Best Dubai Museum


What’s the best museum in Dubai?


You could try the Dubai Museum, a display of historical bits and bobs in the 18th-century Al Fahidi Fort. Pop into the fine old Sheikh Saeed Al-Maktoum House, or the old Ahmadiya School across the Creek.


Or maybe even absorb Dubai’s history retail-style, thanks to the “edutainment” on offer in the Ibn Battuta Mall.


But it’s all a bit ho-hum.


In truth, the best museum in Dubai isn’t in Dubai at all. Instead, jump in a taxi for the short drive north (roughly Dh50/£8 on the meter) to the neighbouring city of Sharjah.


Desperately underrated and under-visited, Sharjah may be “dry” (you can’t buy or consume alcohol here) but it is crammed with interest.


Dominating the Corniche is the golden-domed Museum of Islamic Civilisations. It’s a strong contender for the ‘Best Museum’ gong, with its stunning interior and extensive displays on medieval science, as well as superb galleries of textiles and ceramics upstairs.


A short walk away, Sharjah’s pedestrianised Heritage Quarter holds a clutch of restored courtyard houses, each holding museum displays. Drop into the Naboodah House, built by a 19th-century merchant family, try the fine Heritage Museum, the three-floor contemporary Art Museum and the beautiful Calligraphy Museum, then roam the lanes of the fine old Souk Al-Arsa covered bazaar alongside.


But the best of the lot? Sharjah’s wonderful Al Mahatta Museum of aviation.


For most of its history, Sharjah was bigger and more important than Dubai. It had the Gulf’s largest port – and also its first airport, a desert airstrip built in 1932 as a staging-post for British Imperial Airways, which flew planes between London and Australia, stopping frequently to refuel along the way.


Have a look at the route map – with Sharjah marked – and think your way into what RTW flight meant back then. And take 15mins for this glorious 1937 newsreel film “Air Outpost” on life in Sharjah when a plane came in.


Those original 1930s airport buildings – once in open desert, now crammed into the roaring city centre streets – form the museum. You enter beside the glorious Art Deco-style control tower, crossing the courtyard where those early RTW passengers lodged.


But it’s the main display hall that will grab you – tall, white and echoing, with real, full-size vintage planes hanging from the ceiling. I won’t bore you with names and serial numbers, but just look at it! And again. It’s pure Indiana Jones. The most evocative room in the UAE.


Go and sniff the engine block of the 1953 Gypsy Queen. Get into the cockpit of the gleaming silver Comet. Gaze over the old maps and air charts. Press the button to start the working Pratt & Whitney engines, vintage 1941.


It’s a real link with a tangible past, firing imaginations, feeding knowledge. Pure catnip for travellers. I loved it.






Dubai Dunes





David Whitley leaves the big city behind and finds himself starstruck on the sand





Above the tarmac, the wisps of sand dance in the wind. They move with the hypnotic rhythms of a belly dancer.




We’re not far out of Dubai. The city proper hugs the coastal strip, but it keeps coughing up seemingly unattached and unloved developments between the barren chunks of scrubby white sand.




Until you start heading inland, it’s easy to forget that the 21st century supercity of Dubai is built on top of a desert. Yet soon enough, the development disappears and the dunes begin. Left and right, the gentle golden hills roll off into the horizon, while the sand intrudes on the hard shoulder. There must be a daily sweeping mission to stop the road getting buried.




The world suddenly seems a rather empty place until a camel lumbers on by. Fences are put up to stop them ambling across the road, causing accidents.




The sandhills start getting larger and redder in colour. Thin rusty waves top the dunes, sliding down in isobar-like packs to create serpentine patterns. The desert has an entrancing majesty that acts as a siren call. The vast emptiness is overpowering.



We make a turn and arrive at the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve.  A flotilla of 4x4 vehicles soon arrives, and streams of desert virgins wander on over for the brief falcon show. When it enters its swoop, the peregrine falcon is the fastest creature on earth. One soars and divebombs around us before its trainer puts a glove over the meaty bait. The falcon suddenly forgets dinner was ever there.




The most exciting swoops are to be had on the dunes, however. The Landcruisers form a vehicular conga and set off across the desert to the camp where we’ll have dinner. They lurch up and down the dunes, heavily revving to make the biggest climbs, then tottering along tiny ridges before sliding down the sides and kicking up mountains of sand into the air.




There doesn’t appear to be much of a circuit – it’s all just interchangeable dunes – but apparently we’re looping 15km through the desert. It’s tremendous fun, although there are plenty of casualties. As we pull in for a photo stop, the injury list is apparent. Six 4WDs are still sat on top of their respective dunes, with passengers stood by the side. The drivers have misjudged and tow rope-wielding help has arrived to pull them into a position where they can get moving again.




By now, the sun is a bright red circle, slowly descending. On its way into the black of night, it bathes the desert in other-worldly light. The softly windblown waves of red sand move like the scales on the back of an incomprehensibly huge beast; every grain of sand takes on its own colour and personality. Everyone around seems to disappear. I’ve got a weird tunnel vision. It’s just me, the drifting sand and, finally, darkness.




Disclosure: David Whitley was a guest of Arabian Adventures on their Sundowner desert adventure.




You can get a stopover in Dubai on the Globehopper RTW or the Navigator RTW


10 tips for Dubai


If you’re stopping over in Dubai for a couple of days, David Whitley has some advice that will help prepare you for what you’re about to encounter