Desert dreams

Watching the Dubai Tennis Championships on TV this weekend, has made me feel nostalgic for the emirate I used to call 'home'....

Dubai. If you weren’t already aware of the ambitious emirate in the UAE – home to the Burj Dubai (the world’s tallest tower) – no doubt you are now owing to the recent antics of Brits Michelle Palmer and Vince Accor. The pair – who were reportedly caught by Dubai police bonking on a beach following a boozy brunch and now face up to six years in a UAE jail – generated column inches worldwide.

The plight of Palmer neatly encapsulates Dubai today. On the one hand it’s as urban and western as anywhere: not for nothing is Dubai described as the ‘Las Vegas of the Middle East.’ The land of bling extends a welcome as warm as the weather to footballers and their wives (Becks has bought a place on The Palm as have Frank Lampard, Michael Owen et al while the new Mrs Rooney has been spotted quaffing cocktails in Dubai’s hot spots), who delight in the hip hotels, top notch dining, chic bars and modern shopping malls crammed with luxe labels. The mega Mall of the Emirates houses all of the aforementioned and more – namely Ski Dubai, a ski slope complete with 6,000 tonnes of real snow and a 400m slope you can slalom down in between bouts of shopping and snacking – under one roof. All told, it’s fair to say that if shopping, eating and having a good time was an Olympic event, Dubai would be guaranteed a gold medal in the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games. Other attractions? Throw into the mix year round guaranteed sunshine, a sparkling sea and sand whiter than a dentist’s chair and it’s easy to see why sun starved Brits are flocking to the emirate in their droves…

But there’s more to Dubai than sun-tanning and shopping. Scratch beneath the shiny surface and you’ll find another side to the ‘city of gold’. Alongside iconic modern skyscrapers like the Burj Al Arab (the seven star hotel shaped like the sail of a dhow) and the Emirates Towers sit historical sites such as Bastakia and of course the creek – arguably the heart beat of Dubai. Here you can watch abras and dhows (traditional Arab sailing boats) weave their way across the water as they have done for centuries. For further local flavour, factor in a tour of Jumeirah Mosque (this is after all an Islamic state, as Palmer and Accors are learning to their peril, even if it isn’t quite how you’d envisage Arabia) on Beach Road before sauntering through the bustling souks. These traditional market places are alive with vibrant stalls selling everything from art and jewellery to pashminas (a necessity given the artic air conditioning levels that you’ll find in Dubai’s myriad malls), batteries, bananas, spices and other seasonings. All are sold out of large open sacks, making for sensory overload. For more glimpses of the ‘real Dubai’, explore ethnic areas such as Satwa and colourful Karama where you’ll get to mingle with the melting pot of cultures that make up modern day Dubai.

Make no mistake, Dubai can frustrate: despite the introduction of salik (a new electronic toll system designed to ease road congestion), traffic problems continue with traffic as aggressive and chaotic as anything you’d find in India. All of which means that if you have manage to book in for a molecular gastronomic feast at Chef Stephanne’s Tang or to reserve a table at Gordan Ramsay’s revered restaurant Verre ( a Time Out Dubai ‘best restaurant’ award winner for two years running) over on theDeira side of the creek, make sure you allow plenty of transportation time. And it goes without saying that if you’re following in the footsteps of Coleen and co and bagging the top tables in town, expect to return with rather less money than you set out with. Prices tend to match the glamour and alcohol in particular is notoriously expensive with a simple gin and tonic weighing in at a hefty Dhs35 (£5).

Yet while the city can fascinate and infuriate in equal measure, one thing is for sure – Dubai is never dull. A favourite local saying is "Miss a week and you’ll miss something major" and it’s true that in the bid to build the Dubai of tomorrow, change is the only constant. The town might not be entirely to your taste – it’s an acquired one and like marmite you’ll either love it or hate it – but if you don’t go, you will never know.

Furthermore, witnessing this dazzling desert kingdom can easily be done in a week-end hop, being a none too arduous seven hour flight away (although non workaholics would do well to throw a sickie either side). Tourist brochures will tell you that the best time to visit is November to March and not right now when the sun is at its fiercest. However summer sees the annual Dubai Summer Surprises (aka 10 weeks of heavily discounted shopping and spa-ing) in full swing, plus a reduction in room rates – in other words you can stay in swanky digs (try the Madinat Jumeirah, Grosvenor House or, for the ultimate in luxury, the One & Only Royal Mirage) at Travel Lodge prices… Explore, enjoy and see for yourself the self proclaimed ‘Cinderella story’ of the travel industry that everyone’s talking about, even if they can’t pinpoint its precise position on the map.