Dubai: How to do the world's most bling-tastic city on a budget
Published 21/10/2015 | 21:03
Despite its reputation for being a rich man's playground, affordable luxury is possible in Dubai, says Richard Jones.
The fiery red sun is sinking beneath desert dunes that stretch as far as the eye can see in every direction.
The only noises piercing the eerie silence are the revs of 4x4 engines, followed by the laughter of our driver and gasps from passengers as we climb another dune.
We are taking part in one of Arabian Adventures' Sundowner Desert Safaris - a magical evening that begins with a thrilling journey over the sand dunes in the Dubai Conservation Reserve, and ends with a Middle Eastern feast under the stars at a traditional Bedouin-style camp.
Although we had only arrived in the UAE a few hours earlier, the forest of shiny skyscrapers, network of busy highways, and hustle and bustle of the city that greeted us now seems a million miles away.
"Largest in the world", and "world record holder" are phrases that I hear quite often on my five-day trip to Dubai.
Construction work is taking place everywhere, and it's even been suggested that 25 per cent of the world's cranes are situated in the city, as it continues to expand both horizontally and vertically.
But despite being the world's fastest growing urban area, Dubai is still in touch with its traditions and Arabian way of life, and visitors can easily find areas rich in history and culture, as well as modern luxuries that won't break the bank.
Of course, it is totally free to visit Dubai's old town, but for just 155 Dirhams (€37) per person, an Arabian Adventures guide will take you on a Merchants' Tour around the cobblestoned streets of the Fahidi Historical District, across the Dubai Creek and on to the famous spice and gold souks.
Almost everything you can think of is for sale at these markets, some of it authentic and valuable, but most not.
However, it's great fun finding out what's what - bartering and bantering with the shopkeepers, and trying out the local delicacies, including camel milk chocolate.
For Western visitors to the UAE, it is also worth popping down to the Sheikh Mohammed Centre For Cultural Understanding (SMCCU).
At the SMCCU, we join a pair of Emirati hosts for a traditional Saturday breakfast (100 Dirhams/€24 per person) to talk about a variety of topics, including the Muslim dress code, the Arabs' role in the world and even the abstinence of pork and alcohol.
In fact, the two hosts encourage us to ask them absolutely anything - the more outrageous and controversial the better, as they attempt to (and succeed in) opening the eyes of the handful of tourists in their audience.
Nevertheless, despite Dubai's rich history, it is the 21st-century hotels, shopping malls, beaches, clubs and bars that have made the city into of the most popular tourist destinations on Earth. And although many visitors are bound to make a beeline for the high-rise hotels down on Jumeirah Beach or at the Marina, boutique hotels such as Manzil Downtown Dubai and Vida Downtown Dubai, offer a similar level of service, luxury and comfort, but in a more scaled-down fashion. And with a much more digestible price tag of around €190 per night for a deluxe double room.
Both Manzil and Vida ooze style, and from their location on the palm-tree laden Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Boulevard, they have amazing views of mega-tall skyscraper the Burj Khalifa, and are a stone's throw away from the Dubai Fountains and Dubai Mall.
Manzil, from the Arabic word meaning 'home', is the slightly more traditional of the two, and with its white, brown and beige decor, has more of an Arabian theme.
The ultra-hip Vida, meanwhile, has fashionable urban styling throughout its six floors and the cabana-surrounded pool is the place to be on a Friday afternoon.
Before I arrived in Dubai, I had heard all about the legendary all-you-can-eat-and-drink Friday Brunches that take place throughout the city's hotels. But nothing could have prepared me for Vida's weekly Urban Picnic event. With packages starting at 295 Dirhams (€70) per person, it is one of the best value brunch events in the city, especially compared to most of the larger hotels on Jumeirah Beach, which usually charge upwards of €135.
After a sophisticated first hour with a banquet of food in the cool air-conditioned 3In1 restaurant, the action soon spreads out into the cabanas, where (with a €27 upgrade on the basic drinks package), Moet & Chandon and ice buckets are the order of the day.
A great place to visit any night, but particularly post-brunch at Vida, is the sky lounge NEOS Bar over the road at The Address Downtown Dubai - where you can take a lift to the 63rd floor and enjoy surprisingly reasonably-priced beers or cocktails, with views of the glittering city below.
The cream-coloured taxis are dirt cheap as well in Dubai. Fifty Dirhams (€12) will get you from any area of central Dubai to another, meaning even if you're on a budget, you can still see most parts of this amazing city.
On our final day, we leave the steaming hot city, desert and old town behind, and head to Jumeirah Beach for a cooling afternoon of watersports at Watercooled, adjacent to the Doubletree By Hilton Hotel.
We cruise around the bay on a Hobie catamaran (just 200 Dirhams, or €48, between a small group for half an hour), while the others try stand-up paddleboarding (100 Dirhams for an hour), all in the shadow of the enormous Manhattan-style skyline created by the luxury big-name hotels.
There is also work going on erecting a London Eye-style ferris wheel just off Jumeirah Beach, but as with the Big Ben replica and most other things in the city, it will be significantly bigger than the original.
And speaking of size, on our final evening in Dubai, we get to see what all the fuss is about - and take the 124 floors up to the observation deck of the Burj Khalifa.
The 829m skyscraper is a wonder of modern technology. It took six years to complete, with 20,000 people working on the tower in its final weeks of construction.
The overall cost eventually reached more than €1.3bn, so the 125 Dirham (€30) entrance fee to scale the world's tallest building hardly seems extortionate.
Neighbouring Saudi Arabia is currently in the process of building something even bigger - the Kingdom Tower. But if there's one thing I learn from my weekend in Dubai, it's that no expense will be spared to topple the world record again.
And that's the thing about Dubai, although there is cash, construction and sheer extravagance everywhere, Arabian adventure and affordable luxury is also within your grasp.
The real jewels in Dubai's crown are still relatively inexpensive and, as the stunning sunset over the desert proves, the best things in life are free.
Richard Jones was a guest of Dubai Tourism. For more information about Dubai call +44 020 7321 6110 or see visitdubai.com. Return economy flights with Emirates (emirates.com/ie) from Dublin are available from €509, going to press.
Arabian Adventures offers the Sundowner Desert Safari from AED 360 (€86) per person, and the half-day City of Merchants Tour is priced at AED 155 (€37) per person. arabian-adventures.com