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Hidden Dubai - More than Shopping
Phil Hopkins, Arts & Travel Editor
Mall of the Emirates, home to Ski Dubai and its penguin show!
This week we feature the second of Phil Hopkins' editorials on Dubai. Our theatre and travel man has been on an amazing 11-day adventure to the Middle East and here recounts his journey to the United Arab Emirates' 'City of Merchants'. Today hidden Dubai falls under his spotlight!

A city's hidden gems are something akin to the truffles on an elite restaurant's menu, to be prized by those determined enough to seek them out!

For many the name Dubai conjures up one thing, exclusive shopping. However, whilst this major city within the United Arab Emirates claims to be no less than 'extensive' when it comes to retail therapy - there are around 64 malls - it does have much more to offer than Jimmy Choo, Gucci and the extremes of credit card abuse!

Big shoes, big price Dubai Shopping Mall
Perhaps one of the biggest surprises for the uninitiated is Alserkal Avenue in the industrial Al Qoz area of Dubai, a short ride from Downtown but well worth the effort. This strange place is, quite literally, a sea of warehouses and, at first viewing, you could be forgiven for thinking that the driver had taken a wrong turn.

Art & Industry side by side
However, the area has, in fact, been re-claimed by art galleries, coffee shops and an array of production facilities including the RAW Boutique Coffee Roastery, Mirzam Chocolate - both wholesale and retail with built in 'tours' - and Wild & the Moon, an organic eatery with outlets in Dubai and Paris.

Raw Boutique Coffee Roastery on Alserkal Avenue
In 1976 Dubai was little more than a desert fishing village with one hotel, the Intercontinental. Some of the streets didn't even have asphalt on them and only KFC and Pizza Hut had made their way to this Middle East Wild West.

Now, just four decades on, Dubai is a power house of commerce, uses between 80 and 100 million gallons of reclaimed sea water every day and, at the last count, had something in the region of 25 golf courses.

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But, despite its modernism, it still feels like a place of tradition. There are women only carriages on the Metro, you can request an audience with Sheikh Mohammed on Friday Sabbath if he's in town, and there is divine respect for the ancient religion of Islam.

And yet, ironically, Dubai has coined a new phrase, 'narcissistic tourism' where all colours and creeds spend large parts of the day in the shopping malls and on the boardwalks, striving to take the perfect sun tanned selfie in a bid to go viral on Facebook!

But, get past the superficial glitz and glamour, and you can have a peaceful and interesting day at Zabeel Park, which you should head for on Friday, start of the Islamic 'weekend', to witness Ripe Market, a wonderful food and craft event which opens between 9-3pm and features dozens of unique stalls.

Ripe Market, Zabeel Park. Held Fridays
But if its shops of a more traditional variety you like then what better place to spend your afternoon than at one of the three main souks, silk, spice or gold. Just make sure you take your glasses to the latter because the Arab nations have a penchant for gold and, if it glistens, it'll be there including, of course, the biggest ring in the world along with its Guinness Book of Records certificate; hard to miss!

It's a bling thing! Dubai's gold souk
And what of the kids? Well, the Emiratis have thought about them too! There's Dubai Parks & Resorts, home to three theme parks - Bollywood, Motiongate & Legoland as well as the Legoland water park. What is striking is the quality of these tourist attractions.

They may not yet be as grand as Disney but they have the land, the will and, be sure, their 'finish' is top class. In terms of getting there, they are a bit out on a limb, however, the smart money takes the Metro to the final station (UAE Exchange) which will cost you about £2, and then grab a cab for the last £7 leg of the journey.

But, if you only have a couple of quid left in your pocket, spend it at the Global Village, a poor man's Epcot but still a great day out that the kids will adore. Once popularised prices are sure to go up but, right now, the Global Village has a beyond cheap entry fee, unlike Dubai's theme parks which have ticket prices more in keeping with Disney.

Bollywood Par, one of Dubai Parks & Resorts' 3 theme parks
By the end of this year the Dubai 'H' frame is due to open when a panoramic elevator will take visitors up through the rib of the frame to the top floor, where they will be able to look over the Dubai skyline.

However, for those of a more artistic bent drop in on the Mawaheb Art Project, set up several years ago, by Dutch lady Wemmy de Maaker as a refuge for teenagers, aged 18+, with learning difficulties.

It has now become one of the hippest places in town with some superb work by highly talented individuals, once destined for the scrap heap but for their inspirational founder. Check out Mawaheb's amazing 'graduate' Victor Sitali on Instagram (VSitali90) or Facebook (Victor Sitali Artistry)

Mawaheb founder Wemmy de Maaker with artist Victor Sitali
Bored? You won't be! You will need a very fat wallet but if cash is plentiful there's no shortage of things to do. Dubai Creek, once just 3km long, is now a 27km stretch of water linking to the Arabian Gulf and, as well as being home to some of the city's most expensive properties - the Creek does represent prime 'water' real estate - it is also an opportunity for tourists to explore this part of the city, via evening dinner on JA Bateaux Dubai, a gorgeous 'dinner' boat complete with cordon bleu cookery. It ferries diners along the banks of the Creek for two and a half hours of unadulterated, luxurious dining.

Dinner on board Bateaux Dubai
Alternatively, the Double Tree by Hilton's Al Maeda Arabic Cuisine Restaurant offers an equally wonderful, if less watery, evening, whilst Dubai's Food Festival, held every year between 23rd February and 11th March to celebrate Dubai's emergence as a gastronomic destination, affords numerous opportunities to sample the delights of a Middle East food table, including a visit to the Etisalat Beach Canteen, a spectacular 'street food' show with music and dozens of quirky, fun food outlets.

Etisalat Beach Canteen, part of the Dubai Food Festival
However, in between the daytimes, there are the nights and you will need somewhere to lay your head. Again, there are a range of options from the opulence of the five-star H Hotel which features the spectacular views of its adjacent 40 Kong Rooftop cocktail bar, where all the 'beautiful people' of Dubai seem to decamp.

H Hotel, Dubai
For something a little different the designer XVA Art Hotel offers 14 unique guest rooms, each carefully designed by owner, Mona Hauser, to showcase the region's architectural and cultural motifs. But, for something a little less opulent, there are the city's three Rove Hotels, mid-price but still beautifully appointed.

Finally, and not forgetting, Dubai's internationally famous Palm Resort. There are a range of elite hotels including the Anantara, which will hammer your wallet but is the ultimate in luxury, with a private beach and rooms that have patio doors opening onto a huge lagoon, that wraps itself around the entire resort; swim across to the neighbour! The perfect place to relax away from the chaos of Downtown Dubai, or the tackier resorts of Tenerife.

Anantara Resort on Dubai's Palm Resort
Undoubtedly Dubai is a city of contrasts. It is the modern and the traditional, the old and the new, the extremes of wealth and a country where the young Sheikhs are said to have enjoyed £1m a month pocket money budgets!

You need cash and good shoes but, if you have both, you will enjoy this amazing place and whether your penchant is shopping, theme parks, souks or soups, there's certainly something for everyone in this crazy city of extremes, where bling is the thing, cash is king and beautiful people proliferate the shopping malls in greater numbers than a shoal of Gulf fish!

Tourism Information

For more information on Dubai visit:

Emirates flights:


H Hotel: The starting price for the month of June will be £134* room only (*subject to 20% Taxes and £4.50 Tourism Fees).

Rove Hotels: The starting price for the month of June will be £65.

Anantara, The Palm, Dubai:
Premier Lagoon Access room type
Low season (May - Sept) from £220-£360
High season (Oct - Apr) from £320-£580

XVA Hotel: Price on enquiry:

Shared apartment room in Jumeirah Beach Residences, Dubai. Cost £57 a night.


Book Mirzam Chocolate via:
Wild & the Moon:
Tour of RAW Boutique coffee roaster:
Ripe Market, Zabeel Park:
For dinner at Al Maeda by DoubleTree Hilton: Al Maeda
Dinner on Bateaux Dubai: Dinner on Bateaux Duba
Etisalat Beach Canteen: Etisalat Beach Canteen
Taste of Dubai, Dubai Media City Amphitheatre


Handy Hints

Metro - no smoking, drinking, eating or chewing of gum. And don't travel in the 'women only' carriages unless, of course, you are a woman! There's a nice fine regime.
Taxis - efficient & metered. No charging abuse as in certain other countries. Good value and plentiful usually with a minimum 10 dirhams (£2) charge.
It is advised to carry water with you due to the heat.
Women: carry a shawl with you - this will make it more convenient for visiting the more traditional cultural locations.
Be on the lookout for mid-week offers and deals at Dubai's restaurants.

Hidden Dubai - More than Shopping, 27th March 2017, 8:50 AM