“I can’t, I can’t,” the reluctant thrill-seeker next to me intones under her breath, jiggling the rope that hooks onto her harness, weighing the worthiness of the only thing preventing us from splatting onto the downtown streets 220 metres below.
Approaching the brink of the Sky Views Observatory Edge Walk, we position our feet half off the metal grate and lean back past the rim, flashing smiles for the photo op. Behind us, the Burj Khalifa — neo-futurist emblem of Dubai’s aspirations and the tallest building on Earth — jabs the cloudless blue sky, towering above a 30-acre lake (manmade, of course).
Anywhere else, this kind of unabashedly touristy experience would be just a novelty, revealing little about a place. But in Dubai, it feels like an apt introduction to the city, constructed to entertain, where the thrills are invented, and the outsized landmarks are fashioned with equally enormous ambition.
No idea is too far-fetched. The first ski resort in the Middle East? It’s inside the sprawling Mall of the Emirates. The world’s longest urban zipline? It extends a kilometre across the Dubai Marina. The tallest hotels on Earth? Seven of the top 10 are in Dubai, with the gilded Gevora Hotel holding the Guinness crown. Entire artificial archipelagos out of thin air? Multiple mega-projects are in the works, slated to rival the famous, frond-shaped Palm Jumeirah. Even the rare rainfall isn’t all Mother Nature: In the ultra-arid UAE, a sci-fi-sounding technology called “cloud seeding” is used to coax more precipitation.
It’s easy to forget that Dubai, now the most populous emirate in the UAE, was once a little fishing and pearling town. It was home to just about 50,000 people as recently as the 1950s, before the discovery of oil offshore changed everything. The first skyscraper here, the 1979-built Dubai World Trade Centre, is only slightly older than a millennial.
Dubai’s unofficial motto seems to be, if you build it — tallest, biggest, flashiest — they will come. And so, they have: Tourism has bounced back fully from the pandemic slump. According to Euromonitor, there were 16.8 million international trips here in 2023, surpassing 2019 stats. This makes Dubai one of the world’s most popular travel destinations. More Canadians can now get here faster, too: Non-stop flights from Vancouver and Montreal launched last year.
Almost as soon as I touch down, I’m greeted by the over-the-top Dubai I anticipated, zooming along the main highway past the spectacle of skyscrapers. Arriving at my room at Atlantis, The Palm, a huge, ocean-themed luxury resort that promises to be “where the impossible becomes possible,” I spot what looks like a peculiar pool, with mysterious shapes gliding in the dark night.
The “pool” is an 11-million-litre, open-air aquarium; the shapes are about 65,000 marine animals. But I’m not entirely wrong. If you want to swim with the sharks and stingrays, you can — tourists can join a scuba dive, snorkel or underwater stroll (the so-called Aquatrek Xtreme, complete with an oxygen helmet).
A temple of entertainment is the Dubai I expect, but I wonder if there’s another side that could surprise. Next on the itinerary for our small group of travel journalists is a place described as a breath of fresh air away from Dubai’s shiny spires.
A 90-minute drive delivers us to this “hidden oasis.” Neat rows of donut boats and kayaks line the dock, set between rugged, barren mountain peaks. I coo over the welcoming committee at Hatta Kayak: the lively koi fish and curious ducks — so friendly, they could be paid actors by the tourism board — who swim up to greet us at the lake.
There’s hardly a wave or ripple. By now, I’m not surprised to learn this “lake” is another invention in the middle of the desert. The enclave of Hatta is billed as the highlands of Dubai (though well outside city limits), and was once best known for its historic fort, built in 1896. Today, it’s being reinvented as an emerging ecotourism hub, and we’re drifting on a body of water made possible by a dam.
Travellers come to Hatta for the outdoorsy amusements, including horseback riding, hiking up rocky peaks, and glamping in domed tents overlooking the Hajar Mountains. There’s an elaborate, all-ages adventure park, Hatta Wadi Hub, with nearly 20 ways to get an adrenaline rush: mountain biking, archery, axe throwing, ziplining, wall climbing, walking high ropes. The wackier activities include catapulting yourself from a human slingshot, and “zorbing” (if your idea of fun is tumbling downhill while stuck inside a see-through plastic ball).
Between thrills, we set out for a taste of the local history at Hatta Heritage Village. The site offers a glimpse of rural mountain life ages ago — though it, too, is a modern attraction, opened by the government as a living museum in 2001. It’s worth a stop to lunch on the excellent kebab platters at Al Hajarain, the village’s restaurant, then survey the settlement of ancient houses, faithfully restored with stone walls and palm-frond roofs.
The government’s Dubai 2040 urban master plan aims to turn Hatta into a major tourist destination, so much more is on the way. Ambitions include creating a sprawling beach around a crystal lagoon, plus manmade waterfalls, and a 5.4-kilometre cable car that will reach the summit of Umm Al Nusour. Even Dubai’s nature haven has been engineered to entertain.
For our final adventure, we head to another quintessential landscape — the seemingly endless, undulating desert — with Arabian Adventures. The company runs dune-bashing tours in the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve, the UAE’s first national park. Helmet and safety goggles on, I strap in tight in the dune buggy’s passenger seat for what promises to be an exhilarating ride. The roller-coastering, up and down the sand, has me wishing I’d popped a motion sickness pill, but the view makes up for it.
Our guide stops us for a requisite photo op, and as we hop out of the buggy, I’m delighted by the most magical moment of the trip: a flock of free-roaming camels, emerging from who-knows-where, sauntering over to us for their close-up, too. They pause and pose gamely for our selfies, batting their long lashes.
The rationalist in me suspects the inquisitive creatures have simply learned to expect treats from humans, but that’s the boring explanation. Dubai would prefer you believe that the thrills are everywhere, even where you least expect them.
If you go
How to get there: Air Canada and Emirates operate non-stop flights from Toronto to Dubai (about 13 hours).
Where to stay: If you like your hotels super-sized, Atlantis, The Palm is a full-fledged entertainment destination and the first resort to be built on the Palm Jumeirah, where it still dominates the artificial archipelago.
Where to dine: Dubai’s culinary scene is diverse, with both swanky global outposts (see: Mott 32’s haute Hong Kong fare) and home-grown originals. For the latter, book into Boca for the Michelin-endorsed modern Spanish dishes, made with local produce and a commitment to waste-not sustainability. Find a quainter experience at the first location of the Arabian Tea House, tucked in the historic neighbourhood of Al Fahidi.
What else to do: The city abounds in museums, and one of the newest is the kid-friendly Museum of the Future, also an eye-catching architectural landmark, shaped like a torus and embellished with Arabic calligraphy. Inside, exhibitions imagine what society’s possible futures could be like.
Wing Sze Tang travelled as a guest of Dubai’s Department of Economy and Tourism, which did not review or approve this article.