It might be surprising given its desert location, but Dubai is a great place to get out on the water. Traditional boats ply the waters of the Gulf as well as the horseshoe-shaped Dubai Creek and its modern canal extension, completed in 2016. Here are the best boat tours to explore the natural and man-made waters of Dubai.
The sky really is the limit in Dubai, home to the tallest building in the world and a whole roster of incredible architectural feats. A great way to see how all of Dubai’s skyscrapers stack up is with a clear vantage point from the water. The Yellow Boats run tours on inflatable, lifeboat-style RIB boats that take passengers from five-star views from the Dubai Marina before zipping out into the Gulf, to get an unrestricted look at the coral pink Atlantis, The Palm hotel and the city’s iconic sail-shaped Burj Al Arab. Wonder Bus Tours combine the best of land and sea by using amphibious vehicles, passing by several of the city’s markets before plunging into Dubai Creek for a swim around historic neighbourhoods and modern architecture.
Dubai has a penchant for the ultra-luxe and extravagant, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible to visit on a budget. In fact, one of the city’s must-do experiences costs just 1 AED (£0.22): crossing Dubai Creek on a wooden 10-seater boat called an abra. The route between Bur Dubai and Deira Old Souk links two important traditional markets: the Textile Souk and the historic neighbourhood of Al Fahidi on the south side of the Creek, and the Spice Souk and Gold Souk on the north. The abra journey lasts less than 10 minutes, so if you’re hoping to spend longer admiring Dubai from the water, this may not be for you – but it’s a traditional, and charming, activity. And with such a low fare, you’ll have plenty of money to spend on shopping in the souks.
Another good budget option is the Dubai Ferry; although it’s actually part of the city’s public transportation system, it is geared towards visitors and provides a brilliant experience for tourists. These modern boats motor through Dubai Canal and around Palm Jumeirah, with a stop in the mouth of Dubai Creek. Location-triggered explainer videos narrate the surrounding sights as you glide by.
A modern take on a traditional Arab village, Madinat Jumeirah is a sandy complex of hotels, restaurants and markets linked by three kilometres of scenic walking paths and a web of waterways. Abras drift past neatly manicured gardens and offer picture-perfect views of the Burj Al Arab. Make sure to take the trip at night – the area is particularly atmospheric after dark when the gardens are aglow.
If you’ve already gained your sea-legs and are seeking a more DIY option, try a trip with Hero Odysea. Here, you’re in charge of your own two-seater vessel that can reach speeds of up to 50kph (30mph). There’s no need to worry about navigation, though, as you won’t be totally on your own; guides will be tracking alongside in a separate boat to point out the most notable sights visible from the sea.
If a standard boat isn’t fast enough (or adventurous enough) for your tastes, you can also tour Dubai’s rugged coastline by jet ski. Nemo Watersports runs sightseeing adventures on the back of jet skis that can reach up to 100kph (60mph). Riders whizz by monuments including the Burj Al Arab, Jumeirah Beach Residence and Atlantis, the Palm; if you’re lucky, you might even catch a glimpse of the Dubai. The third largest yacht in the world, it’s owned by ruler Sheikh Mohammed.
If you’re not content with the guided tours on offer in Dubai, you could always chart your own course and hire a yacht yourself. Xclusive Yachts offers high-end boats in eight sizes, including a craft decked out in Versace decor and a 44m (145ft) super-yacht. For a truly lavish excursion, rent out Lebanon Island, the first of the World Islands development to open, which has two beaches, a swimming pool and space to play sand volleyball.
Float by the twinkling lights of the city at night with fork in hand on an evening cruise that includes dinner. Al Mansour operates an after-hours dhow, a traditional cargo boat with masts that’s been kitted out with colourful lights and even air conditioning on the lower deck. Take your pick of dishes from the expansive buffet of Emirati flavours before setting sail around Dubai Creek to the tune of a live oud – traditional music in the Emirates.
For celebrating a special occasion, the luxurious JA Bateaux Dubai is a modern, glass-enclosed vessel with just one level, and a sumptuous four-course meal is served at your table.