The abra (wooden boat) glides over the shimmering illuminated waters of Dubai Creek. Water taxis are zipping about ferrying passengers across the inlet that historically divides the city into two parts -- Deira and Bur Dubai. The fast receding shoreline -- buzzing with cafes, restaurants and souvenir shops – is radiating enough kinetic energy to power a ship.

One can experience a slow, immersive voyage across `Hidden Dubai’, a part of the city that only locals know about. It’s like rediscovering a metropolis that thrives on contradictions, one that dazzles and delights with its anodyne malls, flashy boutiques and OTT hotels and the other one that is a slow burn.   

And the Creek is the protagonist in the latter. A vibrant trading hub, its busy port nurtured and nourished the local pearl diving industry in the past. “In 1833, Dubai started out as a small fishing settlement and developed around the Creek that is a natural water inlet,” Ahmad, the local guide explains during a stroll along the wharfage. “By the turn of the 20th century, the first freezone had been created and fishermen from Iran were staying here to benefit from tax free conditions.”

Olfactory Delight

Even today the Creek is a whirligig of activity hosting sundry businesses – artisan shops, art galleries, hotels and cafes. Come winter, it sparkles with cultural extravaganzas, music festivals and fireworks. Al Seef, the heritage district cossetted along the wharf is a 1.8 km waterfront promenade split into a `modern’ side peppered with boutiques and the `Old Dubai’ side with labyrinthine sikkas (or lanes) and heritage buildings. Souqs brimming with aromatic spices, textiles, oud and frankincense are an olfactory delight, the collective smells heightened by a cloud of aromas wafting from Arabic eateries around the area.     

“Seef” means coast or shore in Arabic,” elaborates Ahmad during an exploration of the warren lanes resonating with sights and sounds. Traditional wind towers – crafted from sandstone, teak, gypsum, palm wood and sandalwood – dominate the other dun-colored constructions. An open-air floating market where local merchants sell Emirati crafts and textiles as well as art spaces and food pop ups add more atmosphere to the neighborhood. Much of the district’s original infrastructure has been preserved carefully with each alley, warren pathway and vertiginous tower narrating a story of a bygone era that existed before the seven emirates.

History & Heritage

The neighboring pedestrian-friendly Al Fahidi district is another delight to amble through with its quaint walkways, marina and boulevard. Painstakingly refurbished, it showcases what Dubai looked like during the 19th century.  Over 50 'heritage houses' that dot the area showcase Emirati culture; one of them being the famed Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Centre for Cultural Understanding. Another one -- the Coins Museum – contains a trove of over 470 rare coins, a hark back to the monetary system of the British Empire, India and countries in the region before independence.

Cosmopolitan cafés and waterfront restaurants pepper Al Fahidi like confetti. They offer seasonal al fresco seating and stellar views of the waterfront. Also delicious food. Sampling freshly brewed `Suleimani chai’ at The Arabian Tea House, a traditional home crafted from gypsum, corals and limestone, is a must do. The tea is fragrant, infused with milk and spices. Pair it with sesame-encrusted luqmat, yeast-leavened dough boiled in oil and doused in honey and rosewater. Refreshed and refueled, continue your amble down the winding streets to discover more cultural activities, museums and art galleries.

Al Shindagha, a newly made over historical neighborhood that seamlessly marries commerce with culture. “Its name means a person full of love,” Ahmad explains adding that it is one of Dubai’s oldest neighborhoods. “It was also the erstwhile residence of Dubai’s royal family, the Makhtoums because of its strategic location right by the mouth of the Creek as it flows into the Persian Gulf,” he adds.

Commerce with Culture

Realising the business potential of the area, Dubai’s current ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum launched the construction plan of the 3-billion Al Shindagha project in 2015. It was completed in phases, and currently comprises an expansive corridor, bridge and heritage areas. A magnet for tourists, it is also a thriving shopping venue with merchants from India, the Middle East, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Turkey selling their wares.

The area is also a showcase of Emirati heritage. The Al Shindagha Museum fills one in on the city's maritime history in evocative detail. A cluster of heritage houses, archival photos and artefacts highlight Dubai’s past history and commercial activities. The Saruq Al Hadid  Museum, similarly, has on view an impressive array of 900 artefacts unearthed from a centuries-old archaeological site in the desert.

The Perfume House

But perhaps the most fascinating address in Al Shindagha is the freshly minted The Perfume House which takes one on an interactive journey to discover ancient methods of Arabic perfume-making, perfume-trading routes and traditional oils and ingredients used to craft scents. Stick your nose into cylindrical metallic contraptions to sniff and smell delightful ittars made from oud, saffron, rose and other exotic local flora. Perfume-making utensils, perfume accessories, incense burners, interactive displays and videos add to the immersive experience.

The museum is located inside the former home of the late royal Shiekha Sheikha bint Saeed Al-Maktoum, an avid collector of perfumes. In fact many of the museum’s artifacts were part of her personal collection including perfume applicators and a rare 28-kg piece of oud costing thousands of dollars. “Perfumes have been an integral part of Khaleeji and Arab culture for centuries,” the museum’s guide explains. “Every home has its own bespoke perfumes and incense. The kings and queens invested much time and money in getting bespoke perfumes made with the royal perfumer holding an important post.”

There’s also an onsite perfumery where you can shop for scents. Better still, try making one of your own. For a fun DIY experience, ask the curator to mix a few from the available array of essences. The end result can be both enlightening and entertaining. Carry the bottle back home like a rare treasure.  And while dabbing on the ittar, reminisce about the beautiful perfumery and Dubai’s heady legacy of fragrances.

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