Travel

The Most Stunning Sights in Dubai, a City That Loves the Impossible

RastoS/Shutterstock
RastoS/Shutterstock
RastoS/Shutterstock

If you look at photos of Dubai in the 1960s, right before the petrodollars started flooding in, how different it appears now is dumbfounding. Ratchety abras delivering fish and pearls have been replaced with luxury yachts. Open-air souks have been ousted by air-conditioned mega-malls. Today, the city boasts driverless trains, and pretty soon, helicopter taxis. Dubai’s evolution has been supersonically charged, and there’s no end in sight (so long as you keep filling your tank with gasoline).

That bygone Dubai still lingers, though, in historic areas that aren’t mentioned nearly enough in this emirate’s narrative, and in the harmonious intermingling of world citizens and expats from all over. Sure, Dubai might be built according to superabundance and bragging rights, but no one can deny it’s pretty awesome to see it all at least once.

Frankis/Shutterstock
Frankis/Shutterstock
Frankis/Shutterstock

Burj Khalifa

There it is, the world’s tallest building — despite being unveiled all the way back in 2010 (which in Dubai years might as well be a century), the otherworldly Burj Khalifa is constantly reinventing itself. On New Year’s Eve, it slipped into the Guinness Book again for staging the largest light and sound show on one building, and in 2014 opened the world’s highest observation deck. The 2,700-foot-tall edifice (that’s more than two Empire State Buildings, stacked) will soon have to forfeit its biggest accolade though, with Saudi Arabia’s new Jeddah Tower, slated to be an absurd 591 feet taller, on the way.

Francesco Dazzi/Shutterstock
Francesco Dazzi/Shutterstock
Francesco Dazzi/Shutterstock

Burj Al Arab

Even at a relatively human-scaled 1,053 feet tall, Burj Al Arab is no less a stunner than its enormous sibling. Shaped like a dhow sailboat, harking back to Dubai’s fishing and pearling origins, it sits quite literally out to sea, on an artificial island propped up by a couple hundred columns beneath Gulf waters. Unless you’ve got $1,000 a night to spend on a room, you might just admire it from the beach — though $100 or so a person will get you an unforgettable sundowner drinks session at the cocktail bar.

Nadezda Murmakova/Shutterstock
Nadezda Murmakova/Shutterstock
Nadezda Murmakova/Shutterstock

Dubai Opera

Get a load of the most futuristic, high-tech opera house ever. Thanks to modern hydraulics, about half of Dubai Opera’s 2,000-seat capacity can transform into different setups like “theatre,” “concert hall,” and “flat floor” at a button’s push. A sophisticated acoustics shell made of towers and reflectors offers otherworldly sound, while wraparound glass walls and a chandelier with 2,900 LED lights are among the trimmings.

Mohammed Shamaa/Shutterstock
Mohammed Shamaa/Shutterstock
Mohammed Shamaa/Shutterstock

Dubai Water Canal

Launched in 2016, this ambitious megaproject transformed a big, busy downtown area into an artificial island with solar powered street lights and device charging stations. Visitors can cruise the canal in a traditional abra, even passing under a motion-sensored, LED-illuminated waterfall. The $7 billion project was completed in a speedy three years, with upgrades ongoing; Recently, floating homes arrived from Finland.

dvoevnore/Shutterstock.com
dvoevnore/Shutterstock.com
dvoevnore/Shutterstock.com

Dubai Miracle Garden

Like Alice in Wonderland‘s Mad Tea Party garden come to life, this garden rocks more than 50 million flowers planted into whimsical and wacky designs. There are gigantic floral-wreathed ants, swans, and mushrooms. Sunflower fields. Arches serried with petunias, bougainvillea, and calendulas. There’s even a life-size Emirates Airbus A380 festooned with vibrant blossoms from nose to tail. It amounts to a true assault on the senses — and the closest one can get to a psychedelic trip in the UAE.

Marat Dupri/Shutterstock
Marat Dupri/Shutterstock
Marat Dupri/Shutterstock

Palm Jumeirah

There’s a famed snap of Palm Jumeirah taken from the International Space Station: Just as intended, the man-made island really looks just like a palm tree growing out of Dubai. The artificial archipelago, the world’s largest, was made by dredging and spraying sand into “vibro-compacted” shapes using GPS precision technology. Its 17 detached fronds add 323 miles of shoreline for big villas and for lavish resorts to have lengthy private beaches. Think large backgrounds and plunge pools hedged off by tropical shrubbery where women can remove their burqas in solitude.

RastoS/Shutterstock
RastoS/Shutterstock
RastoS/Shutterstock

Dubai Marina

This artificial marina, modeled after False Creek in Vancouver, British Columbia, offers an epic skyline panorama of some of Dubai’s most impressive buildings, like the 75-story Sulafa Tower and Cayan Tower, the world’s tallest structure to twist in a 90-degree spiral. The waterfront, fashioned out of excavated desert sand and Persian Gulf waters, is home to a walkway teeming with bright trendy cafés and pop-up clothing and craft markets. Jet Skis chop waters past a dock of luxury yachts, but these days, hydroflying is all the rage — thrill-seekers wearing jetpacks or jet boots are launched into the air by water pressure, for what is the closest sensation you can get (for now) to riding Marty McFly’s hoverboard.

Cezary Wojtkowski/Shutterstock
Cezary Wojtkowski/Shutterstock
Cezary Wojtkowski/Shutterstock

Al Salam Mosque

The Al Salam Mosque is anything but traditional. Opened in 2014, its design blends together Ottoman and Andalusian influence with elaborate gold domes and minarets that are brightly illuminated at night. A salmon pink exterior and white trimmings fit in perfectly to the laid-back Al Barsha suburb where it presides. A green waterfront park and eclectic eateries — for authentic Indian, gelato, chocolate, the works — make this one of Dubai’s loveliest districts for an outdoor stroll.

S-F/Shutterstock
S-F/Shutterstock
S-F/Shutterstock

Dubai Mall

Triple the total land area of the Mall of America, this 12 million-square-foot behemoth is home to an ice rink, a massive aquarium, an indoor theme park, more than 1,200 shops, and over 200 places to eat. If you want to eat your way through the region — or even the world — this is one of the planet’s best places to do it.

RastoS/Shutterstock
RastoS/Shutterstock
RastoS/Shutterstock

Dubai Fountain

The Dubai Fountain outmaneuvers the Bellagio’s in Vegas by both size and repertoire. Some 900 feet in length, it’s framed by the Dubai Opera House and the Burj Khalifa. A complex array of color projectors, and thousands of water expressions and super lights make for powerful performances that keep you loitering by the lake all evening for the free entertainment. You might hear twangy Bedouin tributes, Andrea Bocelli, Michael Jackson, and Edith Piaf, while as much as 22,000 gallons of water splashes and swirls in the air.

Tomasz Czajkowski/Shutterstock.com
Tomasz Czajkowski/Shutterstock.com
Tomasz Czajkowski/Shutterstock.com

Al Fahidi Fort

Al Fahidi Fort is a must-visit in Dubai, if only for escaping all those humongous skyscrapers and taking a time warp to understand the city’s humble inception. Located in Bur Dubai, a charming historic district, the fort is Dubai’s oldest existing building, built around 1787. Take a tour and read up on its stints as a prison and garrison before becoming a museum, then venture around surrounding Al Fahidi Historical Neighborhood, a pocket filled with heritage homes housing cultural centers, darling art galleries, and a couple famously cozy traditional restaurants.

Naufal MQ/Shutterstock
Naufal MQ/Shutterstock
Naufal MQ/Shutterstock

Dubai Creek

This is where it all began — Dubai’s sole harbor and, a hundred years ago, the hub of pearl divers and welcoming traders on dhows from as far away as India and East Africa. Today, you can still hop on a rickety abra for just a few dirham and discover historic districts such as Deira and Bur Dubai, where you’ll find traditional shopping souks, Indian vendors selling hot chai, and no-frills eateries slinging Pakistani and Persian lunches. After all that futurism downtown, it’s ultimate refreshment.Sign up here for our daily Thrillist email and subscribe here for our YouTube channel to get your fix of the best in food/drink/fun.

Barbara Woolsey is a Canadian writer who, after all Dubai’s excess, is happily back to leading a “poor but sexy” life in Berlin. Follow her on Facebook and Instagram.

Travel

Ditch your Phone for ‘Dome Life’ in this Pastoral Paradise Outside Port Macquarie 

A responsible, sustainable travel choice for escaping big city life for a few days.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

The urge to get as far away as possible from the incessant noise and pressures of ‘big city life’ has witnessed increasingly more of us turn to off-grid adventures for our holidays: Booking.com polled travellers at the start of 2023 and 55% of us wanted to spend our holidays ‘off-grid’.  Achieving total disconnection from the unyielding demands of our digitised lives via some kind of off-grid nature time—soft or adventurous—is positioned not only as a holiday but, indeed, a necessity for our mental health. 

Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, an accommodation collection of geodesic domes dotted across a lush rural property in Greater Port Macquarie (a few hours’ drive from Sydney, NSW), offers a travel experience that is truly ‘off-grid’. In the figurative ‘wellness travel’ sense of the word, and literally, they run on their own independent power supply—bolstered by solar—and rely not on the town grid. 

Ten minutes before you arrive at the gates for a stay at Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, your phone goes into ‘SOS ONLY’. Apple Maps gives up, and you’re pushed out of your comfort zone, driving down unsealed roads in the dark, dodging dozens of dozing cows. Then, you must ditch your car altogether and hoist yourself into an open-air, all-terrain 4WD with gargantuan wheels. It’s great fun being driven through muddy gullies in this buggy; you feel like Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park.  As your buggy pulls in front of your personal Nature Dome, it’s not far off that “Welcome…to Jurassic Park” jaw-dropping moment—your futuristic-looking home is completely engulfed by thriving native bushland; beyond the outdoor campfire lie expansive hills and valleys of green farmland, dotted with sheep and trees. You’re almost waiting to see a roaming brachiosaurus glide past, munching on a towering gum tree…instead, a few inquisitive llamas trot past your Dome to check out their new visitor. 

To fully capture the awe of inhabiting a geodesic dome for a few days, a little history of these futuristic-looking spherical structures helps. Consisting of interlocking triangular skeletal struts supported by (often transparent) light walls, geodesic domes were developed in the 20th century by American engineer and architect R. Buckminster Fuller, and were used for arenas. Smaller incarnations have evolved into a ‘future-proof’ form of modern housing: domes are able to withstand harsh elements due to the stability provided by the durable materials of their construction and their large surface area to volume ratio (which helps minimize wind impact and prevents the structure from collapsing). As housing, they’re also hugely energy efficient – their curved shape helps to conserve heat and reduce energy costs, making them less susceptible to temperature changes outside. The ample light let in by their panels further reduces the need for artificial power. 

Due to their low environmental impact, they’re an ideal sustainable travel choice. Of course, Tom’s Creek Nature Domes’ owner-operators, Cardia and Lee Forsyth, know all this, which is why they have set up their one-of-a-kind Nature Domes experience for the modern traveller. It’s also no surprise to learn that owner Lee is an electrical engineer—experienced in renewable energy—and that he designed the whole set-up. As well as the off-grid power supply, rainwater tanks are used, and the outdoor hot tub is heated by a wood fire—your campfire heats up your tub water via a large metal coil. Like most places in regional Australia, the nights get cold – but rather than blast a heater, the Domes provide you with hot water bottles, warm blankets, lush robes and heavy curtains to ward off the chill.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

You’ll need to be self-sufficient during your stay at the Domes, bringing your own food. Support local businesses and stock up in the town of Wauchope on your drive-in (and grab some pastries and coffee at Baked Culture while you’re at it). There’s a stovetop, fridge (stocked as per a mini bar), BBQs, lanterns and mozzie coils, and you can even order DIY S’More packs for fireside fun. The interiors of the Domes have a cosy, stylish fit-out, with a modern bathroom (and a proper flushing toilet—none of that drop bush toilet stuff). As there’s no mobile reception, pack a good book or make the most of treasures that lie waiting to be discovered at every turn: a bed chest full of board games, a cupboard crammed with retro DVDs, a stargazing telescope (the skies are ablaze come night time). Many of these activities are ideal for couples, but there’s plenty on offer for solo travellers, such as yoga mats, locally-made face masks and bath bombs for hot tub soaks. 

It’s these thoughtful human touches that reinforce the benefit of making a responsible travel choice by booking local and giving your money to a tourism operator in the Greater Port Macquarie Region, such as Tom’s Creek Nature Domes. The owners are still working on the property following the setbacks of COVID-19, and flooding in the region —a new series of Domes designed with families and groups in mind is under construction, along with an open-air, barn-style dining hall and garden stage. Once ready, the venue will be ideal for wedding celebrations, with wedding parties able to book out the property. They’ve already got one couple—who honeymooned at the Domes—ready and waiting. Just need to train up the llamas for ring-bearer duties! 

An abundance of favourite moments come to mind from my two-night stay at Tom’s Creek: sipping champagne and gourmet picnicking at the top of a hill on a giant swing under a tree, with a bird’s eye view of the entire property (the ‘Mountain Top picnic’ is a must-do activity add on during your stay), lying on a deckchair at night wrapped in a blanket gazing up at starry constellations and eating hot melted marshmallows, to revelling in the joys of travellers before me, scrawled on notes in a jar of wishes left by the telescope (you’re encouraged to write your own to add to the jar). But I’ll leave you with a gratitude journal entry I made while staying there. I will preface this by saying that I don’t actually keep a gratitude journal, but Tom’s Creek Nature Domes is just the kind of place that makes you want to start one. And so, waking up on my second morning at Tom’s —lacking any 4G bars to facilitate my bad habit of a morning Instagram scroll—I finally opened up a notebook and made my first journal entry:

‘I am grateful to wake up after a deep sleep and breathe in the biggest breaths of this clean air, purified by nature and scented with eucalyptus and rain. I am grateful for this steaming hot coffee brewed on a fire. I feel accomplished at having made myself. I am grateful for the skittish sheep that made me laugh as I enjoyed a long nature walk at dawn and the animated billy goats and friendly llamas overlooking my shoulder as I write this: agreeable company for any solo traveller. I’m grateful for total peace, absolute stillness.” 

Off-grid holiday status: unlocked.

Where: Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, Port Macquarie, 2001 Toms Creek Rd
Price: $450 per night, book at the Natura Domes website.

Get the latest from Thrillist Australia delivered straight to your inbox, subscribe here.

Related

Our Best Stories, Delivered Daily
The best decision you'll make all day.