By David Bowden

HE sun had just set on what was a spectacular day in the Dubai desert. Badar, our Emirati driver, was pushing the pedal to the floor, windows were down and warm desert air filled the vehicle while 105.3 Coast FM was blasting out the Eagles’ Take It Easy. There are some songs just written for road journeys and this is up there with Steppenwolf’s Born to be Wild and the Doors’ Roadhouse Blues.

Dune bashing in Dubai. Picture: David Bowden
Dune bashing in Dubai. Picture: David Bowden

While we were back on the sealed expanse of highway heading for Dubai at a respectable 140km/h, the twilight hours had seen us bashing across the rolling sand dunes of the Al Habab Desert that delineated the perimeter of Dubai’s expanding suburban limits.

It’s hard not to be impressed by modern Dubai which, just a few decades ago, was an expanse of sand dunes rolling inwards from the Persian Gulf. Now the Burj Khalifa at 828m, the world’s tallest building, rises above many other skyscrapers in what is seen as the Middle East’s economic engine room.

There’s no doubting the global financial crisis took its toll on Dubai, as it did with many other travel destinations, and it will be several years before the backlog of luxury housing is cleared from the books.

However, tourists are a resilient lot. An economic downturn presents as many opportunities as it does threats.

Glancing across the Dubai skyline, the multitude of construction cranes suggest that Dubai is back on the move even if all the cranes may not be moving.

While there was obviously a slowdown a few years back nothing major appears to have left a lasting impact on the tourism industry and the malls are full once again.

I’d arrived with an open mind to a destination that had previously been merely a stopover.

On the flight from Australia, I wondered why Australians would travel to Dubai for a holiday rather than just a stopover.

I set about discovering some of the main attractions.

Gettin’ dune dirty While suspecting that most visitors to Dubai are there on a shopover, I decided to explore its other tourism assets and visiting the dunes seemed a good place to begin.

After all, this is where Dubai started and where many Emirati forefathers were Bedouin camel herders up until a few decades back.

Dune bashing seems to be the thing to do for those who want to escape the shopping malls. My “Desert Gate” driver looked like a reliable and responsible person so I felt at ease facing the prospect of screaming over desert dunes for several hours.

Driving along the desert highway was sufficiently harrowing, but, then again, simply driving anywhere here is done in the fast lane, just like everything else in Dubai especially its economic development.

An hour later, we drove off into the sand and after the tyres were deflated, we were being launched up and over the rolling desert dunes like vehicles competing in the Paris to Dakar Rally.

At dusk, the mayhem finished and we sat and watched a golden sunset before heading off for the obligatory camel ride. A few chilled beers had me back to normal and ready for a night of feasting and belly dancing.

In search of Atlantis There’s nothing too mythical about Atlantis located on the palm-shaped artificial island at the seaward tip of the Palm Jumeirah.

I briefly took in the view before sliding near-vertically down the five-storey high “Leap of Faith” which is the most death-defying activity in Atlantis’s Aquaventure water-theme park.

A whole host of other rides are available here, as well as several peaceful shaded pools for splashing around in the heat.

The “Lost Chambers” is an aquarium with a lost world theme that’s well worth exploring.

Water is a scarce commodity in Dubai as it’s desalinated from the Persian Gulf, but Atlantis’s green oasis is an aqueous celebration and the place to spend a lazy Friday or Saturday when Dubai enjoys its weekend rest.

Mall crawling In line with its bigger-than-life approach to tourism, visitors can expect several large malls featuring unique concepts. Indoor snow skiing lures punters to the Mall of the Emirates next to the Pullman Dubai where I stayed. Nothing is done by half measure here. In addition to every conceivable designer label there’s the ski run and places for families to frolic in the -30C artificial ski field. Jamie Oliver will soon set up shop at the front door to the Pullman Dubai.

Get high over Dubai Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building reaches 160 floors or 828m skyward from its downtown location.

Visitors can travel to what is known as “At the Top” which isn’t really at the top but more like level 124. For those in a hurry, and who want to travel immediately, you’ll have to donate $133 to maintaining the building’s upkeep. If you can wait for a specifically dated and timed access, it will only cost $34, with virtually no discount for kids.

Atmosphere Restaurant on the 122nd floor could be a better option as you can enjoy a meal with the view.

Another option is to ignore the skyward journey and book a table at dusk in Kharma Cafe located near the Burj Khalifa and the Mall of Dubai and watch the synchronised light and music show on the expansive pond surrounding the mall and the tower. This way you can enjoy a chilled glass of wine, Asian cuisine, smart interiors and a prime veranda location as well as a cool vibe.

As I left Dubai, I reflected upon that night in the desert. Jackson Browne could well have had Dubai in mind when he wrote his Take It Easy lyrics, “Lighten up while you still can, don’t even try to understand, just find a place to make a stand and take it easy.”

Dubai is certainly a place to take it easy for a few days and not just as an in-transit stopover.

David Bowden travelled to Dubai courtesy of Accor Hotels.