Aaaarghh,’ screamed Imogen, at the fabulous moment of surprise when we came face to face with Toothless from How To Train Your Dragon, feeling the beast’s breath on our cheeks.
We were suspended from coaster tracks in Motiongate, one of the main attractions in the new Dubai Parks complex.
Dubai has long been a favourite family destination, but Dubai Parks seems to have raised the bar. Designed to mimic Florida’s theme parks, the difference here is that the six inter-connected attractions are all in one place.
Dazzling: Dubai’s Business district, which is home to the world’s tallest building
It opened in December 2016, with the final part, the Six Flags rollercoaster Park, due to launch next year.
Until then it is perhaps best suited to families with younger children — perfect for us with Maisie, eight, and Imogen, six, in tow. And if crowded theme parks are not your bag, the trick is to avoid weekends and public holidays.
The parks are vast, but time it right and you won’t have many queues. In fact, How To Train Your Dragon was the only ride we queued for all day.
We began in the Legoland Water Park, for children from two to 12, with all the classic waterpark ingredients. Our favourite was the racer, where you slide on a mat and twist through individual tubes before rejoining for a final sun-kissed race through the rollers.
Almost as exhilarating is a desert safari tour. In times past, caravans of camels carried traders through the sands. Today the caravans are Toyota Land Cruisers, racing through the landscape picking out every feature, banking on dunes and dropping off their steep slopes like freestyling sandboarders.
Our driver, Alfred, has been doing this for 22 years, and it takes real skill to keep control on the deflated tyres with dust flying up from the other vehicles.
You end up at a camp where the children get to ride a camel, try sand-boarding, get a henna tattoo and watch a starlit belly dancing and fire-juggling show. It’s a somewhat hackneyed tourist staple, but the children love it.
We were staying at the Oberoi in Dubai’s Business Bay district, home to the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa.
The Oberoi is well positioned for the city’s parks and malls, and has a large rooftop pool. On Fridays, it hosts Karnival, a renowned brunch, the highlight being your own dragon’s breath passion fruit meringue ‘cooked’ in liquid nitrogen. It is astonishing to think that this whole mini-city has been built from scratch in just 12 years — the pace of building here as breathtaking as the view of the Burj from our 17th-floor hotel window.
Fun in the sun: Legoland Water Park is geared for children aged 2-12 years old
Perhaps the most intriguing current development project however is Al Zorah, in Ajman, aka the forgotten Emirate, located 25 minutes from Dubai International airport. Al Zorah is an eco-development centred around some of the Middle East’s most beautiful mangroves, with a marina, championship golf course, wildlife reserve and long stretch of prime coastline.
Visit it now and you’ll have it practically to yourselves.
The man to know is Brian Parry from Questforadventure.net, who has set up kayaking mangrove tours here as well as a wakeboard cable park.
Brian explained what makes the area special as we kayaked through a network of narrow channels. ‘The eco-system is extremely healthy as it has been untouched for so long,’ he said. ‘The mangroves are the tallest in the UAE and we have 118 different bird species.’
We felt like proper explorers and the girls howled in delight as a flock of pink flamingos came into view. ‘The flamingos follow the tide through the mangroves, feeding as they go,’ said Brian.
Later that day, we tried wakeboarding, the expert English instructors getting Maisie to stand up. She is now hooked.
Instead of being towed by a boat, wakeboarding involves holding on to a rope attached to a cable mechanism that takes you around a circuit.
All the infrastructure is in place to develop accommodation for 100,000 people, but currently the only hotel that has been built is (yes, another) Oberoi, a low-key limestone-clad design by the world-famous architect Pierro Lissoni.
The children loved the 85 metre-long pool and wave-jumping on the private beach, while we lapped up the serene architectural design, complimentary yoga classes and excellent food. It felt special to be here at the start of the project. But hurry, with the pace of building work, there will be a whole city in place before too long.
FACT BOX TITLE
Oberoi hotels (oberoihotels.com, 020 3198 0769) offers seven nights’ B&B for a family of four from £950pp. Day passes for Dubai Parks and Resorts are £51pp (dubaiparksandresorts.com), and desert safaris start from £64pp. More information at visitdubai.com. Emirates (emirates.com) return economy flights from London £442pp.