It’s a favourite stop-over and destination for South Africans seeking the unusual. Dubai is both fantastical and evocative - home to the world’s tallest building, rare wildlife and many more unexpected attractions.
Top of the world
It’s so tall it sways – at 828m high, Burj Khalifa is the world’s tallest building and when you step out onto the world’s highest viewing deck on level 124, you’ll know for sure if heights scare you. Burj Khalifa is so high you look down onto the rooftops of surrounding skyscrapers, yet it takes under a minute to get to level 124. www.atthetop.ae
There’s little true antiquity in Dubai, since just 40 years ago the city was a simple, tented Bedouin encampment along a tiny creek. Now the Creek is longer and wider and lined with traditional souks selling everything from gold and perfume to spices and clothing from around the world.
Dubai doesn’t manufacture anything at all, so the souks offer a truly international shopping experience. Prices are generally negotiable up to 30 percent less, but gold and silver prices are based on weight.
Open-deck water taxis or abras ply the Creek, carrying passengers up and down and across, while merchant boats also enter this waterway bringing the world to Dubai. Abra tickets are very cheap (starting at R2 to cross the Creek) and they run throughout the day. At night, dinner boats on the Creek are popular for traditional Arab cuisine and to see Dubai by night. For an entertaining evening out it’s well worth the R300 per person. www.opdubai.com
The Bastikiya district of restored mud buildings with traditional wind towers gives the best sense of life in old Dubai. At the heart of Bastikiya, the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding is a logical first stop in the city. Here Emirati life can be seen and experienced, and myths dispelled – taste traditional food and step into a mosque, one of two open to non-Muslims in Dubai - www.cultures.ae The other is the elegant Jumeira mosque near the beachfront.
Virtually every attraction in Dubai city is unique and inspiring, because the scale, design or entire concept is just so unlikely and unusual in the middle of the Arabian desert. Consider too that every drop of water in Dubai is desalinated, yet the city is ablaze with gardens.
Ruler Sheikh Mohammed promised to 'write on water' and so The Palm and The World islands were built – to resemble a palm tree and the map of the world from reclaimed land in the sea. The Palm is linked to the mainland by an undersea road, while the pink-arched Atlantis on The Palm crescent is a vast waterpark and hotel with undersea rooms.
The nearby Burj al Arab is the world’s only seven-star hotel, and is built to resemble a dhow. Jumeira Beach Hotel depicts a wave, while the Infinity building at the Marina may twist 360° - like a corkscrew – by completion. Dursit Thani Hotel is a huge blue glass arch and the entire main road of the city – Sheikh Zayed Road - is lined with towers like giant fingers.
Within the city you can also play golf, visit the wildlife sanctuary of Ras Al Khor, enjoy the Wild Wadi water park, and ride rollercoasters too.
However, just a 40-minute, smooth drive from the city is the real Arabia - open expanses of desert, camel farms and camel racing tracks. The ultimate desert experience is at Al Maha in the Dubai Desert Conservation Area. Offering various packages for day or overnight visitors, there’s a spa and various evocative desert activities on offer. Al Maha showcases the best of all things Arabic, including cuisine, the ancient art of falconry and the conservation of the rare Arabian oryx.
Dubai is well loved for its sublime shopping, and vast, themed shopping malls showcase the best offerings from around the globe - and designer shops are everywhere. Literally if you can think it, you can buy it. Dubai Mall, downtown, has over 1200 shops and every designer label imaginable – it even has a speciality cheesecake shop. In Dubai Mall is also the entrance to Burj Khalifa, an Olympic-sized ice rink, and the Dubai Aquarium with 33 000 marine creatures.
The Mall of Emirates, in Al Barsha, also includes Ski Dubai where you can ski inside when it’s 40°C outside. Wafi Mall is Egyptian themed and built to include a massive pyramid, and Ibn Battuta Mall - named for the famous explorer - is entirely clad in tiny mosaic. Most evocative, though, is the Global Village that’s open only during winter from November to end of February. It showcases 42 nations, their authentic merchandise, food and culture. And then there’s the annual Dubai Shopping Festival in February too, when half price sales beckon shoppers.
Don’t go home without
Riding an abra on the Creek, eating a schwarma, getting into the desert and to the top of Burj Khalifa – and tuning in to over 100 different languages from about 200 nationalities living in Dubai.
When to go
The Gulf winter from November to February is the coolest weather, with average daytime temperatures around 25°C. Summer temperatures can soar to 50°C with high humidity.
What to take
Cool cotton clothing that covers the knees and elbows and is not revealing. Modest dress is essential to respect the Muslim culture. Only hands and faces may be exposed when visiting mosques.
Emirates offers the only direct flight to Dubai – thrice daily from Johannesburg and twice daily from Cape Town and Durban. Etihad flies Johannesburg to Abu Dhabi twice daily, and Qatar flies twice daily from Johannesburg via Doha. Airfares range from R6500 to R10 000 depending on season. South Africans require a $70 visa.
Where to stay
The Hyatt Regency (from R1600 per room B&B) is walking distance from the Creek and souks, while Marriott Green Community (from R1300 per room B&B) is on the opposite side of the city and taxis are required to attractions. Golden Sands Hotel Apartments offer self-catering apartments popular with South Africans and are priced from R500 per studio apartment per night for two people.
Where to eat
Al Dawaar revolving restaurant at the top of the Hyatt Regency for 360° views of the new and old city and fine global cuisine. The Global Village (from November to end February) offers authentic cuisine from dozens of countries. For takeaways taste schwarmas and thick mango juice from street cafes.
What it costs
Dubai matches your budget, as the range of accommodation, dining and activities is vast. Coke on the street costs R3 and in a bar up to R30; bottled water is R2-R24; a beer R50-R75 (bar or restaurant only); fast food burger R30 and a schwarma R10-16.
Things to do beyond the city
Visit the other six emirates in the United Arab Emirates, especially Abu Dhabi for the ice-white Grand Mosque, Ferrari and gold-clad Emirates Palace Hotel; Fujeira for its beaches, and Sharjah for the Blue Souk’s carpets.
Big Bus tours for hop on/off sightseeing.