Packed-full of manmade and natural wonders, holidays to Dubai and Emirates are a heady mix of record-breaking towers, spice-scented souks and white-sand beaches.
The United Arab Emirates
Seven states make up the United Arab Emirates – or UAE for short – a country in the south-east of the Arabian Peninsula. Not too long ago, this corner of the world wasn’t much more than a sprawling desert. Nowadays, sand dunes give way to skycrapers, in one of the fastest-growing places on the planet.
Dubai has managed to eclipse the capital, Abu Dhabi, to become the jewel in the UAE’s crown. Dubai City, itself, is nicknamed the City of Superlatives – the world’s tallest structure, the planet’s biggest shopping mall, and the most luxurious hotel around all call Dubai home. At the other end of the spectrum, Dubai’s old quarter sings to the tune of spice-scented souks and traditional dhow boats.
Extravagant Abu Dhabi
The UAE’s biggest emirate, Abu Dhabi, is just as record-breaking. In recent years, it’s stepped up the pace in the hope of knocking Dubai off the tourism top spot. The world’s biggest handwoven carpet, the fastest rollercoaster and the farthest leaning manmade building – it’s got its own collection of shout-about feats. Its glistening jewel, though, is the spectacular, white-marble Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque.
Ras Al Khaimah & Fujairah
Scratch beneath the UAE’s glitzy surface, and you’ll come across a few surprises. The northernmost emirate, Ras Al Khaimah brags a 40-kilometre stretch of coastline that’s remained surprisingly undiscovered. And it’s a similar story in Fujairah. Here, beaches come with a backdrop of dramatic mountain scenery, and the waters play host to some of the country’s best snorkelling spots.
Things to See and Do in Dubai and Emirates
The beaches in these parts are beauties. Take Dubai, for starters. Edged by the clear waters of the Persian Gulf, its brilliant-white coastline is a huge talking point. In Ras Al Khaimah, meanwhile, the sun-drenched coastline is peppered with super-swanky hotels and not a lot else. And there’s more in the way of tranquil sands over in Fujairah, whose eastern shoreline comes with a large helping of mountain scenery.
The big beach
Dubai’s original public beach still draws in the crowds. It runs all the way from the Dubai Marine Beach Resort to the Four Seasons, so there’s enough room to find your own patch. Plus, it ups the ante with a 1.8 kilometre running track, showers, toilets and volleyball nets. For drinks and snacks, head over to one of the beach kiosks.
The secret beach
Ras Al Khaimah is a dab hand at secluded sands. Drive along the coastal road between the city and Al Hamra, and you’ll come across plenty of tucked-away beaches. In fact, they’re so remote that you’ll need a 4x4 to reach a lot of them. If you follow the tracks over sand dunes, you’ll reach deserted coves, perfect for interruption-free sunbathing.
Dubai’s BurJuman shopping centre is the city’s answer to Rodeo Drive. It’s dripping in designer labels like Cartier and Tiffany, and houses a huge Saks Fifth Avenue department store. It’s the same story at the Jumeirah Emirates Towers Boulevard, where the big names include Gucci and Jimmy Choo.
The big favourite in Dubai is the Mall of the Emirates, the home of superstores like Harvey Nichols. There’s a huge indoor ski slope inside, too. If you’re after high-end clothes without the hefty price tag, there’s also Dubai Outlet Mall. Over in Ras Al Khaimah, Manar Mall takes centre-stage in the shopping mall stakes. It ticks off high street brands like Nine West and Dorothy Perkins, as well as a six-screen cinema and a food court.
Make sure you wander the traditional Emirati souks for the best deals. The legendary Deira Old Souk, in Dubai, is one of the Gulf’s biggest. It’s a real Camden-esque warren of bazaars, and the gold and spice souks are particular hotspots. Don’t forget to haggle, though – it’s best to go in at 50 per cent less and work your way up from there.
Away from Dubai’s neon-lit nights, evenings in Ras Al Khaimah and Fujairah are a more laid-back affair. Most of the action revolves around the cluster of five-star hotels, where cocktails and meze dishes are usually paired with shisha pipes and belly dancing performances.
Being Dubai, a lot of the nightlife is glitzy with a giant ‘G’. Multi-floored superclubs and hip bars rule the night here. Some of the best are in Jumeirah, so the dance floors often come with a sea view. Over in Downtown Dubai, meanwhile, some of the city’s tallest buildings house smart bars, where you get a bird’s-eye-view with your bellini.
The humble shwarma is a fast food staple all over the UAE. It’s taken a little more seriously over here, so meats are marinated overnight in spices and served in a fluffy pita bread with pickles, salad and a mix of tahini, hummous and amba spreads.
Ghuzi is Dubai’s signature dish. As with a lot of Emirati meals, it’s lamb-based. Roasted lamb is served on skewers on a bed of rice, vegetables and nuts.
This street-food creation is the Middle Eastern equivalent of pizza. Put simply, it’s a doughy flatbread topped with whatever you choose – from melted cheese to minced beef or lamb, plus a sprinkling of salt and herbs.
Technically Kunafa’s of Palestinian descent, but the Emiratis have adopted this desert as their own – you’ll see it in most cafés. It’s made from a mild cheese topped with a semolina pastry, all soaked in sweet rosewater syrup. These days, chefs are mixing it up and making kunafa cheesecake, cupcakes and ice cream.
Emiratis take their coffee, or qahwa, strong, and spiced with cardamom, saffron or cinnamon. It’s normally accompanied by a platter of fresh dates. If you’re after even more of a sugar fix, order up some baklava – a honey-soaked crispy pastry.
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Palm Jumeirah (Dubai)
Dubbed the eighth wonder of the world, there’s nowhere quite like Palm Jumeirah. Nearly 100 million cubic metres of sand were used to craft this palm tree-shaped archipelago, with its thick trunk, 16 mile-long fronds and a crescent shaped island as a breakwater. It doubles Dubai’s coastline and is four times the size of London’s Hyde Park – so big it can be seen from space.
Al Hamra (Ras Al Khaimah)
Dubai’s locals cottoned on to Al Hamra’s oasis-like charms years ago. Its palm groves, unblemished beaches and traditional vibes make it the go-to retreat. The area’s got a handful of luxury hotels, but it’s a far cry from neon-lit Dubai – an hour’s drive through the desert.
Jumeirah Beach Residence (Dubai)
The translation of this place gives you some idea of what’s in store. It means ‘beautiful beach’, and its one-mile strip of cream-coloured sand is a textbook example. The area has cemented itself as one of the most exclusive spots in Dubai, with luxury hotels and restaurants lining the waterfront. Plus, it shares a border with swanky Dubai Marina.