I use the term ancient rather loosely, as Dubai was only founded around the 1800s – it was once however a region inhabited by Bedouins who made a living fishing, searching for pearls and herding sheep and goats. Where ancient dhows transported livestock and merchandise across the creek, where camels were used as transport and where open markets were the shopping malls of the day. But it wasn’t long before Dubai became an important trading port and tax free haven… which is certainly mirrored in the steel-and-glass skyscrapers of today’s modern and ‘economically free’ Dubai.
The transition wasn’t plain sailing though. The region had to deal with a declining pearl industry, due in part to the emergence of artificial pearls, which saw many of its then inhabitants choosing to migrate to other parts of the Arab world. In 1966 ‘black gold’ was discovered, which fueled rapid growth in the region, only to take a slump in the late’ 70s when the price of oil dropped to an all time low. But with some astute out-the-box thinking and incredibly creative leadership, Dubai began to re-invent itself… to become the tourist destination that it is today.
Today’s Dubai is called many things… a ‘playground for the rich’, the ‘Manhattan of the Middle East’ and the ‘city of superlatives’ – and yes, it is these, and more, way more. It can be just about the glamorous lifestyle, the glorious shopping and the biggest and best of everything. But choose to really experience Dubai and you’ll see her at her very best.
A great way to start is a visit to the SHEIKH MOHAMMED CENTRE FOR CULTURAL UNDERSTANDING (SMCCU) located in the historic Al Fahidi District in Bur Dubai. An easy walk from the Al Fahidi Metro Station and down Al Mankhool Road – the variety of shops and businesses giving a glimpse into everyday life in this old part of town.
The wind towers, stone coloured buildings and minarets of the mosque announce your arrival. The SMCCU is the brain child of His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum. His vision is to educate visitors in the traditions and customs of the UAE – with ‘no-holds-barred’ question sessions (in keeping with its “Open doors. Open minds.” motto), traditional meals and heritage tours.
After a fascinating tour through the twisting streets and past coral clad mansions – many of them now restored and home to quirky coffee shops, art galleries and museums – we sat down to enjoy a traditional Emirati brunch and the much anticipated Q&A session. The open discussion included the anticipated questions about religion and traditional attire to more sensitive questions around women’s rights and men having more than one wife – all answered with humour and openness. With typical Emirati hospitality, our brunch started with Arabic coffee spiced with cardamom and saffron, followed by a selection of authentic Emirati dishes including Balaleet (sweetened vermicelli), Machboos (chicken and rice, like a biryani), Laham Nashif (chicken in a vegetable sauce), Khamir (delicious flat bread) and my favourite Ligamat (yummy little ‘donuts’) smothered in ‘dibbs’ (date syrup). All this washed down with a refreshing cup of tea.
These narrow twisting streets certainly deserve a second more leisurely visit – be sure to pop into the COFFEE MUSEUM to learn about the history of ‘the bean’, see the ancient ‘tools of the trade’ and enjoy a traditional Arabic, Turkish or Ethiopian coffee; or enjoy a relaxing lunch at the XVA BOUTIQUE HOTEL after browsing their thought provoking contemporary art. Other places of interest include the inspirational Mawaheb Art Studio for adults with special needs, the Majlis Gallery, the Philately House, Heritage House, Coins Museum as well as the Dubai Museum – housed in the Al Fahidi Fort, Dubai’s oldest building.
Dubai offers a number of SHOPPING OPTIONS, from glitzy shopping malls to the traditional souks, both offering merchandise from around the world to be carefully considered (or haggled over) and bought. The Souks however are wonderfully colourful, a tad noisy and extremely fascinating. The Textile Souk, on the Bur Dubai side of the Creek, consists of a multitude of small shops selling everything from beautiful fabrics to clothes, hand crafted shoes and souvenirs – there are fabulous pashminas in every colour, texture and fabric you can imagine!
Across the Creek in Deira is the world famous Gold Souk, where the narrow streets and lanes are lined with shops whose glass fronted windows are crammed with gold – from delicate necklaces to large ceremonial pieces and absolutely everything in between. The nearby Spice Souk offers a completely different, more traditional type of experience, where you can imagine the colourful selection of spices with their wonderfully heady aroma having arrived in hessian sacks on a heavily laden dhow… Should you prefer a slightly more sanitary option for buying spices, many of the supermarkets offer much the same variety, but minus the wonderfully sensory experience.
The Dubai Creek, with its ancient dhows and nifty water taxis (the abra), offers a glimpse into what Dubai was like decades ago. The dhows are no less important now than they were in their maritime trade heyday, when gold, spices and other merchandise was traded across the Gulf and Indian Ocean. Now cargo arriving in Dubai gets unpacked, sorted and exported into the region. It’s quite intriguing seeing refrigerators, beds and other household goods lining the street alongside the Creek waiting to be loaded. The abra offers a wonderfully inexpensive way to cross the Creek and is the way the locals do it, just realise that during ‘rush hour’ you may have to wait a while. Enjoy a fresh coconut drink, watermelon smoothie or chicken shawarma along the quayside… or even a puff or two of the shisha pipe.
Downtown Dubai is the modern version of old Dubai, and this is where many of the superlatives come in to play! The World’s highest building – the amazing Burj Khalifa; world’s biggest shopping mall – the incredible Dubai Mall and even the world’s largest choreographed dancing fountain – the breathtaking Dubai Fountain… This is where many of the locals, expats and visitors come to shop, to dine and to be entertained. Even the kids get to be entertained… and educated at the Dubai Mall’s amazing Kidzania, a ‘town’ where no adults are allowed and the kids get to do ‘life’, spending, working, earning and best of all learning – there’s even a recycling van in their town. It looked such fun – I so wanted to be a kid again!
No visit to Dubai would be complete without SPENDING SOME TIME IN THE DESERT. We had the privilege of experiencing the desert with Platinum Heritage, a safari company committed to responsible tourism and operating with an ethos of conservation, environmental awareness and community upliftment. This desert safari was unlike most others… no convoys of vehicles, no dune bashing and no belly dancing. What you get with Platinum Heritage is authentic, staying true to Emirati culture – even down to the mode of transportation!
After arriving in the desert we were escorted to our vehicle… a beautifully restored 1950s, museum quality vintage Land Rover. The Land Rover is very much a part of the history of the UAE dating back to the late ‘50s when they were brought over by British troops. On their departure in the early ‘70s the Land Rovers were left behind and many became the first vehicle local Emirati’s had access to, often becoming community vehicles. We couldn’t have found a more authentic ride than this to experience the desert and spot the wildlife found within the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve. We got to see a herd of Arabian Oryx, snatched back from probable extinction by valiant conservation efforts, as well as the elusive Arabian gazelle. Hamdy, our guide, pointed out the Sodom’s Apple (valued for its medicinal value by the Bedouin), Tamarisk and Ghaf trees and explained the detrimental effect that dune bashing has on the creatures and critters that reside just beneath the desert sand. I was glad platinum Heritage was committed to only using designated routes as determined by conservationists.
The Bedouin Camp, which was gently lit with traditional lamps, treads lightly in this beautiful desert… by being solar powered (only using a generator as a back-up); using gravitational force in preference to pumps for its water; by sorting garbage on site – food waste gets composted for use as a mulch, and by purchasing for the long term, avoiding unnecessary wastage. Much of the produce is sourced locally, which makes sense seeing as we were about to enjoy traditional Emirati cuisine, freshly prepared in an age old manner – we watched the wafer thin Raqaq (bread) being made, so delicious we went back for more; the yummy Shorbat Adas (lentil soup) was ladled out of a heavy cast iron pot and the incredibly tender Ouzi (whole roasted lamb) was retrieved from its charcoal pit where it had been cooking for 24 hours! We dined in wonderful desert style, were entertained with traditional music and dance, gazed up at the stars… and I even got to ride a camel.
Another wonderfully historic experience is to land on the Dubai Creek by seaplane… ok, I’m probably stretching things a little as where we landed was probably not the original ‘landing strip’. Aviation in Dubai began in 1937 when the first seaplanes operating between Britain and Pakistan landed on the Dubai Creek, followed by a route from Durban to Sydney via the Gulf. This unfortunately ceased with the onset of WWII. My Seawings seaplane flight was of much shorter duration than these early journeys, but definitely no less thrilling.
With safety briefings and security checks dealt with – yes, the same aviation regulations apply – it was time to board. We cruised slowly across the water until it we were a safe distance from land, and then Jeff our Canadian Captain throttled up… take off was absolutely exhilarating. The views were spectacular, and offered a completely different perspective of Dubai and a great way to orientate you in a landscape with few topographical landmarks. Manmade landmarks however are aplenty! The Palm Jumeirah and iconic Burj Al Arab on the left, the spectacular Burj Khalifa on the right… I was on top of the World! The experience was surreal, I loved every moment of it but far too soon we were preparing for landing alongside the Dubai Creek Golf Club.
Whilst Seawings has a number of tour options to choose from, the most popular is the Dubai Creek Silver tour. The aerial views of Old Dubai easily take you back to a time when ancient dhows chugged up- and downstream transporting their wares. To when abras carried both passengers and livestock across the Creek, the women discreetly covered, wandering through the narrow lanes in search of that perfect bolt of fabric, or special spice for the evening meal… while their men sat together deliberating the business of the day.
Besides the unforgettable experience, the great thing about seaplanes is that they are more environmentally friendly than most other aircraft and unlike other motorised craft emit no oil discharge into the water. They are also less noisy and cause no disturbance to marine life.
Foodies will love Dubai for the incredible variety that it offers – we enjoyed a wonderful buffet lunch at the Armani Hotel Dubai’s Mediterraneo restaurant and Japanese fusion and fabulous views of the Dubai Fountain at The Address Downtown’s Zeta Restaurant. Our senses were challenged whilst ‘Dining in the Dark’ at the Fairmont Dubai’s Noire restaurant and the Dubai Polo and Equestrian Club delivered a feast fit for a king at their Friday al fresco buffet brunch. But to experience cuisine as the locals do, there is nothing better that a walking (and eating) tour of Dubai’s old district with Arva Ahmed from Frying Pan Adventures.
Arva, a long-time resident of old Dubai and the perfect guide, led us through the historic streets, her passion and knowledge inspiring even the non-foodie’s among us to great culinary aspirations. We visited authentic eateries, such as Qwaider Al Nabulsi in Murraqqabat Street, where we feasted on a wide variety of culinary delights from Falafel mahshi and hummus with tatbeela (a delicious coriander, parsley, capsicum and lemon sauce) to a delicious Palestinian chicken pie called Musakhan. We interacted with local vendors and chefs – enjoying Arabic coffee and small delicate pieces of Baklava with pistachio’s and yummy Ma’amoul (a spiced date cookie) at Arva’s favourite sweet shop; smiling in delight as we watched an Egyptian feteer being tossed in the air (like making pizza) before being covered in basturma (beef pastrami), veggies and cheese and spicy shatta sauce; tasting Syrian pistachio Boozah ice cream at Asail Al Sham on Rigga Road and stocking up on goodies to take home at Sadaf Iranian Sweets and Spices – this is definitely ‘shopping local’.
One of the highlights was an Emirati feast at Al Tawasol, near the Clock Tower, as was our Iranian meal at Abshar Restaurant in Maktoum Street. By this time my eating capacity was beyond the suggested 80 percent that Arva had recommended – 20 percent per stop – but I still managed the freshly baked Sangak (stone bread that we watched being prepared in an oven full of little pebbles) served with local cheese and tulsi (rayhaan leaves) and the Iranian black tea. The rest would have to wait for my next visit to Dubai, but in the meantime I will have to up my skills in the kitchen, or search for a Middle Eastern restaurant close to home!
To make the most of your visit to Dubai, I suggest you find some time to ‘travel like a local’ and experience the history, culture and traditions of what ultimately has made the glitzy and glamorous new Dubai what she is today.
Getting around: The easiest way to get around is by Metro – purchase a ticket on arrival and then top up as required (the ticket is also valid on the tram). And when venturing further afield, or to areas not accessible by Metro, take the bus or a taxi (the beige ones are cheaper, as we quickly discovered!)
Where to stay: There are a virtually zillions of options, from apartments to guest houses and LUXURY HOTELS AND RESORTS. Find one that is eco-certified, or ask pertinent questions before booking to find out the extent of their environmental commitment. Whilst it is great to find an establishment that is doing all the ‘right stuff’, it is ultimately the responsibility of the traveller to make sure they tread lightly and leave little to no negative impacts.
Dubai culture: Although Dubai is a cosmopolitan city, her culture is rooted in Islamic tradition – the UAE however is welcoming to foreigners and fairly tolerant. The dress code is liberal and alcohol is served in hotels. That said courtesy and respect for the people and their culture should always be considered. It is a good idea for visitors (especially women) not to wear very short, tight or revealing clothing, especially when in shopping malls, government offices or religious sites – I found it useful to always have a pashmina with me so as to cover my shoulders. Shorts, bikinis etc. are acceptable when on the beach or at a resort.
UAE nationals usually wear their traditional dress – for men this is the khandura (also known as a dishdahsa) and a headdress known as a gutra. In public women wear the black abaya and a headscarf when required. Normally tourist photography is acceptable, but do resist the urge to take photos in the airport, of government buildings, military installations and definitely not of Muslim women as this is considered offensive. Like anywhere be polite and ask permission before photographing people.
Words & pics – Tessa Buhrmann (unless otherwise indicated)
Read the article in Responsible Traveller mag
Note: A huge thank you to Emirates Airline for flying Responsible Traveller and to the Dubai Tourism Commerce and Marketing South Africa (DTCMSA) for organising such an amazing itinerary.