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sand, sea and souq

From dune-bashing and sunbathing to bargaining for spices and the latest gadgets - Dubai has something for all

Published on January 19, 2008

sand, sea and souq

No trip to Dubai would be complete without a desert safari

Dubai is not generally regarded as a top choice for family holidays, but after taking my brood there for the New Year break, I was so enchanted by this man-made city that I'll certainly be going back for more.

The second largest of the seven United Arab Emirates, Dubai is a vibrant and cosmopolitan city, boasting some of the world's most remarkable architecture and world-class tourist amenities, yet deep-rooted in its Islamic culture and traditions, making it a perfect example of East meets West. It's also a place where you can experience the fascinating contrasts of the glorious Arabian Desert and the golden sandy beaches of the Arabian Gulf.

One of the most sophisticated cities in the world today, Dubai is dubbed as the Los Angeles of the UAE, while Abu Dhabi, the largest of the seven emirates, is its New York. With its oil supplies dwindling, Dubai has diversified into financial services and property development.

Construction is big business - more than half of the world's cranes are operating in this city - and the Burj Dubai, currently under construction, is expected to be the world's tallest tower. Other audacious projects include the Jumeirah Palms, a palm-shaped man-made island housing close to 5,000 villas and luxury apartments; the World, another man-made archipelago of 300 islands in the shape of a world map; Dubailand, the biggest entertainment attraction on earth; Mall of Arabia, housing more than 1,000 shopping outlets; and Dubai's first under and over ground railway expected to be completed by 2020.

For the tourist, there is a plethora of multi-cuisine restaurants, fast food is available throughout the city and the food courts in all shopping malls offer an extensive variety of international food. Vendors sell shwarma, a hot sandwich with lamb or chicken, carved from a rotating spit and served in pita bread with vegetables. Juice vendors offer a variety of fruit juices from pineapple, pomegranate, banana, mango or a mixed cocktail.

The best way to get introduced to Dubai is to get on the open-top double decker bus called the Big Bus, modelled on the famous tourist London buses. My sons enjoyed this ride though they found the breezes a bit too chilly, but the English commentary was informative and conducted in a very lively manner by well-trained guides.

The bus stops at most of the tourist attractions and passengers can hop on and off as they make their journey down the city, which is divided on both sides of the creek - Deira on the north and Bur Dubai to the south. Each has its share of mosques, shopping malls, buildings and banks, etc.

The Jumeriah beach area is one of the most glamorous parts of the city, lined by luxurious villas and hotels, including the iconic seven-star hotel, Burj Al Arab.

No trip to Dubai would be complete without a desert safari - the highlight of the trip for my sons. We were taken to an area called Big Red, about an hour from Dubai. On the way, the car tyres were deflated and that was the beginning of an exhilarating roller coaster ride known as "dune bashing". The experience was thrilling and lots of fun - though it may not be suitable for very young kids or older people who will find themselves being thrown about as the car goes up and down the dunes. Seat belts are essential.

We then headed to the top of a dune to take pictures of the spectacular sunset before heading to a traditional Bedouin camp where both camels and dune buggies awaited us.

There were opportunities to dress up in the traditional Bedouin male or female garments, have henna painted on hands and feet and smoke the flavoured sheesha or water pipes. As we feasted on the buffet featuring Arabic food, others joined in for a session of belly dancing.

Another attraction and a great day out for families is the sprawling Wild Wadi Water Park, featuring more than 30 water-fuelled rides. One of the most challenging is the Jumeriah Sceirah - the tallest and fastest freefall waterslide outside the US. For the non-adventurous, floating on rubber rings along the waterways is equally enjoyable.

Skiing is also possible in Dubai, home to the largest indoor snowpark in the world! Six thousand tonnes of snow are manufactured, allowing skiers to whiz down the slopes. There is also a chairlift and a snow park for the very young.

Dubai is filled with various parks, science centres and children's outdoor rides in various parts of the city. The Global Village combines family entertainment with cultural displays and is well worth a visit.

You can learn about Dubai's fascinating past at the Dubai Museum, within and beneath one of the city's oldest buildings, the al- Fahidi Fort. While in this historic part of the city, take a trip on Dubai Creek. Either board a water taxi or a traditional dhow to watch the hustle and bustle of the busy port and enjoy views of the stunning buildings along the creek.

For a unique shopping experience, take a trip to the souq for everything from clothing, perfumes, crafts, household items and spices to electronic gaming devices and mobile phones. It is a bargainer's delight.

Dubai is also known as the City of Gold and the glittering Gold souq, housing more than 800 jewellery shops, is considered the best in the world for cheap but high quality gold.

The Dubai Shopping Festival Season this year runs from January 24 to February 24 and offers endless entertainment and shopping opportunities. This is the fifth season of this annual shopping festival, which began in 1995 as a small retail event, and has now developed into a comprehensive shopping extravaganza.

Dubai has so much to offer and is much more than just a shopping paradise. It is a city of ancient and modern attractions that continue to fascinate visitors.

Kittima Sethi

Special to The Nation

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