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Another Dubai

You wouldn't fly to Dubai if you were craving old-world charm.But if you look beyound all its bling, you can still catch a glimpse of a past culture.Photo: Agencies
By Carmen Roberts, Dubai
PUBLISHED ON JAN 10, 2010 11:07 AM IST
As the air conditioned SUV sped down the urban highways from the airport into ways from the airport into the city, heat shimmered up from the desert between towering, mirrored skyscrapers that whizzed past outside, like one long, glittering mirage. I couldn't help but think -- Dubai is a cross between Singapore and Las Vegas, on steroids. This city is all about superlatives -- the world's tallest building, the largest indoor shopping mall, one of the world's fastest growing airlines. A shiny new destination, constantly evolving at break-neck speed.

It's hard to imagine that less than 50 years ago, Dubai was a sleepy country on the Persian Gulf, home to fishermen and traders. But thanks to the discovery of a modest amount of oil, and under the vision of the then ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Dubai has since transformed into a popular holiday destination.

Dubai is a melting pot of nationalities and a city in transition, some say it's one enormous resort. Many of the traditional homes and architecture have been lost, bulldozed to make way for yet another five star hotel or shopping mall. It's often difficult to find true culture here.

So I'm not going to wax lyrical about the glamour of the Hotel Burj al Arab or the sheer scale of the indoor snow park, Ski Dubai.

Let me take you beyond the bling, where there are cultural treasures to be found and extraordinary experiences to be had.

So much to do
Jump on board an abra and cross the creek between Deira and Bur Dubai. These traditional wooden boats have long been part of the seafaring tradition in Dubai. Formerly row boats, these rustic vessels are now powered by diesel and it's by far the quickest way to cross the creek.

A majority of abras are still used in daily life here and it's interesting to watch the boats load and unload at the docks.

Alight on the Bur Dubai side of the creek and you'll stumble across the Dubai Museum, housed inside the Al-Fahidi Fort. Built in the late 1790s, this is believed to be the oldest building in the city. Bur Dubai is where you'll find what's left of traditional architecture here. You can wander through the narrow streets of the Bastakiya District and marvel at the tall wind towers and gypsum decorations and woodwork. Tucked away in the back streets is the XVA -- an art gallerycum-boutique hotel. This is possibly one of the very few small, unique establishments, hidden away from the five-star establishments that dominate Dubai's tourist scene.

Golden delights
Deira is on the other side of the creek and is home to the celebrated gold souk. Buyers from all around the world visit this treasure trove to sift through the dazzling mounds of jewellery. If nothing suits your particular taste, you can get your own piece exclusively designed.

Craftsmen can alter the composition of alloys in the gold to create pink, white, yellow or green hues.

Nearby is the spice souk, with perfumes and incense piled in stacks.

Wildlife in Dubai!
Many tourists wouldn't expect to find a wilderness park in the middle of this glittering city. But Ras Al Khor Wildlife Sanctuary represents an enclave of relative wilderness amidst swirling traffic and sprawling urban infrastructure. Ras Al Khor means `head of the creek', in Arabic, and that's exactly where you'll find it. This is among the few urban protected areas of the world.

The sanctuary is a 6.2 sq km protected zone that's home to 266 species of fauna and 47 of flora. But the star attraction is the majestic flamingo. There are around 1,000 flamingos here throughout the year, but this number swells to almost 2,500 during the winter. January is the best time to visit if you want to catch migratory birds.

Sports
If you are after something a little more high energy, then why not try quad biking by `Big Red' -- the gian sand dune on the road to Hatta.

Most Thursday and Friday afternoons during November to March, anyone can go along and have a go.

And forget indoor snow skiing at the Mall of the Emirates. Instead, head for the great outdoors and try your hand at sand skiing, a sport that's hard to find anywhere else in the world. There are full day tours, and of course, special ski hire is available.

Camel racing is also another sport not to be missed. Races are held during November to April, usually on Thursdays, Fridays and Sundays with one race at 7.30 am and another at 4.00 pm.

Shopping
Dubai is a shopaholic's dream. In fact, shopping is the number one tourist attraction, according to government figures.

But you can find big name, branded goods almost anywhere these days, so why not venture out to the rustic shops and markets to pick up a different type of souvenir?

The Bur Dubai Souk is a group of shops under wooden arcades and traditional wind towers. Here you t can find textiles, clothes and the quintessential mosque alarm clock.

The souks in Dubai might lack the gravitas of those in say, Syria, but it still makes for a fun day out.

Eating out
Sampling the local cuisine is part and parcel of any holiday. But when I asked where I could find `local fare' most people were a little stumped.

You can find almost any other type of gourmet delicacy under the sun here -- from Turkish, Indian, French, Italian, Chinese, there's even sushi. But offerings of local Emirati cuisine are a rare find.

In fact many guide books point to restaurants in hotels, which to me doesn't really constitute authentic dining. tute authentic dining.

However, you can try Bastakiya Nights -- a restaurant situated in a traditional Arabian house, overlook ing the creek. You'll be entertained by belly dancers and there's also henna painting. Some might think it a little contrived, but great fun nev ertheless.

The packed Lebanese fast food chain Zaatar w Zeit, is a genuine outpost of Beirut in Dubai. Their baked goods are to die for, but it's the manakeesh, or Lebanese pizza, that they're best known for. Take a stroll down the palm-studded Al Dhiyafah Street in Satwa. Here you'll find an embarrassment of Beirut-style cafes, all with pleasant roadside terraces built for late-night mezze consumption.
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