Dubai or not Dubai
Wealth and excess are everywhere in Dubai but it's only a drive to a remote desert paradise
A land of Ferraris and falconry, Bulgari and Burqas -- Dubai covers it all. This desert oasis of ultimate ostentation may continue to draw the mass millions, but for those tourists who aren't enamoured by mega malls, superlative skyscrapers and indoor skiing with Emperor penguins, what can the UAE's largest city and its surrounds offer? I touched down in the Emirates last summer to experience a 48-hour stopover with a grounded edge.
Amid Dubai's ever-flourishing inventory of hotels, my base was the Hilton Resort in the swit-swoo neighbourhood of Jumeirah. The gleaming, futuristic, stomping ground of the city's professional class, the district is known as the Beverly Hills of Dubai (Malibu without soul, perhaps a little more fitting).
Following my early dawn arrival, I made my way down to the hotel's private palm-lined beach, where the searing sunrise was just beginning to glisten against the skyline. Being July and Ramadan in Dubai, there was an element of lockdown to proceedings, but even off-season, the resort was drawing its few but faithful.
The ubiquitous Russian tourists and Burkini bathers were first to emerge, while nearby, a group of Crossfit enthusiasts had gathered for a class before the summer swelter would get any steamier (48C, the mercury would soon splutter to).
Keen to reel back a few years, my first stop was the old town district of Bur Dubai.
From the pier, I tip-toed across a number of moored vessels to grab a bargain water taxi ride across the creek (1 Dirham/20 cents). Across the creek in the labyrinthine market district of Deira, stalls were a fragrant assault of herbs and spices while at the historic gold souk, tinsmiths and jewellers were selling their wares in a true showcase of Dubai old-school bling.
In a city with the largest international community in the world (87pc), Dubai's food scene is unsurprisingly eclectic, with every eatery from authentic Ethiopian restaurants to kooky Chinese karaoke bars. However, with the sunset over the city drawing another day of Ramadan fasting to a close, I joined the locals to mark the evening feast of Iftar.
The best Iftar in town is something of a perpetual debate in Dubai, but my expat experts had tipped to Reem Al-Bawadi, a fantastically kitsch, Arabian restaurant located along the Sheikh Zayed strip.
Beyond the Aladdin-esque, lantern-lit façade was a decadently authentic interior, where fully-robed affluent families were putting their iPhones and Gucci bags to the side to celebrate the lavish feast. I sat down to plates of every Middle-Eastern indulgence.
The next morning, I opted for a hire car to discover Dubai's environs and so, cranking up the TomTom and air-con, I made my break from the city. However, just two hours later and having crossed amber-duned desert, bustling fishing villages and the barren cusp of the Al-Hajar Mountains, the Emirates soon ran out of road. I'd reached Musadam: a tiny enclave of neighbouring Oman which occupies the tip of the Arabian Peninsula.
Curious to make a border hop to the region's isolated beaches, I was soon waved into the Sultanate by a veiled border official, administering my purpose of visit of "going for a swim".
The beach was deserted -- the scorching sands occupied only by a cast of ghost crabs, scuttling across the shore before surrendering to the surf.
To cool down, I could only but join them and plunged into the turquoise underworld to seek respite from the searing air. A private paradise on an epic coastline?
This was the perfect stopover I was looking for, but with the sun about to set again over The Gulf, it was soon time to reroute back to Dubai.
That connecting flight onwards may have been looming, but I still had one more Iftar feast with my name on it.
Need to know
Emirates (emirates.ie; 01 779 4777) fly from Dublin to Dubai from €590 return or from €2,150 return in business class, if you fancy travelling like a sultan. Dibba lies a very doable 130km drive from Dubai; my one-day car hire with Thrifty (thriftyuae.com) came to €32 including sat nav.
For a decadent urban beach pad, the Hilton Dubai Jumeirah Resort (Hilton.com) offers room-only rates from a bargain €48pps. Add an extra zero for a stay at Dubai's most luxurious pad, the Burj Al Arab (jumeirah.com).
* For more, visit definitelydubai.com.