See Another Side of Dubai in This Under-the-radar Historical District
In a city hurtling toward the future, one brand is looking to the past.
Dubai is a place of superlatives: the world's tallest building, biggest shopping mall, largest tin of caviar. It's easy to see why Dubai Creek, a waterway running through the oldest part of town, gets lost amid all the shinier attractions. The historic neighborhoods along the saltwater channel, especially on the southern side, are so linked to the roots of Dubai that the city has frequently considered submitting them for inclusion on the UNESCO World Heritage list. Yet until recently, this mostly residential area has been overlooked by tourists.
They're missing one of the most spectacular spots in the United Arab Emirates. Only at the creek will you find traditional wooden abras sailing between the districts of Deira and Bur Dubai, something they've been doing since the 19th century, when the first pearl divers and spice traders headed for India and Iran docked their dhows here. For one dirham, or about 27 cents, you can hop aboard. Your captain won't tell you about the story of the creek — how it declined as a business center with the advent of cultured pearls and the discovery of oil, or how it has been dredged and expanded countless times over the years — but that doesn't matter. The joy of the ride is in the panoramic views of Dubai's history: textile and spice souks, an 18th-century fort (the oldest structure in the city), and a warren of coral-and-adobe desert dwellings.
Now the creek is getting a second wind, thanks largely to the Al Seef neighborhood project: a mile-long development starting at the edge of the Al Fahidi historic district and unfurling southeast along the waterfront. It's a mix of retail and cultural spaces, from a purpose-built souk at one end to an ultramodern cluster of shipping containers at the other.
As part of the revitalization project, the Jumeirah Group (the emirate's famous luxury hotel chain) brought three buzzy hotels to this area last year. In September, the traditionally designed Al Seef Hotel joined the more contemporary Zabeel House Al Seef and its hostel-like cousin, Zabeel House Mini — both just a 15-minute creekside walk away.
At Al Seef, everything suggests a warm nostalgia. Staff offer cardamom-flavored Arabic coffee and Emirati dates in a lobby decorated in "midcentury Dubai" style, complete with vintage TVs and brass bells at the front desk. The 190 rooms and suites are split among 10 buildings modeled after classic Arabian homes, or bayts. Mod cons like Smeg mini-fridges are hidden behind wooden panels to play up the vintage details, like gaslight-style lanterns and photographs from Dubai's maritime past. The hotel's Emirati restaurant, Saba'a, serves classic regional dishes like sticky-sweet luqaimat fritters; salona, a stew of spiced chicken, vegetables, and dried lime; and the moist, rose-scented bread pudding called umm Ali.
"I love that it really takes you back in time," says Dina M. Bin Masoud, director of operations at the Jumeirah Group. "You feel anchored. It quiets the bustle."
Surrounding Al Seef Hotel is the new souk, which has been designed to look like those of Dubai in the 1950s. The crowds come at night to enjoy the breeze off the water, perusing the tchotchke-filled market stalls and snapping waterfront selfies beside traditional fishing boats. It's not Jumeirah's first foray into building a souk; like the market at Madinat Jumeirah, one of the brand's other Dubai properties, there's something almost movie-set perfect about this nod to the past.
With Al Seef, Jumeirah is trying to appeal to a new type of traveler to Dubai — one who is younger, more budget-conscious, interested in history and authenticity, and who seeks to connect with the city in different ways. In one of the most foundational parts of Dubai, the hotel provides a view past the glitz and glamour to the city's origins, as well as where it could be going next.
Bin Masoud reflects on this sentiment: "Dubai has become the fastest-growing city in all aspects. But at the same time, it's going back to remembering its roots and its history, its culture." For a place so long known only in terms of its extremes, perhaps reflecting on the past—distant and not-so-distant—is the most daring innovation of all.
Here are four other Dubai newcomers to watch.
Zabeel House Al Seef: Jumeirah's community-focused offshoot marks a shift from its ultra-luxe portfolio. Zabeel House Mini provides "pocket" rooms next door.
Mandarin Oriental Jumeira: This 256-key resort on Dubai's Arabian Gulf coastline incorporates traditional Emirati healing into its 21,500-square-foot spa.
Form Hotel: In the Al Jadaf cultural district, you'll find the Emirates' first member of the Design Hotels group, which offers curated culture and architecture tours.
One&Only One Za'abeel: The Dubai-based company's first truly urban property will open in 2020 within twin skyscrapers connected by the world's largest cantilever.
Jumeirah Group provided support for the reporting of this story.