take in some skiing with the shopping, try the Mall of the Emirates (24), accessible on bus 10, where Ski Dubai has just opened. But to shop for familiar brands at low prices, follow the locals to Dubai City Centre (2), convenient for the airport on the way home.

Additional Research by Catherine Dawes

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