Dubai – the city of ‘est’
A Wonderland Risen from the Sand
A city of superlatives, Dubai is alluring, enigmatic and sophisticated without forgetting its humble beginnings. Whatever you’ve heard about this spectacular city in the sand, you will be blown away when you visit – because Dubai simply has no comparison in the known world.
By Keri Harvey
“I am the power that lifts the world’s head proudly skywards, surpassing limits and expectations. Rising gracefully from the desert and honouring the city with a new glow, I am an extraordinary union of engineering and art, with every detail carefully considered and beautifully crafted. I am the life force of collective aspirations, the aesthetic union of many cultures. I stimulate dreams, stir emotions and awaken creativity.
“I am the magnet that attracts the wide-eyed tourist, eagerly catching their postcard moment, the centre of the world’s finest shopping, dining and entertainment and home of the world’s elite. I am the heart of the city and its people, the marker that defines Emaar’s ambition and Dubai’s shiny dream. More than just a moment in time, I define moments for future generations. I am Burj Khalifa.”
This inscription at the entrance to the world’s tallest building – the 828m high shining Burj Khalifa in the heart of Dubai – describes not just the sexy Burj Khalifa, but the entire gleaming city of Dubai that surrounds it. A city that just 40 years ago didn’t even exist, but for a small Bedouin settlement along a tiny creek. It was the fearless vision of then ruler Sheikh Rashid al Maktoum, carried forward by his son and the current ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid al Maktoum, that has enabled Dubai to flourish into a city with no parallel. Highly coveted as a luxury holiday and world shopping destination, for it’s sought after real estate and can do attitude, in Dubai if you can dream it you can do it.
Rumour has it that Sheikh Mohammed put the word out to architects who wanted to create unusual structures to bring them to Dubai. Now there are buildings like ocean waves, pyramids, massive arches, dhow sailing ships, one that’s twisting like a corkscrew, and of course Burj Khalifa – shaped like conical spire but with the footprint of a rare flower.
At over 200 floors high, Burj Khalifa sways by design, and the observation deck on the 124th floor is the highest in the world – looking down onto the roofs of surrounding skyscrapers. From Atmosphere on the 123rd floor – the highest restaurant in the world – you can see The World, those islands created from reclaimed land that depict all the countries on earth. When Sheikh Mohammed told the Emirate people he would ‘write on water’, they had no idea that this is what he meant. And Palm Jumeirah is another example – a massive palm tree from reclaimed land lying in the Arabia Sea, its fronds encrusted with opulent villas and apartments, with Atlantis at the far end of it. This pink mega hotel resembles a wall with a massive open archway through the middle of it opening onto the Arabian Sea. At Atlantis, you can even sleep in a room under the ocean, if you choose.
Still, the first on any Dubai itinerary should really be the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding, in the old district of Bastakiya with its iconic wind towers that provide natural air-conditioning. A visit here will dispel all myths and gives intriguing insight into the Emirate culture, customs and dress. You can visit a mosque – and Jumeirah mosque in the city is also open to westerners – chat with real Emirate people and then share a meal together that will have you going back for seconds. The Emirate people are often perceived as aloof, so this is a savoured interaction with them.
Shoppers won’t know where to touch first in Dubai. The Dubai Mall with a 1 200 shops – most of them designer labels – also has a walk through aquarium and Olympic ice rink. At night outside are 150m high musical dancing fountains and Dubai Mall is also the public entrance to Burj Khalifa. The Mall of Emirates is almost as big and has Ski Dubai, where you can ski in snow all year round. Ibn Battuta mall is completely clad in intricate mosaic art, The Mercato mall is Italian inspired and Wafi mall boasts a huge pyramid and towering Egyptian replica statues. Then every year from November to end of February, the Global Village comes to Dubai. It’s where the world comes together and sets up shop. Over 40 countries showcase their food, entertainment and merchandise here, so you can feast on diverse cultures from Iran to Thailand without leaving the city.
Dubai’s traditional souks are a particularly fantastical shopping experience, all along the banks of the creek in Deira. From gold to spices, perfumes to pashminas and water pipes, it’s all here. Catch the local abras or water taxis that criss cross the creek to hop from one side to the other. Stop for lunch at a waterside restaurant and then continue souk shopping and abra hopping as you watch wooden merchant boats from India idle up the creek to unload their exotic wares. At night the creek is quieter, and a dinner cruise on a traditional dhow is a relaxing way to see the city sparkle at night, enjoying traditional cuisine at the same time.
Yet just 40 minutes from downtown Dubai is Arabian desert par excellence. As far as the eye can see, sand in honey hues, and a luxurious sanctuary in the middle of it: Al Maha. In the Dubai Desert Conservation Area, Al Maha means ‘The Oryx’ in Arabic, and protects the endangered, snow white antelope that was until recently at the brink of extinction. You can stay over at Al Maha, in seductive accommodation designed to reflect the colours and creativity of traditional Bedouin culture. And while there, see falconry in action, savour the exquisite desert expanses, and of course view the rare Arabian oryx.
Alternatively, play golf on world class courses back in the city, watch camel racing, jet ski, dive, sail, catch some sun, ride a rollercoaster, see belly dancing, marvel at bizarre buildings and the towers of Dubai Marina and Sheikh Zayed Road, ride Wild Wadi water park, go scuba diving, windsurfing, hang gliding, hot air ballooning, visit Dubai aquarium and underwater zoo, go dune bashing in the desert, book a desert dinner or a meal at seven-star Burj al Arab – or kick back and go bird watching at Ras Al Khor Wildlife Sanctuary right in the city.
With all Dubai has to offer, it’s not surprising it’s a city known by many names: the City of Gold for its dazzling jewellery, the Hong Kong of the Middle East for its dynamic business environment, the Venice of the Middle East for it lies on a wide creek, and of course The Shopping Capital of the Middle East for its mega malls, designer boutiques and enchanting old world souks. Just know that whatever you expect to find in Dubai, there will definitely be much more. Here, like nowhere else on earth, more is more. And the whole world comes to enjoy this bounty.
City of world’s ‘est’
Longest driverless metro
Tallest building, tallest structure and tallest freestanding building: Burj Khalifa
Highest restaurant: Atmosphere
Most luxurious hotel: Burj al Arab
Richest horse race: the Dubai World Cup
In the city:
Dubai has a population of 2.2 million and 90% are foreigners
Over 200 nations speaking 100 languages live in Dubai
The city has not one drop of surface water. All Dubai’s water is desalinated
All signs are in English and Arabic
Dubai is scrupulously clean with smoking only in designated areas
There is no pollution
No beggars, old cars or dirty cars can be seen
Essentially there is no crime because of strict policing
There are over 500 hotels, 180 bars, 840 restaurants, 60 shopping malls and 60 clubs.
A litre of water (R4) costs more than a litre of petrol (R3)
The best time to travel is in the UAE winter – from November to February – when weather is warm and comfortable (approximately 25-28C). The Dubai Shopping Festival is in January and February with many prices cut by half.
Be respectful to Muslim culture and refrain from wearing revealing or see through clothing that doesn’t cover the knees or shoulders.
Visas are required by South African passport holders.
Emirates flies directly to Dubai numerous times a day from Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban and their luggage allowance is 30kg.
For more information contact: Dubai Department of Trade and Commerce Marketing on 011 702 9600.
Do Big Bus Tour to get a good feel for the city – www.bigbustours.com
Burj Khalifa – www.atthetop.ae
SMCCU – www.cultures.ae
Global Village – www.globalvillage.ae
Al Maha – www.luxurycollection.com/almaha
Dubai tourism – www.dubaitourism.ae