Holidays Travel

Why Dubai tops the list for a winter sun break

Dubai tops Tripadvisor’s Winter Travel Index (Alamy/PA)
Dubai tops Tripadvisor’s Winter Travel Index (Alamy/PA) Dubai tops Tripadvisor’s Winter Travel Index (Alamy/PA)

“Madam, may I clean your sunglasses for you?” asks the pool attendant politely, ready with a cloth to make them sparkle.

I’m so taken aback by the offer that I decline, almost embarrassed that someone’s employed to go round the pool cleaning people’s sunnies. But after he’s gone, I inspect my smudged Ray-Bans and wish I’d taken him up on the offer.

Only in Dubai.

Big, bold and brash, the emirate is full of Ottoman opulence and glittering skyscrapers, ridiculously decadent hotels, bustling old souks and super-modern malls. It’s a cacophony of Middle East meets West, where new domed edifices mimic old-world architecture and minarets and mosques share space with glass towers.

The Dubai skyline from the marina (Hannah Stephenson/PA)
The Dubai skyline from the marina (Hannah Stephenson/PA) The Dubai skyline from the marina (Hannah Stephenson/PA)

Dubai is the number one holiday spot for Britons to visit this winter, according to Tripadvisor’s latest Winter Travel Index, and has been ranked the world’s most popular destination for holidaymakers in its 2023 Travellers’ Choice Awards.

For those chasing winter sun it’s a great destination; November to February are pretty sun-sure and the flight time (seven hours) is much less than a trip to the Caribbean.

It is a hedonistic haven where you indulge in the latest watersports along the Persian Gulf, party in the most glamorous nightspots, drink champagne on sky-high rooftop bars, and enjoy Michelin-starred art on a plate.

Vegetarians are well catered for – Avatara has just become the first vegetarian Indian fine-dining restaurant to win a Michelin star in Dubai, offering a staggering 16-course tasting menu to show off its ‘incarnation’ of Indian cuisine (tasting menu AED495/£109 per person).

I’m here for a long weekend, primarily to chill out at the

Jumeirah Zabeel Saray

, a vast palace-style beachfront building with a spectacular marble-encrusted lobby inspired by the Ottoman empire, featuring ostentatious golden pillars, magnificent chandeliers and a white geometric fountain.

It’s on the West Crescent of The Palm Jumeirah, the world’s largest man-made island, shaped like a palm tree, which opened in 2007. It has doubled the length of the Dubai coastline and houses some of the most luxurious hotels in the UAE. The Jumeirah Zabeel Saray is around 20 minutes from the mainland and 45 minutes from downtown Dubai and many of the sightseeing attractions, traffic permitting.

Service here is with more than a smile. There’s a butler to cater for your every whim, portable chiller packs to keep your water cold by the pool, and suntan lotion dispensers by the towel station, with SPF 20, 30 and 50 all available.

Hannah Stephenson at the pool of the Jumeira Zabeel Saray in Dubai (Hannah Stephenson/PA)
Hannah Stephenson at the pool of the Jumeira Zabeel Saray in Dubai (Hannah Stephenson/PA) Hannah Stephenson relaxing by the pool of the Jumeira Zabeel Saray in Dubai (Hannah Stephenson/PA)

Attendants proffer cold face towels and lemon ice lollies – and those sunglass cleaning services – during the day as you lounge by the infinity pool or on the private beach, where the Arabian Sea is more like a lake. Even the gentle gradient of the seabed seems to have been designed to allow holidaymakers the easiest access to the water.

The hotel’s Talise Ottoman Spa seems an ideal place to start my wind-down, but this is no ordinary spa – it’s Dubai’s largest, with 42 treatment rooms, two thalassotherapy rooms, couples rooms and even a seriously cool snow room where man-made snow settles on jutting ledges.

After being scrubbed and buffed by a therapist in the marble-encrusted Turkish hammam, during a signature treatment – which ends in me being slathered in honey before I’m washed down with endless jugs of hot water – I head back to the pool.

First-timers, though, may struggle to stay on their sunbeds for long because of the wealth of attractions the city has to offer – from admiring the views across desert and sea from the observation deck of Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building at 828m, to exploring the vast malls, water parks, gold and spice souks, taking luxury boat trips and indulging in adrenaline-fuelled activities.

Paragliders can be seen circling the vast skyscrapers before landing near the marina, with its rows of super-luxe yachts, and there’s skydiving as well as the latest motorised water activities including jet boarding and jet packing, while jetovators – water-propelled flying bikes where you balance atop a moving hose – can make you feel like a Marvel character.

In Dubai, anything is possible, if you have the money. I’ve been once before and return to relax with a good book and a dose of Vitamin D in an outdoor environment which doesn’t require a cardigan, but the FOMO in me feels the need to venture out of the confines of the hotel to experience some of the things I didn’t do first time around.

While sleep is of the essence, I drag myself out of bed at 4am, travelling an hour out of the city and into the Arabian Desert, where huge hot air balloons are being inflated to take passengers on an aerial sunrise trip.

The sun is beginning to rise above the Hajar Mountains, which border Oman, creating a hue of fiery orange and burnt yellow above the peaks as we clamber into the wicker basket, which holds 24, plus our Italian pilot Orlando.

He fires up the balloon as we slowly ascend to 4,000ft over the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve, the city a faint haze in the distance, the sand below us resembling a giant caramel-coloured cake mix.

Hannah Stephenson watches the sunrise from a hot air balloon (Hannah Stephenson/PA)
Hannah Stephenson watches the sunrise from a hot air balloon (Hannah Stephenson/PA) Hannah watches the sunrise from a hot air balloon (Hannah Stephenson/PA)

From here, time stands still, the peace only interrupted now and then by a blast of propane-fuelled flame, and the click of phone cameras, of course. We spot gazelles, Arabian oryx and camels as we make our descent (balloon-adventures.com; signature experience from AED1350/£300 per adult).

While many of the city’s attractions seem new and shiny, I want to explore the old Middle East and hook up for a food tour with Frying Pan Adventures (fryingpanadventures.com; food tours from AED435/£96 per person), founded by sisters Arva and Farida Ahmed who aim to preserve the foods, stories and community feel of Dubai.

We meet Arva on a street corner in Deira, in an area known as ‘Little Middle East’. It’s here that the melting pot of Palestinian, Lebanese, Iraqi and Syrian foods merge in an unlikely setting which at first glance looks like a down-at-heel street full of fast-food takeaways and dubious cafes.

But inside these cheap eateries lies the heart of Middle Eastern cuisine – falafels covered in sesame seeds are cooked to order, hummus drizzled with olive oil is sampled with hot, light puffy khubz bread, purple pickles and shatta, a Middle Eastern hot sauce.

“Through food, we preserve a lot of cultures that are in conflict. Sometimes it’s the only thing that gives back humanity and connects people,” Arva says.

In nearby Al Rigga, where Arva grew up and one of the first communities to be urbanised during the Seventies and Eighties, we try shawarma, the UAE’s favourite street food – a pillow-soft flatbread containing char-grilled chicken or lamb, oozing garlic sauce. We later venture to Iraqi restaurant Miran Erbil to try masgouf, a fish historically caught on the Tigris River, cooked in a firepit and served whole at the table.

Dates and pistachios are used a lot in sweets and desserts, and we are invited into the kitchen of one eaterie to see how kunafe – a sweet treat of noodles, Lebanese cheese and syrup – is made. Topped with crushed pistachios, the mixture of melted, gooey cheese, fine noodles and syrup is surprisingly comforting.

On my final day by the hotel pool, book finished, cool bag at my side and admiring my sun-kissed, polished skin, I realise that my sunglasses could still do with a good clean… and if I hang around here, I won’t have to wait long.

How to plan your trip

Rooms at the Jumeirah Zabeel Saray (jumeirah.com) hotel start from £170 per night. Return flights with Emirates (Emirates.com) to Dubai from London Heathrow start from £559. For more information on the destination go to visitdubai.com