Tuesday 24 October 2017

Dubai: Don't let its delights and sights pass

There's so much more to the Emirate city than work and wealth, finds Carol Hunt

Carol Hunt

Carol Hunt

The lights are dimmed from a soft glow to a blackout, voices are hushed and we find ourselves lying in the desert at night, staring up into the multitude of star formations rarely seen from Ireland. It's quite a moment and one that is over far too quickly, as, 10 minutes or so later, normal service is resumed at the Arabian desert camp just outside Dubai.

Families from all over the globe are here, eating traditional Arabic food, watching the (rather mature) belly-dancer, or just relaxing on cushions by the fire, passing a shisha (Arabic water pipe) to each other for a puff or two of strong apple tobacco.

Earlier in the day, we dune buggied out to the camp. Being one of a convey of 4x4s racing over the empty sand on a swelteringly hot afternoon is one of the most hilariously exhilarating experiences I've had in recent memory.

Though it's a tourist trip and the drivers are experts, you do get a feel of what it must be like to travel across the wide desert plains and the dangers involved in this vast, beautiful nomads' land.

Dubai is not a place I would usually think of as a holiday destination. From what I had read, it was a city with no history or culture, a superficial paean to too much money and far too little sense, built very recently by cheap labour on the shores of the Arabian Gulf.

These reviews may carry a grain of truth but they miss the essential essence of what makes Dubai the most astonishing city I've visited -- its exuberant "can do" frontier spirit. To complain that there is no culture in Dubai is like saying there was no culture in the New York of the 1800s. It's a mismatch of every culture imaginable, with people coming here from all over the world to grasp at the opportunities and adventures it offers to those who work hard, are clever and know how to mix peaceably with people of all religions and none.

Sitting on the balcony of the Riverside restaurant beside the Burj Khalifa (the tallest building in the world) and looking upwards at the towering monoliths, we experienced pure awe. Suddenly, the man-made lake below us erupts and we are treated to Dubai's dancing fountains. Being Dubai, of course, it is the world's largest dancing fountain, situated beside the world's tallest building and the world's biggest shopping mall. It's easy to mock but we thought it was one of the most beautiful -- and romantic -- things we've ever seen.

We had only a week to check out all Dubai has to offer an Irish visitor but we managed to get a feel for the Emirate, its culture and rhythms, its many delights, that some people may miss.

We were lucky in that we stayed in the Bonnington Hotel, new and Irish owned -- run by Dennis McGettigan, who is very ably assisted by an excellent staff, both foreign and Irish. The hotel, and particularly its latest addition, McGettigan's Bar, is proving a hit with Irish visitors and ex-pats, not least because entertainment manager Declan Pierce organised a sell-out comedy special recently, with the toast of Irish comedic talent travelling over to perform.

The Bonnington is a very beautiful hotel with all the luxuries you'd associate with a five-star hotel in Dubai -- wonderful rooms with flat-screen TVs and the softest beds imaginable. It's also right beside the newly built Metro.

I spent some indulgent mornings poolside -- on the 11th floor -- with the obligatory massage and sauna followed by a luscious lunch. There's an excellent gym there, too, but I chose to do my sweating in the sun rather than on a Stairmaster.

On our arrival, the genial Dennis and Declan asked what we'd like to get out of our week's holiday. On behalf of their guests, they had just tried out the dune-buggying and desert feast, and recommended it without reservation. A visit to the local mosque was a must also, they advised.

The hotel guide, Joe, was on hand to show us the souks and bazaars, and take us on a trip across the Dubai Creek in an ancient Abra (open raft), where if you squint you can imagine yourself on a Venetian canal, albeit without the crumbling buildings and obligatory rubbish.

It's one of the first things you notice about Dubai -- how clean everything is and how safe. Women can travel at any time of night or day, unaccompanied, in taxis or on the new Metro, and know they do so in total safety. This I found to be a surprise, but even though Dubai is an Islamic state run by a hereditary ruler, it is far more benign and tolerant than some of its neighbours. As long as one is respectful of local customs and Ramadan practices -- no public drinking/sex/nudity -- pretty much anything goes.

A must for any visitor is a visit to Al Bastakiya, the Old Town Dubai, which was once home to the Iranian merchants who visited the city. It depicts an exquisite blend of Arabic and Persian traditions, and recent renovations have turned many of the old houses into galleries and cafes.

The museum, located within Al Fahidi Fort, gives the visitor an excellent idea of how swiftly Dubai changed from being a desert outpost (in the Seventies) to a bustling, international city thanks to the vision and determination of the ruling sheikh.

Dennis encouraged us to visit the Jumeirah mosque, a beautiful building built of stone on the medieval Fatimid tradition. The Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding hosts many events to inspire greater awareness between different cultures and religions, and a guided visit to the mosque is one of them.

It's humorous and informative. As we sit on the floor, two guides -- one a loquacious English woman who converted to Islam -- take us through the traditions and customs of Islam in Dubai. And, most importantly, explain the difference between what is laid down by Allah and what is invented by man.

I haven't even mentioned the beautiful, white beaches, the diversity of food, the ski slopes at the Mall of the Emirates (really), the camel-racing, the Gold Souk, swimming followed by brunch at the Barasti beach bar ...

"Come back soon and bring your kids," suggests Dennis, as we reluctantly take our leave on a warm spring morning. "They'll love it." That's a date.

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