“Dubai is always a good idea.”
The words painted on the wall were the first thing I noticed as I stepped into my room at Zabeel House Mini on a hot day in July last year. The next was a floor to ceiling window that looked out to a Dubai I had never imagined.
The glittering lights of the Burj, the roar of supercars, shimmering chandeliers in grand malls—that is the Dubai I am familiar with, the one I had seen on my previous visit to the Emirate. The Dubai outside my window, however, had not a skyscraper in sight.
I’d witnessed my share of classical Emirati opulence on my previous visits. My fondness for the luxury notwithstanding, the over-the-top aesthetic has always unsettled me. But, downing my welcome shot—a zingy honey-ginger-lemon drink in a test tube—in the foyer of Zabeel House Mini, I revelled in its relaxed hostel-like vibe. The urban chic decor is a striking contrast to the old, sand-coloured buildings I drove past to get here in the Al Seef neighbourhood.
White wooden swings hang from the ceiling, an open courtyard is strewn with pastel-coloured bean bags and rectangular tables. Bold red walls and pops of colour accessorise the modish whimsical design of the property. I pondered on how to best sit in one of the geometric chairs—made of soft hexagonal blocks joined together Lego-like—in the lobby until my rumbling tummy and sheer curiosity took me to the café. The first thing that caught my eye was an entire wall of Tintin comics. A side of Snowy’s antics and Captain Haddock’s snark to go with my perfectly poached eggs on avocado and toast, and chia-seed-flecked coconut and fruit pudding, was exactly what I didn’t realise I was craving. While it was hostel on the outside, I realised over the next couple of days that this hotel is every bit an indulgent stay—only without any stuffy trappings.
An hour later, I returned to my room. Leaning back in a less complicated chair I took in the eccentricities of my space. On a wall was a yellow submarine, its thin black cord held by a French bulldog in a lab coat and bow-shaped headband. The bedside table with a red old-school telephone lay suspended from the ceiling with coir ropes. But the star feature? That came into view only once I was snuggled in bed: a colourful, illustrated map of the neighbourhood splashed on the ceiling.
The skyscraper-free Al Seef was the Dubai I wanted to know more about. I’d spent a long time lying in bed staring at the ceiling of my hotel room. The map told me stories of a metropolis in the making: the old souk and gold souk, the dhow terminal from where public wooden boats can take you across the creek to spice markets and old mosques.
The waterfront Al Seef is perfectly stationed in between Dubai’s two worlds. Developed in late 2017, this area by the creek celebrates the Emirate’s beginning as a pearl-diving hub. Just beyond new restaurants and hip cafés of the Al Seef promenade is the Al Fahidi Historical Neighbourhood. Meandering, narrow lanes weave through squat, tawny buildings—think Aladdin’s Agrabah—that house souvenir shops fashioned like souk stalls, Emirati cafés serving fragrant tea and elaborate breakfasts, art galleries, and the 18th-century Al Fahidi fort that is now the Dubai Museum. If not for the ATM or people in shorts, I could very well be in the Dubai of yore. In fact, with the old souk only a few metres away, this area used to be the epicentre at one time.
Though not in the exact vicinity of Al Fahidi, what best captures the charm of this part of Dubai, I believe, is the Dubai Frame. The experience of walking through the long, narrow, glass-walled corridor that is the viewing area of the Frame is like see-sawing from one era to another. On either side of me dusk is settling on two different Dubais: one where glass towers shine as if encrusted in diamonds, and another where busy streets pass by wind tower houses and humble buildings adorned with only streaks of simple lights.
Back at the hotel, this time in the neighbouring Zabeel House Al Seef, the time bubble settles firmly in the present. Behind a rectangular glass facade that it shares with Zabeel House Mini, this property holds new-age charm.
If Zabeel House Mini is like a bubbling graduate, Zabeel House Al Seef is the older sibling with a job: enthusiastic, young and adventurous, yet understated and elegant. Monochromes dominate, and a library shares space with a bar and café. In the room, a hint of playful peeks through in the dark silhouette of a cityscape painted on the walls, and the hammock strung by picture windows that show off the creek and promenade.
The best part of Zabeel House is the rooftop bar and pool—a perfect spot for a sundowner. Leaning into cushy sofas and watching the Dubai Frame change colours as it dwarfs the rest of the city, I realised there might still be a lot left to discover about this emirate. Perhaps, the urging of my hosts to follow their holiday philosophy—explore the neighbourhood—was exactly the push I needed on this break. A jaunt through old Dubai has served me a new perspective.
Zabeel House Mini Al Seef and Zabeel House Al Seef are about a 15-minute drive from the airport (www.zabeelhouse.com; Zabeel House Mini doubles from AED180/Rs3,500, Zabeel House AED225/Rs4,400).
Rumela Basu is former Assistant Editor at National Geographic Traveller India. Her favourite kind of travel involves food, literature, dance and forests. She travels not just to discover new destinations but also aspects of herself.