Dubai: A thrill-seeker's paradise

There's more to Dubai than marble malls and plush hotels. Matt Farquharson enjoys the best action and adventure that the emirate has to offer

As each new development rises from the sands, Dubai is garnering a reputation as a holiday spot that mixes extravagance with affordable luxury, helping it to develop as an upmarket package destination. For most it is the sunshine, shopping and feasting that are the attraction, but a stay here doesn't have to leave you plump and pink. Dubai can be a thrill-seeker's paradise. And while hotels and tour operators are happy to accommodate such fancies, there are still plenty of options out there for intrepid excursions away from the tour group.

KITESURFING

This is one for those in search of an adrenalin rush. The kites used bear little resemblance to those gently skimming the trees at your local park. They are up to 80ft across, drag you across the surf at 60mph and can haul you to the heavens if you catch the right gust.

Dubai's coastline offers excellent conditions, with long, flat beaches and calm waters. On any given day, local enthusiasts can be seen getting dragged around a stretch of Jumeirah known locally as kitesurfers' beach. Best attempted under expert supervision, handling the kites takes balance and upper-body strength, and catching the wrong cross wind can dump you on the sand from 20ft in the air. Dubai Kite Club ( www.dubaikiteclub.com) lists qualified local instructors, who charge around £30 per hour with kit hire included. The Kitepeople store (00 971 5045 59098; www.kitepeople.net) sells and hires gear for those plucky souls that get proficient enough to dispense with their tutor: for most, this takes five to six hours of lessons.

WADI-BASHING

This may sound like a hate crime but it actually involves bouncing a four-wheel-drive (4WD) through dried up creeks. Several operators run safaris to Wadi Hatta or the Hajar Mountains: Airline Network holidays (0870 043 6531; www.airlinenetwork.co.uk) offers a range of excursions and tours with Arabian Adventures; Desert Adventures ( www.desertadventures.com) and Alpha Tours ( www.alphatoursdubai.com) also tailor trips according to your needs.

The region also offers chances for exploring independently and camping under desert stars. For those willing to make the four-hour journey, Muscat offers spectacular scenery. Jebel Shams lays claim to the title "Grand Canyon of the Middle East", climbing up to nearly a mile-and-a-half above sea level. The eastern emirates have plenty to offer too. Ras Al Kaimah to Dibba is a classic route, climbing from sea level to over 6,000ft and back again. It's always advisable to take a second car and tow rope in case one gets stuck. Most major car-hire firms are represented at Dubai airport, though 4WDs need to be booked in advance. Budget (00 971 4224 5192; www.budget.co.uk) quotes £305 for one week with a Nissan Pathfinder; Easyautos ( www.easyautos.co.uk) quotes £380 for the same with a Rav 4.

RIDING THE DUNES

The mountains and wadis are further afield, but Dubai's sand playground begins at the city's outer limits. The technique required for sandboarding is much the same as the snow-based variety; just keep your mouth closed when you take a tumble. It's typically included in packages with dune-bashing (a careering drive across 30ft dunes, camel riding and an evening meal with "entertainment" (usually belly dancing) in a desert camp. Operators such as Airline Network Orient Tours ( www.orient-tours-uae.com) and Travco ( www.travcotravel.com) run these adventures. Expect to pay around £40 per person.

However, being part of a 20-car caravan does diminish the impact of the scenery. For those keen to explore the dunes for themselves, "Big Red" (also know as Al Hamar) is a useful starting point. The site is 25 minutes along the Hatta road, heading south from Dubai. This is also the spot to go quad-biking. The dune tops 300ft and can become dangerously crowded with Emirati riders bent on terrifying charges to the top. A fenced-off area nearby hires vehicles for around £30 per half-hour. For absolute seclusion, though, head to the Empty Quarter on the border with Saudi Arabia. Here, dunes reach 300m and at least two vehicles should be taken.

WATER SPORTS

A series of accidents has led the local authorities to ban jet-skis from emirates waters, but other options remain. Dubai has four main sailing centres: the Dubai Offshore Sailing Club (00 971 4394 1669; www.dosc.ae); the Jebel Ali Sailing Club (00 971 4399 5444; www.jebelalisailingclub.com); the Dubai International Marine Club (00 971 4399 5777; www.dimc-uae.com); and the Dubai Creek Golf and Yacht Club (00 971 4295 6000; www.dubaigolf.com). Boat hire for DIMC is arranged through its hotel, Le Meridien Mina Seyahi (00 971 4399 3333; www.lemeridien.com). A four-hour fishing trip for up to eight people on a 32ft boat costs £265. For more vigorous pursuits, visit the Dubai Water Sports Association (00 971 4324 1031; www.DWSA.net). Here, a 15-minute waterskiing or wakeboarding ride under instruction costs £8.50. The DOSC also provides two-hour sailing lessons in Keelboats for £30 per person.

DIVING

Dubai's diving is often overlooked by visitors, but the limited tidal swells and current make it a good spot for snorkellers and novice divers, and there are some interesting wrecks off the coast.

The Jumeirah Beach Hotel (00 971 4348 0000; www.jumeirahbeachhotel.com) operates a dive centre with prices running from £15 per trip for those with their own equipment, to £280 for a full open water qualification. They also offer "bubble maker" courses for children as young as eight at £40 a pop.

More spectacular sights can be found at Khor Fakkan and Dibba, off the UAE's east coast, where Indian Ocean swells bring a variety of marine life. Turtles are common, reef sharks put in an appearance in the winter, as, occasionally, do nurse, leopard and whale sharks. Less fearsome fish include jacks, snapper, lionfish and batfish, all attracted by the soft coral that has developed on the rocky seabed. Dubai-based Al Boom Diving (00 971 4342 2993; www.alboomdiving.com) runs east coast trips from £65. The Emirates Diving Association (00 971 4393 9390; www.emiratesdiving.com) list all sites and schools in the UAE.

AND COMING SOON...

Never shy in their efforts to defy nature, Dubai Municipality has sanctioned the construction of a £600m snow dome, complete with five runs of varying difficulty, the longest topping 1,000ft. The temperature will be fixed at around freezing by 23 vast air conditioners and £23 will get you a two-hour stint on the mountain and all your kit. Ski Dubai (00 971 4340 3392; www.skidxb.com) will be the third largest indoor skiing arena on earth, and the only one in the Middle East. The 25-storey novelty is due to open for business later this month.

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