Thanks to its location on the Arabian Gulf, its wild desert southwest region, and mountainous northern peninsula, the United Arab Emirates offers visitors a wealth of adventures. The best part? All are within a short drive from the gleaming, modern city of Dubai. Whether you're looking to surf sand, climb rock, jump out of the sky, or simply cruise around the dunes, Dubai has more surprising adventures than you can imagine.
1. Sky Dive
From wingsuiting to thrilling urban jumps, Dubai is the ideal place to air it out
After unwinding on board your spacious-seated, gourmet-food-serving Emirates flight, get ready to taste some adrenaline when you land. Dubai offers the world's most convenient urban skydiving jump. From an airport right on the water next to The Palm Islands, first-time jumpers can book a tandem jump with Skydive Dubai that takes them up to 8,000 feet. From there it’s a free fall over the city at 120 mph until the chute is deployed and you and your pilot float back to earth, landing on a vast field of grass right next to where you took off.
More experienced and adventurous thrill seekers can head less than an hour into the empty desert to another airfield and dropzone and try wingsuits, which, as the name implies, allows skydivers to cover miles and miles of horizontal terrain as they fall back to earth.
BOOK IT: Skydive Dubai’s experienced divers, all-in-one facility, and unbeatable location near The Palm Islands have put it on a bucket list for skydivers around the world. Tip: Book a tandem skydive well in advance to reserve a tandem partner. Visit skydivedubai.ae for more details.
2. Sand Boarding
Surf the massive sand dunes that surround the city
The next best thing to climbing massive sand dunes? Flying down them on waxed boards. Sandboarding, as it’s called, is popular any place there are big piles of sand—and sandboarding is Dubai’s most popular desert sport. Some of the best dunes, which range from 600 to 800 feet high, are just a short drive outside the city in the Rub’ al Khali Desert, making it an ideal day trip. While snowboard boots, bindings, and board will do the trick, many outfitters have actual sandboards, which are stiffer than normal snowboards and have simple strap bindings that are easier to get in and out of. If all that sounds like too much work, or you’re not sure about your sandboarding skills, many outfitters also have sandboard sleds: essentially waxed pieces of lightweight plywood.
The only catch? Be prepared to get a workout. There are no chairlifts in the desert. To get to the top, you have to hoof it, though some safari tours will give you a ride to the top via a dune buggy or four-wheeled ATV.
BOOK IT: Most sandboarding excursions into the desert take place in the morning, before the heat and winds set in. They’re usually offered as part of a half- or full-day safari packages booked through a guide service that picks you up at your hotel and can include anything from a dune buggy or 4x4 experience on the sand to a camelback ride through the desert. Visit thedubaisafari.com to learn more about all the options available.
3. Indoor Skiing
Ski Dubai is the chillest spot in Dubai, literally, to escape the heat
At the 5.5-acre Ski Dubai Snowpark, which is attached to the Mall of the Emirates, you can trade the triple-digit heat outside for a constant sub-freezing temp of 28 degrees. The Middle East’s largest indoor ski slope features five ski runs ranging from beginner to expert, 200 feet of elevation, and a quad chairlift. And they definitely make the most of their slopes: The longest run goes for a quarter mile, and there’s a terrain park with a 10-foot kicker jump, a slalom racing course, and a ski school for newbies to learn how to ski or snowboard. Not into schussing? No problem. There’s also a sledding hill, toboggan run, zipline, and a penguin habitat.
BOOK IT: Didn’t pack your ski gear? Don’t worry about it. Ski Dubai rents nearly everything you need to enjoy the slopes, including ski pants, parkas, and ski socks in addition to full ski and snowboarding setups. The only things you need to bring are a hat, gloves, and some warm underlayers, as the rental jacket and pants aren’t insulated. Tip: The slopes can get a bit crowded at peak times, so your best bet is to arrive 30 minutes before the hill opens, get suited up, and then get a bunch of runs in before the slopes start filling up. Book lessons, watch videos, learn more about the penguins, and download the Ski Dubai app at theplaymania.com/skidubai.
4. Fly Boarding
Strap your feet into a flyboard and fly over the water like a comic-book character
After arriving on your Emirates flight, you can get right back in the air when you land, without the help of a B777 or A380 plane. First developed in 2011, flyboarding uses the thrust of a jet ski to propel a board through the water or into the air. And while it looks extreme and allows you to whiz around like Iron Man, it’s actually pretty easy to do and learn. To fly, all you have to do is strap your feet into a board with two water jets on its underside. A long hose snakes away from the board and connects to a jet ski. When the jet ski operator opens the throttle, the water shoots through the hose and provides thrust. With a little practice, balance, and confidence, a rider can porpoise through the water, do backflips, and hover 30-35 feet off the water.
Sounds like a thrill? It is—and the calm, clean, hot-tub-warm waters of the bay surrounding Dubai make it the perfect spot to try it out. You’ll cruise along the coastline in the shadow of Dubai’s towering skyscrapers.
BOOK IT: Searide Dubai, run by jet ski world champ Steven Dauliach, is conveniently located at the marina between the Four Season Resort and the Mercato Shopping Mall, and offers 20-minute flyboarding sessions right from its dock. Book trips and learn more at searide-dubai.com.
5. Rock Climbing
Test your mettle on the Middle East’s only via ferrata route, a beginner-friendly mix of alpine hiking and rock climbing
This past winter, the country’s first via ferrata (meaning “iron path” in Italian) opened in the soaring Al Hajar mountains, an hour or so northeast of Dubai. Traversing the rocky cliff faces of Jebel Jais, the U.A.E.’s tallest peak at 6,266 feet, the trail uses a combination of fixed ladders, carved steps, and safety cables to enable climbers of all ages and abilities to safely experience the thrill of climbing a sheer rock face that tops out at almost 400 feet off the canyon floor. To add to the drama, the half-mile-long trail includes three zipline segments, the last being a nearly 328-yard-long screaming descent to the bottom of the canyon.
The via ferrata is the first part of a multi-year attempt to turn the Hajar mountains into a year-round destination for mountain bikers, campers, and thrill-seekers looking for a little adventure—and a chance to cool off. The mountains can be as much as 50 degrees cooler than the seaside. Next up? Plans are afoot to install the world’s longest zipline by the end of 2017. (The current record-holder is a nearly 1.5-mile cable in Puerto Rico.)
BOOK IT: Absolute Adventures runs guided four-hour tours of the trail and ziplines on Jebel Jais, with daily pickups from the Manar Mall in the Ras Al Khaimah emirate. Learn more at jebeljais.ae/via-ferrata.
Pristine reefs, unexplored shipwrecks, and warm waters make for spectacular diving
Several of the Arabian Gulf’s premier dive sites are located along the roughly 50 miles of coastline that make up the U.A.E.’s eastern coast. Beginners can head to Sharm Rock, off the resort village of Al Fujairah. At a depth of 40 feet, the rock is home to anemones and clownfish, parrotfish, pufferfish, and reef sharks. Equally spectacular are the 66-foot-deep waters surrounding Martini Rock, which is part of a protected marine park. Here divers will spot pink soft coral, lionfish, eels, and scorpionfish, along with sea turtles and barracuda.
Wreck divers should head off the coast from Dubai to the MV Dara, which sunk in 66 feet of water in 1961 after exploding. During the 55 years since, the vessel’s become home to eagle rays, barracuda, and guitar sharks.
BOOK IT: Al Boom Diving is a one-stop shop for all things diving in Dubai. The full-service dive shop offers guided dives around the country; courses for all levels of diver, from beginner to expert; and runs shuttles from their Dubai shop to their satellite dive center on the east coast. Learn more and book a course or dive at alboomdiving.com.
7. Dune Bashing
Head into the desert for a rollicking ride up and over mountains of sand
A 45-minute drive into the desert takes you into sand-dunes country. Your professional driver puts a Toyota Land Cruiser into 4WD and introduces you to “dune bashing,” which, as its name implies, involves ripping up, over, and down the sand dunes at speed—the ride has more in common with a rollercoaster than a leisurely drive through the desert.
Want to take the wheel yourself? Join a dune-buggy safari into U.A.E.’s Empty Quarter. You and a driving partner will captain a side-by-side ATV as you explore a sea of sand. You’ll climb a 500-foot dune and follow a guide as he leads you through the empty landscape.
BOOK IT: For dune bashing, there are numerous guide companies in Dubai who all offer roughly the same experience: pick up at your hotel, drive to the desert, and dune bashing followed by a sunset dinner in the desert, camel rides, or sandboarding. Start your research at desertsafaridubai.com. Dune driving experiences range from 90-minute jaunts into the dunes to 5-hour excursions in the late afternoon to early evening. Helmets and sunglasses/goggles provided. Learn more at buggy-adventures.com.
Drop in on Dubai’s surprisingly vibrant wave-riding and paddling scene
Dubai has a handful of surfable beaches that are home to a young, passionate, and international surf scene—including a few pros. Sunset Beach is easily the most popular. Directly north of Dubai, the emirates of Ajman and Sharjah feature consistent breaks due to the lack of manmade islands interfering with the waves.
To get in on the vibe, head to Surf House Dubai on Jumeirah Beach Road, two blocks from the beach. It’s a surf shop/3,000-member club of like-minded men and women who love to surf and SUP in the Arabian Gulf. Peak surfing season is October to April, with mellow waves around 2 feet high.
BOOK IT: Surf House Dubai offers hourly and all-day surfboard and SUP rentals as well as kayak rentals. When there’s no surf, you’re welcome to grab a shot of espresso and hang out in the shop’s café, take a yoga class, or channel your inner Jack Johnson and book the establishment’s recording studio to lay down an acoustic track or two. Check it out at Surfingdubai.com.
Explore Dubai from sky to sand to water for unforgettable experiences. There will be time to relax once on board your Emirates flight home, where you can enjoy complimentary wine, beers, and spirits and over 2,500 channels of entertainment. Book your flight at emirates.com