Dubai or Abu Dhabi - Which is the best destination for a stopover?

If you're among the one third of Australians travelling overseas this year, those of you doing a long trip will know the dilemma: stop over, help reset your body clock and have a break? Or plough on with the diehards enduring flights of up to 24 hours or more?

Taking a break is good for your health and can prevent life-threatening illness, including deep vein thrombosis (DVT), a blood clot that forms in your leg, according to experts.

"Walking around and exploring your stopover destination clearly reduces the risk of DVT and you see places that you might have missed otherwise,"  says deputy director at the Baker Heart and Diabetes Institute, Professor Karlheinz Peter. 

Now, a growing number of savvy travellers are following this advice, and using the stopover option to have a mini holiday for a reasonable price, before resuming their journey refreshed and rested. 

For the many feeling the lure of Europe,  the United Arab Emirates is a natural choice.

Heading to Europe via Dubai or Abu Dhabi is particularly popular with visitors going to Ireland, as it cuts out the previous practice of being forced to travel via an awkward dogleg stop in London.

Demand is so high both Etihad and Emirates now run two flights daily from Sydney and Melbourne to Dublin.

STOP BEFORE YOU DROP

So what can you expect if you take the stopover plunge in one of these two — very different — desert cities? 

Abu Dhabi, the capital of the cluster of seven states forming the United Arab Emirates, is more demure and traditional, but there are plenty of attractions, and the Corniche is the place to be seen, as locals and foreigners mingle on the waterfront.  

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Must-dos include a visit to the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, voted No. 2 by TripAdvisor in their list of the World's Most Amazing Landmarks.  If art is your thing, the much trumpeted and controversial The Louvre, Abu Dhabi, is set to open this November, with the lights of Jean Nouvel's colossal "museum city" already visible as you pass onto Saadiyat Island at night. The vast project has  attracted praise as well as criticism with damning investigations suggesting this latest cultural venture is being built by exploited and abused migrant workers. But Nouvel's $US1.3 billion vision with its plazas and waterways, sheltered beneath a perforated metal dome spilling diffuse light, promises to please, a welcome artistic addition to a region where culture is often synonymous with shopping.

DUBAI DELIGHTS

Dubai, the brasher and more liberal cousin, feels more Disney than desert but it's our favourite stopover choice.  

And there's plenty to please in this world of sprawling malls, theme parks, an international Trade Centre and the self-proclaimed seven-star hotel Burj al Arab, (stretching higher than the Eiffel Tower and only slightly shorter than the Empire State Building).  This sail-shaped shard of steel and Teflon-coated glass has become one of Dubai's national monuments. 

Fancy skiing or snowboarding in the middle of the desert? You can do that in Dubai. If shopping is your thing, this is one of the best retail meccas in the world with its malls like air-conditioned mini cities, where attractions include a huge aquarium complete with a forlorn giant Australian crocodile. 

Signs posts outside the Dubai Mall and others suggest a reasonably modest dress code, so best to be culturally sensitive.

Inside, there's an ice skating rink, and it's impossible not to grin at the infectious smile of a local woman, clad head-to-toe in black garb, whose ear-to-ear grin is visible as the icy wind whips up her head gear when she swirls by on her skates, clutching the hand of her delighted child.  

For the bargain hunters, Dubai's less corporate shopping experience can be found in Karama, a discount district offering a stark  antidote to the vast newer McMalls. This bustling,  colourful, noisy treasure trove of stunning bargains, dubious "designer" products and killer kitsch. 

As the desert air cools you can take a magical night time trip out into the sand dunes by jeep with Arabian Adventures who have an office at the airport. 

These tours carry you and your squealing companions up and down the golden crests of magnificent dunes right into the heart of the darkened desert where you can opt for a camel ride or smoke a hookah pipe before heading to traditional tents where a BBQ is set up to produce mouth-watering meats and you can tuck into a delicious traditional meal under the stars, flanked by towering dunes lit up by spotlight (think English Patient meets Indiana Jones). 

Dubai attracts 5 million tourists a year — not bad for a population of 2.7 million. In 10 years' time, the plans are to increase this to a mind boggling 40 million. 

The water parks are a big attraction and are similar in both cities. It's a fun day out after you get over the strange sight of a gushing, blue playground in the middle of the desert. 

So if you are heading to Europe any time soon, why not take a break after your first 14-hour leg and witness these desert delights for yourself — but be warned: the trip is so much fun you might not want to continue your journey.

TRIP NOTES

MORE

traveller.com.au/middle-east

VISIT

The desert at night by jeep – just a short distance from Dubai central. Eat under the stars flanked by towering sand dunes. See arabian-adventures.com

STAY

Just a 30-minute drive from Dubai International Airport, Madinat Jumeirah is a beautifully understated resort built around the souk, the traditional centre of Arabic life (jumeirah.com). If you opt for Abu Dhabi, the Yas Viceroy is reasonably priced and suitable for families   (viceroyhotelsandresorts.com).

Amanda Phelan was a guest at Madinat Jumeirah and Yas Viceroy and otherwise travelled at her own expense.

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