From its glamorous nightlife to its ambitious architecture, Dubai lives for attention. Duncan Forgan recounts the first of many visits to the emirate
“You have to see it to believe it,” was the mantra of my Dubai-based friend when I told her that I was due to visit the city for the first time. I was somewhat skeptical. The Middle East’s most fantastical destination may not be the magnet for American visitors in quite the same way it is for sun-starved Brits or other Europeans, but it’s not exactly a well-kept secret in this part of the world either.
The emirate’s ruling Al Maktoum family have moved heaven and earth — not to mention a ton of sand from the floor of the Arabian Gulf — to turn their chunk of land (the second largest of the seven constituent parts of the United Arab Emirates) into the region’s premier tourist destination. From its origins as a slightly dowdy port on the Gulf, Dubai is now a place synonymous with glamour, excess and the ultimate in luxury living. It’s a city of megalithic shopping malls, towering chrome and glass skyscrapers, and land reclamation projects that stretch the credulity of Mother Nature to its very limit.
This I already knew, however, so I’m a little surprised to find myself gawping in fascination at the sprawling scene unfolding outside my window as my long flight makes its final descent into Dubai Airport.
First a distant glow illuminates the inky emptiness of the desert night. As we draw closer, the plane banks over the Palm Jumeirah — the huge palm-shaped archipelago that remains the showpiece of Dubai’s land-reclamation efforts — and I catch my first glimpse of the breathtaking cityscape dominated by the Burj Khalifa, at well over 2,700ft the highest man-made structure in the world. It’s a breathtaking sight in the flesh and a glaring indication of the far-reaching ambition that has made Dubai such a unique place to visit and experience.
Dubai might well wear its flashiness on its sleeve, but I soon realize it’s a far more rounded destination than many give it credit for. A case in point is my hotel, the Park Hyatt. Many of the newer five-star hotels are located to the south of the city past the famous Jumeirah Beach down towards Dubai Marina.
The Park Hyatt, however, is located right by Dubai Creek, the saltwater inlet by which members of the Bani Yas tribe first settled in the 19th century, establishing the Al Maktoum dynasty in the city. And the low rise, Moroccan-inspired hotel makes a refined and central base from which to strike out.
Down by the Creek
The following day, I continue to delve into Dubai’s subtleties by exploring the older areas by the Creek. I stroll along the southern bank through Al Bastakiya, a lovingly restored labyrinth of narrow lanes and traditional residential homes with wind towers.
The quarter was the home of the emirate’s moneyed class in the days before oil was struck and its period architecture and charming courtyard cafes offer a heady scent of Old Arabia.
From there I pass through the Bur Dubai textile souk and past historical buildings such as Al Fahidi Fort, a watchtower dating back to 1799, and the official residence of Sheikh Saeed Al Maktoum, the grandfather of the current leader. After a delicious creekside lunch of Lebanese meze, I squeeze on to a wooden abra (water taxi) alongside a group of migrant workers from the subcontinent, for the darting two-minute journey to Deira.
The most traditional part of Dubai, Deira is home to several bustling souks and shopping areas, including Dubai’s gold market. After inhaling the perfume of frankincense, cardamom and cinnamon at the spice souk, I forgo the opportunity for early retail therapy and head to the QD Bar, near my hotel, where I wash my first Arabian sunset down with a mojito.
After exploring the old part of the city, the next day I turn my attention to the attractions most associated with modern Dubai. Chief among these is the Burj Khalifa, the mighty structure that has become one of the most potent symbols of Dubai since its completion in 2010. The project was beset by delays, and the fallout from the global financial crisis hit demand for property within the tower.
Nevertheless, the completed building, designed by American firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, is undoubtedly a triumph and has bagged numerous architectural awards. The highlight of the building for most visitors is its observation deck. Named ‘At The Top’, the deck is located on the 124th floor of the tower. Swaying slightly as I step out of the elevator and on to the ‘roof of Dubai’, I marvel at the amazing view back over the city, out towards the Gulf and inland to the vast expanse of desert that characterizes the hinterland of the emirate.
The outlook over the brilliant blue waters of the Gulf reminds me that I’ve not yet hit the sand, so I catch one of Dubai’s numerous reasonably priced taxis and make my way to Jumeirah Beach Park. With many of the city’s luxury hotels hogging the prime beachfront real estate, Dubai’s beach parks are where the city’s residents go to splash in the bathtub-warm water and top up their tans on the brilliant white sand.
It all gets very crowded on Fridays and Saturdays (what counts as the weekend in the Islamic world), but I visit on a Monday afternoon so have plenty of room to maneuver and enjoy some well-earned downtime.
After sunning myself for a few hours, I make my way further south along the coast to Umm Suqeim to the 360 bar/club. Built on a jettythat juts out into the water, it’s widely regarded as one of the city’s prime spots for watching the sunset. As I take my seat on the top deck of the bar, a DJ starts to play some mellow Ibiza-style beats. Out on the water, a sleek yacht sails imperiously towards the sinking sun, while the sail-shaped Burj Al Arab hotel — another of the city’s architectural wonders — provides further visual stimulus nearby. Whether it’s from the air or from the ground, seeing is believing when it comes to Dubai.
WHERE TO STAY
When it comes to bedding down for the night, Dubai has all bases covered. From slick design hotels in the Burj Khalifa to the plethora of five-star options hugging the shores of the Gulf, the city has accommodation to suit every taste and virtually every budget.
Park Hyatt Dubai: This top-notch option isn’t by the beach, but it compensates for this lack in every other way. On the banks of the Creek with an award-winning golf course, the setting is truly oasis-like. Rooms are well-appointed, the service exemplary and the food at the restaurants up there with the best in town, particularly the French brasserie Traiteur. T: +971 4 602 1234. www.dubai.park.hyatt.com
Jumeirah Zabeel Saray Hotel: Dubai doesn’t lack luxury hotels, but there’s always another one about to open. This latest beachside addition to the Jumeirah stable is as desirable as you might imagine. On the west crescent of the iconic Palm Jumeirah, the hotel has been inspired by Ottoman palaces and features a range of Turkish artwork and murals. T: +971 4 364 7555. www.jumeirah.com
Hilton Dubai Creek: Once upon a time, this would have been considered at the higher end of Dubai’s hotel firmament. That’s not the case any more, but time hasn’t dulled its commitment to service and value. Located on the Deira side of the Creek, the hotel is ideally situated for business travelers, but has enough trimmings to satisfy tourists as well. T: +971 4 227 1111. www.hilton.com
PUBLISHED IN THE FALL 2012 ISSUE OF ASTAnetwork