As it is now such a popular holiday destination, are there any unusual places to visit in Dubai? Of course, and half the fun of a holiday is finding the odd and unusual.
Although the UAE is a young federation of states, the land is old. Due to the harsh nature of the climate, little survives from ancient times, but the desert itself is an ancient landscape of great beauty. To see the beauty of the desert, it is necessary to get out of the cities, so some of my unusual places in Dubai, are not actually in Dubai.
Visit Big Red
If you can arrange to visit Big Red, you will need to get out of Dubai on the Hatta Road (E44). As you drive further from the coast, the desert color changes from a grey-white to a golden color and eventually deepens into an orange-red. This is how Big Red, a popular spot for dangerous dune-bashing, got its name. You may not want to join the revelers speeding up and down this large dune, but just watching the antics is enough for some. It was for me. I am ashamed to admit that there is a frisson of excitement at the possibility of seeing someone make a seriously wrong choice and roll what is normally a very stable vehicle. Although you can hire a 4X4 and join in, you may not be insured once you go off road, so check this out. Probably, it is best to join a tour if you want to join the action.
Self-drive in the desert
I must confess to have fallen under the spell of the desert, and I heartily recommend that you seek as real a desert experience as you have time for. Joining a group that supplies you with the skills and the vehicle to get out into the deep desert will test you in many ways and take you to places that you are unlikely to see again. The desert is beautiful especially at sunset and dawn. So staying overnight in the desert is worth it as long as you can cope with no air-conditioning, shower or king-sized bed. There are several companies that offer a variety of over-night experiences, but the self-drive experience has it all. The first time you approach the crest of a dune, you may feel a sense of panic. It will be quickly dispelled by the gentle slide down the dune face, red sand pouring down around you. This is an experience like none other and does not require you to drive like a dare-devil
Quad bikes in the desert
Quad bikes are a lot of fun for the adventurous and young at heart. There are many companies offering this and some also make an overnight stay in the desert a part of the fun.
If you do not want to drive, and I must admit to being more comfortable as the passenger than the driver myself, it is still possible to have an overnight adventure in the desert that offers a feel of the life of the Bedouin
If camping has never had any appeal for you, there is a chance to get into the red desert around Liwa and see the famous mega-truck that belongs to the ‘Rainbow Sheikh’ on a two-day adventure that includes hotel stays.
Play polo – on a camel
This unusual activity is available through the Dubai Polo Club. They will teach you and a bunch of your friends the basics then set you at each other. It’s a great way to bond or bludgeon each other to pieces. It is a whole lot more interesting than the usual short ride on a bored camel made available too often. And the Polo Club is a beautiful place to be with restaurants and a spa for soothing away the pain after the ride. Camel riding may be why someone wrote song lyrics about walking like an Egyptian.
Eat top quality international cuisine
Let’s start with Emirati food. My guests always ask to eat Emirati but until recently, there were no restaurants promoting Emirati food, so this is a unique experience. An Emirati style restaurant has opened in Dubai Festival City along the canal walk. It is called Al Fanar, which means the oil lantern, and lining the walls, you will see these lanterns that were so essential before electricity was widely available.
La Petite Maison is one place for the serious eater. It is situated in the Dubai International Financial Center (DIFC) not far from Dubai Mall. It is a little hard to find but a taxi will get you to the area and then you need to make your way up one floor. Ask for help. People are friendly. I suggest you start a visit to La Petite Maison by propping up the bar for 30 minutes or so. Try a martini (the tomatini is good) and watch the skill the bar staff display as they prepare a variety of drinks. The food at La Petite Maison is Nicoise, i.e. from Nice. Every dish is drenched in flavor which is not guaranteed in a country where the food has to be flown in and is often hydroponically grown, efficient but lacking in flavor. Even the bread and butter are delicious. It is not cheap, but it is worth the price you pay. Alcohol is expensive as it is everywhere in Dubai, so focus on the food.
Other great restaurants, not in any particular order are:
- Traiteur and the Thai Kitchen in the Park Hyatt. The bar in Traiteur hangs above the restaurant and gives great views of the architecture.
- Reflets par Pierre Gagnaire for Michelin star food, but be warned: it is very expensive.
Take a walking tour of old Dubai
These days it is too easy to be tempted to savor only the luxury side of Dubai; so in the cool of the morning or early evening, stretch the boundaries. Either side of the Creek in Dubai is where the remaining old parts of Dubai can be experienced up close. You can cross the creek in an abra, a traditional water-taxi, for a very small amount of money. The fun is in bustling on and off again with the large number of workers in the area that use this cheap and efficient transport system. If it is windy, the crossing will be more exciting, but I prefer a smooth ride. Just being on the creek and looking at all the dhows that still do trade between Dubai and other points along the Arabian/Persian Gulf is enough to fire the imagination.
On the Deira side of the Creek you will find both the Gold Souk and the Spice Souk. For many visitors, this is the first time they have seen so much gold and so many spices in such profusion. If you want to buy gold, it is a safe place to do so. The gold price will be displayed and your chosen items weighed in front of you. Do haggle a bit; you are expected to. If you walk away and the seller lets you go, you can be pretty sure you have asked him to go below his bottom price.
On the Bur Dubai side of the Creek is the Dubai Museum and an interesting fabric souk. Apart from the museum, you do have to look hard to see any old buildings still standing. From here, if the weather is cool, it is possible to walk to the art and café area of Bastakiya, one of the older areas of Bur Dubai.
This whole area, although divided by the Creek, is not very large. It has narrow streets and may seem unsafe at first sight in comparison to modern Dubai, but it is actually very safe and interesting.
It is not possible to smoke shisha in some parts of the UAE, but it is fine in Dubai. Since it was made illegal to smoke in restaurants, shisha smoking opportunities can be found outside little cafes in the old area around Dubai Creek and outside Arabian style cafes wherever they have the space. But you can go upmarket as well. One of my favorites is the outdoor café at the Royal Mirage Hotel. It is especially lovely after sunset during Ramadan when there are tables set out on every flat surface with many happy groups relaxing over shisha and desert. Instead of walking past the golden statue of camels at the entrance to the hotel, go to your right and down a flight of stairs into an enclosed courtyard. Following the perfumed shisha smoke will get you there, also.
Take a tour of the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi. It is a vast and beautiful building. It is one of only a handful of mosques in the UAE that are open to the general public and well worth a visit. The others are the Jumeirah Mosque in Dubai and on the Khor Fakkan coast, there is the littlest and oldest Mosque.
I promised you six unusual things to do, but sometimes six is just not enough!