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If your winter travel plans include a city break or stopover in Dubai this year, then you're in luck because prolific travel writer Lara Dunston is on hand to share her knowledge of the Gulf city.
Lara and her travel photographer husband Terence Carter are based in Dubai (when they're not on the road) and have authored some 50 guidebooks since they started travelling together in the late 1980s, not to mention hundreds of newspaper stories and magazine features from the 60+ countries they've visited.
Lara is a renowned expert on Dubai, so don't leave home without her insider's guide to the best places to sleep, eat and drink...
The Best of Dubai
After sun, sand and shopping opportunities, resorts, restaurants and bars are what Dubai does best as a holiday destination.
Swanky hotels, glam restaurants and chic drinking spots are in abundance in the Arabian Gulf city, so if you’re going to do Dubai, do it properly – in style. Here are some of my favourites…
Le Royal Méridien Beach Resort And Spa
Probably the wisest choice for water-sport lovers and families, this sprawling resort has myriad types of accommodation to suit everyone from couples to business travellers and big families. It’s the beach, spa and fitness facilities that really impress with four swimming pools, a three-storey spa, a state-of-the-art gym and tennis and squash courts. The beach facilities will satisfy windsurfers, water-skiers, parasailers and sports fishermen as well as those who just want to chill with a good book. Countless dining and drinking options, including 14 restaurants and bars, keep everyone happy.
One&Only Royal Mirage
Still the most romantic of the waterfront resorts that dot Dubai’s Jumeirah coastline, the One&Only Royal Mirage is an Arabian fantasy set on a fabulous beach. The resort has three accommodation sections, The Palace (old Arabia), Arabian Court (more contemporary) and The Residence and Spa (more exclusive with its own private restaurants). In all sections the room are opulent, with Oriental touches and plush furnishings, and balconies with views over the lush landscaped grounds. Add to that fantastic restaurants and bars, and service that’s discrete but attentive.
A sophisticated alternative to the beach resorts (although you do have access to the Le Royal Meridien’s sprawling sands), this is a sumptuous big city hotel, with colossal public spaces and a dazzling array of fine dining eateries and modish bars – some amongst the best in the city. The rooms are chic, the marble encased bathrooms have Bulgari bathroom products, and the welcoming service is some of the most professional in the city. The hotel is well positioned for shopping and other activities in ‘new’ Dubai.
In an architectural style that’s now ubiquitous in Dubai, the ‘port of peace’ is inspired by the towering old Arabian cities located somewhere between Jeddah and Yemen. However, this is modern day Dubai, which means it’s contemporary and comfortable, with the wow factor in the form of the waterways that snake around the property. Small abras (traditional wooden boats) transport you to other parts of the resort and the adjoining entertainment cum shopping complex, Madinat Jumeirah, which is home to fantastic shops, superb restaurants and buzzy bars – all of which make it difficult to leave to do some sightseeing.
Reflets par Pierre Gagnaire
With Gordon Ramsay’s Dubai restaurant closed, there is now no doubt that Reflets par Pierre Gagnaire is the best restaurant in the city. The enigmatic French chef, considered one of France’s finest, visits often from Paris and has a great Dubai team. The cuisine here is a little more approachable than his Michelin three-star restaurant in Paris. This translates to modern French cuisine at its best – cooking with wonderful technique and fine ingredients but without the wild flavour experiments of his eponymous restaurant. The prices here make dining in the evening a special occasion meal, however, the lunchtime menu is a relative bargain, if lacking the sexiness of the room at night.
Ever since its opening, Zuma has had more buzz than most Dubai restaurants combined. Located in the Dubai International Financial Centre, it serves the suits during the day and everyone from local Emirati couples to glammed up expats at night. The style is Izakaya – a Japanese bar serving food – that encompasses everything from sushi to miso-marinated fois gras. While the service can be a little frantic at times, the food is worth the wait. The busy upstairs bar is the place to be on a Thursday after work and serves killer cocktails too.
If Dubai is your first taste of the Middle East, you must eat out at a Moroccan and Lebanese restaurant (see below), which offer more authentic versions of those cuisines than you’re likely to find back home – unless you live in Morocco or Lebanon of course. In a room that wouldn’t be out of place in a Marrakech riad, Tagine serves up a classic Moroccan menu accompanied by live Moroccan musicians. Try the tasty pigeon pastilla (pie) and the hearty classic lamb and prune tagine(a stew). Don’t skip the mint tea and Moroccan pastries – and have your camera ready.
While there is plenty of fantastic Lebanese food in Dubai (Al Nafoorah in Emirates Towers, for example), a true Lebanese-style night out is what you’ll experience at Awtar. From the mezze(a series of small hot and cold starters including dips) and salads such as fatoush to a mixed grill of meats and whole cooked fish, this is great food meant to be shared. Slowly. An Arabic band, belly dancer, and sheesha round the night out.
Dubai has plenty of great bars with giddy views, but Neos is the current favourite. While exuberant Art Deco touches abound, it’s really what’s outside the glass that holds your attention. A mighty 63 floors up, the cityscape twinkling before you is even more staggering when you consider that 30 years ago you’d be looking out at, well, blackness. The prices are just as lofty as the views but the martinis are the real deal.
This relaxed colonial-style bar that appears to belong at an African safari camp rather than an Arabian-themed hotel has the most stunning view of the sail-shaped seven-starred Burj Al Arab hotel in Dubai, making it a favourite for a sunset drink on the balcony. Situated in the Mina A'Salam hotel, the view reminds you of Dubai’s Arab heritage with the abras (small boats) going past and Dubai’s ambitions when the Burj Al Arab light show kicks into gear after dark. A bottle of white wine or a few beers on the balcony makes for a verypleasant Dubai experience.
This long-standing beach bar is most definitely the expat favourite – particularly on weekend afternoons when the crowds swell as the sun provides another spectacular sunset. This can make service slow in peak times, however, it can be a lot more relaxed early in the week when there are terrific-value happy hour specials. With its casual air and wood decking it can seem like a backyard pool party minus the BBQ, but if you’re hungry you can head upstairs for some fine bar food.
Dubai loves a glamorous bar and this branch of the venerable Paris institution lives up to the hype. While Zuma (above) or Okku at the Monarch Dubai Hotel are better for dinner and cocktails, the drinks and the soundtrack make this worth the visit. There is something about the low-lit vibe, strong cocktails, and the huge Buddhist monk statue that either demonstrates the easy-going nature of Dubai or highlights its contradictions.
Read more about Dubai and dozens of other exciting destinations on Lara's popular travel blog Grantourismo.
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About the author: MaxineMaxine Sheppard
Maxine is the editor of the Virgin Atlantic blog. Travel and music are her joint first loves, and despite having written for Virgin for more years than she cares to remember she still loves nothing more than jumping on a plane in search of new sights and new sounds.