By Phillip Hudson

THE unexpected and rapid acceleration straight up the steep sand dune catches me completely off guard.

A man leads two camels across the desert in Dubai
A man leads two camels across the desert in Dubai

Then there’s an equally surprising plunge straight down the other side.

It’s just like a roller-coaster but there’s no track for this thrilling ride in a 4WD on the sand dunes in the Dubai desert.

“This is our technique, no worries,” says our driver and guide Yeoman, one of 40 drivers for Arabian Adventures.

He’s quick with a joke as he roars up another sand dune, creating an all too real illusion that the 4WD might tip over, but provides the re-assuring confidence that it won’t.

Still, it’s best to hold on tight as he charges ahead and cracks another joke.

Yeoman stops suddenly when he spots a lone oryx and crawls the vehicle closer so we can take photos.

We continue our safari in the Arabian desert where there’s seemingly nothing to see in any direction except sand and tyre tracks. Surging up and down and around the sand dunes, we pause to observe footprints left by a wild rabbit, sand fox or spiny tail lizard.

We halt at the top of a dune to watch a magnificent burnt orange sunset over the sands.

Then it is time for a feast under the stars at a desert camp made to look like an authentic Bedouin village.

Before dinner comes an obligatory camel ride and the sudden jolt backwards and up as the beast rises for yet another tourist from its crouched position.

After a short stroll on a tame camel, there is a warm welcome inside the camp. The harsh sand is covered with colourful carpets and cushions and we sit at low tables lit by lanterns.

As the sound of classic Arabian music wafts over the evening, the banquet begins. Plates are piled high with grilled meats, salads, rice and traditional Middle Eastern fare.

A belly dancer performs, but beware there is often audience participation whether you like it or not.

After dinner there’s the option to try the “hubbly bubbly” which is apple-flavoured shisha “smoked” through a hookah (waterpipe). Women can visit the henna ladies who will paint designs on their arms, legs, feet or other parts of the body. It leaves an indigo mark like a tattoo that is supposed to fade after a few weeks.

This is just one side of Dubai, an emirate built from the sand on oil riches.

We stay at the luxurious Bab Al Shams Desert Resort & Spa the name means gateway to the sun and it’s a self-styled oasis in the desert.

It can hold 500 guests in its 113 rooms most tucked away in courtyards built around a half a dozen pools overlooking the rolling desert dunes. With palm trees and a traditional Arabian architectural style it looks like a fortified Arab palace built by Hollywood.

And it’s run by a vivacious chef from Melbourne, Andy Cuthbert, who, as general manager, is a long way from the kitchens of Melbourne’s Regency and Hilton, where he started 30 years ago, before a stint in London and then Dubai, where he has lived since 1992.

Cuthbert promotes the pleasure of eating and is very proud of the adjoining Al Hadheerah desert restaurant with its array of Arabic food and a floor show that aims to re-create a touch of old Arabia with horses and traditional dancing.

But if sand dunes and a night under the stars like a traditional Arab is not for you, less than an hour away by car is the other Dubai the sparkling silver city of dreams trying to offer the biggest and best of everything, even when it seems absurd.

The drive into town takes us past a landscape punctured with racetrack rails, built for horse and camel racing, the favourite sport of the sheiks who are regular visitors to Australia, especially for the Melbourne Cup carnival.

We have the briefest encounter with royalty when the ruler of Dubai Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum passes us on a quiet desert road and gives a wave. He is driving his luxury 4WD the other way, presumably to check on his racing stock.

In the heart of Dubai is the soaring Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building opened in January 2010.

This shining silver monolith stands 828m high and has 160 storeys. A high-speed lift with a 1970s inspired light and sound show inside takes just one minute to climb to the 124th floor observation deck. (The lift operators work strict 30-minute shifts so they don’t get ill going up and down repeatedly at such rapid speeds).

Below is a panoramic view of the city and an impressive multi-media telescope presentation showing what is described as “virtual time-travel visions” of the landscape.

By flicking a button you can switch from present day to the past and see the vast development below disappear into the sand. It’s a great way to see how Dubai has grown so quickly.

Burj Khalifa sits above the Dubai Mall which claims to be the world’s largest shopping centre with 12,000 stores, a 22-screen cinema, a luxury hotel and a Sega theme park.

Dubai is a cosmopolitan city that wants to be noticed and won’t let the heat get in the way.

There are artificial marinas and islands and development as far as the eye can see.

It’s a long way up and out from the 30-storey building opened in 1979 by Queen Elizabeth, in what was once a town built on a creek where traders and pearl divers made their living.

A hint of that old Dubai can be found in a visit to the souks the bazaars and markets famous for selling everything from gold to colourful aromatic spices.

It’s easy to get fabulously lost in the sights and sounds here, where hawkers will tempt you with all sorts of Middle Eastern delicacies and crafts, although once you say you are Australian many will stop the hard sell because they understand our strict quarantine laws ban many of the goods they have to offer.

Yet, even here, very little of the original Dubai remains, with most of the souks having been rebuilt, perhaps to compete with the sparkling malls and department stores.

Dubai is a city of contradictions. Conservative Middle Eastern women wearing a head-to-toe hijab shop alongside other women whose state of undress would turn heads on Bondi Beach.

The Mall of the Emirates is not quite as big as Dubai Mall it has only a 14-screen cinema but has 85 coffee shops and restaurants.

The writer was a guest of Emirates

Al Shams Desert Resort & Spa. Prices start at 1275 AED ($A352) a room a night, depending on time of year.

Adventures dune dinner safari. Daily. Cost 330 AED ($A91) for adults, 295 AED ($A81) for children. Includes meal.

Khalifa 10am-midnight. Tickets 400 AED ($A110) but 100 AED ($A27) if you buy for a specific date and time.

Ski Dubai. Typically open 10am-11pm, sometimes later. Cost 180 AED ($A50) for adult, 150 AED for a child for two hours or 300 AED ($A82) and 240 AED for a day pass. Lessons cost extra.


$A1 = 3.7 dirham

Here are some good starting points when planning your Dubai holiday:

1 High & Mighty Take a trip up the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa. Before you enter the structure, stand outside and take in the sheer architectural magnificence of the Khalifa, a metallic rocket rising more than 800m.

Inside the lift, the guide and a light show do a good job of keeping sightseers occupied as they climb 124 storeys. Surprisingly, the trip is quite quick and the view at the top not as unsettling as those with wobbly knees may assume. On the observation deck, get a real sense of the Burj Khalifa’s mind-bending dimensions by peering at some of Dubai’s other skyscrapers way, way below. From up here you can take a wide pan on Dubai, from the ocean to the desert and the myriad resorts, hotels, business districts, residential areas and construction projects in between.

2 Water everywhere The waters of the Persian Gulf can be as tepid as a bath and as still as a statue, so it’s nice to swim, float and splash about in the sea off resorts such as Jumeirah Beach Hotel, which has its own private stretch of sand. From one of the Jumeirah pools you can wander straight down to the sand and into the water, which boasts terrific views of the remarkable, sail-shaped Burj Al Arab, which rates itself as a 7-star hotel and is accessible only by causeway from the mainland or helicopter. If the sea is a little too staid, walk the short distance to Wild Wadi Water Park, which is themed around Juha, a character from Arabian folklore, and has 30 rides and attractions.

3 Holding the Fort In a comparatively grittier area of Dubai is the Al Fahidi Fort, housing the Dubai Museum. The fort was built around 1787 and once guarded Dubai. Renovated in 1971 for use as a museum, it houses artefacts from excavations in the emirate, including those dating back to the third millennium BC. Also inside the fort are a series of life-like, full-sized dioramas illustrating daily life in the era before oil.

Open Saturday to Thursday, 8.30am-8.30pm, Friday 2.30-8.30pm (different hours during Ramadan).

4 Shop Till You Drop Early each year, the Dubai Shopping Festival draws tourists from all over the world seeking bargains. Participating shopping complexes include Mall Of The Emirates, Dubai Mall, Mirdif City Centre, Dubai Marina Mall and Gold & Diamond Park.

At the Gold Diamond Mall, 90 retailers sell gold, diamonds and jewellery; Mall of the Emirates, opened in 2005, is a 223,000sq m shopping, leisure and entertainment destination with 520 international brand retailers, a 14-screen multiplex cinema, the surreal Ski Dubai, two hotels, a 500-seat theatre and more than 80 cafes and food outlets.

The Dubai Mall, meanwhile, has more than 1000 shops, attracts more than 750,000 visitors a week and is home to the Dubai Ice Rink, Sega Republic, Dubai Aquarium and Underwater Zoo and Dubai Fountain.

Outside of festival time, Dubai’s tax-free status ensures there are always plenty of opportunities for the holidaying shopper.

5 Snow Business Temperatures in Dubai can soar sky high, so it’s handy that a fair portion of the emirate is enclosed in airconditioned space, including the bus stops.

And then there is Ski Dubai, the first indoor ski resort in the Middle East. Ski Dubai, the size of three football fields, has five runs varying in difficulty, height and gradient, the longest falls 60m over a run of 400m.

There is a capacity for 1500 skiers or snowboarders, quad chairlift and tow lift, professional instructors and, seeing as people don’t tend to travel to Dubai with ski gear, all equipment can be rented onsite. You really do need to see it to believe it.