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Destination Dubai: Beyond Burj Khalifa

Once a small seaside center of fishing and pearl diving, Dubai burst onto the international scene in 1966, when oil was discovered in the area. In 1971, the small sultanate joined with others to form the United Arab Emirates. Since then, Dubai has become an international jet-set destination, thanks to its luxury shops and glittering towers led by Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest manmade structure.

Amidst the soaring skyscrapers, it can be hard to imagine what Dubai was like just half a century ago. There’s more to the city than glamorous events and fashionable settings. Take a day or two to discover the hidden history waiting for you in this city that looks to the future and honours  its past.

Burj Khalifa - The world’s tallest manmade structure

Bastakia Quarter Break

From your base at Fairmont Dubai, ask the concierge to arrange transportation to Bastakia Quarter, Dubai’s Old City, located on the banks of Dubai Creek. In the 19th century, it was home to Dubai’s prosperous Persian silk and pearl traders, and more than any other part of the city, it is where you can rediscover Dubai’s past. Strolling the narrow stone-paved streets, you’ll pass limestone and coral buildings with fanciful carved details and wooden doors, glimpsing hidden courtyards just beyond. One such courtyard is Arabian Tea House, where you can sip tea, coffee or juice under the shady trees or enjoy a light meal with a chickpea salad or veggie wrap. Take a break here before or after you explore the quarter's art galleries and small shops. 

Within the Bastakia Quarter, Dubai’s Old City

It’s a Date

Following the serenity of the Bastakia Quarter, immerse yourself in the chaotic energy of the Fruit and Vegetable Market. Behind the rows and rows of watermelon, beans, tomatoes, onions and carrots, you’ll find vendors ready to help you with your selections. While there are dried dates for sale in many places in the city, this is the place to discover the many different varieties of plump, juicy fresh dates that are such an important part of local Emirati cuisine.

The Pearl of the Gulf

Dubai earned its nickname “The Pearl of the Gulf” because of its pearl trade history. Fishermen would anchor wooden dhows just off the coast and dive for rare pink or black pearls, as well as  the more common white and gold varieties. You can experience your own pearl dive with a six-hour tour from Travel and Culture. Once collected by your guide at the hotel, you’ll be  transported to a traditional dhow in the Jebel Ali area. Once aboard, learn about pearl diving traditions and enjoy a fish and rice dish cooked on the dhow. After this light meal, plunge straight into the Arabian Gulf in search of pearl treasures. A lightweight white garment, part of the traditional pearl diving apparel, is provided. 

Dubai's traditional wooden dhows 

Camel Culture

Camels have long been an important part of life in Dubai, and although you’re now more likely to see Ferraris and BMWs on the city’s streets, there are still opportunities to experience Dubai’s nearly lost camel culture. The Camel Museum in the Shandagha historical district occupies what was once a sheikh’s camel stable. The museum showcases the importance of the camel in Arabian life and describes the natural history of the camel. For an up-close-and-personal experience with the animal known as “the ship of the desert,” travel about 90 minutes to Al Ain, home to the last camel market in the United Arab Emirates. Here, traders from around the Emirates are enthusiastic about showing off their animals for visitors and buyers. You can tour the outdoor pens to see the different breeds, from racing camels to those bred just for milk. Photo opportunities abound, especially if you provide a small offering to those who assist in showing you their best stock or the newest calf. Though chances are, you won’t be bringing a camel home with you, make sure to stop by Al Ain National Museum, the zoo and the 1891 hill fort. Ask the concierge about arranging a day tour in order to see everything.

Crazy for camels

Something Wild

In contrast to Dubai’s ultra-modern atmosphere, spend an afternoon within the peaceful confines of Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve. The reserve is a 225-square-kilometer preservation area about 40 miles outside Dubai and is home to such wildlife such as the oryx, falcon and Arabian gazelle. There are a number of different day tours available, including camel treks, 4x4 dune rides and falconry educational programs. Traditional Bedouin-style meals in a majilis (seating area) is part of the package.

It may be Dubai’s modern flair that draws you to this destination, but don’t overlook the vestiges of tradition that linger. The two add up to a fascinating city that's unlike any other place in the world. For a customized Dubai experience, contact The Fairmont Dubai concierge. 

The beautiful Mountain Gazelles

Joanne O'Sullivan is a freelance writer based in Asheville, North Carolina. Her work has appeared in Bootsnall, Arttrav, Asheville Citizen-Times, The Florentine, and other travel and lifestyle publications.


Photo credits
Burj Khalifa by stingerpk

Horse statue in the Bastakia Quarter by mickaysavage 

Bows of Dhows, Dubai by Rod Waddington

Camels by stevebrown50 

Mountain gazelles (gazelle gazelia) by Charlesjsharp     



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