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Traveller's Guide: Dubai

With desert, beaches and audacious architecture, the emirate has plenty to entice visitors.

Blissfully balmy by day, cool and breezy in the evenings – the weather is what brings most visitors to Dubai at the start of the year. Temperatures in the emirate drop considerably from a peak of about 45C in July, and the humidity dissipates. Now the days are warm enough to work on your tan or take a dip in the Arabian Sea, while the nights are decidedly cooler, averaging about 15C.

For locals, life moves back out of air-conditioned rooms and into the outdoors. This is also the time when myths are discredited. People do walk in Dubai and it does have a cultural agenda: a highlight this spring is the contemporary Art Dubai event (artdubai.ae) from 21-24 March. Right now, the hot ticket is the Dubai Shopping Festival (dubaievents.ae), which runs until 5 February and offers retail discounts, competitions and entertainment.

Dubai is one of seven emirates – the others being Abu Dhabi, Ajman, Fujairah, Ras al Khaimah, Sharjah, and Umm al Quwain – that form the United Arab Emirates. Last month, the UAE celebrated 40 years of independence from Britain. The celebrations' theme is "Spirit of the Union" – and one of the events still running is a market of local crafts at the Global Village (until 12 March; globalvillage.ae).

Another winter highlight is the racing season (dubairacingclub. com), which culminates in the Dubai World Cup Carnival on 31 March. Sought-after tickets can be bought online from 350 dirhams (£60), written AED. Be sure to book in advance.

Winter is also when emiratis participate in traditional events, including weekend evening gatherings at the heritage villages to recite poetry or dance the Liwa and Ayyalah – popular Khaleeji folk dances from the Arabian peninsula. There's also the chance to see rifle-throwing competitions and to witness elaborate re-enactments of traditional Bedouin weddings.

A good place to start is at Dubai's Heritage and Diving Village (00 971 4 393 7151) on the waterfront at Al Shindagha, which is the oldest part of Dubai and lies at the mouth of Dubai Creek. Here a simple fishing and pearling village of barasti (palm-frond) huts has sprawled along the waterfront for hundreds of years.

For visitors, golf is another big lure, and there are several courses where you can take a swing (see golfindubai.org). Alternatively, you can watch some of the biggest names in world golf tee off in professional tournaments such as the Dubai Desert Classic (dubai desertclassic.com) at the Emirates Golf Club from 6-12 February.

Dubai airport (dubaiairport.com) has an astonishing 13 non-stop flights a day from Heathrow, with British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com), Royal Brunei (020-7584 6660; bruneiair. com), Virgin Atlantic (0844 874 7747; virgin-atlantic.com) and Emirates (0844 800 2777; emirates.com).

Emirates also flies daily from Gatwick, Birmingham, Manchester, Newcastle and Glasgow.

Etihad Airways (020-8759 2111; etihadairways.com) flies from Heathrow and Manchester to Abu Dhabi, with free coach connections to Dubai, a 60- to 75-minute drive.

Many other airlines, including Air France, Turkish Airlines and Qatar Airways, fly from a range of UK cities via their hubs to Dubai.

Up the Creek

From the Shindagha neighbourhood, it's a short walk along Dubai Creek, pictured, and under the wooden arcades of Bur Dubai's textile souk to the Dubai Museum (Bur Dubai; 00 971 4 353 1862; dubaitourism.ae; admission AED3/50p) in the city's oldest building, the majestic Al Fahidi Fort that dates back to 1787. Allow yourself about an hour to browse the kitsch dioramas and interactive displays.

Around the corner is the labyrinthine Bastakiya quarter where you'll find a number of splendid old wind-tower residences, with intricate architectural details.

The alleys here are dotted with art galleries and cafés such as the delightful Basta Art Café (Al-Fahidi Street; 00 971 4 353 5071) in the leafy courtyard of a traditional wind-tower residence. Order a Basta Special (mint and lime juice). The café also serves great breakfasts, fresh salads and sandwiches.

From the dock near the textile souk, take an abra (a traditional open-sided public water taxi; AED1/20p) across Dubai Creek and amble through the Spice Souk and the ramshackle Covered Souk to the Gold Souk for dazzling displays of jewellery.

Hot hotels

The Bastakiya quarter, beside Dubai Creek, offers accommodation in two renovated old merchants' residences. Both have traditional wind-towers: colossal chimney-like structures with four channels to funnel cool air into buildings, thought to be an early form of air-conditioning.

Arty types will favour the minimalist rooms at XVA (00 971 4 353 5383; xvahotel.com), pictured, which is also home to one of the city's finest contemporary art galleries and a courtyard café. Doubles start at AED650 (£114), including breakfast.

Nearby, the laid-back vibe and Arabian décor of Orient Guest House (00 971 4 351 9111; orient guesthouse.com) suit independent travellers. Doubles with breakfast start at AED1,000 (£176) .

The four-star Al Manzil Hotel (00 971 4 428 5888; southernsun.com) is convenient for shopping because it's only a short stroll to Dubai Mall. It's designed in the contemporary Arabian style so ubiquitous in Dubai. It also boasts some of the city's best-value accommodation. Stylish, spacious rooms – some of which have spectacular views of the world's tallest building, Burj Khalifa – start at AED455 (£80), room only.

You might not have vistas of the 825m tower from the sophisticated Armani Hotel (00 971 4 888 3777; dubai.armanihotels.com) located on 10 floors of the Burj Khalifa, but you can book a room with a view of the world's tallest performing fountain. Design-led doubles start at AED3,240 (£571), room only.

If you're there for the sunshine, try the opulent Andalucian-inspired One&Only The Palm(00 971 4 440 1010; thepalm.oneandonlyresorts. com), located at the tip of "the crescent" that encircles The Palm, Dubai's extraordinary man-made island. There's a vast pool, landscaped gardens, a beach, cabanas and plenty of watery activities. Doubles from AED1,800 (£321), room only.

Le Royal Méridien Beach Resort & Spa (00 971 4 399 5555; leroyalmeridien-dubai.com) is a family favourite with three pools, long stretches of sand, watersports, and the Penguin Club for children. Doubles start at AED1,100 (£194), room only.

Sand, sea and snow

Dubai's four- and five-star resorts have splendid swimming pools in which to cool off. But for those who prefer to soak up local atmosphere, the emirate has superb stretches of sand to spread out your towel. One of the best is the busy Open Beach, off Jumeirah Road near Jumeirah Mosque. It is also known as Russian Beach because of its popularity with Russian tourists.

Umm Suqeim is a good spot to watch the sunset behind the sail-shaped Burj Al Arab hotel.

For waves or adrenalin-pumping rides, visit a water park, such as Arabian-themed Wild Wadi (bit.ly/WildWadi; admission from AED205/£37).

Alternatively, Atlantis (atlantisthepalm.com) has a sprawling Aquaventure (from AED200/£36), as well as a gigantic aquarium.

Not a fan of sunburn? Then admire the white-sand beaches and aquamarine sea from above on a scenic flight in a seaplane with Seawings (seawings.ae; from AED1,325/£237 per person for 40 minutes) or take a helicopter tour with Heli Dubai (helidubai.com; from AED765/£137 for a 15-minute "Fun Ride").

You could also take in the jaw-dropping views of Dubai from the observation deck of the world's tallest building, the 825m-high Burj Khalifa (burjkhalifa.ae; admission costs from AED100/£18).

And, if you're missing the cold, there's the option of hitting the white slopes of the indoor snow park, Ski Dubai (skidubai.ae; admission from AED100/£18; but it's extra to hire gear or have lessons). That will soon have you hankering for the sunshine again.

Dubai dinners

For some of the finest Arabic food in the city – plus a live band and bellydancing – head to Awtar at the Grand Hyatt, Dubai Creek (00 971 04 317 1234; dubai.grand.hyatt.com). Order mezze, fatoush salad and a mixed grill. Dishes start at only AED30 (£5). Tagine at the One&Only Royal Mirage (00 971 4 399 9999; oneandonlyresorts.com), pictured, is set in an atmospheric space decorated like a Moroccan palace. Delicious local cuisine is served against a backdrop of live music and waiters who join in with the band from time to time.

If you need to refuel on a shopping trip, Dubai's retail centres have excellent food courts, cafés and casual eateries. Try delicious Maghrebi food at Almaz by Momo (00 971 4 409 8877; momoresto.com) at Mall of the Emirates (malloftheemirates.com).

Bear in mind that alcohol is not served in malls or eateries on the streets. If you're after a cold beer you'll need to stick to the hotel restaurants, swim-up bars or your hotel sunlounger. Alcohol is also forbidden in public places, such as parks.

For a perfect sundowner, pull up a chair on the veranda of the colonial-style Bahri Bar for a glass of chilled wine or icy beer with sea views at Mina A'Salam Hotel (00 971 4 366 8888; jumeirah.com).

Time for sands

Dotted with long-lashed camels grazing on tufts of grass amid taupe-coloured dunes, the desert of Dubai is sublime. You'll need a 4x4 and experience of driving in sand if you plan to explore it yourself. Otherwise, there are several ways to experience it.

The most popular is a "desert safari", pictured, with a tour specialist such as Arabian Adventures (00 971 4 303 4888; arabian-adventures.com). A typical trip begins with a rollercoaster ride of a drive over the dunes, known as "dune-bashing". It's not for the faint of heart or the weak of stomach, but many find speeding across crests of lofty dunes exhilarating.

Once you're installed at a Bedouin camp, there's usually a falconry display, sand-boarding and the chance for a sunset camel ride. Tours start at AED350 (£63) per person. Most leave about 3pm and return about 10pm.

A stay at one of Dubai's chic desert retreats offers similar opportunities in luxurious surroundings. With a lots of activities, plus spa treatments, Bab Al Shams (00 971 4 381 3231; www.meydanhotels. com/babalshams) is a delight. Doubles start at AED1,275 (£225), room only. Located in the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve, the Al Maha resort (00 971 4 832 9900; al-maha.com) offers drives to see the endangered scimitar-horned oryx. Accommodation is in sumptuous tents with private plunge pools that cost from AED6,120 (£,1078) for two, B&B.

A head for heights

When Dubai's residents crave fresh air and clear skies, they escape for a weekend to the Hajar Mountains at Hatta, an enclave of the UAE that requires a brief drive through Oman (no border formalities). The journey there is as interesting as the destination, with plenty of photo opportunities, from camels roaming the dunes, to palm-shaded oases set against scorched mountains. You can also get there by public bus No 8 for a modest fare of AED7 (£1.50).

The main attraction of diminutive Hatta is its moderate climate, striking mountain scenery, rockpools and waterfalls (only after rain).

There's also a fantastic Heritage Village (00 971 4 852 1374; signposted 3km from Fort Roundabout) that features restored buildings, some dating from the 16th century. There's a fort, watchtowers, mosque, courtyard residence, village houses and, at weekends, traditional dance performances.

Other activities include desert safaris, hiking, picnics, and birdwatching, all of which can be arranged through the only accommodation in the area, the Hatta Fort Hotel, pictured (00 971 4 852 3211; jebelali-international.com). The hotel itself has a golf course, swimming pools, tennis courts and several restaurants. Doubles start at AED450 (£80), including breakfast.

Alternatively, from Dubai you can follow an off-road Grand Canyons tour with Arabian Adventures (00 971 4 303 4888; arabian-adventures.com) which takes in the valley and canyons of the Hajjar Mountains. Full day tours start at AED360 (£64) per person.