Sometimes, it’s best to look beyond. Venture past the classic tourist trifecta of the Burj Khalifa, Dubai Mall and Burj al Arab and you will find a whole host of new projects that have opened up in the UAE over the last few years. Head just beyond Dubai’s financial district to find a rainforest biodome – replete with sloth lazily hanging from a wimba tree – or hire a car and head north, to the rocky mountains of Ras Al Khaimah and the longest zip line in the world.
Or, revel in what Dubai is best known for – luxury and jaw-dropping architecture – and head to the biggest new projects in the emirates. From the classically Dubai man-made islands that are the Heart of Europe, to the understated elegance of contemporary arts centre Jameel, just recently built on the Creek – there is a plethora of projects waiting to be explored. Head beyond the crowds, and find your new emirates.
The world’s longest zipline
Up into the rocky outcrops of Jebel Jais, the highest mountain in the UAE, one might find jerboas (hopping desert rodents), grazing wild gazelles – and the longest zipline in the world. Thrillseekers are launched off a platform 1,680 metres above sea level in a Superman stance, travelling at speeds of up to 150kph for nearly three minutes, before continuing on the next part of their journey in a more sedate seated position. The UAE’s most northern emirate is typically quieter than most, but the arrival of this attraction cements Ras Al Khaimah’s position as a hub for the actively inclined – tourists can make a weekend of it by mountain biking in the dried wadis, or try out one of the most strenuous climbs in the region, the ‘Stairway to Heaven’, which winds up a still-used goatherder’s track.
When the principal at architecture firm Grout McTavish was asked to submit designs for a small plot of land on Dubai’s Citywalk, his first thought was of the kapok tree. It was the grandfather of the rainforest – whose birth, life and death intrisincally influence the lifecycle of the bioclimate – that led the team to develop a rainforest that centres around this vertical experience. Guests enter and spiral around the great tree, experiencing squawking parrots, hissing Madagascar cockroaches and vivid blue morphos butterflies as they go. Staff are impeccably trained in the background of these species, with guests exiting with a new understanding of nature’s delicate balance.
Think of it as a satirical take on Dubai’s reputation as a fantasy-land – or just come for the 3D zombies. This new virtual reality theme park is a novel update of the amusement park – housed within the easily-located Dubai Mall, and free to enter – you simply pay per attraction. There are family-friendly experiences as well as some standout simulations, like the abseiling experience down the Burj Khalifa, or a team game inspired by The Walking Dead, where players must battle through a hospital overflowing with zombies.
“Remember, stay very still,” says the guide as a silverback comes roaring through the jungle. “Don’t look him in the eye: they view that as a direct threat.” After a few hair-raising seconds, the crisis is averted, and the gorilla returns calmly to his pack, the chest-beating alpha male turned back into a gentle father. This is just one of the experiences that guests can discover inside Orbi Dubai, a digital zoo within City Centre Mirdif Mall in Dubai. Billed as a “high-octane indoor nature museum”, its aim is to bring the jungles of Central Africa – plus a raft of other wild locations – to cities worldwide. The centre is a collaboration between BBC, a stalwart in natural history filmmaking, SEGA and Majid Al Futtaim. With documentaries like Blackfish enacting real change in the way animals are kept in enclosures – Sea World stopped using its killer whales in performances and ended its captive breeding programme after the film was released – experiences like Orbi Dubai are revolutionising the way we can interact with animals.
Dubai Parks & Resorts
With three theme parks and one waterpark, Dubai Parks and Resorts offers visitors over 100 indoor and outdoor rides and attractions in four different parks: Motiongate Dubai, Bollywood Parks Dubai, Legoland Dubai and Legoland Water Park. Guests can buy discounted passes that will allow access to all, or pick their favourite – Motiongate is Hollywood-inspired and features attractions from films such as Madagascar and Shrek, Bollywood Parks (as its name suggests) offers attractions, displays and dance performances inspired by Lagaan, Sholay and more, and Legoland has interactive fun zones, driving experiences and a waterpark designed specifically for children aged 2-12.
During its long career, it attracted celebrities such as Nelson Mandela, Elizabeth Taylor and Buzz Aldrin. Now, this 293.5-metre vessel is permanently docked at Mina Rashid in Dubai, embodying a true feat of engineering for Sixties England. Built in the famed shipyards of John Brown in Clydebank, Scotland, the ship has been converted into a permanent floating hotel, which remains true to its original heritage.
The biggest picture frame on the planet, this is the stuff selfies are made of. Standing 150 metres high and 93 metres wide in Za’abeel Park, Dubai Frame has fast become one of the city’s most memorable landmarks, with two golden towers and a connecting glass-bottomed bridge. Visitors are given a glimpse of the city’s his-tory with an exhibit at the mezzanine level, with a 360-degree view of Old Dubai to the north and New Dubai to the south.
Jameel Arts Centre
A vast, scarlet spiderweb envelops an entire room, smothering a broken dhow, lights, even an emergency exit. As visitors step into the space, they tend to fall silent – a nod to the power of Chiharu Shiota, the Japanese artist commissioned. November this year marked the opening of Jameel Arts Centre, one of the first contemporary arts institutions in Dubai and part of the efforts to revitalise Dubai Creek. Located at the tip of Jaddaf Waterfront, the Centre’s multiple gallery spaces are home to curated commissions, projects, and solo and group exhibitions, drawn both from the Art Jameel Collection and through other collaborations. Other spaces include a garden dedicated to indigenous plants, an open-access research library dedicated to artists and cultural movements of the Arab world, plus project and commissions spaces, a roof-top terrace, writer’s studio, members’ lounge, restaurant and shop.
A Western colonial power employs a Muslim general to lead their army against the impending Turkish invasion – himself dealing with a traitorous ensign, Iago. The play is Othello, and the setting is the Dubai Opera, the city’s first purpose-built, multi-format performing arts theatre – and the definitive destination for entertainment in the city. Designed to bring world-class acts to the city and form a new Middle East hub for art, music, theatre and culture, its vernacular form is inspired by the traditional Arabic dhow, and local heritage is a theme running throughout the building’s interior. While the vision for Dubai Opera may be inspired by the past, its functional aspects are very much rooted in the present.
La Perle’s tailor-made 1,288-seat aqua-theatre is designed by Jean Rabasse and brought to life by architectural firm Khatib and Alami. Architecturally it is no small feat, with a 12-metre-deep circular pool and two motorised proscenium scenic doors, each 23 metres in height and weighing six tonnes. Suspended high above the stage is a 60,000kg motorised scenic tower, and the stage floor can be transformed from a 2.7-million-litre pool into a solid dry deck within a matter of seconds, while special effects create waterfalls and rain. There’s also a 360-degree sound system and 3D projection mapping, with everything in the theatre doubling up as a projection screen. Noted theatre director Franco Dragone worked on La Perle for nearly five years, and said of the project that “This theatre is not only a theatre, it’s the cinegraphic of the show… What I wanted to do was not a show for Dubai, but a show from Dubai.”