DUBAI: It’s a tricky task, creating a “true” experience of Arabic heritage in Dubai — a city that’s obsessed with the shiny and new, and in which any building dating back to the 1980s qualifies as old. Often, “heritage” villages and similar areas can seem shoehorned in among the glass skyscrapers, achieving the very opposite of the authenticity they strive for.
The first time we visited Al Seef — a recent development of restaurants, shops and plazas on the shores of Dubai Creek’s south bank — we were less than convinced by much of its faux-history. Tap some of those “stone” walls, and they sound suspiciously hollow.
So expectations for our stay at the Al Seef Heritage Hotel weren’t particularly high. Assumptions, however — as my grandmother was fond of pointing out — are for fools.
The hotel is, in fact, a fine example of how a commercial venture can honor the culture and traditions of the Gulf and incorporate modernity without coming across as phony. From the excellent hospitality, through the beautifully appointed rooms, to the stripped-back-but-welcoming architecture, Al Seef Heritage Hotel is a step back in time and away from the hustle of the city streets, despite its central location.
There’s an understated elegance to everything in our “king room.” Yes, we know the wooden door that leads to the balcony and the shutters on the window probably aren’t decades-old, but they look and — more importantly — feel like they could be. Its subdued color palette (inspired, apparently, by “the UAE’s natural environment”), woven fabrics, and rustic finish are all designed to relax residents, and they really do.
The highlight is the view from the small wooden balcony out over Dubai Creek. The sight of dhows making their way along the water, as they have done for centuries, really does add to the sense of escape. Only 34 of the hotel’s 190 rooms offer a creek view, and we’d recommend requesting one when booking. The property is spread over 22 traditionally designed Arabian homes (all in the same creek-side villa style) in 10 clusters.
An estate agent would likely describe the room itself as “snug” — doublespeak, of course, for “small.” Which it is. But it is also cozy and welcoming. The bed and pillows are superbly comfortable — and much-needed after an evening stroll around the alleyways of the charming neighborhood, which offer some respite even from the August heat, thanks to their waterfront location. And if you don’t want to walk, then one of the hotel’s several golf-cart-style buggies will take you anywhere in Al Seef.
Because of the many dining options in the immediate vicinity, Al Seef Heritage Hotel has just one restaurant, Saba’a, which offers international cuisine, but also an “Emirati-inspired” breakfast buffet. The staff (as they are throughout the hotel) are attentive and happy to help. Alternative dining requirements (vegan, gluten-free, et cetera) can be catered for, but it’s best to give plenty of notice. Our breakfast is terrific. We would particularly recommend the lightly buttered fish; not something I would commonly eat for breakfast, but it is delicious — delicate, flaky and flavorsome.
The hotel is a great base from which to explore the older side of Dubai, close to the creek’s still-thriving trade in spices, textiles and more, and just a short walk from the museums and art galleries (and more cafés) of Al Fahidi Historical District.
Al Seef Heritage Hotel lacks the ostentatious glamor that characterizes the UAE’s big-name hotels, and is all the richer for it. If you’re looking for a truly relaxing break in the city center, then this is the place for you.