10 tips for Dubai


If you’re stopping over in Dubai for a couple of days, David Whitley has some advice that will help prepare you for what you’re about to encounter


Dubai Dunes





David Whitley leaves the big city behind and finds himself starstruck on the sand





Above the tarmac, the wisps of sand dance in the wind. They move with the hypnotic rhythms of a belly dancer.




We’re not far out of Dubai. The city proper hugs the coastal strip, but it keeps coughing up seemingly unattached and unloved developments between the barren chunks of scrubby white sand.




Until you start heading inland, it’s easy to forget that the 21st century supercity of Dubai is built on top of a desert. Yet soon enough, the development disappears and the dunes begin. Left and right, the gentle golden hills roll off into the horizon, while the sand intrudes on the hard shoulder. There must be a daily sweeping mission to stop the road getting buried.




The world suddenly seems a rather empty place until a camel lumbers on by. Fences are put up to stop them ambling across the road, causing accidents.




The sandhills start getting larger and redder in colour. Thin rusty waves top the dunes, sliding down in isobar-like packs to create serpentine patterns. The desert has an entrancing majesty that acts as a siren call. The vast emptiness is overpowering.



We make a turn and arrive at the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve.  A flotilla of 4x4 vehicles soon arrives, and streams of desert virgins wander on over for the brief falcon show. When it enters its swoop, the peregrine falcon is the fastest creature on earth. One soars and divebombs around us before its trainer puts a glove over the meaty bait. The falcon suddenly forgets dinner was ever there.




The most exciting swoops are to be had on the dunes, however. The Landcruisers form a vehicular conga and set off across the desert to the camp where we’ll have dinner. They lurch up and down the dunes, heavily revving to make the biggest climbs, then tottering along tiny ridges before sliding down the sides and kicking up mountains of sand into the air.




There doesn’t appear to be much of a circuit – it’s all just interchangeable dunes – but apparently we’re looping 15km through the desert. It’s tremendous fun, although there are plenty of casualties. As we pull in for a photo stop, the injury list is apparent. Six 4WDs are still sat on top of their respective dunes, with passengers stood by the side. The drivers have misjudged and tow rope-wielding help has arrived to pull them into a position where they can get moving again.




By now, the sun is a bright red circle, slowly descending. On its way into the black of night, it bathes the desert in other-worldly light. The softly windblown waves of red sand move like the scales on the back of an incomprehensibly huge beast; every grain of sand takes on its own colour and personality. Everyone around seems to disappear. I’ve got a weird tunnel vision. It’s just me, the drifting sand and, finally, darkness.




Disclosure: David Whitley was a guest of Arabian Adventures on their Sundowner desert adventure.




You can get a stopover in Dubai on the Globehopper RTW or the Navigator RTW


Best Dubai Museum


What’s the best museum in Dubai?


You could try the Dubai Museum, a display of historical bits and bobs in the 18th-century Al Fahidi Fort. Pop into the fine old Sheikh Saeed Al-Maktoum House, or the old Ahmadiya School across the Creek.


Or maybe even absorb Dubai’s history retail-style, thanks to the “edutainment” on offer in the Ibn Battuta Mall.


But it’s all a bit ho-hum.


In truth, the best museum in Dubai isn’t in Dubai at all. Instead, jump in a taxi for the short drive north (roughly Dh50/£8 on the meter) to the neighbouring city of Sharjah.


Desperately underrated and under-visited, Sharjah may be “dry” (you can’t buy or consume alcohol here) but it is crammed with interest.


Dominating the Corniche is the golden-domed Museum of Islamic Civilisations. It’s a strong contender for the ‘Best Museum’ gong, with its stunning interior and extensive displays on medieval science, as well as superb galleries of textiles and ceramics upstairs.


A short walk away, Sharjah’s pedestrianised Heritage Quarter holds a clutch of restored courtyard houses, each holding museum displays. Drop into the Naboodah House, built by a 19th-century merchant family, try the fine Heritage Museum, the three-floor contemporary Art Museum and the beautiful Calligraphy Museum, then roam the lanes of the fine old Souk Al-Arsa covered bazaar alongside.


But the best of the lot? Sharjah’s wonderful Al Mahatta Museum of aviation.


For most of its history, Sharjah was bigger and more important than Dubai. It had the Gulf’s largest port – and also its first airport, a desert airstrip built in 1932 as a staging-post for British Imperial Airways, which flew planes between London and Australia, stopping frequently to refuel along the way.


Have a look at the route map – with Sharjah marked – and think your way into what RTW flight meant back then. And take 15mins for this glorious 1937 newsreel film “Air Outpost” on life in Sharjah when a plane came in.


Those original 1930s airport buildings – once in open desert, now crammed into the roaring city centre streets – form the museum. You enter beside the glorious Art Deco-style control tower, crossing the courtyard where those early RTW passengers lodged.


But it’s the main display hall that will grab you – tall, white and echoing, with real, full-size vintage planes hanging from the ceiling. I won’t bore you with names and serial numbers, but just look at it! And again. It’s pure Indiana Jones. The most evocative room in the UAE.


Go and sniff the engine block of the 1953 Gypsy Queen. Get into the cockpit of the gleaming silver Comet. Gaze over the old maps and air charts. Press the button to start the working Pratt & Whitney engines, vintage 1941.


It’s a real link with a tangible past, firing imaginations, feeding knowledge. Pure catnip for travellers. I loved it.






Dubai airport transfers





DXB is an oddity: a major international airport that is effectively downtown. Located in Garhoud, it lay in open desert when it opened in 1960: the city has grown up around it. The cheap hotels and creekside souks of Deira are only about 4km away – great for quick, low-cost transfers, not so great for the folks living in the apartment buildings ringing the runways.






DXB has three terminals – 1 and 3 are side-by-side on the southern side of the airport; 2 is separate, on the north side. Where you arrive depends on which airline you’re flying.




If you’re on Emirates or Qantas, you’ll come into Terminal 3, the world’s second-largest building in terms of floor space – sleek, gleaming, high-ceilinged and air-conditioned.




Most other major airlines use Terminal 1 – older, shabbier and (in Arrivals at least) non-a/c.




As for Terminal 2, you’ll only end up there if you’re on low-cost regional carrier FlyDubai, or if you’re coming in on smaller airlines from – how can we put this? – less mainstream destinations, such as Iran, Afghanistan, Somalia and others.




Note that there are some oddities – for example, Air India uses Terminal 1, but Air India Express uses Terminal 2.




Onward options


Whatever you choose, be prepared to sweat: Dubai’s humidity is high day and night, and dragging bags around after a tiring flight is a recipe for a rapid wilt. Even if you’re going to watch the dirhams later on, paying extra to be whisked door-to-door on arrival has considerable appeal.






The standard Dubai cab is cream-coloured with a red roof. They wait 24/7 at ranks outside all arrivals areas – safe, metered and well-regulated by the Dubai Taxi Corporation. Drivers – invariably from South Asia – rarely speak much English, but you can usually make yourself understood.




There are also pink taxis for women only, driven by women, as well as taxis adapted for people with disabilities.




From the airport the meter starts at Dh20 in a normal-sized cab, or Dh25 in a larger vehicle, such as a people-carrier.




Sample fares are very dependent on traffic conditions – reckon on around Dh40 to Bur Dubai, around Dh50 to Jumeirah, around Dh55 to Dubai Mall or around Dh70 to Mall of the Emirates.




Taxis don’t tout for business – anyone who approaches you in airport arrivals is illegal and unlicensed.




Many hotels offer their own airport pick-up service, bookable in advance. These are handy for the lack of hassle – just look for your name on a card and then follow the liveried flunkey – but they invariably cost around twice the price of a metered cab.




New arrivals are occasionally hoodwinked by limousine operators, who hang around beside the taxi ranks, trying to entice customers into their luxury Audis and BMWs. They generally offer no starting fee and fixed prices. If you don’t mind paying a premium – say, Dh100 to Bur Dubai, or Dh180-200 further afield – then live the dream and hop in.






The Dubai Metro  is a wonder: clean, smooth, fast and efficient. The stations, platforms and trains are all air-conditioned and everything is signed in English.




Terminal 1 and Terminal 3 have stations side-by-side on the Red Line. From either take a train towards Jebel Ali to head into the city – they run about every 5mins – though bear in mind you’re only allowed to carry two suitcases per person, one large, one small. If you’re laden with more, take a taxi.




Every train has special carriage at one end, half of which is ‘Gold Class’ – reserved for those who pay extra – and half for women and children only.




First metro departs the airport around 5.55am (Fridays 1.05pm; no service Fri mornings). Last metro departs Sat-Wed around 11pm, Thu & Fri around midnight. Approximate journey times are: to Bur Dubai 10mins, Dubai Mall 25mins, Mall of the Emirates 40mins, Jebel Ali 1hr.




The citywide public transport card is called Nol – there are Gold, Silver and Blue options for locals, but the best for visitors is a Red Ticket. A single journey costs Dh4.50 for one zone (from the airport to Deira), or Dh6.50 for two zones (from the airport as far west as Dubai Mall/Business Bay), or Dh8.50 beyond that. Alternatively, buy a one-day city-wide pass for Dh14.




The big drawback is that onward transport connections from metro stations aren’t great: a network of “metro feeder” buses does exist but you need a PhD in urban planning to figure it out. Still, riding the metro to somewhere near your hotel, then hailing a cab to cover the last mile or two is a skinflint’s dream.






There are some from the airport, but they system is complicated. And they rarely go where you want. On balance, why bother?


Which option is right for you?


Pre-booked private/hotel transfer


Best for: high-rollers


Pros: zero hassle, door-to-door personal service


Cons: expensive




Best for: almost everyone


Pros: minimal hassle, door-to-door, modest prices


Cons: traffic delays, occasional miscommunication with drivers




Best for: frugally minded and/or adventurous souls


Pros: inexpensive, plunges you direct into the city atmosphere


Cons: generally leaves you a walk or short cab ride from your hotel





Dubai food tours


Arva Ahmed is changing her city. The 29-year-old came home from the US in 2010 “to reclaim my seat at the dinner table”, as she’s put it. Her quirkily titled food blog “I Live In A Frying Pan” has won a reputation across Dubai for sharp, insightful writing and encyclopedic knowledge.






Ahmed is one of the co-founders of Fooderati Arabia, an affiliation of 125 Dubai food writers who collaborate to investigate the city’s dazzling variety of cuisines.




Now she is launching Frying Pan Food Adventures, Dubai’s first-ever food tours, centred on the old districts by the Creek. “These are the pockets of town that depict a different, unglamorous, yet charming and historic side to Dubai,” she says.




These are the neighbourhoods where Dubai’s 19th-century trading links were established – and where vast numbers of new arrivals from South Asia, Africa and East Asia have settled, following the 1970s oil boom that spurred Dubai’s growth.




Each tour visits about 5 or 6 restaurants in a single area, walking a few minutes between each one. And they’re all in the evening: daytime is out because of the heat – and because everyone’s at work. It’s only after dark that Dubai’s street life gets going.




Dip into her African tour, which explores untouristed Hor Al-Anz to contrast Maghrebi cuisine from Tunisia, Morocco and Egypt with African dishes from Ethiopia and beyond.




The Indian tour focuses on Meena Bazaar, a web of streets in Bur Dubai that forms one of the city’s oldest commercial neighbourhoods. Ahmed led us from Gujarati nibbles to Punjabi delicacies to give a mouthwateringly vivid picture of the city’s North Indian culinary heritage, ending at a backstreet cafeteria for the deliciously sweet yoghurt dessert shrikhand, laced with cardamom.




I also loved the Arabian tour, which started with exquisite falafel at a garishly lit takeaway in Rigga, moving on to a Lebanese bakery for savoury manaqish pastries, then the Jordanian feast dish of lamb and yogurty rice known as mansaf, Yemeni roast chicken mandi, the Palestinian sweet treat kunafeh, and more.




Highlight of the night was an Iranian restaurant hidden on the upper level of a nondescript retail mall – otherwise impossible to find. Squatting cross-legged, we dipped hot bread into minty aubergine dip, before tucking into aromatic lamb kebabs.




And she knows her onions. Throughout each tour, Ahmed sparks with ideas, switching from a discussion of Dubai’s cultural mix to theories on the origin of the croissant, to stories of the 6th-century Persian king Khosrau, famed for combining meat with fruit.




There’s an intriguing hint of subversion to all this that undercuts Dubai’s carefully moulded tourist persona. Forget seven-star hotels and brand-conscious bling: Ahmed is shaping an image of Dubai that values cultural authenticity and one-to-one local encounters.




Like I said, she’s changing her city.




(At the time of writing prices had not been fixed for each tour, and may vary depending on date and group size – email ahead to check the details.)