In 1966, gold was struck in Dubai. A different type of gold, this was gold of the liquid variety – oil – and with this precious commodity came an extraordinary boom. Such was the pace of this boom, it quickly became the fastest growing city in the world, and when you step afoot, you can most definitely feel its tempo; fast and flashy. But it is also a world of paradox. Sitting somewhere between Aladdin and The Jetsons, Dubai’s character is idiosyncratic, a kind of futuristic desert kingdom.
In parts, its floor is shiny. In other parts, sandy. The sparkly part, even as an eager voyeur, you’d be well accustomed to. Sparkling walls, floors and doors, credit cards of the black and platinum variety, designer labels, the best of the best. The grandest of the grand. The most, always.
Its sandier trail, however, may be a road less travelled, but one rich in culture, tradition and wealth – of a different kind. Going against the grain (or diamond) in Dubai is well-worth the detour. A sandy side step away from the pools and palms and you arrive at a cultural hot-bed of cuisine, entertainment and hospitality. First stop, a trip to the desert…
Dip into the desert
No trip to the Middle East is complete with a dusty pit-stop to the desert. But instead of venturing for hours into the depths of Emirati desert, choose Bab Al Shams – a mere 45 minute drive from Dubai’s urban jungle. Bab Al Shams is the type of place you see in movies, or in Instagram feeds. It feeds the stereotype of sprawling dusty plains, camel rides and open-back four-wheelers in the most beautiful way. Quite simply, it’s desert done right. Look up, and the intricacies of Moorish architecture will awe, look straight ahead and a palm-laden pool will excite, look down, and the soft sand is just below your feet. Float up to the pool bar for a Pina Colada (a must in the heat), or lie back on a lounge and wait for a gracious staffer to Spritz you with Avené’s Thermal Mist (also, a mandatory in the heat). And when that Emirati sun becomes just too hot, retreat to your room; a haven, in every respect. Furnished traditionally, it is an elegant pastiche of raw ceramics, printed textiles and brass – lit with warmth and a little spice.
Art meets art meets art at Alserkal Avenue – an industrial precinct devoted to the contemporary arts. Urban in mood and what you would picture in East London or New York as oppose to Dubai, the area comprises giant, architecturally-designed warehouse spaces rented out to artists, creatives, cafes, even chocolate makers. A kind of creative commune; it features everything from exhibitions to works in progress, and detours from the designer city outside. A hub showcasing the world’s greatest cerebral minds and creative lights, most exhibitions are open to the public. Tip: Don’t leave without a block of chocolate from Mirzam Chocolate Makers – a boutique Willy Wonka-style chocolate factory (the Rose is a must).
For a new city steeped in modernism, Dubai actually boasts a very ancient past. Take a glance backwards at the Dubai Museum – housed in the oldest exisiting building in the city, the Al Fahidi Fort – or wander the warren of the Old Town; a labyrinth of Gypsum and stone buildings with traditional trimmings. To truly immerse yourself however, expand your cultural awareness at the Sheik Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding – where an interesting Q&A between locals and tourists plays out over biryani and burqas.
Homesick? Fear not, simply head to Tom&Serg for some smashed avo and a cold drip and you’ll feel right back in Bondi. Trust an Australian to take Melbourne’s brunch scene and serve it in the desert. Founder and Chef, Tom Arnel, formerly of the kitchen of culinary master Shannon Bennett – jumped on the brunch bandwagon and turned it into a multi-level, industrially-furnished foodie haven in the middle of Dubai that actually serves good coffee. And almond milk. (Phew).
No trip to the Middle East is compete without a souk stop. Jump ship on an Abra and cross the Dubai Creek for a taste of the bustling marketplace. Drip in gold, stock up on spice, nab a kitsch tourist tee, or, for the brave, indulge in some camel ice cream. Just the thing to appease the heat.
A fry up
Of course, dining and degustation go hand in hand with Dubai, with the city boasting Michelin-star fare and elegant dining at almost every turn. But, to truly tantalise your tastebuds, the streets is where your foodie heart will skip a beat (and a button). Comprising only 10-15% of United Arab Emirates nationals, expat culture is rife, and with this, comes a multitude of cuisines. Frying Pan Adventures is your answer: a Middle Eastern food pilgrimage across the city, unearthing everything from falafel (the best I’ve had) to kataifi – cooked right in front of you and consumed hot and gooey. The culinary tour is not to be missed and ends on a (sugar) high – with Faloodeh; icy sweetened noodles with rosewater and lemon juice and saffron ice cream.
The beauty of Dubai lies in its idiosyncrasy – new meets old, luxe meets simple, desert meets beach, and to truly experience Dubai, one of course has to dip their toes into the sea. And what better place than the newly opened Nikki Beach Resort. Flanked on a sprawling stretch of the Arabian Gulf, the five star resort has it all; elaborate pools, swim-up bars, chic cabanas, restaurants and of course – that view – a vista of turquoise and white that melds almost too perfectly. And whilst Nikki Beach is a taste of Dubai’s luxury, sometimes in order to appreciate the alternate route, you must also take the high road. And what a spectacular road it was. Just the place to put your feet up and enjoy an iced tea in the sun, as the dust settles.