A Glossy Guide to Dubai

It’s time to rethink Dubai, says former resident PENNY McCORMICK

Al Seef hotel

When people ask how long I lived in Dubai there is a recalibration when I say almost 14 years. I see their thought processes – incredulity, followed by the assumptions I made pots of money (wrong) or that I am superficial (yes, I have hidden shallows). Who, after all, admits to liking Dubai other than footballers’ wives or reality stars in need of a photo op? I’ve spent years defending the emirate and though I enjoyed the combination of documenting glamorous events, witnessing groundbreaking architectural projects being built and spectacular service in five star hotels, off duty I preferred a less high-octane existence. I often headed to the Bastakiya area of the city in an attempt to discover Dubai’s past.

XVA Café

Once a village, its inhabitants were fishermen, pearl divers and traders. In the 1990s there was a move to preserve the old houses of the Bastakiya built in the 1890s and many were turned into museums and cultural centres known now as the Al Fahidi Historical neighbourhood. My first port of call on a Saturday morning was often The Majlis Gallery – followed by a mint tea at the XVA café – which is also a boutique hotel, the leafy central courtyard of which provides welcome relief in hotter months.

The rejuvenated Al Seef area is a good starting point if you are a first-time visitor or even in transit. Incredibly 50 million people transit through Dubai on long-haul trips each year, though only a fraction of these leave the airport. Armani Hotel is now offering tempting transit packages (from twelve – 72 hours) combining some bling and beach access with trips to Dubai Aquarium or the Underwater Zoo. For a DIY pitstop – hop in a taxi to the Creek and watch the dhows sail alongside top-spec yachts showing how far and how fast the city has developed. What other city has achieved so much in its 48-year history?

The Farm Restaurant, Al Barari.

When I return to visit friends we often converge at The Farmer’s Market held in the shadow of Burj Khalifa (organised by local deli Baker & Spice) or at Alserkal Avenue in the Al Quoz district, which houses a collective of some 60 art and design galleries interspersed with cafés. The Farm is another lush outpost on the outskirts of town which (full disclosure) is also located close to a fabulous Outlet Mall. You can take the girl out of Dubai but not Dubai out of the girl … I discovered the new Outlet Village on my last trip which is even better.

Bussola

I’ve diligently avoided the legendary brunch scene in Dubai – why waste a day eating? – in favour of enjoying some spa time (try the Spirit of Arabia ceremony at Amara Spa, Park Hyatt Dubai) and then a sundowner or supper at Bussola, at Le Meridien Mina Seyahi – my happy place. Of course, a holiday is not a holiday without a chance to dress up. Zuma or chef Jason Atherton’s buzzy Marina Social never disappoint, combining couture, cuisine and crowd watching.

The Kingfisher Lodge

As for hotels, with the vicissitudes of boom and bust, Dubai is now offering affordable options which belie the maximalist, superlative clichés one associates with the city. Yes, there are twelve five-star hotels opening this year alone, with W The Palm being the most hyped so far. However the new Kingfisher Lodge by Mantis is paving the way for ecotourism in the region. Returning recently I discovered Zabeel House – a departure from the usual Jumeirah properties – its lowrise architecture a respite from the skyscrapers, with Zabeel Mini a fun sister property.

Form Hotel

Emaar is also offering budget-friendly hotels – under its Rove banner – and there’s the design-forward Form Hotel, which would not look out of place in Milan with its minimalist aesthetic. Talking of which, the niche outlets at the new design district “d3” also reveal the diversity of local talent, harnessed at the annual Downtown Design fair. It’s taken a while for Dubai to be seen as a cultural oasis but the thriving café, design and arts scene is taking it in the right direction.

Penny McCormick

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