The UAE’s favourite emirate is always changing, yet manages to yoke the past and the future, we find on a recent trip to Dubai.
The golden frame glistens in the sunlight. The view within is moving and from my vantage point it seems to take me back to the past. I see the Dubai creek and I’m plunged back into history textbooks as I glimpse the remnants of the tiny fishing village that was Dubai, with abras (small wooden boats) dotting the waters. But this enchanted frame also affords another view. See through it from the other direction, and you’ll see a city full of skyscrapers, including the Burj Khalifa, which at a towering 830 metres is among the tallest buildings in the world.
The magical frame is none other than the Dubai Frame, recognised by the Guinness World Records as the ‘World’s largest building that’s in the shape of a picture frame’. At 150 metres tall and 95 metres wide, it’s impossible to miss and a perfect introduction to the emirate. Because, while the frame makes for a pretty picture, it captures different eras, depending on your perspective. I find that the past and the future come together in several tourist attractions in Dubai, held together by a touch of the ethereal. If you’re looking to travel in time, just follow my list…
Suggested read: How Dubai became the hub for modern Indian cuisine
Glimpse the whole picture: See the Dubai Frame
Within the Dubai Frame sits a museum that reveals the history of Dubai. I walk in to find scenes of pearl diving that have come alive thanks to multi-media. I peek into rooms where vendors — in this case, holograms — try to entice me with spices, myrrh, and frankincense. The scene is set with the use of traditional Arabic music that plays in the background.
Yet another floor depicts the more recent past — the 80s, 90s and beyond that I remember from various trips to the emirate. As I go higher up the frame, I chance upon what is to be: I see what Dubai would look like 50 years from now; the blueprint comes alive with the use of interactive screens and augmented reality. The present once again emerges as I make my way to the viewing deck to see the fantastic skyline of Dubai.
Check into a new world: Explore Atlantis, The Palm
Plato’s utopian city exists. You can enter this fantasy world at Atlantis, that sits on the Palm Jumeirah Island, which is part of an impressive man-made archipelago consisting also of the Palm Deira and Palm Jebel Ali. You can arrive at the resort via helicopter — Atlantis has its own helipad.
From above, the hotel looks like a sprawling palace rising from the waters. The fantasy continues even as I walk through the lobby — there is floor to ceiling glass, overhead glass tubes that encase lobby areas. Within them live 65,000 permanent marine residents. Sting rays, sharks, colourful clown fish (remember Nemo?) swim beside me and I’m immediately transported under water.
Within this make-believe world, I’m made aware of the real dangers facing our planet: I sign up for tours that take me to the ‘fish hospital’, where I come face-to-face with the Arabian carpet shark, a near-threatened species.
A breeding programme at Atlantis helps to increase their numbers and repopulate the Arabian Gulf. The Marine Biologist programme is perfect for young explorers who want to learn about the ecosystem. It’s heartbreaking to realise that future generations may never set eyes on a Hawksbill Sea Turtle. As their numbers dwindle, the creatures they feed on — sea urchins and sponges — could overpopulate the seabed, leading to erosion and destruction of corals.
It’s empowering to be told that it’s up to us, collectively, to prevent this from happening. The behind-the-scenes tour introduces me to a variety of species, their eating habits which consists only of restaurant grade food, and their upkeep with regular doctor’s visits, blood tests, scat tests, ultrasounds etc. Atlantis is the perfect place to learn about life in the water and how you can contribute to a better future that protects the big blue.
Step into time capsules: Visit the Dubai Museum and the Museum of the Future
I walk into the city’s old quarter Bur Dubai, where the meandering bylanes come with single-storeyed buildings, mom-and-pop convenience stores and shops selling spices. I walk into one of the oldest buildings in the area — Al Fahidi Fort, a historical structure that aptly houses a museum. You can glimpse the old city walls that frame the museum.
Dhows lie at the entrance to pay homage to the fishing village where the story began. Within the walls are maps that capture the changes in the skyline over the years; it’s surreal when you view it all at once and realise how far this tiny emirate has come. You’ll also glimpse artifacts ranging from dallahs (Arabic coffee pots), to coins, pearls, etc. Dioramas recreate the early years of Dubai.
Just a short drive away lies the very recently opened (February 2022) Museum of the Future. The unique building draws attention with Arabic calligraphy — quotes by His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Makhtoum — embossed on its unusual oval-shaped façade. The three quotes speak of innovations that will lead us into the future.
The theme of creativity, a sustainable future and, most of all, the power of dreams, continues within the building. Here visitors enter space stations, travel to lands far away and understand the Earth within the framework of its place in the Universe. We are also made to think about the possibility of living on other planets.
Yet another floor takes visitors inside a digitised Amazon where you’re made aware of the many ways in which we are currently harming the planet. Visitors can become part of the process of rejuvenating Earth with interactive features that allow you to mix and match DNA, create new species, and bring back the extinct.
Almost ironically, there is yet another space in the museum, where mental health is tied to a break from technology. You’re advised to take in this area by turning off your phones. Curiosity and cutting-edge technology once again emerge in the other sections where automation, artificial intelligence, etc, are seen in a variety of fields from transportation (think flying vehicles), innovations in medicine, health, and technology (can we defy ageing?). The many interactive exhibits make you realise that the future is now; that how we act today can determine our course for decades to come.
Travel through the sands of time: Experience a desert safari
It looks like a scene straight out of The Arabian Nights. A veiled beauty dressed in a seductive bedlah, shimmies gracefully to the music. Visitors are awe-struck by the performance even as platters of Arabic food do the rounds of the camp, and plumes of smoke from flavoured shishas fill the air. The scene isn’t a chapter from a Middle Eastern folk tale; it is a scene from a desert safari.
Desert safaris remain one of the most popular experiences in Dubai. You can choose from an overnight one where you spend the night in the midst of sand dunes, under a canopy of stars. Or from a full-day experience which also promises plenty of thrills: start with some dune-bashing where you’ll be thankful for your seatbelt, your driver’s skills and the fact that you’re in a four-wheel drive. Or you could opt for the more authentic way to explore the desert: atop a camel. Because even in this experience, several eras manage to coexist.
Brown to green: Check out these lush open spaces
‘Dated till the desert goes green’. If you grew up in the 80s like I did, you’ll probably remember these lines on the very top of your autograph books. Little did we know back then that this would become a reality.
Dubai comes dotted with green spaces. But if there’s one such oasis you need to visit, it’s the Dubai Miracle Garden. The garden was unveiled to the public on Valentine’s Day of 2013. But it shut temporarily during Covid only to reopen in November 2021. The harsh weather makes the gardens operational only for a few months every year and if you visit before April 30, 2022, you can catch a glimpse of this tangible mirage.
The ‘World’s largest natural flower garden’ is home to over 100 million flowers, 250 million plants, 15,000 butterflies. As if that wasn’t enough, the garden goes a step further and comes up with various themes. This year saw the introduction of the Smurfs, with gigantic versions of these endearing three-apples-tall blue characters sitting between the most colourful flower displays to add a touch of drama. My favourite attraction is the functional floral clock, where the flowers change with the seasons… yet another tribute to time.