Dubai: Castles in the sand

By Kerri Jackson

Burj Al Arab Hotel in Dubai. Photo / Dubai Tourism
Burj Al Arab Hotel in Dubai. Photo / Dubai Tourism

Dubai. Does any other destination elicit quite so many diverse, emphatic, one-word reactions? Fantastic, alarming, surreal, insane, awe-inspiring, odd ...

The truth is that Dubai is all of these things, which also makes it one of the coolest, most fascinating places to stop over on the long haul between New Zealand and Europe.

So, with a 24-hour pause in this desert oasis, how best to spend it?

The first thing that becomes clear, arriving at 5am when the temperature is already 30C, is to plan your activities around the heat, especially if you're here May to September when temperatures have been known to top out at 50C.

One of the things that makes Dubai a little surreal at times is that, while this is a fairly densely populated area, with 1.5 million people in 2400sq km, you just never see them during the day. The heat drives everybody into the air-conditioned comfort of office blocks and shopping malls.

If you're wanting to do anything outside do it before 10am or after 6pm. That includes hitting the beach.

Walking along the sands of Jumeirah Beach at 8am is extremely pleasant and a good time to get some air before buckling yourself into the air conditioning for the rest of the day.

The area is home to one of Dubai's most intensive hotel strips - they line up one after the other, in a trail of sandy-coloured stone, intermingled with restaurants of almost every ethnicity - except Middle Eastern.

This is the bastion of the tourist; hardy souls who insist on sunbathing on the beach in 45C. The beach is lined with beautiful, soft white sands, hemming the warm turquoise water.

From here you can make out the developing buildings on the Palm's man-made islands across the water - one of Dubai's most famous and photographed developments. It's perhaps surpassed only by the iconic sail-shaped Burj Al Arab. The hotel is just visible further up the beach in the heat-hazy distance, sitting on another artificial island and looking for all the world like it's about to set sail. It's a stunningly elegant building, a symbol of what Dubai is trying to create out of its myriad construction sites.

For now though, those temperatures are rising; the sweat from the brow is starting to sizzle when it hits the footpath. It's time to seek cover.

First on the must-see list of indoor attractions is the record-breaking Burj Khalifa, the world's tallest building at 828m. It sprouts out of the central city like a gleaming hypodermic needle, looking superimposed against the bright blue sky.

Dubai is a theme park of firsts, biggests, tallests and oddests. Khalifa, the tallest, sits next to the Dubai Mall, the world's largest shopping centre. And it's there you buy your tickets to ride possibly the world's most psychedelic elevator to the viewing platform two-thirds of the way up Khalifa. It's a giddy light and sound extravaganza that moves so fast your ears pop. Pity the poor lift attendant who rides up and down it all day.

Then, after all that sensory overload you step out into the relative calm of the viewing platform and your jaw drops. The view is truly gob-smacking and it's from up here that you really get a perspective on Dubai. It no longer seems like a Middle Eastern metropolis so much as a tiny oasis of relative civilisation in a lot of desert. A lot of desert. From ground level it appears to be a heaving mass of town planning, yet from here, it seems a much more compact maze of construction sites - a relative speck in a sea of sand.

After ages with our faces pressed against the viewing platform windows in amazement, it's down in that bonkers lift again to hit the odd microcosm of Dubai Mall. It's where you find the hordes of people you knew must have been here somewhere.

As well as almost every Western chain store known to man - a total of 1200 of them - the mall is home to a spectacular aquarium, an indoor waterfall, an ice rink, a 22-screen movie theatre and a 250-room hotel.

If you're a shopper give yourself several hours to meander around and be prepared to get utterly lost. The door you think you came in never seems to lead quite the same way out. Most things are signposted, though there are plenty of well-positioned help desks and maps.

After recovering from the long first-leg of the flight and an early-morning start with a mid-afternoon siesta in the air-conditioned loveliness of the hotel, it's time to saddle up a camel and venture into the desert.

Arabian Adventures tour company will collect you from your hotel and drive you 30 minutes out of the city to Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve, where for the next few hours your driver will rock and roll you with a sliding, skidding off-road ride through the sand dunes.

It's a huge amount of fun and the convoy of 4WDs that make up the tour quickly resembles a line of busy ants making their way through the sand as it changes colours with the dying evening light.

Come peak season, the numbers on this Sundowner tour reach several hundred each night, packed into up to 120 cars. That does rather take the "intrepid" edge off the desert exploration, but when time and resources are limited it's a great way to get out of the city and see the desert. And this is definitely a proper desert, complete with warnings about snakes and scorpions - and the perfect antidote to the mad development going on in the city.

The tour ends at a permanent campsite, where torches are lit in the sinking sun and tables are laid out on vast carpets over the sand. Take the obligatory camel ride from a decidedly bored-looking camel then feast on delicious Middle Eastern food, the kind of which it proved extremely tricky to find in Jumeirah.

The after-dinner belly dancer shakes her money-maker just a tad too long to hold the interest, and there's an early flight to catch, so it's back in the 4WD for the trip home.

In fact, the drive to and from the reserve is one of the most fascinating parts of this brief stopover in Dubai. The driver/guide is full of information about the place and keen to share. He points out bare tracts of land he says will soon be home to theme parks, movie studios, racecourses, Formula 1 tracks and football stadiums, all intermingled with housing estates.

If it all comes to fruition this quiet, still piece of desert will become a seething mass of high-rises and rollercoasters. It's a little scary and hard to visualise from the tufts of grass and sand dunes that currently lie on the outskirts of town; not to mention the vast levels of unfinished construction already going on in the city. As he talks we're passed by a busload of Indian construction workers, headed back to their lodgings at the end of the day. It's hard not to feel sympathy for the guys who will have to build it all.

Earlier in the day, high up on that viewing platform Burj Khalifa, sightseers were jostling around the telescopes to spot man-made landmarks such as the Burj al Arab, but after 24 hours here you realise the reason this city makes a perfect stopover is not the tallest or biggest whatevers, but Dubai itself; the intriguing and developing sum of all those parts. The city as theme park.

IF YOU GO

Where to stay:
The Sofitel Jumeirah Beach in Dubai is one of the region's newest five-star hotels. The hotel is located in the heart of "new" Dubai, The Walk @ Jumeirah Beach Residence-JBR, a 1.5km promenade with more than 200 shops, cafes and restaurants. This beachfront luxury hotel offers breathtaking sea views from each room, all with a balcony. Rooms start at $239 a night. Book at sofitel.com

Getting around:
* Taxis are your best bet to get most places. They are cheap and reliable and easy to flag down in the street.

* Dubai Mall also has hotel shuttle buses that run different routes, calling at all the hotels. Timetables from the mall.

* There are also trains servicing the city. Check with your hotel concierge for routes and timetables.

* Kerri Jackson travelled courtesy of Emirates and Accor hotels.

- Herald on Sunday

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