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Dubai Beyond Sun, Sand, Sea & Shopping

Huma Imam highlights some of the attractions of the United Arab Emirates’ most illustrious city and shows why it should be on your list of travel destinations.

The allure of the above S-words may bring in the vast majority of tourists to the Arabian Gulf’s most famous city, but there are more attractions with that letter that are equally, if not more, mention-worthy and enticing.


Superlatives galore
Dubai owes its reputation to its record-breaking feats – from the world’s tallest building and the largest shopping mall to the most expensive hotel, miracle garden and man-made islands. Multiple mega projects that are opulent as well as astounding are constantly being conceived and constructed.


Spiritual lodgings
Described as ‘shariah-compliant’, there are novel hotels that have carved their own popular niche in the city for visitors who seek a deen-friendly and family-orientated place to stay. Free from the bane of international hotels, these places are free of alcohol, pork, and sleazy TV channels in rooms and offer gender-segregated pools and health spas, dedicated floors for women and families, female chauffeur services, and other features designed to make your stay safe, clean and enjoyable.


These are traditional open-air, walk-through markets that are free from the airs and frills associated with modern, fancy malls. Not to be missed are souqs dedicated solely to spices, perfumes, handicrafts, abayas, gold and textiles. Shopping at these bazaars requires good haggling skills and a perceptive eye for quality. The reward is a cart-load full of goodies at one-third of the price available elsewhere.


These excursions take place in the vast stretches of the sandy desert. Comprising of mild, moderate, or high intensity dune-bashing in specially adapted 4WD vehicles, these thrilling adventures are not for the fainthearted. The evening ends with dinner under the stars. Ideally, book these events on Islamic public holidays to avoid witnessing musical entertainment shows as part of the safari package. Other novel activities include dinner on a traditional wooden dhow (boat) cruise that offers a night city tour along the creek, snow skiing on a man-made indoor ski slope at the famous Ski Dubai and organised day trips to the naturally occurring pools around the Hatta Mountains.


Shiny stuff
People come to Dubai to purchase gold for weddings and investments. Unlike other countries, here gold is displayed and sold by the kilo and comes with purity guarantees. What’s more, it is also available through vending machines! There is more than one market dedicated solely to gold and gemstone jewellry, making them the largest in Arabia. In addition, the region was known for its precious natural seawater pearls way before oil gushed forth and turned its economy around. Anyone with a discerning eye will be able to purchase genuine and quality pearls at good prices.


Healthy, delicious, and cheap, these on-the-go Arabian snacks are a must-have for visitors both familiar and unfamiliar with the fare. From the original smoky Lebanese version to the mild Persian and spicy Indian style, these wrap-and-rolls are sure to delight and satisfy all tastebuds. Besides, for a traveller from the West, the region is also home to all international fast-food chains offering only halal food. If you have a tongue for exotic fare, do try camel milk as well. Pasteurised, bottled and supplied fresh every day, it is available in all hypermarkets just like regular milk.


Special beaches
What might these be? Well, unlike any other beaches in the world, these stretches of coastal sandy bliss are reserved and dedicated completely for ladies. For the female visitors to feel completely at ease while enjoying a dip or just basking on the shore, the beaches are run and managed by all women-staff and photography is also strictly prohibited. Almost all beachside women’s clubs provide these private beaches. Besides the clubs, the beach park in Dubai also reserves one day of the week only for women.


Who leaves Dubai without shopping?  Must-buys include abayas, Itr (Arabian non-alcoholic perfumes), original Ithmid kohl, dates, nuts, spices like saffron, zaatar and cardamom, halal chocolates, curly-toed Aladdin slippers and swathes of gorgeous silks and lace.


From the obvious to the novel, Dubai offers something for all tastes. The historical museums in Dubai and the Islamic museum in nearby Sharjah city offer a unique glimpse of the bygone traditional life of the region and wonders of the Islamic world. If your trip coincides with any of the yearly festivals, then the camel races, camel beauty contest, dates festival etc. should not be missed for the unique experiences they offer.


Finally, the astounding city of Dubai needs to be visited for its grandeur and distinctive feats: a diverse population, novel experiences, Arab hospitality and culture and an unmatchable level of security and cleanliness. Ahlan Wasahhlan Marhaba!


Huma Imam is a resident of the UAE and has travelled in four continents.