Dubai: Sheikh up your holiday
Published 24/02/2013 | 06:00
I feel just like a princess, sitting cross-legged on a magic carpet-style tapestry under a navy, starry night's sky. My belly is full of dates, saffron-stained rice and falafel.
The aroma-filled air sets the mood perfectly as traditional music plays out over the old-fashioned speakers.
We're now watching a belly dancer perform impressive tricks with a samurai sword; earlier we 'oohed' and 'ahhed' as a peregrine falcon dived more than 150 feet to snatch food from the hand of his trainer during a preying demonstration.
I'm on a desert safari tour in Dubai, one of the many organised outings by Arabian Adventures, and the camels have just taken me for a spin around our camp, fitted out with traditional huts and lanterns.
I almost forget it's the 21st century and expect to see Aladdin himself round the corner of a nearby sand dune, until I spot our transport back to reality in the distance – a white 4x4 jeep.
That is the contrasting uniqueness that is Dubai.
I'm on a whirlwind two-day trip courtesy of Emirates Airline. As soon as I land, we hit the ground running. Bags are dropped off at my accommodation, the comfortable yet affordable Le Meridien Hotel. While not in the prettiest location, it has a range of restaurants, a gym, two swimming pools and a spa, all within easy access to the international airport.
I had arrived with the notion that Dubai is a place lacking in depth and culture; instead, full of state-of-the-art, in-your-face glass buildings. I was mistaken.
Dubai takes your breath away – and not just due to the climate. It is a Legoland for adults and a dream for children. You can't help but succumb to it.
It boasts a sprawling metropolis that sparkles in the heat, with the creek that offers traditional boat rides across to the souk markets weaving together its historic and modern elements.
There is plenty to do if, like many of us pale-skinned Irish, you're not a beach goer. Downtown attractions include the colossal Dubai mall and the Dubai museum, and, for the children, the Wonderland theme park and the Wild Wadi water park.
Yes, Dubai is extravagant and a destination that undoubtedly oozes wealth. But it is also a world of happily co-existing opposites.
Watching the sunset in 30°C heat surrounded by miles of rolling dunes is something I will never forget. Neither is the view from atop the tallest building on earth, and an emblem of modernity, the Burj Khalifa.
When you read about the spectacle dubbed the Eighth Wonder of the World, you picture its size and its exuberance. The genuine article? Jaw-dropping.
When you escape to the old town, you embrace haggling over potent spices in saffron yellow and chilli red, piled high in their grain sacks, and marvel at the shelves of delicate gold jewellery.
Simply put, it is a tourist's treasure trove.
Going from one extreme to another is commonplace – for example, rustic dining is just 30 minutes away from the bright lights of the city abd the Buddha Bar.
The experience in the latter is aesthetically overwhelming, from the food, wine, decor and lighting to the clientele and their cars.
Nestled in the more expensive Jumeirah resort, it encapsulates the luxurious side of the region. Everywhere you turn there's a good-looking woman who looks like a model, accompanied by a handsome man dressed in a crisp white dishdash, the ankle-length traditional garment.
Originating with the local Bedouin tribe, the dishdash was a particular element of the UAE way of life that I admired. There is an emphasis on maintaining a pristine appearance among men here and many do that by changing dishdash throughout the day.
Back on the sightseeing trail, a highlight for me – and a perfect family experience – is an afternoon of dune bashing followed by the tranquility of the desert sunset.
After packing into our convoy of jeeps, we embark on an hour of driving up steep inclines and down stomach-churning valleys. It is a sheer adrenaline rush.
And there, our journey comes to an end.
Heading off to the Middle East for the weekend usually calls for comfortable clothing, sleeping tablets and a fully charged iPod.
But if you find yourself with an opportunity to fly business class on an A380, it is altogether immense. The flight included Champagne, the latest TV series box sets, and gin and tonics at the bar.
And when drowsiness takes over, you can hit the mattress.
Need to know
Dublin to Dubai flights with Emirates start from €521.04 inclusive of taxes. See emirates.com or visit your travel agent for bookings.
• Burj al Arab is the only seven-star hotel in the world. It is frequented by golfer Rory McIlroy, while Graeme McDowell proposed to his now fiancée on the helipad, 321m above the ground.
Rates from €1,500pn. See burj-al-arab.com.
• Grand Hyatt Dubai (5*) is situated along the historic creek. The spa includes a gym and an indoor swimming pool.
Rates from €300pn. See dubai.grand.hyatt.com.
• Atlantis the Palm (5*) is situated on its own 800m, private beach on Palm Island. It has an underwater aquarium, dolphin-swimming opportunities and a water park.
Rates from €540pn. See atlantisthepalm.com.
• Grosvenor House Hotel (5*) stands out as a landmark of modern elegance and grandeur in Dubai Marina.
Rates from €200pn. See grosvenorhouse-dubai.com.
• Mina A' Salam at Madinat Jumeirah (5*) offers free access to Wild Wadi water park. It has an indoor and outdoor pool, and spa. All rooms come with a balcony.
Rates from €570pn. See jumeirah.com.
• Le Royal Meridien Beach Hotel & Resort (5*) caters for every type of traveller, and has 14 international restaurants and bars.
Rates from €366pn. See leroyalmeridien-dubai.com.
• The Armani Hotel (5*) was designed by designer Giorgio Armani to reflect his personal taste. Rates from €800pn. See dubai.armanihotels.com.