Some marriages are made in heaven, others on earth with square pegs and round holes, chalk and cheese. Dubai and me, it’s us.
In truth, the disparity between what he and I stand for is so great that its position in the top five places I’ve never wanted to visit has remained unassailable for decades, despite the fact that I was regularly asked to go there by a close friend and worked at the emirate for eight years.
Granted, it didn’t do much to sell the place; She described a city in which she lived a lonely and disconnected life, but it was the price she was willing to pay to pay off the mortgage on her Chelsea apartment: 25 years working in London versus eight in Dubai.
Reasons he had avoided the emirate over the years included a feeling that it represented conspicuous consumption and unrestrained capitalism. I was worried about all the air conditioning, the absence of nature, the fact that it was a magnet for influential people, and the likelihood that I would have to hail cabs everywhere.
Recently, however, something led me there. And that something was the disturbing thought that I was becoming too firm in my ways and increasingly reluctant to challenge my perceptions. I wanted my opinions to be based on experience and not conjecture. Good friends had told me that I should give Dubai a try, that a different scene was unfolding below the headline-grabbing skyscrapers and the celebrities who flocked to them.
I also found out that 25horas, a brand I had heard great things about, was opening a hotel there. So I set off for five days in Dubai. In each of them, I found many to consolidate my views, but also many that challenged them. Here are five things I found to love.
25 hours Dubai One Central Hotel
Christoph Hoffmann’s first 25-hour hotel outside of Europe is full of joy, creativity and charisma. It’s packed with things to do, including 6,000 books to read, 1,000 more than the most voracious reader will likely read in a lifetime, some interesting art and antiques, great food and coffee, and an analogue music area where Middle-aged people like me can relive old memories by listening to the sounds of their past on vinyl or tape on a Walkman. The super hip, rooftop Monkey Bar even got the old me stuck in the mud, last seen dancing in the 1980s, rocking.
Doubles start at £208 (00 971 4 210 2525; 25horas-hoteles.com)
A different Dubai
Getting a glimpse of what life was like here before the advent of high-altitude tourism isn’t easy, but it certainly can be done. You should leave the city center, Al Barsha, Palm Jumeirah and the International Financial District, packed with hotels, and head instead to Al Bastakiya, Deira and Bur Dubai.
Al Bastakiya (dubaiculture.gov.ae), also known as the Al Fahidi Historic District, on Dubai Creek, is the oldest community in the city. Built by Persian traders during the 1890s, about half of its 60 or so handsome stone, plaster, teak, sandalwood, and palm-wood buildings were demolished in the 1980s.
What was left has been completely redone but somehow retains a sense of history. I spent the morning wandering its winding alleyways, watching shadows drift on desert-colored wind towers, and rummaging through junk shops for treasure among the Tut.
In Bur Dubai, I had lunch at one of the oldest restaurants in the city, Al Ustad Special Kabab (alustadspecialkabab.has.restaurant). This Persian hotspot, which opened in 1978, was fast, hectic, and fun. I loved the pacing of it all – the lunchtime attendants shouting their orders as they walked in, the speed at which the food appeared and then promptly disappeared.
An evening food tour with Frying Pan Adventures (£96pp; fryingpanadventures.com), visiting restaurants in Al Rigga, provided more insight into how residents live. Every chair in a barbershop was occupied by men steaming their faces, trimming their beards, and pampering their feet; outdoor cafes were bustling with family life and neighbors lounged in the street exchanging pleasantries.
Obediently, we ate our way across the Middle East: falafel from a small Palestinian street cafe; mana’eesh (herb flatbreads), tahini and hummus at a Syrian restaurant and Lebanese baklava.
Some art, in warehouses
Independent tea and coffee outlets: Project Chaiwala (projectchaiwala.com) and Nightjar (nightjar.coffee) respectively), a women-led arthouse cinema (Cinema Akil; cinemaakil.com), a community arts project (thejamjar; thejamjardubai.com) and sustainable fashion… was I in hipster Berlin? Brooklyn? No, it was in the Al Quoz industrial and cultural district, Alserkal Avenue (alserkal.online). With dozens of warehouses that were once part of a marble factory, the buildings on the avenue are now occupied by emerging artists, designers and entrepreneurs. I loved their verve and enterprise, the boundless energy of the creative souls who have gathered there, and their principles.
How nice that Project Chaiwala is serving tea in clay pots that dissolve back into the earth, and that French-Tunisian artist eL Seed (real name Faouzi) uses his beautiful art to spread messages of peace and raise awareness of causes that need the attention of the world. Alserkal Avenue founder Abdelmonem Bin Eisa Alserkal says the burgeoning arts scene is a sign of how Dubai is evolving. “It’s the natural progress that comes with the development of a city,” he said in an interview he gave to Christie’s magazine. “It takes time to develop a middle class that wants to enrich their lives by looking at art.”
A community project for women
A 30-minute taxi ride north from Dubai will take you to the Council for Contemporary Crafts (irthi.com) in Sharjah. Irthi creates opportunities for women to use traditional skills that have been passed down from mother to daughter, not only to enable them to earn a living, but also to preserve heritage crafts such as safeefah (khoos or palm frond weaving) and telli (hand weaving). ). -braided metallic and silk threads).
In the Irthi showroom I learned how collaborations with international designers and even mega-brands like Cartier and Bvlgari are breathing new life into handicrafts and making them more relevant to a younger market. The project also provides education, training and mentoring.
Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve (ddcr.org) is the first national park in the United Arab Emirates. Covering 5 per cent of Dubai, this last untouched desert is truly spectacular, and there’s plenty to do there, including a wildlife tour where you can spot Arabian onyx, Arabian sand gazelle, and even bobcats (from £ 88; getyourguide.co.uk).
I went for a (quite more expensive) dinning and dune experience (from £177; nara.ae), the highlight of which was a falconry display, or rather a display of the falconer’s devotion to his birds. I found his love for them deeply moving, yet another revelation in a trip that confounded at least some of my expectations.