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.

Dawn

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.

Morning

Dubai's swish new metro has given visitors a comfortable alternative to navigating the city by air conditioned car. If you only have a short time to explore, the metro is an ideal way to get a snapshot of the city, although bear in mind that the trains - which are driverless - don't race along quite as fast as the cars beneath on the Sheikh Zayed Road (perhaps that's a blessing). Trains run from 6am to 11pm Saturday to Thursday and 2pm to 12am on Fridays.

The emirate is known for its super-sleek hotels and malls but if you want a taste of real Dubai, alight at Al Karama station for your first stop - the station is slap-bang in the middle of this bustling district. Despite the city's non-stop development, Karama looks much the same as it did ten years ago, and therein lies its appeal. You'll find everything from sunglasses to tailors, and you certainly won't go hungry, with all manner of staple fast-food brands standing arm in arm with Indian and Asian eateries - Thai Terrace takes some beating.

Walk straight over to 6a Street and Digital Photo Express will print off any pictures you need in ten minutes. A few metres further on, you'll come to Open House and Singapore Deli on your right - take a look back over your shoulder for a striking image of the world's tallest tower, Burj Khalifa (more on that later), framed by an altogether more humble foreground of low-rise buildings and shops.

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 degrees views of the city set against the stunning backdrop of the desert and the Arabian Sea.

Burj Khalifa, which is served by its own metro station, four stops on from Al Jafiliya. The stats of the shimmering, 828-metre-tall structure are jaw-dropping - with more than 160 habitable storeys, it took 330,000 cubic metres of concrete, 39,000 tonnes of steel reinforcement, 103,000 square metres of glass and 22 million man hours to build.

Travelling at a speed of ten metres per second, the journey up the lightening-fast lifts to 'At the Top' takes about a minute, and the views that greet you really are spectacular, showing just how quickly this desert land has turned into a metropolis - it is better on a clear day, though, and if you are of a nervous disposition, bear in mind that you might, ever so slightly, feel the tower sway. Consider too that the cost is similarly stratospheric - starting at Rs 1300 and rising to Rs 5400 if you want immediate entry and to dodge any queues.

At the foot of the tower is the ultra-exclusive Armani hotel. Its eight food and drink outlets include the sleek Armani lounge, a great spot to have a drink and watch the jaunty Dubai Fountain dance to music on the half-hour - the tunes are piped into the venue via speakers. Reservations recommended.

Afternoon

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.

Sunset      

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.

Evening

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.

Atlantis the Palm

Back on for two stops to Dubai Internet City, and it's a short cab ride to the opulent water-themed resort Atlantis the Palm. Situated at the apex of the crescent of the man-made Palm Jumeirah island, Atlantis has become as much a tourist draw as a place to stay since it opened two years ago - the fantastically over-the-top lobby buzzes with visitors. If you're into attractions of the aquatic kind, you're in luck - the Lost Chambers is home to some 65,000 marine animals, while there's also the Aquaventure water park, and Dolphin Bay, where you can swim with the slippery mammals. Alternatively, simply have a drink in one of the sea-facing bars and enjoy the Gulf views before you return to reality.


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