No matter what kind of activity gets you away from the pool, beach or shopping mall, you’ll be able to pursue it in Dubai, be it on or in the water, on the ice, in the desert, on the ski slopes, in the spa or even in the air.
Venturing into the vast Arabian desert, preferably at sunset, ranks high on the list of things to do in Dubai. Not all 4WD desert safaris are created equal, though. A typical tour includes vigorous off-roading through sand dunes – call shotgun if you’re prone to motion sickness – and activities such as falconry, camel riding, henna painting and belly dancing, followed by a Middle Eastern feast under the stars. Cheaper tours head for Al Awir, 35km east of Downtown Dubai, while a handful of companies, including Platinum Heritage Tours and Arabian Adventures, are permitted to take travellers into the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve. For a more sustainable experience, opt for Platinum Heritage’s vintage Land Rover tours that favour gentle wildlife-spotting drives over damaging dune bashing.
Diving & Snorkeling
Diving around Dubai means mostly nosing around shipwrecks on the sandy seabed of the Gulf at a depth of between 10m and 35m. The better sites are generally a long way offshore and more suited to experienced divers. Creatures you might encounter include clownfish, sea snakes, Arabian angelfish, rays and barracuda. For more exciting dives (or snorkelling trips), you need to head to the East Coast (Khor Fakkan and Dibba) or north to the rugged Musandam Peninsula, which is part of Oman. A well-established local company leading guided dives, snorkelling trips and certification courses is Al Boom Diving.
Surfing & Kitesurfing
Dubai ain't Hawaii (waves average 0.67m), but that's not stopping a growing community of surfers from hitting the waves at Jumeirah Public Beach next to the Jumeirah Beach Hotel. Prime months are from December to February, although October, March and April may also bring decent swells. If there are no waves, you can still hit the water on a stand-up paddleboard (SUP). Hire equipment or get lessons in either sport at Surf House Dubai, whose website also features a surf cam and a daily updated surf report.
Motorised Water Sports
Practically all of the big beach resorts maintain state-of-the-art water-sports centres that offer both guests and nonguests a range of ways to get out on the water. The menu may include waterskiing, jet-skiing, wakeboarding, parasailing and power boating. Priority is given to hotel guests; visitors can expect to pay higher rates or a beach access fee.
For a glorious perspective of Dubai from the water, hire your own skippered boat: try the Dubai Creek Golf & Yacht Club. Options include a one-hour Creek cruise for Dhs450, but for the full experience, book at least a four-hour trip that follows Dubai Canal out to the Gulf and from there to the World islands, Palm Jumeirah and the Burj Al Arab (Dhs1500). Rates are good for up to six passengers.
When the mercury climbs, a fun way to keep cool is with slides, thrill rides, lagoons, pools and beaches at a water park. Dubai fields five of these splash zones: the adventurous (Aquaventure), the novel (Legoland), the classic (Wild Wadi) the low-key (Splash 'n' Party) and the new (Laguna Waterpark). Tiny tots will love the mini-version water park: Splash Pad right on The Beach at JBR.
Golf is huge in the Gulf, and nowhere more so than in Dubai, which has 10 major golf courses, including several at championship-level designed by big names such as Greg Norman, the man behind Jumeirah Golf Estates. Other world-class courses include Majlis and Faldo, both at Emirates Golf Club, and the sentimental favourite, Dubai Creek Golf & Yacht Club.
Overall, clubs don’t require memberships, but green fees can soar to Dhs1100 for 18 holes during the peak winter season (November to March), although they drop the rest of the year, especially in summer. Proper attire is essential. If you’re serious about golf, reserve your tee times in advance.
The winter months are cool enough for running nearly anytime during the day; in summer get up with the sun to avoid heatstroke. Running tracks have proliferated of late in Dubai. The classic is in Zabeel Park, but newer ones parallel the beachfront in Jumeirah, Dubai Canal and the crescent of Palm Jumeirah. A short but sweet run is through Al Ittihad Park on the Palm's trunk.
Prefer running with company? Check out Desert Road Runners (www.desertroadrunners.club) or Dubai Creek Striders (www.dubaicreekstriders.org). If you’re into the more social aspects of running (read: drinking afterwards), look into DH3, aka the Desert Hash House Harriers (www.deserthash.org).
The Dubai Marathon takes over city streets in January.
Off-road driving in the desert (also disturbingly known as ‘dune bashing’) is hugely popular. At weekends (Fridays and Saturdays), the city’s traffic-tired workers zip down the Dubai–Hatta road and unleash their pent-up energy on the sand dunes, such as the ruby-red heap of sand nicknamed ‘Big Red’. All the major car-hire companies provide 4WD vehicles. Expect to pay around Dhs500 for 24 hours for a Toyota Fortuner or a Honda CRV, plus insurance. If you have no experience in driving off-road, we strongly recommend first taking a desert driving course, such as those offered by Desert Rangers.
Day Spas & Massage
Though you can get a good rub-down at most sports clubs, for the proper treatment make a booking at a spa. Avoid Friday and Saturday, which can get busy, and ask if the treatment includes use of the pool and grounds. If it does, make a day of it – arrive early and relax poolside. Most spas offer manicures and pedicures, but if you want a dedicated nail salon, try Nail Spa; there are several branches, including one at Dubai Mall.
The largest indoor ski slope in the world, Ski Dubai, at the Mall of the Emirates, is an incongruous but delightful stop for winter-sports enthusiasts. You can also take lessons and learn how to snowboard.