Looking beyond the Burj Khalifa in Dubai

Take a stroll through Al Seef and the maze-like alleyways of Bastakiya in Bur Dubai to discover its old world charm and Emirati hospitality
View of the Dubai Creek with Al Seef Hotel by Jumeirah in sight
View of the Dubai Creek with Al Seef Hotel by Jumeirah in sight

For years now, whenever someone said Dubai, tourists like us  couldn’t think too far beyond the tallest building in the world, Burj Khalifa and glossy malls. And partly, word-of-mouth travel tales are to blame for that. However, our recent trip to the most-talked-about metropolis of The United Arab Emirates and the three-day stay at the Zabeel House MINI by Jumeirah and Zabeel House by Jumeirah-Al Seef changed that myopic view forever! Fortunately for us, we stayed on the southern bank of the historic Dubai Creek, which has also recently received a nomination for the status of UNESCO World Heritage Site. Apart from, that we also got a glimpse of vintage Dubai with its charming souks (traditional bazaars), the old buildings restored in Bastakiya Quarter and the famous Al Fahidi Fort.  After almost a 20-minute drive from the airport, we had arrived at Zabeel House Mini. This is one of the latest properties by the famous Jumeirah group, known for one of the most luxurious hotels in the world, Burj Al Arab.

Zabeel House by Jumeirah-Al Seef
Zabeel House by Jumeirah-Al Seef

In all its casual splendour
“With our latest venture we are merging the heritage part of this town together with something modern,” said our affable host Alessandro Aldo Cabella, the area general manager of Jumeirah group, adding that he would like to describe the hotel as “upscale casual”. The moment we were ushered into the hotel, we fell in love with its casual chic interiors — pop-hued bean bags, wall art crafted from discarded floppy discs and a series of swings. One of the staff members suggested that we might want to make better use of the check-in procedure time by swinging as we wait. They made us an offer we couldn’t refuse as we hadn’t been on a swing for a while now! We looked out through the huge glass door that opens out into the al fresco area with bean bags, called The Courtyard. We instantly made a note to come back here to laze around and watch the stars at night. The hotel has about 150 rooms, which might be small in size but are functional to the hilt. As we entered our ‘Pocket Room’ we were touched to find a handwritten welcome note from the staff. There were gluten-free brownies and almond milk as well, in the bright red Smeg fridge. That was a sweet start to the stay indeed!

The colourful map on the ceiling at Zabeel House MINI
The colourful map on the ceiling at Zabeel House MINI

Map it out
The bed was so comfortable that we almost sank in as we tried to sleep and the view from the huge window was beautiful — imagine Dubai’s skyline at night, all lit up. It struck us as slightly odd because we couldn’t spot a full-length mirror, a vanity necessity on a holiday. However, to our relief just when we pulled the sliding door of the well-stocked washroom, we discovered the mirror right there. The best bit though was a colourful map of Dubai on the ceiling, which was perfect for us to get a quick overview of the landmarks in the city. And then there’s the ‘suite-pad’ that controls the flat screen TV and also gives an overview of the Dubai’s attractions.

A glimpse of Zabeel House by Jumeirah-Al Seef
A glimpse of Zabeel House by Jumeirah-Al Seef

Tea time in Al Bastakiya
On day one, we lunched at the hotel eatery, called MishMash and for a quintessential Arabic experience, which started with the shawarma wrap. The mildly spiced chicken, with just the right amount of pickles and a side of sweet potato fries, was the simplistic yet tasty fare that we needed to keep us buoyant for our two-hour walk around the Al Bastakiya Quarter. At around 4 pm, when the sun was still blazing, we set out to explore the neighbourhood. Funnily, we felt like we never left home, given the choice of Bollywood music in the cabs and how they always insisted on conversing with us in Hindi. After strolling through the maze-like alleyways and old-world ecru buildings we stopped by at the famous Arabian Tea House. Post copious amounts of the fragrant saffron tea and a few helpings of the rich date cake, we walked around to explore further. This café is a spot of calm amid the hustle-bustle that defines Dubai. The ochre exteriors, blue and white spreads of pillows on the chairs, antiquated artefacts like telephones, takes you back into a bygone era. Urban legend has it that the owner, Ali Al Rais, set it up in 1997 after returning to Dubai post travelling the world.

A dose of old world charm at Al Seef Hotel by Jumeirah
A dose of old world charm at Al Seef Hotel by Jumeirah

Window to the past
Post that we walked in to have a look at the Dubai Museum, located inside the Al Fahidi Fort. Built in 1787, it is one of the oldest buildings in the city. If you are strolling on the streets of Dubai, keep your sunscreen handy. With lucid explanations of historical facts related to Dubai’s original heritage and life-like statues, it gave us a clear idea about the history of the fort and Khor Dubai and the city’s gradual rise to prosperity. The tickets are priced at 3 AED (around Rs 60). After a busy day, we returned to the hotel and soaked our feet in the pool up on the roof. Before we hit the sack, we headed for dinner at the hotel’s newly opened restaurant called, CU. Decorated with wine bottles, this place turned out to be a great fine-dining experience. After a bowl of Laksa and a glass of Chateau Minuty rosé wine, we were done for the day.

Sol Sky Bar
Sol Sky Bar

Swing time
On day two, we were ready to check in to our next accommodation; the second property titled  Zabeel House by Jumeirah-Al Seef. This hotel boasts of suites as well as brightly lit ‘Popular Rooms’. We were staying in the latter which had a monochrome setting and a big beautiful window. However, we missed all the colour and graffiti of Zabeel House MINI and secretly longed to go back there. But, it is then that we discovered the gym overlooking the Dubai Creek; we spotted the abras and the Rolex Towers too. With a view like this, we would probably hit the gym twice a day. This hotel also has suites and a room with a hammock!

An antiquated radio at Al Seef Hotel by Jumeirah
An antiquated radio at Al Seef Hotel by Jumeirah

Buggy ride to Arabian Nights
Post that, we had set out for a buggy tour with our travel companions to see what their third property, Al Seef Hotel by Jumeirah offers. The outlet is set to open on September 1. When we arrived at the hotel, the design seemed straight out of the pages of Arabian Nights. Expect over 200 rooms which are spread across 22 traditionally designed Arabian Bayt (homes). We loved the majhlish-like setting at the entrance of the first floor, with its seating space designed for lazy evenings, rustic ceilings fans, and the ground floor comprising souks. Also, keep an eye out for replicas of antiquated radios and a charming mirror in the washroom. “We have paid a lot of attention to the design of the rooms and courtyards to ensure our guests are immersed in the spirit of the past and, for the time they stay with us, feel worlds away from the pace of modern life,” says Alessandro. The rooms are up for grabs with an opening offer of 250 AED (Rs 4,683 onwards).

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Where worlds collide
After the tour, we dined at Nyon, the restaurant at Zabeel House by Jumeirah-Al Seef, as we didn’t want to miss out on their  Fried Olives. After a day and a half, we got ready to bid adieu to Bur Dubai by raising a toast to the fascinating city at the Sol Sky Bar. There couldn’t be a better finale to this stay, as we stared at the sunset and the dichotomies of the old and the new city merge — the Frame and Burj Khalifa on one side and the lit up Creek on the other!

Here's what you can keep in mind: 
Abras calling

Do take a ride on the abras, which are on till midnight! Take them if you want to reach the Spice, Textile and Gold Souks too for a price of 1 Dirham (Rs 18 approx.) only.

Get the bike out
If you aren’t too fond of walking, you could rent a bike from both the Zabeel House properties to discover the souks, cafes and the Fort at no cost.

Frame it
There couldn’t have been a better finale to this stay, as we stared at the sunset and the dichotomies of the old and the new city merge — the Frame and Burj Khalifa on one side and the lit up Creek on the other!

Prices of the rooms at  Zabeel House MINI start at AED  280 (Rs 5245 approx.) and Zabeel House-Al Seef starts at AED 350 (Rs 6557 approx.). The writer visited Zabeel House MINI and Zabeel House by
Jumeirah-Al Seef by invitation.


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