Thursday 8 December 2016

Dubai: A city break date with sunshine and stars

Gulf class

Gemma Fullam

Published 28/12/2015 | 02:30

Flash: The skyscrapers in Dubai Marina are testament to Dubai's tendency to have the highest, biggest and best of everything. The 'twisted' building on the right is based on the DNA helix.
Flash: The skyscrapers in Dubai Marina are testament to Dubai's tendency to have the highest, biggest and best of everything. The 'twisted' building on the right is based on the DNA helix.
WATER TAXI: Abras - wooden boats - crossing Dubai Creek, which is in the old town, at sunset.
Dubai creek
Dubai aquarium

Gemma Fullam visits the International Film Festival in a city that, give or take a few months, is the same age as her.

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It's all relative, really, isn't it?

At 44, I'm feeling my age a bit, but what's long in the tooth for a female is the first flush of youth for a country. You see, give or take a few months, Dubai and I are the same age.

It came into being on December 2, 1971, when the seven emirates - Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Ajman, Fujairah, Ras al-Khaimah, Sharjah and Umm al-Quwain - joined together to form the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Dubai became the commercial capital for the newly established country.

When you think of Dubai, you imagine glittering skyscrapers, huge shopping malls, ultra-luxurious hotels and all-round affluence, but it wasn't always so. The emirate, which has a population of 2.3 million, started life as a tiny fishing village, but grew prosperous in the early 19th century through its pearling industry, while the lack of taxes, an initiative by Sheikh Maktoum Bin Hasher Al Maktoum in 1894, attracted merchants and traders.

The discovery of oil in the late 1960s gave a massive shot in the arm to the local economy, although today, the focus has shifted away from oil - which today makes up less than 1pc of the economy - to property, trading and tourism.

I was in Dubai for the weekend to attend the 12th International Film Festival, which brought a host of stars to the region, including Everest's Jake Gyllenhaal, and the delectable Dev Patel of Slumdog Millionaire fame, whose film The Man Who Knew Infinity, in which he plays Srinivasa Ramanujan, an Indian mathematical prodigy, had its premiere at the festival.

The premiere was a glam affair, and took place in a 1,800-seat cinema in the opulent Madinat Jumeirah Resort, which is so large (madinat means city), you can travel around it by abra (water taxi), which is handy if you've over-indulged in one of the resort's 44 restaurants. Yes, you read that right: 44.

WATER TAXI: Abras - wooden boats - crossing Dubai Creek, which is in the old town, at sunset.
WATER TAXI: Abras - wooden boats - crossing Dubai Creek, which is in the old town, at sunset.

Dubai is all about bigger, better, higher, faster - it boasts the biggest ring in the world, the Star of Taiba, made of 58.7kg of gold; the highest building in the world, the 829.8m Burj Khalifa; the world's largest choreographed fountain, which, naturally, is located in the world's largest shopping mall, the Dubai Mall.

I was staying at the swish InterContinental Dubai Marina; the Marina area is home to a large expat community. People come from all over the world to live in Dubai, attracted by the year-round sunshine, the lifestyle and the tax-free income. If you live here, you have to obey the rules, and the penalties for not doing so are hefty. Jaywalking carries an on-the-spot fine of 200AED (€50); if your car is dirty, you can be fined; if you're drunk in a taxi, the taxi driver might decide to bring you to the police; if you want to drink alcohol at home, non-Muslims need a licence, for which you must first get a letter from your employer.

By and large, people respect the laws, with the result that the police aren't rushed off their feet. Apparently, they have so little to do, if your car gets a puncture, you can call the cops, and they'll change your tyre.

Strict laws aside, however, most expats enjoy a tipple in Dubai, not least on a Friday afternoon. Friday is like Sunday in Muslim terms, and many places are shut, so Friday brunch in hotel restaurants has become a well-established tradition.

Having arrived on a Friday, after a snooze and a change of clothes, I sat down to brunch in Accents, one of the InterContinental's nine bars and restaurants. Food is a huge deal in Dubai, and the emirate has attracted some of the world's top culinary talent, including Gordon Ramsay, Jamie Oliver, and Nobu Matsuhisa, all of whom have set up shop here. Accents has a Funusual Brunch, the price of which depends on whether you have soft drinks, alcohol or Champagne with your meal; the mid-priced option costs about €99 (AED 395). I had a delicious lunch on the sun-soaked terrace, consisting of pesto risotto and exquisite yellow-fin tuna, washed down with a flinty, ice-cold glass of white. Bliss.

Refreshed and revived, it was time for some exploring. Dubai is quite spread out, so people drive everywhere; taxis are cheap and, in high summer, the heat is a deterrent to walking. If you're a first-time visitor, it's worth getting a guide and driver. I had two for the duration of my stay; Siju Thomas, a licensed tour guide, guided me around the historical district; while the charming Gautam, from Arabian Oryx, brought me all over Dubai; see aoryx.ae for a comprehensive list of tours and excursions.

Dubai creek
Dubai creek

There are three main areas in Dubai: the aforementioned Dubai Marina is home to a lot of hotels, and it's adjacent to Jumeirah Beach, which has sun, sea, sand and shops. The Burj Al Arab is here - it's often referred to as seven-star hotel; in fact, there's no such thing. While it's very posh, it is a five-star. The Burj is midway between The Palm Jumeirah - a man-made peninsula that's home to many fabulous hotels, including the mega-hotel-cum-waterpark, The Atlantis; and numerous villas, the super-rich owners of which include Bill Clinton, and the Beckhams - and The World, a man-made archipelago of 300 private islands; it resembles the world, when viewed from the air.

Then there's downtown Dubai, home to the enormous Dubai Mall and the lofty Burj Khalifa. The third area is the Old Town, and after a quick photo op outside the Burj Al Arab, my first port of call was Jumeirah Mosque, which opened in 1975. Surrounded by date palms, it's one of the few mosques non-Muslims are allowed to visit, and on various days you can, for a small fee, attend for cultural meals, which feature traditional food. It's closed on Fridays, though, so it was on to Dubai Creek, passing the largest flagpole in the world on the way, from which flies the green, white, black and red flag of the UAE. The route is also dotted with the aforementioned date palm, without which, life would not have been possible in the desert climate of Dubai. Dates have supplemented the diet of locals for 7,000 years, and, along with camel milk, were the chief source of nourishment. Incidentally, Gautam, my driver, very kindly bought a bottle of camel milk for me to try - as cows are grain-fed rather than grass-fed in the region, camel milk is considered a healthier choice, and is lower in cholesterol than regular milk. It has a bitter taste and a dung-like aroma, so it is, perhaps, an acquired taste.

The historical Al-Fahidi district abounds with curiosities, including its eponymous fort, the oldest building in Dubai, now a museum. The fort, which was built from sea rocks and gypsum in 1787 to maintain the town's defences, as its location, at a crossroads of international routes, meant it was open to foreign attacks. It has fascinating examples of how residents, including Bedouins, lived in times past, not least (impressively effective) towers that acted as the earliest form of air conditioning.

Next, it was time to cross Dubai Creek in an abra (water taxi) to visit the souk. The souk is divided up; there's the Textile Souk, the Spice Souk, the Gold Souk, and so on. Anything and everything is sold here, and I whiled away the rest of the afternoon browsing the multitude of goods on offer, and sampling some camel chocolate (quite tasty!).

After a quick change, it was time to hit Qbara, one of the city's hottest spots for cocktails and dinner, see qbara.ae. It specialises in Middle Eastern-inspired cocktails, many of which are a twist on the classics. I had a sublime Persian Mojito - citrus vodka with fresh mint, Persian rose and pink grapefruit - which came in a hand-cut crystal glass. The restaurant is housed in a huge circular space, while the adjacent bar has a wall-jigsaw of ancient carved wooden doors, onto which light projections are displayed in time with the tracks spun by the resident DJ. It's quite an experience to have dinner in what feels for all the world like a nightclub; the urge to get up and shake your booty mid-course is quite strong. The food here is exquisite; I had the tasting menu, which included root vegetable and chickpea hummus with crispy parsnips; Syrian lamb and sour cherry kofta; sweet peas and fava bean risotto; and baklava smash with camel milk ice cream (which was not at all dung-like).

Next morning, it was off to the Madinat Jumeirah for a press conference with Dev Patel. Looking much older in years than his baby-faced screen appearances would suggest, the British-born actor charmed us all with his down-to-earth manner and exotic good looks.

Lunch was at Sea Fu, at the plush Four Seasons, on Jumeirah Beach, looking out onto the emerald waters of the Arabian Gulf. Dubai has a stellar reputation as a fine-dining destination, and Sea Fu is one of the jewels in the emirate's crown. The location is heavenly, with food to match, and it's all deliciously healthy, too. Think seaweed and cucumber with tofu and ginger; tuna tartare with edamame and ikura eggs; and char-grilled octopus with fennel and carrot.

After the screening, back at the Madinat Jumeirah, it was into a hotel abra for a short boat ride to Khaymat Al Bahar, the hotel's Lebanese restaurant. A word of advice: don't come to Dubai if you're trying to diet. The fare at Khaymat was traditional Lebanese - hummus, baba ganoush, chicken liver with pomegranate sauce, fattoush, lamb kebabs with mint - with entertainment provided by a buxom bellydancer, who shimmied seductively like a modern-day Salome. It was all very tasty indeed. See jumeirah.com.

Sunday started with a massage in the InterContinental's Espa spa; my therapist was firmly in the no-messing camp and gave me an expert back-kneading, and finished with a vigorous head massage and a spot of hair yanking. Then, there was time for a spot of sunbathing by the pool, and a swim, before another delicious lunch on Accents terrace. A perfect morning.

And the day got better! The 12m sq ft Dubai Mall has 1,200 shops (it's expanding and will soon have 1,500) ranging from Chanel and Cartier to H&M and Hollister. It has everything, including a resident dinosaur (a 155-million-year-old whip-tailed sauropod; she's in the Souk Dome). A shoe gallery with over 300 shoe brands, the biggest bookshop in the world, an Olympic-sized ice rink, countless restaurants - it's so big, it would take you three days to walk around it. It also has Fashion Avenue, which has all the high-end luxury brands. See thedubaimall.com. Next stop was the Dubai Aquarium (it's in the Mall), which has 30,000 fish - 85 different species, and 100 different kinds of shark. You can walk through the aquarium via a 48 meter-long glass tunnel, and it's incredible to see the razor-sharp teeth of a sand tiger shark just inches from your head, or watch an elegant manta ray glide past. There's also an underwater zoo, and if you're so inclined you can go diving among the sharks in the 10-million litre tank, or travel on the top in a glass-bottomed boat. See dubaiaquarium.com

Dinner was at The Social Room at Marina Social in the InterContinental. See marinasocialdubai.com. It's headed up by Michelin star chef Jason Atherton, a protege of Gordon Ramsay. The bar menu is tapas-y in form, but the offerings have a fresh, modern feel: think goat's cheese churros with truffle honey; and deep-fried battered cauliflower. The whiskey menu is extensive, and the cocktails are delightfully quirky - I had a Genever Gonna Give You Up, which came in a little medicine bottle adorned with a picture of 80s icon Rick Astley. The vibe is cool and relaxed, and like much of Dubai, it's a perfect venue for a chatty, girly evening.

My night, and my trip, finished with a film festival event - a screening of The Lady In The Van, starring Maggie Smith of Downton fame - on the beach. In December! Films are shown on a big screen at Jumeirah Beach free of charge all during the film festival and bean-bags are provided so you don't have to sit on the sand.

Maggie Smith's Dowager Countess of Grantham famously asked, "What is a weekend?" She'd obviously never been to Dubai, where they are, indeed, the best.

Getting there

Emirates (emirates.ie) flies from Dublin to Dubai from €499 per person.

InterContinental Dubai Marina (ihg.com) has rooms from AED825 (€204) per deluxe room, per night. Jason Atherton's fine dining three-course set lunch menu costs from AED325 (€80)pp.  See marinasocialdubai.com.

The Dubai Mall (dubaimall.com) has over 1,200 shops and 200 food and beverage outlets. SeaFu - the Four Seasons Dubai beach side restaurant is at seafudubai.com, while Qbara (qbara.ae) is a contemporary lifestyle restaurant doing a 'Taste of Qbara' menu from AED300 (€75) pp. Khaymat Al Bahar (jumeirah.com) promises an authentic Lebanese experience 

For further information, see visitdubai.com.

Take three...

The Gold Souk

If you're looking for some bling, then the world-famous Gold Souk, established in the 1940s, is the place to go. It's located in Deira, which is on the Dubai Creek, and has over 300 shops selling an incredible array of jewellery. Gold is king here (although you can also buy silver and gems) and is sold by weight, with the price fixed on a daily basis. You can haggle, as an ornate piece will cost more than a plainer one, and this is where the leeway lies on price.

Crossing Dubai creek by abra

Dubai Creek, Al Khor, is only 1km wide, and, at one dirham to make the crossing between Bur Dubai and Deira, it has to be the best-value attraction in Dubai. You cross the saltwater inlet by abra, a water taxi, and the views of the old town and activity along the creek are fantastic. There are two crossing points, one from the west end of the Textile Souk to Deira Old Souk Abra Station; and the other at the middle of the Textile Souk to Al Sabkha.

Dubai Aquarium

The Dubai Aquarium, the world's largest suspended aquarium, is located in the Dubai Mall, so if you want to shop and your other half shudders at the thought, pack him off here: it's amazing. It has over 300 sharks and rays - which are mesmerising as they glide elegantly along - an enormous crocodile, which came all the way from Oz, plus numerous endangered species, and fearsome piranha fish. See thedubaiaquarium.com

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