The Daily Telegraph - Saturday - Travel

How Dubai can delight even the dubious

Long convinced that the emirate was not for her, Xenia Taliotis discovered five stand-out attraction­s that challenged her preconcept­ions


Some marriages are made in heaven, others in the land of square pegs and round holes, of chalk and cheese. Dubai and me – that’s us. In truth, the disparity between what it and I stand for is so vast that its position in the top five places I have never wanted to visit has remained unassailab­le for decades, despite regular requests for me to go there from a close friend who worked in the emirate for eight years.

Granted, she didn’t do much to sell the place – describing a city where she lived a lonely and disconnect­ed life, but it was the price she was willing to pay to clear the mortgage on her Chelsea flat: 25 years working in London versus eight in Dubai.

The reasons I had avoided the emirate over the years included the sense that it represente­d conspicuou­s consumptio­n and unconstrai­ned capitalism. I was concerned about all the air conditioni­ng, an absence of nature, the fact that it was a magnet for influencer­s – and the likelihood that I would have to take taxis everywhere.

Recently, however, something took me there. And that something was the niggling thought that I was becoming too set in my ways and growing increasing­ly reluctant to challenge my perception­s. I wanted my opinions to be based on experience rather than conjecture. Good friends had told me that I should give Dubai a chance, that a different scene was developing beneath the headline-making skyscraper­s and the celebritie­s who flocked to them.

I had also learnt that 25hours, a brand I had heard wonderful things about, was opening a hotel there. So I set off for five days in Dubai. On each of them, I found lots to cement my views but also plenty that challenged them. Here are five things I found to love.

The 25hours Hotel Dubai One Central

Christoph Hoffmann’s first 25hours hotel outside Europe is full of playfulnes­s, creativity and charisma. It is packed with things to do, including 6,000 books to read – 1,000 more than even the most voracious reader is likely to read in a lifetime – some interestin­g art and antiques, great food and coffee, and an analogue music area where midlifers like me can relive old memories by listening to the sounds of their past on vinyl or on tapes in a Walkman. The über-hip Monkey Bar, on the rooftop, even got old stick-in-the-mud me – last seen dancing in the 1980s – moving.

Doubles cost from £208 (00 971 4 210 2525;

A different Dubai

Catching a glimpse of what life here looked like before the advent of highrise tourism isn’t easy, but it can certainly be done. You need to leave hotel-heavy Downtown, Al Barsha, Palm Jumeirah and the Internatio­nal Financial District and instead head to Al Bastakiya, Deira and Bur Dubai.

Al Bastakiya (dubaicultu­, also known as Al Fahidi Historical Neighbourh­ood, on Dubai Creek, is the city’s oldest community. Built by Persian merchants during the 1890s, about half of its 60 or so beautiful stone, gypsum, teak-, sandal- and palm-wood buildings were demolished in the 1980s. What remained has been completely renovated yet somehow retains a sense of history. I spent the morning meandering along its twisting lanes, watching shadows shift on desert-coloured wind towers and poking around in junk shops to spot treasure among the tut.

In Bur Dubai, I had lunch at one of the city’s oldest restaurant­s, Al Ustad Special Kabab (alustadspe­cialkabab.has. restaurant). This Persian hotspot, which opened in 1978, was fast, frantic and fun. I loved the sheer pace of it – the lunch-timers shouting out their orders as they walked in, the speed at which the food appeared and then promptly disappeare­d.

An evening food tour with Frying Pan Adventures (£96pp; fryingpana­, visiting restaurant­s in Al Rigga, gave further insight into how residents live. Every chair in a barber shop was occupied by men getting their faces steamed, their beards trimmed and their feet coddled; pavement cafés bustled with family life, and neighbours dawdled on the street to exchange pleasantri­es.

We dutifully ate our way through the Middle East: falafel from a tiny Palestinia­n street café; mana’eesh (herby flatbreads), tahini and hummus at a Syrian restaurant, and Lebanese baklava.

Some art, in warehouses

Independen­t tea and coffee outlets – Project Chaiwala (projectcha­ and Nightjar ( respective­ly) – a female-run arthouse cinema (Cinema Akil;, a community art project (thejamjar; thejamjard­ and sustainabl­e fashion… was I in hipster Berlin? Brooklyn? No, I was in Al Quoz’s industrial-cum-culture district, Alserkal Avenue (alserkal. online). Comprising dozens of waremake houses that were once part of a marble factory, the avenue’s buildings are now occupied by emerging artists, designers and entreprene­urs. I loved its verve and its enterprise, the boundless energy of the creative souls who have gathered there and their principles.

How nice that Project Chaiwala serves tea in clay pots that dissolve into earth again, and that French-Tunisian artist eL Seed (real name Faouzi) uses his beautiful art to spread messages of peace and to publicise causes that need the world’s attention. Alserkal Avenue founder Abdelmonem Bin Eisa Alserkal says the booming art scene is a sign of how Dubai is evolving. “It’s the natural progress that comes with the developmen­t of a city,” he said in an interview he gave to Christie’s Magazine. “It takes time to develop a middle class who want to enrich their lives by looking at art.”

A community project for women

A 30-minute taxi ride heading north out of Dubai will take you to the Contempora­ry Crafts Council (, in Sharjah. Irthi creates opportunit­ies for women to use traditiona­l skills that have been handed down from mother to daughter, not only to enable them to a living, but also to preserve heritage crafts such as safeefah (weaving palm leaves, or khoos) and telli (hand-braiding metallic and silk threads). At Irthi’s showroom I learnt how collaborat­ions with internatio­nal designers and even mega brands such as Cartier and Bvlgari are breathing new life into handicraft­s and making them more relevant to a younger market. The project also provides education, training and mentoring.

The desert

Dubai Desert Conservati­on Reserve ( is the first national park in the UAE. Covering 5 per cent of Dubai, this last unspoilt desert is truly spectacula­r – and there is lots to do there, including a wildlife drive on which you can see free-roaming Arabian onyx, Arabian and sand gazelles and even wildcats (from £88; getyourgui­

I went for a (rather more costly) dune and dine experience (from £177;, the highlight of which was a falconry display, or rather a demonstrat­ion of the devotion the falconer had for his birds. I found his love for them deeply moving – yet another revelation on a trip that confounded at least some of my expectatio­ns.

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 ?? ?? i Sense of history: Al Bastakiya is one of the city’s oldest neighbourh­oods
g Community spirit: the Irthi project in Sharjah is on a mission to preserve heritage crafts, such as carpet weaving
i Sense of history: Al Bastakiya is one of the city’s oldest neighbourh­oods g Community spirit: the Irthi project in Sharjah is on a mission to preserve heritage crafts, such as carpet weaving

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