Dubai is not all brunches and five-stars. There’s plenty of local heritage to experience. Get involved!
1 Pick up the lingo: ‘Joining an Arabic language course is a sure-fire route to local assimilation. The Eton Institute’s beginner’s course has given me a complete grasp of the alphabet and light conversation. I now feel comfortable with how are you (‘kif halik’), good (bakhir), thank you (shoukran) and even basic chat. It might take a while to get going, but being surrounded by Arabic day-to-day and receiving such a warm reception after showing even the barest progression from ‘shoukran’ is enough to keep me coming back.’ Chris Lord Eton Institute (04 360 2955) offers full beginner’s courses. Free Ramadan etiquette courses are also available during the Holy month.
2 Become a falconer: ‘Forget sprawling on carpets watching an Uzbek belly dancer; if you want to reconnect with the desert you need to recreate it as it once was. Falconry is the desert’s oldest sport and Pete Bergh offers hands-on lessons in how to handle, call and interact with these formidable feathered friends of Bedouins. There’s no doubting the authenticity of the camp that Bergh has set up near Al Ain, and his extensive ranger’s knowledge brings the experience to life.’ CL Shaheen Xtreme (050 874 5725) offers lessons for Dhs1,000 with pick up and drop off from anywhere in Dubai.
3 Camp in the desert: ‘Sight a dune and pitch your tent, that’s how it’s been done for years and it remains so to this day. Dhaid, Hatta and some of the beaches in RAK and Dibba are all options for happy camping, but the intrepid should think about joining a convoy deep into the Rub Al Khali (Empty Quarter). This vast stretch of sand just beyond Liwa Oasis offers the most pristine example of desert out there. You’ll never know silence until you’ve drifted amid these dunes.’ CL Explorer Tours (04 286 1991), www.explorertours.ae, private two-day self drive with guide inc drinks Dhs3,000 per car. Toyota land cruiser with guide for Liwa safari, inc meals and drinks Dhs3,000 for four maximum. Both trips involve camping overnight.
4 Explore a Bedouin village: ‘Want to see how Bedouins lived before the gold rush? Why not potter around an ancient village with tour company Absolute Adventures? After jumping on a speed boat in Dibba you’re taken to Aqaba fishing harbour, before completing a two-to-three hour trek over the peninsula to Aqaba town. Here you’ll find 87 small stone houses, a mosque, a fort and graveyards all built into the cliff and abandoned approximately 100 years ago. The brave can climb inside the town’s prison cell – a tiny, tomb-like space – and see how long they last.’ Becky Lucas Absolute Adventures, 04 345 9900, www.adventure.ae, UAE & Syria, US$190 (Dhs697) for Aqaba-Lima trek.
5 Tour Jumeirah Mosque: ‘If Islam remains a mystery to you then get down to Jumeirah Mosque, where a number of guides are on-hand to take you through aspects of the faith. Well-structured, the tour demystifies the religion as well as explaining the practical and social reasons behind Emirati culture, such as the origin of the dishdash. Each tour is concluded with a Q&A session in which all queries are welcomed.’ James Wilkinson Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding, www.cultures.ae/jumeirah.htm, tours take place every Sat, Sun, Tue and Thu at 10am. No booking required; just register beforehand at the mosque. Conservative dress for both men and ladies is essential.
6 Explore Dubai’s history: ‘“Dubai doesn’t have a history!’ cry the smart Alecs at the back of the class. Well, they’re dead wrong – for the proof check out Dubai Museum, which includes a time-lapse look at the city’s development from a tiny shipping port to a giant metropolis. If you’ve already seen the museum, check out Al Ahmadiya School, which is laid out exactly as it would have been when it opened in 1920, and Sheikh Saeed Al Maktoum House, which contains photographs of Dubai from the ’40s and ’50s as well as antique collections.’ JW Dubai Museum (04 226 0286), Bastakiya, 9am-4.30pm daily, Dhs3. Sheikh Saeed Al Maktoum House (04 393 7139), Shindaga Heritage Village, Sat-Thu 9am-5pm, Fri 9am-3pm, Dhs2. Al-Ahmadiya School (04 226 0286), Deira, Sat-Thu 9am-4.30pm, Fri 9am-2.30pm, free.
7 Do a camel safari: ‘Bearing in mind that the camel is perhaps the only beast to unfold rather than stand up, boarding and disembarking can be a challenge in itself. However, once up there, there’s no better way to experience the red dunes around the northern perimeter of Al Ain, where fans of Peter O’Toole will have trouble suppressing that theme tune. Our advice is to book an evening ride; the darkening sky, the crimson dunes and the gentle sway of the humped ‘ships of the desert’ are a bewitching combination.’ Jonathan Wilks Al Ain Camel Safaris, Hilton Hotel (03 768 8066). One hour, Dhs150; Dhs75 for children. Booking ahead is advisable.
8 Tackle Moreeb Hill: ‘There is no bigger challenge for desert drivers than Moreeb Hill (‘scary mountain’ in Arabic), one of the biggest dunes in the world. Situated 25km from Liwa Oasis, the ridiculously steep dune is forever crawling with quad bikes and 4x4s. Every year as part of the Liwa Festival, competitions including camel, horse and falcon races are all held here, too.’ BL Liwa Festival, January, check www.visitabudhabi.ae for specific dates. See details on Explorer Tours’ camping trips to Liwa in Must-Do number 3.
9 Get cultural over breakfast: Rock up to the Sheikh Mohammed Centre For Cultural Understanding and sit on comfy cushions in the shaded courtyard while your host, Salamah Al Muhajira, serves traditional Emirati breakfast. Over the next couple of hours you’re free to ask questions about Emirati life, which Al Muhajira will answer honestly and good-humouredly. Best of all, you get answers to questions you never knew you wanted to ask; around 15 people attend, all with their own queries. Book in advance; it always fills up.’ Laura Chubb Sheikh Mohammed Centre For Cultural Understanding, 04 353 6666, www.cultures.ae, Bastakiya, Mondays at 10am, Dhs50.
10 Fast for a day: ‘If I go four hours without eating, I get cranky. Expand it for a day and I get, well, emotional. So I was nervous skipping out on food and drink for a full day. I’d love to say I transcended the pain, but I didn’t. The one day I tried fasting, the dehydration caused an intense headache and by the end of the day I was on the verge of tears. On the upside, I don’t think anything has ever tasted as sweet as the first date of iftar. While my mental state was in tatters, I did learn to appreciate sustenance in a way I never had before.’ Daisy Carrington