Dubai has never really appealed to me as a holiday destination. I always saw it as a place where rich people fritter their money away, or if they’re unlucky go to jail for having sex in places they shouldn’t. In a place where drinking is frowned upon and the temperature’s so high you can’t be outside for more than an hour without losing your mind to heat exhaustion, what do people actually do there?
Quite a lot it turns out. I went on a long weekend (Thursday – Sunday) last month and crammed so much stuff in it felt like a week. Yes, it’s unbearably hot in the city, and yes, you need to watch your behaviour in some situations (it’s not the type of place the cast of Geordie Shore should go on holiday, for example), but in my humble opinion, Dubai city is the last reason you should go to Dubai. Though it does have some incredible buildings, but I’ll get to that later.
Where we’re going, we don’t need roads
No, the reason why Dubai should be on your holiday hit list, or why you should take that trip to visit that friend or family member you’ve been putting off, is the desert. Not only is it massively expansive and strangely beautiful in its barrenness, you’re allowed to drive on it. That’s right. You don’t need a special permit and you’re not restricted to certain areas – you can just turn you car off the road and go for it.
Putting the MINI Paceman Cooper S All4 Auto through its... err... paces
It’s called dune bashing and as you’d expect it’s a popular pastime in Dubai. I had experienced guys with me, and in no way am I suggesting you rock up to the desert by yourself and just go for it. Not only would no one know where to find you if you had an accident, no one would be able to help if you get stuck in the sand. Sorry, when you get stuck in the sand.
In the space of 10 minutes I get stuck three times and have to be bailed out. The MINI Paceman I'm driving has fairly low clearance, which I’m totally blaming, but it's mostly due to soft, loose sand. Even with guides on hand I still run into a couple of tricky patches like this intent on spoiling my fun. But they don’t succeed. Arriving at a huge bowl-shaped patch of desert with only a couple of rocks to keep an eye out for it's time for full Mad Max mode.
It’s an incredible feeling to be able to rag a car around with a) no obstacles to watch out for and b) no imposed limits. Cue driving at a 45° along massive sand banks, doughnuts, and skidding around corners like the Arabic version of Starsky and Hutch. All I needs is a couple of cardboard boxes to smash through and my bucket list would be one experience lighter right now.
Everybody’s surfing, surfing… UAE
Dune bashing isn’t all there is to do in the desert, though. My guide directs me to the top of a tall ridge, parks up and gets a pair of snowboards out of his van. Turns out caning it down a sand dune on a snowboard is pretty easy and a lot of fun. It’s simpler than snowboarding because you don’t need to turn. Just hop on, lean back and feel sorry for Lawrence of Arabia for not ever getting to try it. Getting back up, on the other hand, is no fun at all. A bloody good workout, but one that makes normal hill sprints seem like a cop out in comparison. Want to burn fat, build a strong core and powerful legs? Go run up and down some sand dunes. You’ll hate it, but it’ll definitely get the job done.
But that’s not even all the surfing Dubai’s desert has to offer. Activity centre Wadi Adventure has a huge pool with an artificial wave machine. It’s perfect for beginners because you get a guaranteed perfect wave every time as big or as small as you want, coming from your preferred side. In itself that’s nothing special, but there can’t be many other wave pools in the word situated at the base of a mountain range. Balls up your attempt to ride a wave? No worries, console yourself with the jaw-dropping surroundings.
Not that I got dunked too often. I’ve always struggled with surfing because I use up all my energy getting out to the sweet spot, getting so nervous when a decent wave finally arrives that I fluff it up completely. Then I waste what energy I have left getting back to position. Rinse and repeat. Here, the luxury of a constant wave (and some expert instruction) means I'm on my feet in 20 minutes and riding nearly every wave in from start to finish. I used to think I didn’t really like surfing. Turns out I just didn’t like being rubbish at surfing.
After a road trip that lasts a couple of hours I arrive at Dubai city in my sand-covered (and filled, thanks to my ingenious decision to leave the window open earlier) MINI Paceman. Despite my reservations it’s impossible not to be impressed as you roll into the city. Everything’s so shiny, immaculate, and BIG.
The biggest of them all is the Burj Khalifa. It might sound like a character out of Game of Thrones, but it’s not just the biggest building in Dubai, it’s the tallest in the world. I thought I had no real interest in what country has the biggest man made structure, it all just seemed like an architectural willy-waving competition but going up the Burj Khalifa is an incredible experience. Ears freshly popped, I look out over a Sim City-esque urban sprawl and feel small, insignificant even. OK Dubai, you've won me over. All this view needs is a nice beer to really set it off.
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Max was the head of digital content for Men's Fitness which worked alongside Coach between 2015 and 2019.