In Dubai, where supercars dominate the roads, an aromatic dhow journey transports you to a world far removed from the gleaming skyscrapers that define the modern city.

As the early evening sun dipped towards the horizon, the sky above Dubai was painted with hues of blush and apricot.

Along the banks of the saltwater creek that bisects the metropolis, the water shimmered with reflected light, while the air was perfumed with a blend of cinnamon, cloves, and frankincense from the nearby spice market.

Bur Dubai

I found myself in Bur Dubai, once the epicenter of trade and commerce, predating the city’s rapid development over the past century. Although it lacks the ostentatious glamour of the newer districts, it remains a lively nexus of Middle Eastern commerce, teeming with vivid souks and bustling docks.

The Arabian Peninsula is steeped in maritime tradition. For generations, wooden boats called dhows have been integral to the area’s flourishing fishing, pearl diving, and trade sectors. The coastal tribes of Dubai relied on these vessels long before the arrival of upscale beach resorts.

Today, while the Emiratis may be more involved in stock trading than fishing, the time-honored dhow still finds purpose on Dubai Creek’s primary waterway.

In front of me, a dynamic scene unfolded: docking stations on either side of the creek brimmed with multi-hued cargo dhows loaded with crates of goods from Iran and beyond.

Meanwhile, commuters traversed the creek on abras, small agile wooden boats with open sides and modest roofs, serving as water taxis.

Dhows & Old Arabia

Elegantly cruising among this bustle were the sailing dhows, graceful vessels that conjure images of old Arabia. Although now motorized and often used for tours, their slender hulls, shallow bodies, and towering masts retain the dignity and charm of a bygone era, thanks to local craftsmanship. This is especially true when compared to their more humble counterparts: the abra and the cargo dhow.

Seeking an authentic Arabian boating adventure, I ventured to the rickety Bur Dubai Abra Station near the creek’s bank, just as the sun began to set. In the vicinity, jewelers, pastry sellers, tailors, and spice merchants prepared for the evening rush—a lucrative time in a country where daytime temperatures can soar to 50°C.

It was the perfect moment to embark on an abra journey across the creek to the renowned gold and spice souks of the Deira district on the opposite shore.

At the waterfront, a series of wooden ramps led down to floating docks. The bustling area teemed with passengers jostling through the humid, spice-laden air to secure a spot on the next abra. Men hurried by, pushing carts laden with cloth and silks destined for the nearby textile market.

In days gone by, this waterway would have been filled with dhows from across the region, delivering jewels, exotic foods, and handicrafts from Persia, China, and India.

Presently, the docks were bustling with traders, kohl-eyed women in full burkas, Emirati men in spotless white dishdashas, sharply-dressed businessmen, and awestruck tourists, all amiably competing for space on the wooden benches.

Great Value

Priced at a single dirham, this trip is a true bargain in a city not known for such offerings. Urged forward by the waiting throng, I boarded the next arriving boat and settled onto the wide central bench. Soon, a local family joined me, the mother scolding her two young sons in Arabic for their mischief.

As the boatman called for passengers to pass their fare along the line, our vessel creaked into motion, leisurely making its way upstream towards the souks.

The journey was as much auditory as it was physical, with the gentle lapping of water, laughter from nearby boats, and the soft hum of the small engine accompanied by the evocative Muslim call to prayer resonating across the water.

Crossing at this hour was enchanting: as the sun dipped and the sky shifted to a deep orange, Bur Dubai’s traditional wind towers and minarets were silhouetted against the horizon. The enticing fragrance of exotic spices intensified as we neared the opposite bank.

Ahead, the meandering creek’s shores were lined with buildings gradually increasing in stature. Starting with the Grand Mosque‘s gentle domes, the consular district followed, leading to the distinct ridged towers of the Radisson Blu Hotel and the glittering inland skyscrapers, such as the pyramid-shaped Wafi Mall, the lively Downtown district with its abundant hotels, shops, and restaurants, and the world’s tallest structure, the Burj Khalifa.

As twilight fell and the sky darkened, hundreds of tiny lights adorning the Al Mansour Dhow—one of Dubai’s oldest vessels, now transformed into a celebrated floating restaurant—twinkled to life, illuminating the elegant ship as it embarked on its evening voyage.

Conversations aboard our modest abra quieted, as all eyes turned to the brightly lit dhow sailing past. The local woman beside me held her sons close as they watched in wonder.

While the passengers on the grand vessel embarked on a dinner cruise, we were the fortunate ones who could admire the spectacle from the water.

Soon, the last traces of vermillion vanished into the night sky, and a comforting warmth enveloped us like a shawl. Night had fallen upon Dubai Creek.

Our brief journey ended all too quickly, as the abra arrived at Deira Souks Abra Station. Passengers disembarked to explore the alluring lanes of the spice market or engage in spirited haggling at the gold souk’s shimmering stalls.

Although the water taxi ride had lasted merely a few minutes, it had transported us worlds away from the gleaming structures and luxury vehicles emblematic of the modern Emirate.

For that fleeting trip across the waters that once connected Dubai to the East, I felt as if I had traveled back in time.