I still remember the moment I first laid eyes on Dubai’s Burj al Arab. I was sitting at the features desk of That’s Life magazine in Sydney, reading about its grand opening.
It was lit up in rainbow colours to celebrate, and I was so captivated I tore the photo out of the newspaper. ‘I’m going to see that place one day,’ I promised myself.
Less than two years later I was in Dubai, standing at the base of the Burj al Arab, taking a photo and pinching myself that I was actually here!
I’d made the decision to move to London soon after welcoming in the new millennium with a blaze of fireworks over Sydney Harbour. I was desperate to travel and, after three years in the same job, my journalism career needed a kick up the backside.
A good friend of mine was working for Emirates Airlines at the time, so I booked a stopover in Dubai. I can still clearly recall stepping out of the airconditioned airport and being slapped in the face by the dry Middle Eastern heat. From the balcony of her vertiginously-high apartment block, the desert city unfolded before me.
I’d travelled to Egypt before, so recognised the same arid landscape, but what set Dubai apart was its juxtaposition of ancient architecture and ultra-modern skyscrapers. It was as if two worlds had collided – the old and the new, the eastern and the western.
It’s exactly this curious blend that makes Dubai such a popular choice for ex-pats and UK travellers, who get the best of both worlds: an exciting new experience and some familiar touches of home.
The United Arab Emirates is a Muslim country so it’s very important to remain respectful of Islamic culture, laws and traditions; however, the city of Dubai has made allowances for its large western population, so is much more relaxed than its Arab neighbours.
Dubai’s biggest attractions are famous the world over, but here are a few local attractions you might not be so familiar with. So here they are, Dubai’s must do’s and hidden gems:
GLOBAL VILLAGE is a brilliantly quirky shopping experience that takes visitors all around the planet in a single day. Open in the colder months of November to April – when temperatures dip down to still-reasonable 19 degrees – the village consists of 30 pavilions, each representing a different country – from Iraq to India, from Thailand to the United States. Inside this kitschy attraction, you’ll find regional food dishes and trinkets for sale (some more authentic than others…).
Global Village is packed full of family-friendly shows and concerts, and you’ll also find thrill rides and arcade games, making it perfect for those days when you just need a break from sun, sea and sand.
The middle of the Arabian Desert is probably the last place you’d expect to find the world’s biggest natural flower garden, yet here the MIRACLE GARDEN stands in all its blossoming beauty.
This curious attraction in the middle of Dubailand consists of 100 million flowers, which are planted and wrapped around a variety of displays, from traditional flower beds and arches to windmills and houses and even the shell of an old Airbus-380. It also has a large Butterfly Garden, decorated with – what else – flowers.
The Miracle Garden is open from mid-November to mid-May and is reinvented every year. This is truly a jaw-dropping sight – not to mention an Instagrammer’s dream come true!
GARDEN GLOW is another delightfully dotty Emirati attraction. It consists of three parts: an ice park filled with 5000 tonnes of professionally carved ice sculptures, a Dinosaur Park with 100 animatronic prehistoric beasts on display, and the Glow Park itself, a surreal playground consisting of 10 million low-energy lights, colours and illuminations. Open during the winter months, it also offers live shows and performances, and is a sure-fire hit with children and adults alike.
If you like immersing yourself in the local culture when you travel, then you’ll love FRYING PAN ADVENTURES. This company takes you off the beaten tourist track and specialises in authentic tours and culinary adventures. Their selection includes a Middle Eastern food pilgrimage, an Emirati cooking lesson, and a tour of Old Dubai escorted by locals who bypass the clichéd tourist traps to show you the real city as they know it.
Step inside THE GREEN PLANET and you’re instantly transported from arid desert to lush rainforest. This manmade biodome faithfully recreates a tropical forest, complete with 3000 plants and wildlife including parrots, sloths, lizards and fish.
Visitor walkways allow you to travel from the shady forest floor, right through the forest and up into the canopy, which towers 45 metres above the ground. This is not just great fun, it’s educational too.
LA MER is a brand new family-friendly complex fringing the stunning Arabian Gulf. Stretching across one-and-a-half miles of prime beachfront, it has more than 130 shops, cafés, restaurants and beach activities. Spend the day exploring the huge range of cuisines – everything from Turkish doner kebabs to American burgers to sushi – then walk off those calories by exploring the myriad stores and boutiques.
There’s a trampoline park to keep kids amused, and an open-air cinema and state-of-the-art waterpark are both opening early 2018. Or, if you just want to chill and take in those white-sand-beach views, rent a cabana and watch the world go by.
If you love exotic wildlife, make sure you leave time for a visit to RAS AL KHOR WILDLIFE SANCTUARY. Situated at the mouth of Dubai Creek, just metres from the bustling city, this nearly four-mile area of wetlands and salt flats is a stopover point for migratory waterbirds navigating the Asian-East African Flyway.
In winter you’ll find flocks of bright pink flamingos making their way to the warmer climes of North Africa, but they only make up a small portion of the 20,000 waterbirds – nearly 70 different species – that make the wetlands their temporary home, including herons, egrets, cormorants and sandpipers.
If you fancy a family-friendly adventure, check out PARC AVENTURA DUBAI. This is an adrenaline-pumping day of tree surfing, zip lining and rope climbing spread across 35,000 square metres of Ghaf forest (an indigenous evergreen tree species). There are 85 exhilarating challenges across five different levels – from 30 centimetres to ten metres high – making it suitable for all ages.
If you prefer to keep your feet on the ground, there’s a cafe where you can relax while the high flyers have their treetop fun.
Truly immerse yourself in Emirati culture, with a visit to the AL MARMOUM CAMEL RACING TRACK. This high-octane centuries-old activity is like no other – 60 gangly camels galloping from the gates, with trainers following behind in 4X4s, encouraging them to go faster! Faster! This is quite a sight to see, and the excitement of the crowd is contagious.
Now you’ve discovered some out-of-the-way Emirati attractions, don’t forget to add these classics to your ‘must-do’ list.
Join a four-wheel-drive SAND SAFARI where you’re propelled across undulating dunes, clinging to the peaks by gravity and the skill of the drivers, before plummeting back down into the gold sand troughs. Afterwards, many tours finish up at a Bedouin campsite, where you’ll enjoy a bumpy camel ride followed by dinner of local dishes, belly dancing and a puff on the hubbly-bubbly (hookah pipe).
Don’t leave Dubai without a visit to the SOUKS: explore the narrow, winding lanes of these traditional Arabic markets, which have barely changed in centuries, and haggle for deals on gold, spices, perfume and silk.
Enjoy a FALCON EXPERIENCE: the Peregrine Falcon was traditionally used by the Bedouin for hunting the Habara, a bird similar to a wild turkey, and for hunting down a wild jack rabbits and hares. This majestic bird of prey is now a national symbol of the United Arab Emirates.
Cool off at the themed WILD WADI waterpark, where you’ll find 30 different rides and attractions, including racing slides, a lazy river, a Flow Rider surf machine and water cannons.
Marvel at the jaw-dropping Emirati architecture. Traditional Arabic buildings stand alongside some of the most awesome modern structures in the world – including the highest building in the world, the Burj Khalifa, the Atlantis Hotel with its famous underwater suites, and the ambitious artificial island, the Palm Jumeirah.
If the heat gets too much, hit the slopes instead. This desert city is also home to SKI DUBAI – 22,500 square metres of real manmade snow, complete with chairlifts, five different ski and snowboard runs and aprés ski cafes.
Step back in time with a visit to the old BASTAKIYA district with its narrow lanes and tall wind-towers – an ancient means of cooling Emiratis houses in the days before electricity. The historic district also has a museum, a cultural centre, restaurants and an art gallery.
Cruise DUBAI CREEK on a motorised wooden boat called an abra. The Creek is a saltwater estuary that once powered Dubai’s two main industries – pearl diving and fishing. Today, its home to the Dubai Museum, and also allows waterfront access to a labyrinth of alleyways and souks. A scenic ride across the water on a traditional abra costs just one Emirati dirham and is a tourist must-do.
Coming soon… the much-anticipated Dubai Safari will replace the recently-closed 50-year-old Jumeirah Zoo. When it opens in December it will cover 119 hectares and will include a kids’ zoo, and themed villages from Africa, Asia and Arabia.
• photos courtesy of Jacqui Paterson and Shutterstock