Put Dubai at the top of your travel bucket list and do this one thing - you won't regret it

Dubai was not originally on my travel bucket list but this was one of my top life experiences ever, reports Nicola Adam.

It began before dawn where, after a 3am alarm in our slick rooms at ME Dubai, we stumbled out from our blacked-out comfort into the bright night. It was so early we could still hear the faint thump of music from the hotel club. But with the neon skyline of the city and the world’s tallest building - the 160-storey tall Burj Khalifa - in the rear view of our taxi, we were desert bound.

This was not somewhere I’d ever thought I’d be. Dubai or the deserts of UAE (United Arab Emirates) were not on my travel bucket list. For me Dubai was a stop-off on a long-haul trip to somewhere more affordable and geared toward culturally-unaware designer-clad models and influencers, for millionaire business entrepreneurs, deep-pocketed designer shoppers and golf-enthusiasts. None of which are me - but it was perhaps I who was the snob.

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Dubai by nightDubai by night
Dubai by night | Nicola Adam

As an experienced travel writer I crave the road less travelled just as much as unused-to luxury and my preconceived ideas of Dubai as only available to those dripping in money and jewellery was probably misplaced, although there is no question of the city’s unashamed ambitions toward astonishing riches. It is definitely expensive but costs no more to fly there than anywhere else (I flew with Emirates) and there are options for accommodation.

ME Dubai Hotel, Burj Khalifa areaME Dubai Hotel, Burj Khalifa area
ME Dubai Hotel, Burj Khalifa area | Nicola Adam

And Dubai is much more than just a shiny city sculpted from desert sands geared toward the young, ambitious, and fear-free - it’s a culturally fascinating melting pot of non-doms (hardly anyone in Dubai is from Dubai) and rich in its unashamed drive and excess. And it doesn’t take long to drive yourself away from the 14-lane highways onto the sandy roads snaking across desert lands owned by Sheikhs and populated largely by camels, graceful gazelles and stately oryx.

Of course, Dubai is synonymous with the luxury of experience, there’s no mistake. During our trip we experience at first hand the comforts of the gold-laden Talise Ottoman spa on the golden sands of Palm Jumeirah, where we are scrubbed and soaked in honey during a Hamman massage.

We eat like Kings, Queens and Sheikhs in Michelin-lauded restaurants which included the stunning flavours combinations of chef Kelvin Cheung in Juns, in downtown Dubai - and we relax like Bedouins during a camp experience where we watch traditional sword dancing and some gingerly test out the Hookah pipes. We admire stunning, pricy, artworks in the funky Alserkal Avenue, keeping our hands firmly in our empty pockets.

Later, we drive through the desert in the back of a vintage Land Rover on a desert safari tour. You could be on the surface of the moon with only flurries of sand and the faint glint of a plane or a camel in the distance reminding you this is earth.

But it’s the skies which win me over.

We arrived at our early-morning destination in the still pitch-black before being beckoned to low cushions to drink ‘Karak Chai’ tea and nibble on rich, sugary, dates. Around us, we could see the faint silhouettes of men running around and ropes, then suddenly the sky lit up with a remarkable drone display across the pitch black backdrop. It may have been the desert and 5am but nothing is done by halves in Dubai.

Gradually, as the sun inched up from the horizon, we saw dark shapes billowing up around us as flames inflated the giant hot air balloons which would be our transport for the morning. As the glow of the sunrise deepened and after a safety briefing we are ushered into giant wicker baskets - and then we were Up.

It was akin to a dream. Floating above the desert sands as the dawn broke, the sensation of calm and simplicity was overwhelming as the skies morphed and changed around us, framed by the rising sun and accessorised by the tiny, and even tinier, dots of other balloons. We fell into an awed silence only interrupted by bursts of flames into the balloon and the polite exchanges between pilots across the skies. ‘Roger that.’

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Sunrise from my balloonSunrise from my balloon
Sunrise from my balloon | Nicola Adam

I felt devastated as we started to descend but with the day dawning we could now see what lay below. Gazelles leapt away in front of us, navigating sculptural sandy plains interspersed with spiky greenery, a legacy of the unprecedented rainfall experienced by UAE just weeks before. Unseen birds call us.

As we glided to the ground for an almost perfect bump-free landing, reality beckoned as we climbed back out of our basket into our 4x4s. The adrenaline rushed us awake as our driver put his foot down across the lumpy desert and the gust of warm air reminded us we are alive and not in a dream. It is only as we were ushered toward a camel for a quick ride (why not?) and then an outdoor breakfast at a Bedouin-style camp, I realised I’d experienced something once-in-a-lifetime magical.

Where I stayed, where I visited and what I experienced:

ME Dubai: Nestled in the vibrant heart of Dubai's iconic Burj Khalifa district, ME Dubai hotel stands as a captivating architectural gem, seamlessly integrated into the spectacular Opus Building. Double rooms from AED1,000 (£199) in low season; and from AED 1,500, (£299) in high. Breakfast costs from AED280 (£55).

Balloon Adventures Dubai: Now paused for the summer (due to heat) Hot air balloon flights experienced will resume again on 16 September, 2024. Bookings are already available for the new season. Prices: Adult: AED 1,350 (circa £280) & Child: AED 1,100 (includes drone show, hospitality, transport)

Heritage Desert Safari Experience: Travel by 1950’s Land Rover across the desert; various experiences available and costs vary.

Jumeirah Zabeel Saray (Talise Ottoman Spa and Fitness): Resting on the golden sands of Palm Jumeirah West Crescent, this gold-trimmed hotel is everything you’d expect for true Dubai opulence - including the large luxury spa with everything from Thalassotherapy pools to Snow rooms (where I experienced a Hammam massage) We ate at Al Nafoorah (authentic Lebanese cuisine)

Byron Bathers Club: The Byron Bathers Club, a seafood focused, pool & beach-side hangout, is a contemporary, multi-hub destination on the Palm, Jumeirah. (and yes, it is named after Byron Bay in Australia) Licenced.

Burj Khalifa: The world's tallest building and one of Dubai's top attractions. The basic ticket is for AED 149 and takes visitors to levels 124 and 125, while the premium ticket is for AED 378 (circa £85) and takes visitors to levels 124, 125 and 148.

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Alserkal Avenue: Culture enterprise based in Dubai dedicated to developing homegrown initiatives, cultural production and events/art galleries. We ate/drank coffee at Nightjar.

Jun’s: We ate at Jun’s by Chef Kelvin Cheung in downtown Dubai (hard recommend - Michelin Guide 2023)

I flew with Emirates from Manchester (from roughly £1,200 return in economy).

This trip was gifted by Visit Dubai

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