Dubai: 'A place on a human scale'

Over the past 25 years Simon Calder has watched Dubai grow from a tiny port to a vibrant city - but some things never change

British Caledonian had the right idea. A quarter of a century ago, when the much-missed airline began flying between Gatwick and Hong Kong, the airline chose to refuel in Dubai. At the time, the emirate barely registered on most people's mental maps; anyone who had heard of Dubai probably knew it as a minor trading port. But I was among the curious who stepped into a sleepy little airport adjoining a quaint little city.

In 25 years, "BCal" has been swallowed up by British Airways and subsequently erased. Aircraft can now easily reach Hong Kong without a stop. Yet Dubai has become home to one of the world's fastest-growing airlines, Emirates, and is now a highly sought-after stopover, and a holiday destination in its own right.

The skyline has become a Manhattan of the Gulf, the hotels are among the finest in the world and investment plus imagination is creating entirely new islands. Every visit to Dubai is like watching a child grow up, and is always an engaging experience. The location that seemed half-asleep when I first discovered it is now a city that never sleeps. Yet it is still a place on a human scale.

The human face of Dubai begins at the airport. When I turned up in the early hours at the tourist information booth, the man behind the desk not only found me a hotel, but managed to get a reduction on the nightly rate on my behalf.

The next morning, I wandered down to the geographical feature that made the emirate the Gulf's prime marketplace: Dubai Creek, the sparkling waterway that slices the city in half. Dhows, the shapely vessels that once swarmed all over the Middle East, are moored all along the banks, crews dozing until the cargo of their dreams materialises. Their slumbers are disrupted by the whine of badly tuned outboards appended to abras - small launches which dart back and forth across the Creek. These vessels comprise the best public transport system in the East, their pilots chuffing on cheap cheroots as they bob across the water.

The two-minute voyage, costing a few pence, reveals the finest views in the city. Beyond the river's edge stand the financial institutions - banks on the banks, if you like. Much of the waterfront is high-rise gleam. The finest arc of the creek, however, is occupied by a splendid palace. Any suggestion that expense might have been spared in its construction is refuted by the glitter of gold from every surface. Yet only a few hundred yards away, children scamper around a neighbourhood of ancient sandstone and modern breeze block, with alleyways carpeted with sand.

Dubai is never routine, but by now I have established one - a strategy that seems remarkably resilient despite the ever-changing shape of the city. Who needs an airline arrivals lounge when, within 10 minutes of stepping out of the airport, you can be undergoing the closest of shaves in a barbers on Al Mussalla Road? Eating three good meals a day is generally a good idea, but in Dubai I try to squeeze in a couple more. On the north side of Baniyas Square, I always call in at Raoff, probably the finest kebab shop on the planet. A short stopover could happily be spent locked inside almost any of Dubai's Asian restaurants, tasting endless delicious dahl and spiced lamb and chapatis. To do so, though, would be to miss out on so much.

"There is a bus system of sorts which is used almost exclusively by low-paid workers and is not recommended," one 1980s' guidebook insisted. If it was wrong then, it is even more wrong now. Dubai's excellent public transport system is fast, efficient and ridiculously cheap, and offers access deep into the hinterland.

The first time I ventured into the desert, it looked as though the sun had melted the earth into a grotesque and beautiful crumple. Just when I was thinking "all this needs to complete my mental image is a camel or two", a hump heaved into view, then another and another. The sight of these creatures galloping gracefully across the sands was a most magical confirmation of the desert stereotype. Gradually the dunes gave way to bare, lunar hills resembling Tolkein's Misty Mountains - except that the haze here was generated by heat. About an hour after leaving the bus station, we juddered to a halt at the village of Hatta.

Much of the emirate's history resides among these low, plain dwellings, each enlivened by a gate or doorway of exquisite intricacy. On the edge of the village, merging into the mountainside, stands the Hatta Fort hotel - as close to a desert mirage as you could wish for. I judged by the helipad around the back that few guests arrive by bus. Nevertheless, it was generous of the head porter to fib: "Nice to see you back, sir."

On the way back from Hatta, the bus paused for a refreshment stop at one of the implausible settlements that rise randomly from the sands like 21st-century oases. This one sold coffee - but not to me. My fellow passengers insisted on paying.

From the real desert to an imitation desert fort, Naif Souk - which also happens to be one of the less touristy and more enjoyable markets in the emirate. Whatever your retail desire, if you can't find it here, as the saying goes, you're probably better off without it. A real fort, on the other hand, houses the Dubai Museum, containing relics from some of the earliest inhabitants of the region, while a new section - hidden underground - deals with more recent history.

In the past decade, Dubai has rediscovered its waterfront. When I first came here, the number of tourist attractions was minimal. But the west bank of the Creek has become the cultural hub of the city. The Heritage and Diving Village is little more than a sham-Bedouin retail offering, but almost adjacent is the Shaikh Saeed al-Maktoum house, a beautiful late 19th-century structure with elegant wind towers that served as air-conditioning. Among the memorabilia you see as you wander around the mansion is the initial 1938 British request for seaplane landing rights in Dubai Creek.

Today, a dozen flights from Britain touch down each day at the international airport, itself a startling piece of architecture. The airport contains an alluring collection of shops; the average passenger at Dubai spends £20 in the airport duty-free shops. A lot of people see Dubai as a place to change aircraft and flex the credit card, but to be so close to such a multicultural, multifaceted destination and not to visit it seems a waste.

A shop window advertising its multifarious self as "The General Fix-It Contracting Co" sums up what Dubai is for me: a can-do destination, where most things are possible, yet somewhere that still maintains its human face.

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