Beneath the mantle of glitz and glamour, Dubai's subtle and seductive charms could easily be overlooked. But lift the cloak of this glittering diamond city, and the essence of Arabia is quickly found in the lively, chaotic and traditional souqs centred around the Creek, the heart of this ancient trading port. Delve a little deeper and you'll find the essence of a people fiercely proud of their desert heritage. 'No man’, wrote the British explorer Sir Wilfred Thesiger of his travels across the Arabian sands, ‘can live this life and emerge unchanged...He will carry, however faint, the imprint of the desert.'
Dubai's humble roots – the Arabian sea and the enigmatic desert – are its greatest enchantments.
A hot-air balloon flight at sunrise reveals the enormity and tranquillity of the desert which stretches, seemingly endlessly, to the horizon. In the dawn light the sand glows a rich reddish-gold, the vast sea of dunes broken only by the occasional tarmac road, green oasis, and wandering camel. Savour the silence as breakfast in the dunes is the quietest meal you'll have today.
Shopping malls are the modern-day oases of Dubai, and the largest oasis in the city – or the world – Dubai Mall has a three-storey aquarium at its centrepiece. Unashamedly grandiose, with shopping and entertainment to match, Dubai Mall epitomises the opulence that has flourished from the desert sands.
Before leaving the mall, take one of the fastest lifts in the world to the 124th floor of the tallest building in the world. 'At the Top' in Burj Khalifa provides unparalleled 360' views of the city set against the stunning backdrop of the desert and the Arabian Sea.
Immerse yourself in the atmospheric Bastakiya area of Bur Dubai beside Dubai Creek. Before wandering through the restored historical quarter, stop for a late lunch at Basta Art Cafe (Al-Fahidi St, Bastakiya), a leafy courtyard cafe in a traditional wind-tower building. The labyrinthine lanes lined with wind-tower residences are enchanting to explore. Here you'll find the Majlis Gallery (Al-Fahidi Roundabout), the city's oldest commercial art gallery dating to the 1970s, as well as XVA, one of Dubai's leading contemporary galleries.
Work your way up Al-Fahidi Street to the Dubai Museum located in an 18th-century fort. The collection charts Dubai's rapid evolution from pre-oil fishing village to glamour capital of the world.
Wander the laneways down to Dubai Creek and hire an abra (a water taxi) from the abra station. The creek is the bustling heart of the city with dozens of abras constantly criss-crossing the water, and wooden dhows lined three abreast along the wharf loading and unloading goods from exotic destinations. At sunset, light reflecting off the glass facades of the city's modern buildings makes a surreal backdrop. Disembark across the creek at the Deira Old Souq abra station.
Follow the pungent perfume of frankincense, sumac, cinnamon and sacks full of enticing spices across the street to the tiny yet aromatic Spice Souq. Continue through the winding lanes to the wooden-latticed arcades of the Gold Souq where all that glitters is not just gold. Diamonds, pearls, and precious gems dazzle in the largest gold market in Arabia. It's crowded, chaotic and absolutely fascinating.
Retrace your steps to the abra station and cross the creek back to Bur Dubai. Now the sun has set, Bur Dubai Souq (between Al-Fahidi Street and Dubai Creek) is buzzing. Haggle over curly-toed Aladdin slippers, colourful textiles and cheap souvenirs then wander down Hindi Lane – a narrow, crowded alleyway lined with garlands of marigolds and Hindu religious paraphernalia.
The Arabian night continues. Head west along the creek towards Al Shindagha, to Kan Zaman (Heritage Village), an atmospheric creek-side restaurant and order the Arabic mezze and grills followed by apple sheesha - an obligatory way to end the meal.