In the United Arab Emirates (UAE) extraordinary comes as standard. It has the world’s largest indoor theme park at IMG Worlds of Adventure, the longest painting and the second largest shopping mall on the planet. It is also home to the world’s tallest building (the Burj Khalifa in Dubai), which also holds the record for the highest electric substation, the most storeys in a building and the highest restaurant and the longest elevator. The UAE’s water security is assured by the world’s largest desalinated water reserve. And there has to be room in this list of the biggest and best for the newly opened $1bn Louvre Abu Dhabi on the purpose-built cultural island of Saadiyat.
Arabian desert experiences
There are so many good reasons to visit the UAE, including winter sunshine, world-class golf, beautiful beaches and fabulous shopping, but nothing beats the culture and history of the emirate. With the Empty Quarter, Rub’ al Khali, on the doorstep – the largest continuous sand desert in the world, of course – a desert safari is a must-do. Hop aboard the obligatory supersized 4WD and spend a day discovering unique and traditional activities in this dry and barren wasteland. The endless sea of wind-sculpted, camel-coloured sand dunes gives way to arid stony plains with steep-walled wadis and occasional salt flats. It’s hard to comprehend that several local tribes still have settlements here.
After diversions for dune surfing, quad biking and dune bashing with capable and experienced stunt drivers at the wheel, the bumpy journey ends at a Bedouin-style camp. It’s time to stretch your legs and accept a welcome drink while watching a falconry display. Once a necessary means of hunting for hare, and now a much-loved Bedouin sport, the prized saker and peregrine falcons swoop and dive for titbits thrown high in the air by their white-robed keeper. There’s a chance to get up-close and admire the beautiful plumage, merciless talons and sharp beaks of these beautiful birds of prey.
This trip is the best place to hoist yourself aboard a hissing camel and go for a lilting ride, or have a temporary henna tattoo expertly applied. There’s even time to dress up in Emeriti gear for a souvenir photo as part of your Arabian Desert experience.
Dusk falls swiftly and the desert becomes eerily still as you sit on thick rugs at low tables and enjoy a typical Middle Eastern meal beneath the stars. The buffet offers a wide choice of tasty dishes to sample including pita-like shawarmas, salads and falafel. The barbecued meat is surprisingly tender and tasty. Soft drinks, water and hot beverages are included, but don’t expect alcohol in this traditional Islamic experience.
After-dinner entertainment includes belly dancing, smoking a shisha water pipe and watching a mesmerising display of light and colour from the whirling skirts of female dervishes as part of the Tanoura Show. It’s good fun and visitors are invited to interact and try the moves for themselves.
Old meets new
Back in the 21st century, there are plenty more Arabic cultural experiences to head for. The forest of slender white minarets marks the site of the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque which was only completed in 2007. With 82 domes, 1,000 Moorish columns and space for 41,0000 worshippers, it is also the home of the world’s largest Persian carpet. What makes this mosque so interesting for visitors are the free guided tours which take place every morning except Fridays. It’s a golden opportunity for non-Muslims to glean an understanding of Islamic faith, culture and architecture.
Older architecture in the UAE can be appreciated at the Al Jahili Fort, a 19th century defence now used as a museum. The remarkable collection of old photographs shows just how much life has changed in the Emirates since the discovery of “black gold”.
A two-hour dhow cruise on the Dubai Creek offers the chance to see more of the city’s historic houses and Old Town against a contrasting backdrop of modern glass high-rises. These white-sailed vessels have been crisscrossing the river and providing a local ferry service since time immemorial. Now a pleasant relaxing dinner cruise after dark, these silent dhows provide an appropriately peaceful way to relax, enjoy kebabs, smoke a shisha and contemplate the many changing faces of Dubai. Your guide will point out the birthplace of Sheikh Saeed, one of the younger generation of the ruling family of Dubai. See his impressive family home with cleverly constructed barajeel towers, an early form of air-conditioning. This historic house dates back to 1896 and sits at a strategic point overlooking the creek. Open to visitors, the museum within provides a fascinating insight into Arabic architecture, religious influences and the life of the Al Maktoum family.
There is so much more to the UAE than the longest driverless Metro (the Red Line Dubai) and the world’s longest bar (imaginatively named Longs). The Abu Dhabi Golf Club is well worth playing at, especially floodlit night golf in the steamy summer months.
Everything in the UAE is the biggest and the best, it is all part of the fun. But when you visit, be sure to scratch beneath the surface and explore the deeply fascinating history and culture. The more you learn, the more you’ll want to know.