You cannot escape Christmas entirely in Dubai. Although officially Muslim, the city has a high proportion of ex-pats who want all the traditions of their native lands, as do the holidaymakers who flock here for the same festivities they would get at home, only in the sunshine.
So there are decorations and turkey dinners, trees and carols and mulled wine, midnight masses and special markets. And, this being a place that prides itself on its extravagance, many of them are more lavish, even excessive, than they would be back in Britain. One Santa, for instance, arrived at a recent event, not in a sleigh but in a red Hummer. And it’s much the same in Abu Dhabi which a couple of years ago boasted the world’s most expensive Christmas tree, a £7m confection of diamonds, sapphires and gold.
It is possible though to have a completely different experience. So here – with just a nod to the 12 days of the festive season – are a dozen alternative ideas.
Visit the dazzling white Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque and marvel at its sheer scale: 82 domes, 1,000 columns, the world’s largest hand knotted carpet and space for 41,000 worshippers. A strict dress code means bare legs or tight clothing must be covered just to get you from the gate to the robing room where men are given long white dishdashas and women full length black abayas and sheyla headscarves.
Take a guided tour of the Falcon Hospital, which offers treatments and health checks to 6,500 birds a year. The falcon is both the national emblem of Abu Dhabi and a link with its people’s desert origins and the birds, some worth thousands of pounds, are much prized and loved. You’ll be able to see them being anaesthetised, watch some of the procedures, learn lots of fascinating facts and, most magically, hold and touch these beautiful creatures.
Try weaving on hand looms or turning a potter’s wheel in the recreation of an old oasis settlement in the Heritage Village, a reminder that until barely 50 years ago this place was a small settlement of simple homes clustered around an old fort built to defend the water well.
Have a look at the Visitor Centre on Saadiyat Island to see what owning ten per cent of the world’s oil reserves is going to buy. This massive development will eventually have over two dozen hotels plus golf courses, marinas, residences and a group of landmark buildings including a Guggenheim Museum designed by Frank Gehry and a National Museum by Norman Foster.
The Yas Marina Circuit which has just hosted the 2012 Formula 1 Grand Prix also has experiences for those of us who can only dream of being Lewis Hamilton. These include the chance to be driven at speeds of up to 165 mph in an Aston Martin GT4 or to have a crack at a circuit oneself.
Nearby Ferrari World, a theme park based on the iconic Italian car, also has daredevil opportunities: Formula Rossa the world’s fastest roller coaster catapults riders 170ft into the sky at 150 mph in less than five seconds. The more sedate can enjoy virtual rides like Driving With The Champion, where you do feel to be in the car.
Catch the world’s only camel beauty contest at the Al Dhafra Festival celebrating the importance of the ‘ship of the desert’ in Emirati society. There’s camel milking and racing too as well as an auction, a souk and contests for handicrafts, poetry and date packaging.
Whizz skywards in the world’s fastest elevator – 33 ft a second – to the observation deck of the world’s tallest building, the 2,722 ft Burj Khalifa, which itself rises from the world’s largest shopping mall. From there you can marvel not just at all the state-of-the-art skyscrapers, swanky hotels and more shopping malls but see how near the desert laps at this most modern of cities.
Come back in the evening when the building looks like a luminous silver needle reaching for the sky. Enjoy a cocktail at one of the hotels and watch the water jets in the lake in front of it rise and fall in time to classical music in a fabulous free show.
Experience the desert with a thrilling, stomach-churning ride in massive Landcruisers up and down and along the edge of some serious Lawrence of Arabia type dunes. Relax afterwards under the stars with sheesha pipes, henna hand-painting and belly dancing performances.
Learn more about the history and tradition of Dubai – there’s been a settlement here for a thousand years and it was a stop-off on trading routes as well as a pearl diving centre – at the Centre for Cultural Understanding in the Bastakiya [correct] district alongside the Creek. Nearby is the Old Fort, recreated old houses and a souk offering pashminas, leather goods, embroidered shoes, gold jewellery and saffron ice creams.
Spend a day at Aquaventure at Atlantis The Palm, which has thrilling water rides – I can still hardly believe I managed the 90ft near vertical drop of the Leap of Faith – plus dolphin encounters, ray feeding and ‘shark safaris’ where a new device – it’s a bit like having a goldfish bowl on your head – allows non-divers to walk underwater.