9 reasons to love the desert playground

Sure. there are the mega-malls. And the ski slope. And the white sand beaches and the lavish resorts and the designer restaurants and that tallest building in the world. And all this makes beginners happy. There is also the vast and deeply impressive Dubai 2020 World Expo for a few more weeks. But even when it ends, the city will be worth repeat visits for a variety of new and unexpected reasons.

Hot Air Balloon Adventures in Dubai

The city may seem determined to convince people that it is not on the edge of the desert – those dancing fountains in front of the Burj Khalifa, the lush gardens of all the resorts – but in fact, Dubai is on the edge of the dessert. The best way to appreciate it is to float gently in a hot air balloon at sunrise, with wild camels and oryx appearing as pink recedes from the horizon and the sky clears. If you know where to look, you can also spot the camel racing tracks (although probably not in action, it’s still early days.)

Platinum Heritage Desert Safari

The coda to the hot air balloon ride, Platinum Heritage’s partner outfit takes you into the desert in vintage Land Rovers to savor a hearty breakfast of local and international fare. It’s a step up from the usual tourist excursions with a falcon on your wrist and riding a camel. (Though you can do both of those things, which at least make for some pretty pictures.) The company also offers “eco-luxury” game drives to spot game like the Arabian oryx, which was brought in from the virtual extinction about 50 years ago thanks to the work of Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan and his Al Ain Zoo to conserve them.


Dubai has imported more than its share of great international restaurants – Salt Bae, Cipriani and Asia de Cuba all share real estate with dozens of places similar to Dubai’s only international financial center – which is why meeting a place like Gaia is refreshing. The Mediterranean concept was created here, and now it is planned to export this all over the world. (Monte Carlo was the first.) The concept is simple: super fresh vegetables and fish first displayed, then handled with great love and care by charismatic chef-host Izu Ani and his kitchen brigade. (Seriously, he told me he tells his staff to greet each carrot and thank them for their service, and to listen to the tomatoes, which he says would ask to always be left outside the refrigerator.) Something works: the place just landed at number 10 on the first MENA 50 Best list (the regional spin-off of the famous W50B).

Hiking in Hatta

Apart from the desert and the city, the emirate of Dubai also includes beautifully jagged mountains, with a wadi (oasis) and wildlife. It’s a playground for adrenaline junkies, with mountain bike trails, a zip line, a ropes course and water slides. For a quieter appreciation of nature, there are guided hikes on 35 kilometers of trails in the Hajar Mountains and kayaking trips on the smooth lake formed by the Hatta Dam.

Hatta Honey

The other option to get your heart pumping in Hatta is a visit to this educational apiary. I’ve held many unusual animals in my 20 years as a travel writer, but a honeycomb with a few hundred bees was a first for me. Those who are not interested in the same can taste the honeys produced from various flowers in the region, which are said to have many health benefits.

Sky View Observatory and Sky Walk

The newly opened glass pathway at the Dubai Frame skyscraper offers a bird’s eye view of the city below. (It’s 53 stories tall.) The fully enclosed space is comfortable for anyone reasonably comfortable with heights. For those more comfortable, on the 54th floor, visitors can dress and carabiner themselves in harnesses, then walk around the open-air building, lean over the edge and pose for photos of daredevil in front of the Burj Khalifa. (They send you out with a guide to convince you to lean over the edge and a professional photographer to document it.)

Afternoon Tea at Sky View

The British tradition of high tea is alive and well in Dubai, with plenty of places to sample sweets. One of the best is this hotel’s poolside area, which offers one of the best views of the Burj Khalifa. The patisserie sends rounds of scones, clotted cream, flaky pastries and a few savory bites, but you’re mostly here to feast your eyes on.

The museum of the future

Opened last week, the architecturally impressive museum focuses on ecosystems, bioengineering, outer space and transportation. It aims to be a global scientific benchmark and a “platform to study the future, shape its ideas and create in-depth discussions on its trends in all sectors of scientific and humanitarian development”. The building itself is worth a visit, an architectural marvel that stands 250 feet tall with seven stories inside and no internal pillars. It’s the only building in the world completely covered in Arabic calligraphy, and at night it’s illuminated by nearly 50,000 feet of LED lighting.

Getting There

There is also a great and unexpected way to do it. Turkish Airlines flies daily from 16 North American gateways to Istanbul, then has frequent flights from Istanbul to Dubai. They use a young fleet of planes (heavy on the very comfortable Dreamliners) and a business class service that regularly wins awards, especially for the Flying Chefs top-notch in-flight meals, as well as food and service in general (this goes for the snazzy lounge in Istanbul too). And for those who want to experience Turkish hospitality even more, the Istanbul Layover Promotion includes two nights in a five-star hotel for business class travelers or one night in a four-star hotel for economy class passengers.