With EXPO 2020 on the cards, there’s even more to explore in this Middle Eastern city that continues to surprise and delight.
Dreaming of winter sun, we dropped everything in an indulgent, last-minute dash to top up our Vitamin D. If you want guaranteed sunshine at this time of year, the South of Spain just doesn’t cut it. Dubai’s forecast, however, promised us glorious rays from sunrise to sunset and a steady 32 degrees. That’s the ticket.
The UAE’s city of glitz is often shrouded with notions of artificiality. The cynical would say it’s a hollow, soulless place that’s all about the money. But others would argue it’s a dynamic, future-facing playground of a city, celebrating the very best in human ingenuity. Leaving any pre-conceived ideas behind at Heathrow, we were determined to see Dubai with fresh eyes and to eke out some lesser lauded parts – no matter how much we’d be dazzled by the lights. Of course, we’re taken out at the first hurdle as our late-night transfer zooms through the sprawling metropolis, every inch of it illuminated. Wide-eyed and with dropped jaws we pass spectacular buildings that would dwarf London’s skyline, learning that much of it has, impressively, gone up in the last decade. Everything here is bigger and brighter, each imposing skyscraper seemingly outdoing its predecessor. Even the palm trees – of which hundreds line the streets – are wrapped in fairy lights, because you simply cannot have too much sparkle. We arrive at the fittingly glitzy Caesars Palace with just enough time to check in, order room service and take in the twinkly, exotic view from our balcony, pondering what Dubai has in store for us over the next few days.
Caesars Palace Dubai, Palace Ocean King Room
We’ve timed our trip to coincide with EXPO 2020 (it’s come a year late but kept the branding) and like many who’ve made the pilgrimage from all over the globe, we spend our first day ambitiously dipping in and out of the mega-exhibition’s pavilions. But there’s 192 to explore, each representing a different country, and we’d need weeks to fully experience them all. Feeling a proud sense of continuity – the first universal exposition of 1851 was, of course, held at our own Crystal Palace – we visit the UK’s offering. An in-joke amongst organisers is that ours has the best queuing system, and they’re not wrong. As we dutifully criss-cross our way up to the entrance, we’re met with a magnificent conical structure projecting hundreds of interchangeable digital words. We’re told the pavilion is inspired by a project from the late great Stephen Hawking and features a collective message that’s continuously evolving, generated both by AI and visitors’ contributions, before it’s beamed into the ether. This city within a city boasts Olympian scale but a truly grounding experience comes in the form of London-based artist Nicola Anthony, who talks us through her sculptural piece in progress. One of EXPO’s central themes is sustainability (alongside mobility and opportunity), and Nicola’s delicately hand-crafted work represents an hourglass on its side, suggesting that humankind is currently at the central bottleneck, with an uncertain future ahead. In cool ocean blues, the piece comprises organic materials and coastal finds, yet it’s linked up to mind-boggling tech. Suspended ditsy lights either twinkle away or experience violent surges, all powered in real-time by the COP26 hashtag, reminding us of the global conversation on climate. Between sustenance stops (the African food hall is a must), casually chatting to patrolling robots like it’s 2076, and taking in some wonderfully moving films and installations, we have our fill of art, architecture, science and culture, and yet we’ve only seen a fragment.
Back in the centre of the action we dine at Trèsind. One of Dubai’s hottest tables, the restaurant offers truly innovative Indian cuisine and in a city of wows, doesn’t hold back on the theatrics. We’re treated to the chef’s tasting menu and devour our way through ten exquisitely crafted dishes, starting with an amuse bouche pani puri. A refined version of the popular street dish, we’re advised to chomp the thing whole, dehydrated potato butterfly and all, to fully experience its outlandish burst of flavours. Other stand-out dishes include the modernist chaat tart, the paneer tikka paturi starter, and the paan cotton candy, which arrives at our table to audible gasps from envious co-diners. As we sip on our last creative cocktail of the evening we pick fluffy white candyfloss from a sculptural silver tree – a suitably elaborate finale.
If you want to see the city in full sparkle, then the only way is up. It comes as no surprise that Dubai’s answer to the London Eye, Ain, is the biggest in the world, reaching a tummy-turning 250m. We take a late-night spin (in fact a reassuringly gentle ride) on this colossal observation wheel to experience the cityscape in lights. Towering over the glistening marina, we view the city’s iconic landmarks and illuminated super-structures in awe. With newly confident heads for heights, we’re keen to scale the Dubai Frame, too. One of the city’s most recognisable architectural triumphs, the gilded picture frame stands at 150m and is strategically positioned with modern Dubai on one side and its older quarters on the other, offering visitors a chance to sight-see left and right, and for those brave enough, down. The giant golden structure is made from steel, aluminium and reinforced concrete, but also glass with its central see-through observation deck. Look down if you dare.
Intrigued to see the less attention-grabbing side of Dubai, this time on the ground, we head to Deira for a souks and creek-side food walk courtesy of local indie enterprise, Frying Pan Adventures. Led by the engaging and insanely knowledgeable Farida Ahmed, we’re immediately taken off the beaten track and into a sensory world of exotic spices and foodstuffs. We’ve seen enough gold. Here, it’s all about the frankincense and myrrh – and the intoxicating saffron, indigo and dried limes. We’d been advised to skip breakfast and soon realise why as we munch our way through hearty anda-paratha rolls washed down with a traditional cup of chai. Making our way past tiny utilitarian cafés complete with resident lazy street kittens, we take an abra ride across the creek. Finding ourselves in a vibrant textile souk in Bur Dubai, Farida shares invaluable tips on bartering before guiding us through the Indian quarter and finally on to Al Khayma, an Emirati heritage restaurant in the historic Fahidi neighbourhood. Set in one of the area’s iconic Barjeel houses, the eatery is a delightfully wholesome affair and, after our sunshiny walk, we’re more than happy to take off our shoes, curl up on cosy floor cushions, and feast on traditional rice pilafs, stews and seafood dishes, scooping it up with our saffron-stained fingers.
An extreme change of scenery takes us from the narrow, winding streets of the souks to the sandy open expanse of the desert – and we’re up at the crack of dawn to do it. An intense orange sunrise greets us as we leave the city behind, headed for the Platinum Heritage desert camp – a privately owned nature reserve that strives to protect the land’s flora, fauna, and incredible history. Camel-racing is huge here and as we enter the site we meet dozens of the majestic animals, draped in cool cotton blankets and with colourful basket-like muzzles. But these are the racing kind. Before we meet our more docile (read male) humped friends we’re fitted for head scarves, tied the traditional way, before jumping in the back of a jeep. Mounting these graceful animals in the least graceful fashion brings a mix of fear and hilarity but we soon find our stride as we drink in the incredible quiet and the disappearing horizon. Our shadows join us on the ride to the bedouin camp, at which we get an introductory lesson in falconry before we tuck into a nourishing breakfastof fava beans, fresh fruit and traditional chabab served with sweet date syrup.
Gordon Ramsay’s, Hell’s Kitchen
Back at Caesars Palace, there’s time to fully relax and, importantly, take in that winter sun we’d been craving. We spend our last day in Dubai lunching at Gordon Ramsay’s on-site Hell’s Kitchen, devouring the very best of British fare complete with a Brit-Pop soundtrack. We have our tired bones pummelled at the hotel’s luxurious Qua Spa, and we flit between turquoise pool dips and spreading out on the beachfront cabanas, ice-cold cocktail in hand as we reflect on our Arabian adventures with a smile. We’ve sure packed a lot in.
From £1,429 pp for five nights at Caesars Palace on a half-board basis, including direct return flights from London Gatwick with Emirates. Depart 5 March 2022. Book by 30 January 2022 (travelbag.co.uk)