Sitting at TGI Fridays, sipping a Signature Mojito over my Sizzling Toffee Cake, looking over the gargantuan water fountains encircled by dark skyscrapers against the backdrop of a luminescent setting sun, it was hard to believe that I was in the Middle East. I felt like I was back in New York, at a rooftop café at sunset. But then the fountains started moving, spewing water hundreds of feet into the air to the rhythmic beat of the takht and tabla, and I remembered that I was sipping a virgin Mojito. The Burj Khalifa lit up, with opulent dispays of flowers and geometric designs projected onto its 2722 feet tall body, standing tall against the ever-growing multitude of skyscrapers in this architectural champion of a city.
Dubai was a first for us in many ways. It was our first trip to the Middle East, it was our first time we were traveling together with our parents, and it was the first time our parents were meeting each other (eek!) Since Christian’s family lived in Germany and mine lived in Sri Lanka, Dubai in the United Arab Emirates was a great midpoint to meet. Sri Lankans always rave about the Dubai shopping so it’d always been a top spot to visit on my mom’s travel itinerary and Christian’s family wasn’t opposed to exploring this much-talked about, eclectic Middle-Eastern tourist destination.
Dubai is a popular stop-over on international flights, especially for those holding passports which allow them to explore the city without a visa. While I did still require a visa for the UAE, I managed to make it a stop-over on our way back to the US after a Christmas spent in Sri Lanka. Budget airlines such as FlyDubai offer cheaper flights to the country. Emirates offers excellent roundtrip fares to the city, as well as flights to onward destinations if you’re planning to traveling to Europe or South/East Asia thereafter.
Dubai is in a word, opulence. You sometimes forget that you are in the middle of a desert (I once even googled it just to be sure!) because of the abundance of water, construction, and lack of desert anywhere really in the heart of the city. Hotels outside of downtown tend to be cheaper, and you can make use of their excellent metro system to get around the city.
We do not recommend renting a car in Dubai. Given the traffic, the subway is a much faster way of getting around. It doesn’t get as crowded as the New York subways, so overall, it is a comfortable ride.
Explore the architecture of downtown
No kidding, this can be an activity in and of itself. Take an hour or two to walk or even take a taxi around downtown to marvel at the intricate, well-thought out, eclectic design of the buildings. These aren’t just skyscrapers – they are skyscrapers with a difference; striking gold symbols making up an entire face of a building, hundreds of feet tall, triangular and oval shaped structures glistening in the sun, some with gaping holes in the middle of them. We noticed that many of the buildings were constructed in pairs, and there seemed to be a dynamic strategy to each building, as well as a laissez-faire attitude to how opulent and out-of-the-box the design would be.
We took a three-day hop on hop off bus tour of Dubai that proved to be two days too much (for us!) While we strongly encourage taking one of these bus tours (rates and brochures for which should be available at your hotel, or else an internet search will do just as well!) but go for a one day pass. Dedicate that full day to the bus tour, as Dubai is enormous and rich in architectural gems, mosques, cultural history, and the Palm itself takes about an hour and a half at the least to get to from downtown Dubai (but more about the Palm later!)
Weather is of course an important aspect of taking the bus tour, as it can be very comfortable sitting on the roof of the bus, taking in the magnificent structures as you move around downtown listening to the cultural and infrastructural history of the city. We were astounded to find out the number of American expats in the city, and indeed the number of American architects responsible for the buildings themselves. Did you know that Georgio Armani owns the hotel in the Burj Khalifa? It’s funny to see the tributes to the designer as you take the tour down from the Burj Khalifa – just one of the things that really sets Dubai apart from everywhere else we’ve been to so far.
You don’t need us to tell you that Dubai can get swelteringly hot. We visited in January, when the weather was sunny but mild, even breezy and cool during the evening. Take a sweater during the day as well a) because it gets breezy and b) ladies need to cover up most of the time (and more about that soon!) If you’re traveling from North America or Europe, the winter holidays are a perfect time to visit Dubai. Stay away during the months of June through September. Just don’t even try.
Activities: Do a desert safari
Is it a touristy activity? Yes. Should you do it? Definitely.
We signed up for a tour to go sand-dune bashing and ended up enjoying running around in the desert much more than being in the car as it rolled up and down sand-dunes “bashing” them. But maybe that’s just me – Christian seemed to look fondly back on the experience. While it’s fun rolling up and down the hills, if you want to stay away from overly-touristy attractions, this may not appeal to you. But still, do go on the trip to the desert, as there was nothing like getting out of the car and enjoying the sand between your toes while watching the sun set over the sand dunes. We’d never seen so much sand before! It was really a sight like no other.
These tours usually include a stop where you can rent an ATV at a ridiculous price for 15-30 minutes and ride up and down within an enclosed space in the desert. While we love driving an ATV, the lines of tourists huddled together waiting to ride an ATV in one place put us off it, and we spent more time walking around the desert itself. But if you’ve always wanted to drive an ATV on a desert, go for it! (Especially if you’re traveling with a group of friends, this may be fun, if you rent them all at once).
Be warned that sand dune bashing is heavy on the vehicles, and flat tires and mechanical failures are not uncommon. However, the drivers and tour operators seem used to this, and are relatively quick to get replacement vehicles to get you to your destination (the safari camp for dinner). Vehicle failures can also give you more time to explore the desert (without going off too far!) but of course, waiting for two hours for a replacement vehicle is not fun (this happened to our second group during the trip).
Like most activities, the experience of this trip is also dependent on your driver. If he is a competent, well-experienced, friendly driver, you’ll have a great time like we did. Other tends to be rookies (which is tough when sand-dune bashing because you really need to be a veteran to control those turns!) or pretty surly, and if this is the case for you… try to enjoy the views instead.
These tours usually end with dinner served at a base camp in the desert. There’s usually optional camel rides included. Yup, we just had to try it, because neither of us had ridden a camel before. Three camels are straddling together as you can see above so it’s a queasy feeling as they all stand up once you’ve gotten on, but it was a memorable five minute ride (again, the appeal of this ride is extremely subjective).
The food at the camp was incredible. They offer the usual – hummus with pita, a selection of meal curries, rice, salad, etc. I kept going back for the Falafel and hummus… I can’t get enough of Arab cuisine!
Unless you’ve opted for a stay at one of the more exclusive safari hotels outside of the city, the base camp is the only time you would be able to enjoy sitting in the middle of the desert, sipping tea over delicious Arab cuisine. Outdoor seating (cushions and mats on the floor, very authentic) gets quite crowded, but there are more private semi-rooms available as well.
You spend around two hours eating and enjoying male and female Arabic dancers that provide beautiful dinner-time entertainment. There’s enough space to spread out while you eat, and it’s a memorable experience, especially when traveling in a group.
There are couples tours to the desert, where they can provide more private desert dinners and entertainment for a higher price. This is something to consider if you’d like to splurge on a private tour, but we found our tour to be extremely satisfactory.
Do: Visit November – April. Avoid the summer months!
Do: A desert safari with dinner included. Take care that jeeps may suffer breakdowns. Enjoy the desert views. Try a camel-ride.
Do: Try a hop on hop off bus tour for a day. Take in the architectural intricacies of downtown Dubai.
Don’t: Rent a car. Take the metro instead.
Do: Read on to Adventures in Dubai!
This is Part One in our three part series on Dubai. Read all about our adventures further in the city, from the Burj Al Arab, to the Souk Madinat Jumeirah, to the Dubai Shopping Festival, to cultural clashes and more in Adventures in Dubai
Did you have similar/different experiences in Dubai? Planning a visit? We’d love to hear from you! Comment below with your experiences!
As always, be a conscious traveler: Take nothing, and leave nothing behind. Be conscious, be welcome! Read more about conscious travel here.