Arabian nights

As Dubai’s scorching summer heat begins to cool, a short break presents an opportunity to discover the soul beneath the glitz of the UAE’s biggest metropolis

I’ll confess that, with its bonkers buildings and sprawling mega malls, I had Dubai down as a fashion-obsessed, man-made Mecca – a hedonist’s playground. And while I’m not averse to a spot of indulgence, I like culture, scenery, adventure and history, too. My travelling companion assures me that there is all this, and more – a veritable Arabian wonderland, in fact. I’m not immediately convinced. Arriving for the first time is like stepping onto a futuristic film set; it is every bit the ‘Tomorrowland’ of audacious architecture and impossible glitz that I had imagined. With towering new hotels cropping up all the time (during the height of the property boom, Dubai was home to a quarter of the world’s cranes), there’s no shortage of places to stay. We’re headed for the JA Ocean View Hotel, boasting, yup, you guessed it, sublime views of the Arabian Gulf.

Fresh from an overnight flight, after checking into our luxurious room we’ve a mind for just two things: breakfast, followed by chill-out time in the spa. Neither disappoints and a masterful Swedish massage proves a brutal yet brilliant antidote to plane-induced tension. After taking some time out in the steam room I’m ready for my Dubai debut.

Being smack bang in the middle of Dubai Marina (the world’s biggest, naturally), we don’t have to go far to discover some of the city’s best shopping. The Walk is a fashionista’s paradise – it’s a mile-long strip of more than 300 retailers, eateries and gyms, and its pavement cafés are the perfect vantage point from which to watch the beautiful people.

All well and good, but so far, so predictable… We’re headed out of town, though, and I’ve a treat in store. Part of the JA group, set in a staggering 37 million square feet of natural sand dunes, the Al Sahra Desert Resort Equestrian Centre is just half an hour outside the city. Along with stunning scenery, it promises guests the taste of Arabian heritage that I’ve been looking for. We’re shown through stables that house breathtakingly beautiful Arabian horses, but our steeds for today are an altogether different breed: known as the ships of the desert, because of their ability to transport passengers safely around, camels look scarily big in real life (we’re in Dubai, I don’t know why I’m surprised). Their ungainly gait takes some getting used to, not least because we are seated two to a camel. We spend 40 minutes exploring the dunes, before happily dismounting to stagger cowboy-like to a pop-up sitting room in the sand. Stretched out on sofas and rugs, with glasses of bubbles in hand, we watch the sun set, snapping hundreds of photos of our camel chums silhouetted in the gorgeous glow.

There are more surprises in store at the JA Hatta Fort Hotel. Just an hour’s drive from the futuristic high-rises of Dubai, through undulating desert dunes, we come to the majestic Hajar mountains, where we discover a pretty low-rise hotel. Recently refurbished, the stylish interiors mix traditional and modern with great aplomb. Our bedroom is stunning, with a big stone feature wall, enormous bed and private balcony. In stark contrast to Dubai’s mega scale, the hotel is small enough to feel cosy and personal, but with service to match the city’s hospitality giants.

Later, we have lunch at the pool-side restaurant, tucking into the “best steak sandwich in the world” – my own accolade, but not awarded lightly. We’ve just returned from a mountain biking session and there’s nothing like a treacherous ride to whet the appetite (we took the easiest route on offer, I’m just not built for anything remotely athletic). One activity I do get on board with, though, is kayaking. A short drive from the hotel is the Hatta Dam. We spend a very happy hour paddling around in its calm turquoise water, admiring the dramatic mountain scenery and giving our arms a good workout. Back at the hotel, we park ourselves on comfortable loungers by one of the two inviting pools, accompanied by Charlie the peacock (one of the hotel’s many friendly animal residents).

There’s never a dull moment here, with opportunities to feed deer, as well as try out air rifle shooting and archery (deer not involved!); nothing quite tops our last night in the UAE though, during which we are treated to a truly unforgettable experience. On the grounds of the hotel there is a glamping area, where, beside a massive fire pit, we drink cocktails, eat barbecued food and then giggle our way through various flavoured shisha pipes. OK, I admit, just this once, to being wrong…