Following on from last week's guide to sleeping, eating and drinking in Dubai, we're delighted to welcome back Lara Dunston, travel writer and Dubai expert, for a detailed look at all the many ways of getting around and experiencing this Gulf city beyond the fancy hotels and glitzy malls. If you're heading to Dubai for a spot of winter sun this season, you may be surprised at the breadth of opportunities to explore...
Open your eyes...
There are so many different ways of seeing Dubai – far more than the stereotypical ‘sun, sand and shopping’ perspectives from the beach, desert and mall. Here’s a guide to experiencing Dubai from a few different vantage points.
Dubai From the Air
You’ve probably seen Dubai from the sky on the flight in – it’s a spectacular sight. And it could be said that a birds-eye-view of Dubai is the best there is. So take a closer look and book a 40-minute seaplane flight with Seawings, taking in the iconical Dubai landmarks such as the world’s tallest building Burj Khalifa, the sail-shaped Burj Al Arab Hotel and the historic Dubai Creek. Be prepared to burn through plenty of memory cards on your camera.
While a 4WD desert safari tour has long been on the itinerary of most visitors to Dubai and is lots of fun, experiencing the desert in a hot air balloon with Balloon Adventures is a different way of seeing the desert – one that those who have done it describe as sublime. While the 4am start is a little alarming (so to speak), the silence as you drift over the golden desert at dawn is magical. Floating above the gently undulating dunes allows you to fully appreciate the contours of this harsh land. It’s amazing that the local Bedouin can even find their way around it!
If a balloon is too slow and a plane too fast, you might find a helicopter ride over Dubai just the right pace. There are two trips offered by Arabian Adventures leaving from the helipad at Atlantis on The Palm. The shorter journey known as the ‘Fun Ride’ is a 15-minute trip covering The Palm, Burj Khalifa, Burj Al Arab and The World Islands. The longer 25-minute flight adds flying over Dubai Creek, Dubai Marina and ‘New’ Dubai.
Dubai By Water
As a city founded on trade, particularly sea trade, Khor Dubai (Dubai Creek) has always played a major role in the lives of the locals. Start exploring by taking an abra (a small wooden communal water taxi) across the Creek – at one dirham (less than 20p) a ride it’s the cheapest form of entertainment in Dubai.
You can also hire an abra of your own to explore the Creek further or take a cruise on a dhow, a large wooden boat traditionally used to ship goods to and from Iran – which many still do. If you’re not interested in going that far, you can take a Creek cruise on a restored dhow, which generally includes an Arabic buffet, bellydancing, and puff on a fragrant sheesha pipe. For a dinner cruise, the best option is the sleek, modern flat-bottomed boat Bateaux Dubai, which offers the best cuisine.
While everyone thinks of Dubai as offering up little more than beach resorts where you can work on the tan or sip cocktails on a stool at a swimming pool wet bar, there are plenty of public beaches in the city where you can take a dip in the Arabian Sea while soaking up some local atmosphere.
Right next to the Jumeirah Beach Hotel, expat favourite Umm Suqeim is a sandy beach that is great for a swim in the sea. During the cooler months, you might even find some decent waves here being ridden by a dedicated group of local surfers. A guy getting a tube ride with the Burj Al Arab as a backdrop is a photo opportunity worth sticking around for. Further up the stretch of beach towards Dubai Creek is Open Beach, also known as Russian Beach, which is popular with a real mix of locals and expats, while in between Kite Beach is obviously popular with local kite surfers. You can get lessons and equipment through the Dubai Kitefly Club.
Another family beach where you can make a day of it is Al-Mamzar Park. Tucked away towards the neighbouring Emirate of Sharjah, its location away from the buzzy end of town makes it quieter than the beaches of Jumeirah Beach Road. It has a lovely white sand beach, still water making it safe for the kids, and facilities that include a swimming pool, BBQs, kiosks, and chalets. There’s a small entry fee.
If you want to go underwater, Dubai, as well as the neighbouring emirate of Abu Dhabi, and the east coast of the country all have excellent diving. Through Al Boom Diving, you can learn to dive, get your PADI (Professional Association of Scuba Instructors) certificate, and dive in the Dubai Aquarium, as well as the dive centre at the Jebel Ali Dubai Golf Resort and Spa. If you’re a certified diver, there are great trips further afield, in the Mussandam Peninsula in Oman, just a few hours drive from Dubai, or at dive sites accessible from Al Aqah near the town of Fujairah on the east coast.
Back on top of the water, you can also try your hand at deep-sea fishing off Dubai’s coast. Fishing has always been a way of life in Dubai and locals love nothing more than a seafood feast featuring fresh local hamour. From Le Méridien Mina Seyahi Beach Resort & Marina you can try your luck on a charter. They also have sailing classes – another of the traditional sports of Dubai, and you can still see dhow races from late September when the season starts.
Dubai on Land
Feet firmly back on land, one of the best ways to get your bearings in this increasingly beguiling city is to take a double-decker bus around the city with Big Bus Tours. While I don’t recommend these tours in every city (they’re very touristy and the commentaries can be a little naff), in sprawling Dubai the hop-on hop-off facility is fantastic. It will save you money on taxi fares, as well as affording you a free dhow cruise and free entry to Dubai Museum and the splendid Sheikh Saeed Al Maktoum’s House.
Riding the Dubai Metro is a great way to see the city as it now covers it quite well. The bonus is the elevation of the track, many metres off the ground, which offers brilliant views as you glide above Sheikh Zayed Road, where most of Dubai’s skyscrapers bother the clouds. The metro is also tailor-made for a traditional shopping run in Dubai, with stops near most of Dubai’s massive malls.
When you’ve done all that, it’s time to get your feet back on the ground and back to where you started your water-based activities. Far too often these days, visitors to the city don’t get to the Creek, let alone walk along its banks, yet it’s by far the best thing to do in Dubai. There are sprawling old ramshackle souqs on both sides of the Creek, there’s the labyrinthine old Bastakiya quarter dotted with art galleries, the dhow wharves – which are still active – are fascinating, and the Heritage and Diving Village offers a glimpse of ‘old’ Dubai, and one that many visitors to the city miss.
Get more insight and info about Dubai and many other exciting destinations on Lara’s popular travel blog Grantourismo.
Photos: Header shot of Dubai Creek © Aguaviva | Dreamstime.com, Big Bus tour, Dubai Metro, dhows © Typhoonski | Dreamstime.com, Dhow Sailing © Haider Yousuf | Dreamstime.com, Ballooning © David Clover | Dreamstime.com, Helicopter tour © Anna Omelchenko | Dreamstime.com, water taxis © Mikivan | Dreamstime.com, Open Beach © Molimar | Dreamstime.com
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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.