By STEPHEN SCOURFIELD, TRAVEL EDITOR, The West Australian  http://au.news.yahoo.com

In this Dubai & Surrounds Guide, we look at stopover deals and great things to keep travellers busy in the city, then venture further afield into adjoining emirates Sharjah and Ajman, and deeper into Arabian culture.

Photo by Stephen Scourfield Next Dubai is as visually enchanting at night as during the day.
Photo by Stephen Scourfield Next Dubai is as visually enchanting at night as during the day.

The bright lights and glitz of Dubai are set against the dark souks and oil lamps of the past.

Ancient and modern. True contrast.

STOPOVER

Dubai has come of age as a stopover, and Emirates, the national carrier flying to more than 120 destinations, has a range of stopovers packages. In fact, there is one hotel from $38.50 (US$39) a night, per person, for a two-night stay based on two people sharing a room.

As examples, Le Meridien Dubai starts from $80 (US$81) per person, per night twin share and Park Hyatt Dubai starts from $152 (US$154) per person, per night twin share.

Excellent five-star hotels like The Address, Dubai Mall or The Palace start from $127 (US$129) per person, per night twin share.

Jumeirah Beach Hotel is from $224 (US$227) per person, per night twin share.

Emirates’ Dubai stopover packages include:

• Meet and assist on arrival at Dubai International Airport.

• Welcome pack, with useful information on Dubai.

• Accommodation with a choice of 47 hotels from apartments to luxury hotels.

• American or continental buffet-style breakfast.

• All local taxes and service charges.

• Vice Versa, a premium shopping card with cash rewards at more than 275 partner outlets.

• Return transfers between Dubai International Airport and the hotel.

• Dubai Stopover guests also get discounts on car hire and local excursions.

Travellers can book a Dubai Stopover hotel or hire a car through www.emirates.com/au, either when booking a flight, or afterwards through Manage a Booking.

But, of course, it is best to book the stopover when you book flights, because if travellers need to change dates, fare conditions attached to the ticket will apply.

Equally, travel agents and the Emirates office in Perth will help.

FACT FILE

• See travel agents or www.emirates.com/au

• Emirates’ Perth office: 181 St Georges Terrace, Perth. Open Monday to Friday, 9am to 5pm. Call 1300 303 777 (Emirates Reservations Centre). Visit www.emirates.com/au/english/destinations_offers/dubai_stopovers/dubai_stopovers.aspx

DOWNTOWN

When people asked “where’s the best area to stay”, the answer was often Jumeirah Beach. But now I like idea of staying in Downtown.

Beaches in Dubai generally aren’t such a big draw for us — it’s the cosmopolitan, big-city, whistles-and-bells experiences that are more like to attract. If they stopover at Old Town, my guess is that many people won’t even see the inside of a taxi. It’s a glitzy city stay with plenty to do.

Restaurants, nightclubs, shopping, cinemas and other major attractions are all in walking distance from hotels.

Downtown Dubai’s centrepiece is Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest (and, I think, one of its most elegant and beautiful) buildings. The tour up one of its 57 elevators to the public viewing level on the 124th floor, which includes the story of its building, may be the best $30-odd travellers spend in Dubai.

There is also Dubai Mall, with its 1200 stores, and Dubai Fountain, set in the Burj Lake, which sprays up to 152.4m in the air.

Burj Park Island and The Address Downtown Dubai hotel are also near Downtown’s heart.

The buildings in its Old Town area are mostly low-rise. (Of course, Old Town isn’t that old – five years ago, there was nothing but sand. It is Dubai, after all.)

The Palace, The Old Town is part of The Address group of hotels. Set in man-made canals and lakes, it reflects regional architecture.

A short walk away, The Address, Downtown Burj Dubai is more styled, more “couples”, and has the Neos sky lounge on the 63rd floor. It offers contemporary luxury, with strong design that blends the Arabic with the international.

Both are proving popular with Australian travellers.

Downtown is between Sheikh Zayed and Al Khail roads and on the Dubai Metro at the Burj Khalifa/Dubai Mall Metro Station.

ARABIAN SIGHTS

I know, I know — it all sounds a bit contrived. But I have been out on the dune dinner safari several times and it works. I have enjoyed it every time. It is the classic night out from Dubai and, in my book, it has to be done.

Guests are picked up in luxury four-wheel-drives and taken out, off-road, through the dunes of the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve.

They usually stop on a high dune, for time to just stand quietly and watch the low sun glowing orange over the desert. Brilliant.

Then, as the drivers take guests onward, you first see distant lights and then the Arabian tented camp where there are camel rides, the chance to try a shisha pipe or have hands painted with henna designs.

Tents and cushions, regional music and belly dance and a dinner of grilled meats, salads, Arabic sweets and beverages served under the stars.

One Arabian night.

FACT FILE

The Dune Dinner Safari is daily from afternoon till early evening. It is $91 (AED330) per adult, $81 (AED295) per child until May 31, then $84 (AED305) per adult and $76 (AED275) per child from June 1 to August 31.

Visit www.arabian-adventures.com or look out for the Arabian Adventures brochures and book when you get there.

PLENTY TO DO

Three days in Dubai? Four days in Dubai? There’s plenty to do – here is a small sample of some of the best.

The Dubai Mall

The Dubai Mall, with more than 1200 stores, has been recognised as the biggest shopping centre in the world by The Guinness Book of Records. And from its aquarium to amazing amusement venues, there’s something for everyone.

Details: www.thedubaimall.com

Dubai Aquarium & Underwater Zoo at the Dubai Mall

With 33,000 aquatic animals comprising 140 species, the 10 million-litre Dubai aquarium tank is the biggest suspended aquarium in the world. It is 51m long, 20m deep and 11m high. A 48m transparent underwater tunnel gives views 11m down.

There are some 400 sharks and rays and the biggest collection of sand tiger sharks in the world. Highlights also include piranha and shark feeding, and a behind-the-scenes tour can be booked. The Underwater Zoo is new and more educational. Feeding presentations include gentoo penguins, otters, stingrays and dangerous animals.

As a guide, adult entry for the underwater tunnel and zoo is $13.40 (AED50) and $20 (AED75) with the tour.

Details: www.thedubaiaquariaum.com

Sega Republic at the Dubai Mall

Feel it. Ride it. Fly it. You name it. This is one of the biggest Sega indoor theme parks and is full of computer game action.

You can’t really avoid adrenaline. (Sega is a Japanese video game software and hardware company.)

In five zones, there are nine wild rides and 250 games spread over two levels – from motion simulators and virtual experiences to classic games. Sonic Hopper, Half Pipe the Canyon and Storm-G – futuristic rocket-powered capsules that rotate 360 degrees. (Have a light breakfast.)

A Power Pass for all attractions is $37.60.

Details: www.segarepublic.com

Kidzania at the Dubai Mall

I find myself struggling to describe KidZania. It is a child-scaled replica of a city, with buildings, streets and vehicles moving around – all kid-sized.

It is aimed at four to 15-year- olds who roleplay – getting jobs, earning money, spending it. They might be a fireman and get called to a fire.

The role might be a doctor or banker or policeman and the kids wear the uniform and perform the role they are playing.

It’s a mix of entertainment and education, as they taste the complexity of the grown-up world.

I haven’t taken kids of the right age group there but Richard Jewsbury, Emirates senior vice-president of commercial operations for Far East and Australasia, lives in Dubai and has taken his children there and says it’s “incredible”.

Kidzania is open every day, mostly from mid-morning to midnight, though times vary.

Entry is $24 (AED90) for 17 years and above, $34 (AED125) for children four to 16, $26 (AED95) for two to three, and free under two years old.

Details: www.kidzania.ae

Ski Dubai at Mall of the Emirates

I know, it seems nuts skiing in the heat of Dubai, but there is snow, skis, snowboards and toboggans – and a snow park for those who just want to muck around and enjoy the cold.

The Middle East’s first indoor ski resort is based on a classic snow resort.

It has five runs varying in difficulty, height and gradient.

The longest is 400m with a fall of 60m.

For kids and parents not skiing, the 300sqm snow park is the world’s biggest such facility – all indoors.

Ski Dubai has some 22,500sqm covered with real snow all year round (the size of three soccer fields) and is minus 1C to minus 2C.

Prices vary according to what visitors want to do.

However a full-kit and two hours skiing on the slope is $48 (AED180) for adults and $40 (AED150) for children.

To play in the snow park is $32 (AED120) for adults and $30 (AED110) for children.

Details: www.malloftheemirates.com

Dubai Ice Rink at the Dubai Mall

Get your skates on.

The Olympic-size Dubai Ice Rink has open sessions, even disco sessions. For first-timers (ice skating isn’t that big in Perth), there are lessons and coaching.

Skating is generally $13 (AED50) a session.

Details:www.dubaiicerink.com and www.skidxb.com

Wild Wadi Waterpark

Wild Wadi is a themed, water amusement park at Jumeirah Beach. There are 30 rides and slides, themed to tell the Arabian folklore story of Juha and his seafaring mate, Sinbad.

But the names of the rides tell their own story: Wipeout & Riptide, Tantrum Alley, Master Blasters and Burj Surj.

Tickets are $40 (AED150) for everyone above 1.1m and $34 (AED125) for those under.

Details: www.wildwadidubai.com

QUICK POINTERS

The Lost Chambers at Atlantis, The Palm

See the waters of Atlantis. Lost for thousands of years beneath the sea, they might look like The Lost Chambers which has 65,000 marine animals swimming and a maze of underwater halls and tunnels.

Details: www.atlantisthepalm.com

Dubai Dolphinarium at Creek Park

Dubai Dolphinarium is 5000sqm of modern marine mammal facility, complete with a main arena which has 1200 cinema-style seats, a surround-sound system and laser and spotlights.

And what is it looking at? A 3.5 million litre semi-circular deep seawater pool with dolphins. Showtime.

Details: www.dubaidolphinarium.ae

iFly Dubai at Playnation at Mirdif City Centre

Visitors get to fly without a plane. Indoor skydiving at iFLY using wind tunnel technology.

Details: www.mirdifcitycentre.com

Soccer Circus Training Academy at Playnation at Mirdif City Centre

Face soccer challenges using real balls in a simulated stadium to test the skills. www.mirdifcitycentre.com

Details: www.mirdifcitycentre.com

Dubai Autodrome

This FIA-sanctioned 5.39km circuit has a race and driving centre and karting tracks. Get on the track in anything from an Audi sports car to an F1-style single seater.

Details: www.dubaiautodrome.com

Seaplane Spectacular

Aerial sightseeing over Dubai and Fujairah. Details: www.arabian-adventures.com

SHARJAH SOUKS

Sharjah, an emirate adjacent to Dubai, feels like one of its suburbs, but suburban it is not. There are old buildings, side streets and alleyways.

Sharjah’s public buildings were all designed by the sheikh, Dr Sultan bin Muhammad Al-Qasimi, who is a qualified architect. They are what we might think of as true modern manifestations of Islamic architecture and are in stark difference to the skyscrapers of Dubai.

Educated in England and also the author of 18 scholarly works, the sheikh is credited with turning Sharjah into the cultural capital of the Arab world. It is an important intellectual centre, with international scholars calling it home.

Though it is safe and easy to drive to in an hour or so, Sharjah’s Heritage Area gives a deep and concise view of the Middle East’s history.

There are restored traditional houses and Sharjah Fort Museum dominates the Heritage Area. It is one of the region’s most important storehouses.

In the centre of Sharjah city, it is based around Al Hisn Sharjah Fort — which can rightly be described as a masterpiece of old Arab architecture and was built in 1820 by the late sheikh Sultan bin Saqr Al Qasimi.

It is divided into several sections. Some focus on events in Sharjah’s history, the city itself and the pear trade. There is a weapons storage room with swords and daggers, and a room which shows the style in which rulers would have lived.

One warning: Many of the exhibit signs are solely in Arabic, and those in English have some errors, so travellers are better off visiting with an English-speaking guide.

And another warning: Sharjah’s Heritage Area has some opening times set aside solely for women. Visitors of both sexes should check these when they arrive in Dubai but most tours, of course, take note of this and organise themselves accordingly.

The nearby Islamic Museum gives a fascinating, real insight into the faith which occupies much of the world’s attention. There are letters from the Prophet Muhammad to other leaders and handwritten Qur’ans.

Sharjah Art Museum has regional and international exhibits but its oriental collection is a highlight.

Qanat Al Qasba has a beautiful mosque right by the canal and a boat tour of Sharjah leaves from here.

The Blue Souk is a classic, traditional souk, with Arab handicrafts and even artefacts from Mecca (I bought two kilos of top-quality frankincense). There are some 600 shops and, when it’s busy, it has a beautifully chaotic atmosphere. There is gold, designer clothes, carpets and curios from as far as Afghanistan and Tibet. A good place for traditional goods and gifts and the skilled haggler will get discounts.

Another souk worth visiting is Souk Al Arsah, which is the oldest in the country. From mid-May to mid-August, a Date Festival is held at the fruit and vegetable market.

The best way to see Sharjah is by booking a tour when you get to Dubai. For example, it is included in Arabian Adventures’ half-day A Tale of Two Cities tour to Sharjah and Ajman, and there are other itineraries.

AJMAN SMALL BUT PERFECTLY FORMED

Ajman, ruled by the Al Nuaimi tribe, is just 10km from Dubai, is the smallest emirate and has 16km of coastline. The highlight for me is the old port, where dhows that follow historic trading routes are docked.

A natural creek which penetrates the town is as much a photographer’s delight as it is for those just watching the comings and goings of people and letting their minds follow ancient connections across the Arabian Sea

Ajman still has the biggest boat-building yards in the United Arab Emirates, where craftsmen shape dhows and boums (traditional Arab sailing vessels with one or more lateen sails) without blueprints, using the techniques their forefathers have used for generations.

Ajman’s sweeping corniche has a sandy beach on one side and the city spread away on the other.

Etisalat Tower is its most obvious landmark and, not far from the old waterfront, is the Ajman Centre — a trade fair and exposition favourite — and the Ajman Chamber of Commerce and Industry tower. There are wide avenues.

Ajman Museum is set in a fort built in the late 16th century.

For shopping, there are designer stores, the City Centre Mall and the Iranian souk.

For lunch, try one of the cheap, clean vegetarian restaurants, where travellers will be hard-pressed to spend more than $4 on a good meal.

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