Fly me to the dunes

DAVID WHITLEY
Last updated 05:00 13/04/2013

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Why Dubai, why now? The old kangaroo route via Singapore is dead - long live the new joey route through Dubai.

With Qantas routing its European flights through the Gulf megacity, passengers on the flights from Sydney and Melbourne to London will have to get used to a brief layover in Dubai.

It's all part of Qantas's move to jilt long-term partner British Airways and hook up with the younger, more attractive Emirates.

This is great news for anyone wanting to go to Europe without having to change planes in London. Qantas passengers can fly to Dubai, then seamlessly switch on a codeshare to one of 33 European airports that Emirates flies to. These include old favourites such as Rome, Amsterdam and Paris, but also the likes of Glasgow, Lisbon and Warsaw.

However, if you want to break that journey, your stopover is going to be in Dubai ...

OK, show me around ...

The city runs along the coast, north-east to south-west. The older, historical part is in the north-east, based around Dubai Creek - a rather feeble pseudo-river.

Most heritage attractions can be found in Deira and Bur Dubai, the areas surrounding it. These are also the down-to-earth, occasionally rough-and-ready parts, given a multicultural vibe by the Asian and African guest workers and immigrants living there.

The New Dubai sprawls beyond for about 30 kilometres - and this is the glitzy, show reel side. At the water's edge, you have the Jumeirah Beach strip, backed up by the high-rise Dubai Marina and the Palm Islands - the ludicrous palm-shaped land-reclamation project. Inland (and closer to Bur Dubai) are the international business hubs and the new Downtown district

Dubai's full of absurdly OTT stuff, right?

Oh heavens yes. Downtown has the Burj Khalifa (burjkhalifa.ae) - at 829.8 metres, it's the tallest building in the world. Save the 124th floor observation deck for a sandstorm-free day. That's next to the world's biggest dancing fountains show and the world's biggest shopping mall.

The Dubai Mall (thedubaimall.com) manages to fit a multistorey aquarium inside with ample room to spare. Not to be outdone, the Mall of the Emirates (malloftheemirates.com) has its own indoor ski slope.

Get me out of the malls - where can I get a cultural fix?

Most of the cultural highlights are clustered around the Creek. The pedestrianised Bastakiya quarter is brimming with traditional wind tower-topped buildings and art galleries.

The Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding (+971 4 353 6666; cultures.ae) offers fascinating walking tours of Bastakiya and the creekside areas, as well as visits to the Jumeirah Mosque.

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The Dubai Museum (+971 4 353 1862) inside the Al Fahidi Fort offers good insights into Dubai's rapid-fire transition from tiny desert trading town to global supercity.

But you're best off getting a taxi (about AED50 ($15.7) - from Bur Dubai) to neighbouring emirate Sharjah. The Contemporary Art Museum and Sharjah Museum of Islamic Civilisation are the kings of a 16-strong cultural collection (sharjahmuseums.ae).

And something that's plain good fun?

Dubai is built on the desert, and the proper red dunes aren't far out of the city. Arabian Adventures (+971 4 343 9966, arabian-adventures.com) runs a range of great four-wheel-drive dune-bashing tours. Waterparks are Wild Wadi (+971 4 348 4444; jumeirah.com/en/Hotels-and-Resorts/Wild-Wadi) and Aquaventure (+971 4 426 0000; http://www.atlantisthepalm.com/default.aspx). The Dubai Ferry (rta.ae) is basically a cruise - but the two routes offer great opportunities to gawp at the skyline.

Where should I stay?

Opulent luxury is what Dubai does best, with most of the plush resorts gathered around Jumeirah Beach, Dubai Marina and the Palm Jumeirah. Of these, the Jumeirah Beach Hotel (+971 4 348 0000; jumeirah.com) is the family favourite - its excellent beach, huge pool complex and extensive kids' club activities are complemented by free entry to the neighbouring Wild Wadi waterpark. Expect to pay from AED1144 ($361) a night.

Couples will prefer the unfathomably beautiful One and Only Royal Mirage (+971 4 399 9999; royalmirage.oneandonlyresorts.com; from AED1263 ($399)) to fulfil lavish Arabian Nights-style fantasies on top of great dining and the VIP treatment.

There are plenty of good high-end options in the Downtown area around Dubai Mall and the Burj Khalifa, too - but you may as well go for the beach resorts if you're splashing out.

Solid, less expensive options within a shopping bag's hurl of Dubai Mall include Al Murooj Rotana (+971 4 321 1111; rotana.com; from AED576 ($181)) and the Thai-themed Dusit Thani (+971 4 343 3333; dusit.com; from AED480 ($151.5)).

And if I'm on a budget?

The bad news is that Dubai is an expensive place to stay. The low season rates above can double in the November to February peak season. Rates at the apartment hotels that cluster around the Bur Dubai area tend to be more stable, however. Most have spacious, perfectly decent but unexciting rooms, free wi-fi and cooking facilities.

The numerous Golden Sands Apartments (+971 4 355 5553; goldensandsdubai.com) are classic examples, and are available from AED360 a night.

Be wary of bargain options in Deira - many hotels there have the emphasis on the "ho". A gorgeous exception is the Ahmedia Heritage Guest House (+971 4 225 0085; ahmediaguesthouse.com/hotel.aspx; from AED330 ($104)). Occupying a traditional Arabic building around a central courtyard, the combo of antique furniture and lovingly-detailed charm is a winner.

Where should I eat?

For the experience, head up the Burj Khalifa for high tea at At.mosphere (+971 4 888 3444; atmosphereburjkhalifa.com), the highest restaurant in the world. Dubai is also big on outposts of celebrity chef empires. Rhodes Mezzanine (+971 4 399 8888, grosvenorhouse-dubai.com) at the Grosvenor House is the pick of these because Gary Rhodes is regularly in the kitchen.

Of the home-grown, non-chain options, Table 9 (+971 4 212 7551; table9dubai.com) at the Hilton Dubai Creek is the biggest treat.

For affordable dining, ditch the hotel restaurants and venture into often shabby-looking joints that cover the world from Sri Lanka to Somalia. Lebanese restaurants are usually the safest bet - huge grilled meat platters with absurdly large accompanying salads are standard fare. To properly explore the best examples of dishes from Iran, Jordan, Yemen and more, however, do yourself a favour and book in for the brilliant evening foodie walking tours with Frying Pan Adventures (fryingpanadventures.com).

And if I fancy a drink?

Dubai does a terrible job of pretending to be booze-free. But you can only get alcoholic drinks inside bars attached to hotels - and prices are steep. For ultra-showy cocktails with a view, hit the Skyview bar (+971 4 301 7600; jumeirah.com) at the Burj Al Arab. Perhaps pass on the AED4950 ($1562) Diamonds Are Forever concoction of gold and century-old cognac. Barasti (+971 4 318 1313; barastibeach.com) at Le Meridien Mina Seyahi in Dubai Marina is a big party joint, while the Double Decker inside Al Murooj Rotana is an expat favourite.

Is it worth extending my credit card limit?

If shopping's your thing, Dubai's malls will sell you pretty much everything you want. By global standards, the bargains on offer are perhaps overplayed - designer goods can be found for similar prices in most hot shopping cities. But compared to prices back home, it's an oversize cavalcade of steals. The souks straddling the Creek in Bur Dubai and Deira offer a more local feel, but stalls flogging Chinese-made tat are creeping in. The hundreds of sparkling shops in the gold souk are the true shopper's highlight - serious jewellery bargains are available if you're prepared to barter.

Am I going to get arrested for something ridiculous?

Despite the scare stories, generally if you get arrested in Dubai you probably deserve it. Work to a "don't be a goose" principle, and you'll probably be fine.

Culturally insensitive behaviour isn't necessarily illegal. But keep swimwear for the beach and pool, pick something a bit less fleshy than hot pants for a trip to the mall, and avoid public displays of lusty affection. Homosexuality is illegal - public displays of affection particularly applies to same-sex couples.

Is it going to be unbearably hot?

In the summer months, yes. Between May and September, temperatures routinely soar above the 40-degree mark. There's a reason for all those airconditioned malls. Between November and March, however, you can expect the sun without the soaring heat - with temperatures regularly sitting in the low- to mid-20-degree range.

What's going to be surprisingly enjoyable?

Standards are high - shonky tour operators have no chance of survival. Both mass tourism experiences and personalised alternatives are pulled off extremely well.

And even to a cynic, Dubai looks incredibly impressive - gawping at the incredible skyscrapers along Sheikh Zayed Road and around Dubai Marina gets you buying into the Gulf glamour vision alarmingly quickly.

What's going to really annoy me?

Queues at the airport - it's not uncommon to wait for up to two hours to get out. Anyone who likes to walk around is in for a nasty shock, too - aside from the Creekside parts of Bur Dubai, this is pedestrian hell.

Taxis may be cheap - a trip across town will rarely cost more than $20 - but you have to catch them pretty much everywhere; often just to travel a block across a multilane highway. Also, make sure you are prepared to encounter prices quoted without 10 per cent taxes and a 10 per cent service charge - meals and hotels are sold to look much cheaper than they are.

Do I need a visa?

Australian and New Zealand passport holders get a free 30-day visa on arrival - there's no need to apply in advance.

What else do I need to know?

Qantas frequent flyer points can now be earned and spent on Emirates flights. Also, there's no need to worry about knowing Arabic - due to guest workers coming from all over the world, English is by far the most spoken and best understood language.

For getting around the city, the Metro is a dirt cheap alternative to taxis. It serves the airport and many of the key visitor favourites. The problem can be getting to and from the Metro stations - walking to them can involve lengthy detours around busy roads.

Stopover wars

Price-wise, Dubai and Singapore are surprisingly similar. Drinks cost slightly more in Dubai, as does local food (there are no bargain hawker food courts in Dubai). But outside the flash hotel restaurants, dining out in Dubai is pleasingly inexpensive. Decent lower-end accommodation is arguably slightly cheaper in Dubai due to the glut of apartment hotels - but the lavish high-end accommodation will set you back more in Dubai.

Singapore is much stronger on historical and cultural attractions, and has a gentler feel. Unless you're prepared to spend big, it's better for kids, too. Dubai is better on organised tours and activities, and feels much more dynamic and exciting. It's also better for shopping, even though that's Singapore's traditional strong suit.

For weather, it depends when you go - Dubai is more pleasant between November and March; Singapore is consistently sweaty year-round. And on the draconian legal front, Singapore is arguably more harsh on wrongdoers than Dubai.

If you still prefer to fly through Singapore, British Airways (1300 767 177; britishairways.com) stops there between Sydney and London. From Sydney, Melbourne, Perth, Brisbane and Adelaide, Singapore Airlines (13 10 11; singaporeair.com) goes via Singapore to 14 European destinations, including London, Paris and Amsterdam.

More information qantas.com.au, emirates.com, definitelydubai.com.

- Sydney Morning Herald

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