About 30 kilometres southeast of Dubai, our white Toyota Land Cruiser veered off the highway. The driver, mild-mannered Abbas, hopped out of the car at an Emarat petrol station; a hissing sound escaped as he let the air out of all four tires. Slamming the door shut, he cranked the car, briefly reverted to the highway, then jolted 90 degrees to the right, charging straight and fast into the desert. Our SUV zipped over the dunes as if it were a jet ski on the Gulf, as Abbas blasted Rihanna and Kanye on the radio. The adrenaline-fuelled adventure makes a welcome break from a week filled with meetings.
Dune bashing - off-roading in the desert - is one of many convenient side trips in and around Dubai. For business travellers, who compose a hefty percentage of the 15 million annual visitors the city aims to attract by 2015, excursions offer a chance to see more of the surrounding country than its conference rooms and hotel chains. Whether you have a few hours or a full day to spare, adventurous, relaxing and immersive escapes lie no more than an hour away.
Careening over barren dunes at speeds upward of 45 kilometres per hour is not for the faint of heart, but it makes a great morning outing. Unlike longer desert safari trips, which include dinner and usually last all afternoon and evening, an off-road excursion typically starts in the morning and lasts about three hours. Many Dubai hotels have connections to tour companies, or book through Planet Tours. The company picks travellers up at 9:30 am and returns them to their hotel by noon. A trip may include camel rides, sandboarding (snowboarding on sand instead of snow) and ATV access.
With its par-72, 7,303-yard course designed by Robert Trent Jones II, Al Badia Golf Club benefits from its central location: from the driving range, golfers enjoy a view of the Burj Khalifa and surrounding urban skyline. It is within easy reach of the business district, but its lush greens and tranquil, glass-walled buildings feel a world away. "The only thing that stops [people from playing golf] is work," said Richard, a parking assistant at the Al Badia Golf Club at the InterContinental Dubai Festival City. "If they're not working, they play." Local golfers come consistently throughout the year, filling the car park with Range Rovers, Cadillacs and Jaguars.
Like the vibrant green golf courses, the Mall of the Emirates' Ski Dubai park defies the desert climate. Five ski runs - the tallest with a 60-metre drop - and a park altogether amass 22,500 snow-covered square metres. If you left your ski gear at home, an adult pass comes with a jacket, pants, socks, a snowboard or skis, boots and poles. Kids' tickets cover a helmet as well. The passes grant access for two hours, but allot at least twice that amount for a ski trip. It takes time to find the ski centre in the mall, buy tickets, suit up, and then check your equipment back in. For non-skiers, Ski Dubai's 3,000-square-foot snow park (the world's biggest indoor park) has tobogganing hills, a bobsled ride and plenty of space to roll up snowmen. The last tickets sell at 9:30 pm Saturday through Wednesday and 10:30 pm on Thursday and Friday.
Day (or night) trips
About 40 minutes outside of Dubai, the Bab Al Shams Desert Resort and Spa presents a panorama reminiscent of David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia. Its tiered pools, shady niches and traditional Arabic-style, low-rise buildings landscaped with palm trees, cascading fountains and wide, white umbrellas provide plentiful space to relax. As with many of Dubai's resorts, visitors who do not have overnight reservations can purchase day passes that include lunch, pool access, camel rides and tennis. At dusk, the hotel's Al Sarab rooftop lounge - complete with the sounds of the Oud and shimmying belly dancers - is bathed in fading light. Sunset is the perfect backdrop for cocktails and shisha.
For more than a basic dune bashing or camel ride excursion, upgrade to a full-blown desert safari. With most tour companies, trips typically begin with a hotel pick-up around 3 pm and end with drop-off at 9 or 10 pm. Expect to start the tour by dune bashing, with stops along the way to photograph the sunset over the desert landscape. The caravan then stops at a Bedouin-style campsite, where Arabic coffee and dates welcome visitors. Camels lope on guided tours around the encampment and visitors can enjoy a standard barbeque buffet dinner while lounging on cushions in carpeted tents. Shisha smoking, henna tattoos and belly dancing ensue. Some companies offer overnight safaris, as well. Arabian Nights Tours are recommended by representatives of MoveOne, an expat relocation company.
Less than an hour from Dubai, depending on traffic, the United Arab Emirates capital city Abu Dhabi exudes a very different urban experience. Hire a driver or book an arranged tour to make the trip southwest. Drive in along the Corniche, a six kilometre coastal boulevard bordered by gardens. About 120 million acacia trees are said to line the entrance to the city. The Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan mosque or Grand Mosque, the world's third-largest, equates to the size of five football fields. Morning and afternoon tours are available daily (except Friday mornings, which are reserved for religious services). Al Hosn Palace, the only UAE royal residence that allows visitors, merits a stop. And at the Emirates Palace Hotel, have a look at the world's first 24-karat-gold-bar-dispensing ATM machine, take a seat beneath the gold-plated ceiling and enjoy a cappuccino topped liberally with gold flakes.