Ever since Emirates launched its new direct flights from Auckland to Dubai in March, the UAE’s largest city has been much in the local travel news.
It will not have escaped your notice that New Zealand is a long way from anywhere, thus any service that can knock a few hours off the tiresome haul to the northern hemisphere is welcome.
However it does mean 16 or 17 hours straight on a plane, so taking a break before making the final push to your European destination is appealing.
I had this idea of Dubai as a venal monstrosity rising incongruously out of the desert, a place where foreigners regularly run foul of restrictive local laws governing alcohol and relations with the opposite sex.
Dubai is a manufactured construct, but it is also an accessible and attractive city that, apart from the absence of rowdy bars and the advisability of dressing semi-respectably, is perfectly welcoming to Western visitors.
Think of it as a classier version of Las Vegas. There are no casinos or touts handing out girlie cards, but there are dancing fountains and streets lined with fairy light-encrusted palm trees. And you can get a drink in hotels and restaurants.
Its so-called towering monuments – such as the narrow office building designed with more than a nod to Big Ben, the tower on a lean, another which looks like a giant piece of orange peel – are architectural curiosities, not tacky replicas.
With a population of 2.4 million, Dubai is not a great deal bigger than Auckland, and feels easy to get around.
It’s a diverting place to stop for a day or two, and Emirates offers 24-hour packages that allow passengers to check into a hotel as soon as they arrive – a boon for Kiwi travellers given EK449 from Auckland arrives at 5.30am.
One warning: the Kiwi stopover service is new and the Emirates call centre denied all knowledge of it when I tried later to make a personal travel booking. It’s best to deal directly with Emirates here in New Zealand or use a travel agent.
Dubai is set up for the stopover tourist, and easy entertainment abounds. Here are five suggestions:
1. Take a desert tour
Despite its irrigated gardens, the fact is Dubai is built on a pile of sand, and you don’t have to go far to experience its true desert environs. Numerous daily tours to a nature reserve 30 minutes from the city give visitors a desert sampler, including a falconry display, a belly dancing show, and speed dating with a camel. Fleets of Toyota Landcruisers criss-cross the dunes like a procession of beetles, thrilling the tourists as they bounce over the golden mounds. Despite their skill, the drivers get stuck – you’d think the problem would be the dips, but the real trap is bottoming out on the top of a dune.
Surprisingly there is wildlife, including native sand giselles and Arabian oryx. As night falls the drivers pull up to a Bedouin-style camp where plush Middle Eastern carpets and cushions provide seating while a barbecue sizzles. Alongside the Landcruisers camels wait to give the tourists a quick spin around the car park.
Tip: when a camel kneels down it is a very sharp incline so hang on tight to avoid a less than graceful dismount. Arguably the highlight of the evening is the moment the camp lights are turned out to show off the night sky. You swear there are no stars but in the absence of artificial illumination suddenly a tapestry of little sparkling pinpricks appears.
2. Wander around the souks of Al Raffa
Despite all its swish modernness, Dubai does have an old quarter. For about 40 cents take a little wooden abra across the Dubai “creek” and wander the gold and spice souks (markets) of the Al Raffa district. Colourful baskets of saffron, indigo, sulphur, crocus flowers, and dates line the alleyways of the spice souk, while in the glistening gold market, traders sell all manner of jewels from the impressive to the garish. I was particularly taken with a ring featuring a black and diamond crystal teddy bear holding a giant pearl. The hoards of young Indian and Pakistani migrant workers hanging out in the streets give a glimpse of everyday life in Dubai, where just 15 per cent of the population are UAE nationals.
3. Scale the Burj Khalifa
At 828 metres and 160 storeys, the Burj Khalifa is the tallest building in the world. The viewing area is not at the very top but that is hardly relevant as the views are still spectacular. Dubai’s skyscrapers and the man-made waterways of the Souk Al-Bahar shopping district look like something out of a science fiction film director’s imagination. Kiwis can feel a certain puff of national pride that the director of the ambitious project was New Zealander Greg Sang. It’s a popular tourist stop so book ahead to avoid the queues.
4. Experience flying an A380
Aviation is a significant industry in Dubai with the headquarters of its national carrier Emirates a major local employer. So it’s not surprising that one of the attractions at the sprawling Dubai Mall is an A380 simulator. For around NZ$150, two people can have a go at taking off and landing the enormous aircraft. You get to pick your location and conditions – London by night, Hong Kong in the rain – and the sensation is frighteningly real. Miraculously, I didn’t crash the plane as I attempted the skillful sharp right turn through high-rise buildings to land at the old Hong Kong airport.
5. Watch the dancing fountains and Burj Khalifa light show
Splash out and book a table on the terrace at one of the restaurants overlooking the lake at Souk Al-Bahar, and get a ringside seat for the half-hourly dancing fountains. It’s a Vegas-esque display of water jets variously choreographed to Arabic belly dancing music, easy listening tunes, and rousing Western movie themes. The added bonus is a vista of the sparkling Burj Khalifa, and the nightly light show, which plays up and down its towering facade. Souk Al-Bahar is right by the Dubai Mall, which aside from selling every brand from Gucci to Guess boasts an ice-skating rink, aquarium, and the skeleton of a dinosaur discovered in Wyoming in 2008.
Maria Slade visited Dubai courtesy of Emirates.