Dubai at dawn

Shopping, sure, but culture? Can this Gulf state offer anything other than golf courses and gold souks? Wake up to a different view

It is early in the morning. I look out of the window and see below me the clear, calm turquoise waters of the Gulf. Above me, the sky is already pale blue. Between the turquoise and the pale blue, a haze of mother of pearl wreaths the city that stretches out from the shore in the pale, silky colours of an expensive negligee. The spires and towers of Dubai's astonishing architecture stretch up out of the mist like some fantastic palace from the Arabian Nights. Even what I later discover is an industrial installation looks like a fairytale fortress in this light. It's difficult to believe that it won't melt away, like a mirage, or a vision.

It is early in the morning. I look out of the window and see below me the clear, calm turquoise waters of the Gulf. Above me, the sky is already pale blue. Between the turquoise and the pale blue, a haze of mother of pearl wreaths the city that stretches out from the shore in the pale, silky colours of an expensive negligee. The spires and towers of Dubai's astonishing architecture stretch up out of the mist like some fantastic palace from the Arabian Nights. Even what I later discover is an industrial installation looks like a fairytale fortress in this light. It's difficult to believe that it won't melt away, like a mirage, or a vision.

Vision. It's a key word here. Modern Dubai exists, you will be told, thanks to the vision of Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum, the father of the present ruler, Sheikh Maktoum. His farsightedness created a Gulf state that is no longer dependent on the profits from oil but is a world centre of business and trade. Dubai's visions come on a grand scale and they take physical shape with remarkable speed. You want two man-made islands shaped like palm trees, each with 40 miles of coastline, housing 40 hotels, 2,000 luxury villas, etc, etc, etc? Construction begins next year. You want to turn a shopping mall into an entire city, complete with parks, children's playgrounds, hotels and apartments? Consider it done.

My vantage point for this dawn view of the city is a 361 metre (1,184 feet) high hotel, shaped like a boat and looking like a spinnaker. It rises from the sea on a man-made island, while a second hotel, shaped like a cresting silver breaker, lies like a bow wave beneath it. This is the seven-star Burj Al Arab. Completed only three years ago, it is already an icon. It deserves iconic status, I think. It's a beautiful building, almost organic in feel once you are inside, with its layers of floors rising up, tier upon tier, like the interior of a beehive or a strange seed pod. At the top is what looks from a distance like a glass envelope, the Al Muntaha restaurant, with its stunning views across the Gulf, while below the hotel, accessed by a "submarine ride" lift, is the Al Mahara seafood restaurant, whose walls encase vast aquaria.

To say that the interior of the Burj is lavishly exotic is like saying that Coco Chanel designed the odd suit. It is quite startlingly luxurious. There are no rooms, only suites, of which mine was a very lowly variety. It was about as big as my Edwardian terraced house (just a one-bedroom suite, you understand). The bathroom toiletries are Hermès and you get given bottles and bottles of the stuff. (You can tell who's been staying at the Burj: they trail around in a cloud of 24 Faubourg.)

Everything is done by remote control, including summoning the butler. Ours was called Francis, and he carefully explained how to use the interactive controls to open and close the curtains and so on. Of course, I forgot all this the minute he left the room and spent about half an hour trying to open the living-room curtains. Eventually, I retired upstairs to bed to find that I'd opened the bedroom curtains instead. The bedroom was so far away (up an impressive curved marble staircase, past a gigantic chandelier) that I couldn't hear the hum of the mechanism.

The Burj was a fabulous experience. I'm ashamed to say that I felt a tiny twinge of guilty relief when I transferred to the Jumeirah Beach Hotel. This is the one that looks like a cresting silver wave and it's a very jolly place, full of very jolly families doing very jolly beach holiday things. The beach waiters even offer toclean your sunglasses for you and there is not a lager lout within 1,000 miles. (As for the curtains, they are operated by the usual pulley mechanism.) Bliss.

It is early in the morning. The sun is rising vast and red through the murk of an incipient sandstorm. I'm on my way to the Oasis stables, near the Nad Al Sheba racecourse. Suddenly, on the outskirts of this City of Gold, I see the ancient currency of Arabia making its majestic way across the sands. Camels. Scores of them, some ridden by tiny boys, are heading for the camel racetrack, a circuit so vast I cannot see the other side or even each end. (When the race is in progress, the spectators have to follow it in a flotilla of four-wheel-drives.) We halt as the camel caravans cross the road ahead with that distinctive swaying camel gait.

But if these are the sultans of swing, the thoroughbreds at Oasis are the sheikhs of the sport of kings, aristocrats whose bloodlines are as ancient as their owners'. The Oasis stables are part of the Godolphin racing empire, owned by the Maktoum brothers, Sheikh Rashid's sons. Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al-Maktoum is the prime mover in the enterprise, making history in the Nineties by overwintering his British-bred horses in Dubai and winning a string of classic victories.

We are shown around the stables by trainer Nick Robb. Nick is a world expert on racehorses, but if he ever decided on an alternative career, he would make a good living as a tour guide. He's a natural. His audience is rapt as he outlines the science that goes into making a horse run from A to B in the fastest possible time. At the end of the stables tour, we are taken to the racetrack to see the grandstand and tour the jockeys' quarters and the stewards' room. This is where the Dubai World Cup, the world's richest horse race, will be run on 23 March. Entry to race meetings is free, and there's no gambling. But who needs a bet when you can watch the result of centuries of Arab equine expertise come thundering down the track?

It is early in the morning. A falcon hangs in the sky high above the desert before stooping in a heart-stopping dive for its reward. Here and there, Arabian oryx nibble the shrubby plants that form defiant grey mats in the sand. I bend down and rub the leaves between my fingers. To my English gardening hands they feel bereft of any moisture or goodness. But Mitch, our South African field guide, assures me that the oryx thrive on their diet and points to where tiny yellow flowers have bloomed, a response to a short-lived shower the night before.

Falconry is an Arab tradition: the birds are pictured on the Dubai currency, the dirham. In his book Arabian Sands, about Oman and the Empty Quarter, the explorer Wilfred Thesiger describes hunting bustard with peregrine falcons on camelback, accompanied by a pack of salukis. He tells how an Arab falconer could have a bird ready to hunt in a fortnight to three weeks. At the Al Maha, they have both peregrine and saker falcons and the birds are fed on quail bought from the supermarket. "The guests don't really want to see things being killed," Mitch says drily.

Al Maha means "oryx" and the resort is another vision made reality. Set in 10 square miles of desert nature reserve, it is designed to resemble a Bedouin encampment. Even the oryx have appeared as if by the wave of a wand: reintroduced after being hunted to extinction. (Thesiger doesn't like the term Bedouin; he says it's a double plural and the correct term is Bedu. He and his "Bedu", of course, accounted for quite a few oryx.) The general manager, Tony Williams, is a South African ecologist who believes, refreshingly, that the secret of running a successful hotel is good manners. "You should treat people as if they were a guest in your house," he says. Each guest chalet is arranged to give maximum privacy, with its own deck and plunge pool. The interiors are luxurious, but they are as understated as the Burj Al Arab is spectacular. There's no Harrods-on-ecstasy glitz here, but a wooden easel in the corner, complete with paper and pastels.

It would be wrong to imply that you don't receive a warm welcome elsewhere in Dubai. At all the hotels, regardless of their architectural idiosyncrasies, there is smiling courtesy. Even in the Emirates Towers Hotel, a tall, sharp pencil of a building that seems to encapsulate in glass and steel Dubai's go-getting, onward-thrusting character, the service is unfailingly friendly.

However ­ and I'm sorry to labour the Arabian Nights analogy ­ there is something magical about the Al Maha. It has something to do with the pace of life, the change of focus. Apparently, many people come here for only one or two nights. I was told, before I came, that I wouldn't want to spend more than a night as "there is nothing to do". I easily could have spent a week at Al Maha. Hell, I could have spent a year.

Before dinner, I sat on the terrace and watched dusk fall over the desert. The dry fragrance of frankincense, from an incense burner nearby, lingered on the warm, still night air. If only Hermès could capture that and put it in a bottle.

The Facts

Getting there

Victoria Summerley flew to Dubai with Emirates (0870 243 2222; www.emirates.com), which operates six flights daily from the UK, one each from Manchester, Birmingham, and Gatwick, plus three daily flights from Heathrow. From 1 August, a second Gatwick service will be available on Tuesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and Sundays and this will become a daily service from 1 September. Economy return fares cost from £492 plus taxes for all UK departures (subject to availability) and valid for travel up until 15 July.

Being there

Victoria's accommodation in Dubai was organised through Seasons in Style (0151-342 0505; www.seasonsinstyle.co.uk). Two nights at the Burj Al Arab in a deluxe suite, two nights at the Jumeirah Beach Hotel in a deluxe room, and three nights at the Emirates Towers in a deluxe room, all on a bed and breakfast basis, cost from £1,780 per person, based on two sharing.

Seasons in Style can also organise holidays at the Al Maha Desert Resort ( www.al-maha.com), where seven nights cost from £2,340 per person, based on two sharing, including return flights, private transfers, full-board accommodation in a Bedouin suite, and two on-site activities a day.

Further information

Arabian Adventures (00 971 4303 4888; www.arabian-adventures.com) is the only company offering a stables tour in Dubai. Called Breakfast with Champions, the tour costs 175 dirhams (£35) per person and includes a full buffet-style English breakfast at the Nad Al Sheba Club.

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