The first time I went to Dubai, all I could think about was Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz saying, “Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore”. I consider myself cosmopolitan but for some reason, at first, I felt a little uneasy. After meeting some very friendly locals, I felt more at ease.
This is one unique city that is a great mixture of the past, present and the future. I told my husband Ron as we were driving to our hotel, “they really think outside the box here”. Without a doubt, Dubai is one of the most interesting and fastest growing cities on earth…it’s a ‘must see’ destination!
Dubai is truly fascinating and I will attempt to tell you why. Over a very short period of time this desert city has transformed itself from a humble pearl-diving village into an international hub for tourism and trade, and is now a gateway between the East and the West. The official language is Arabic, although English is the most commonly used language in all areas of tourism and commerce – which helps greatly. The population is over 2 million people and is made up of more than 200 nationalities. Many “expatriates” are attracted by the tax-free working conditions and the relatively crime-free lifestyle.
Dubai has a tropical desert climate, with summer temperatures reaching well into the 100’s day and night. We’ve been several times and experienced several seasons. I would highly recommend not traveling to Dubai in the summer months. I’ve never experienced such heat in my life. It was like walking around in a hot oven. Winter months are much milder, comfortable and enjoyable.
The list is endless for Dubai ‘Must Do’s’ and planning out your time is essential. Rest up, eat a good meal and get on their time zone. Here are just a few suggestions of famous attractions that my family enjoyed!
1. Tour Dubai Creek in an “Abra” and take in the outstanding views of futuristic and traditional architecture standing side by side on the banks of the Creek (which looks like a river to me). Abras are small barges which used to be rowing boats but are now powered by diesel engines and can seat about 20 people. Bustling Abra stations will provide you with a quick and efficient way to cross the Creek. This is an excellent and inexpensive way of exploring the city.
2. Shop ‘til you drop and stroll through the endless maze of Souks and Malls. The Spice and Gold Souks are not to be missed. And amazingly, there’s over 50 shopping malls in full operation and many more under construction. You will be impressed, so take an extra suitcase. Dubai is becoming one of the most popular shopping destinations in the world, and all the malls are unique and gorgeous. Ron has even gone “snow skiing” inside the Mall of the Emirates at their ski resort. It features a 200-foot “mountain”, five slopes of varying difficulty – including the world’s first indoor black run – and a handful of sled and toboggan runs. Imagine snow skiing in the Middle East.
3. Dine at sunset in one of the many excellent restaurants on the waterways in the shadow of the magnificent ‘7-star’ Burj Al Arab hotel. On my next trip I will be having High Tea there. It gets rave reviews and the views of Dubai are spectacular. As a hotel guest, you can be picked up at the airport in a Rolls Royce or perhaps, or if your budget allows, a helicopter. It is the self-proclaimed most-luxurious hotel in the world. The Burj Al Arab is also one the world’s tallest hotels and is designed to look like a sailboat. When guests arrive, they are presented a gold-plated, 24-carat iPad worth $9,000. While quite ‘opulent’, the iPads are specially engraved with the name of the hotel and contain software that acts as a “virtual concierge,” offering information on the hotel’s many services which include private dining experiences and a butler. But don’t forget to return your gold plated iPad when checking out!
4. Walk around Dubai and see people smoking ‘Shisha.’ Another local name for it is ‘Hubbly Bubbly’ and it has a sweet, fruity smell. Shisha is a water pipe used to smoke tobacco through cooled water. The tobacco is heated by charcoal at the top and inhaled through a water chamber at the bottom. Shisha pipes date back over 500 years in the Middle East. Contrary to popular belief, Shisha is smoked for the flavor and social enjoyment, and does not have any kind of effect. Shisha is very popular with locals and tourist and is becoming increasingly popular in the West. It’s better known here as ‘Hookah’.
5. Get out your camera because no trip to Dubai would be complete without a visit to “Burj Khalifa’, the tallest building in the world. There is an observation deck on the 124th floor called ´At The Top´ and on a clear day the views over the city are spectacular. While you´re in the area, visit the Dubai Fountain and see the spectacular water and music show. There are many wonderful coffee shops and restaurants nearby. We enjoyed dinner at Sammach, a Lebanese seafood restaurant that had a fantastic view of the ‘dancing fountains.’. Some fun facts are: It’s the world’s largest dancing fountain; it’s in sync with classical, Arabic and world music; 1.5 million lumens of projected light; it sprays heights of up to 500 feet; there’s 22,000 gallons of airborne water all set in Burj Khalifa Lake, right outside The Dubai Mall on the lower ground waterfront promenade. It’s all in the heart of downtown Dubai.
6. The Heritage Village is well worth the visit. It is a small museum displaying ancient artifacts dating as far back as 550BC and remains dating from the 6th century. This historical village is very educational and sells traditional crafts, pottery, woven goods and Bedouin jewelry. Pearl diving started hundreds of years ago in this area and in the Diving Village section it displays historical features on what was once the major industry of Dubai and the oldest profession in the region. It proof of how far Dubai has come.
7. Everyone has heard of Dubai’s ‘Artificial Islands’ but we had to see it to actually believe it. In the Persian Gulf there are three man-made islands – The Palm Jumeirah, Palm Jebel Ali and the Palm Deira – which are in the shape of palm fronds and consist of luxury hotels and residences, as well as restaurants, shopping malls, water parks and sports facilities. Other major artificial developments include The World, a group of islands roughly shaped like a map of the world. Still under construction is The Universe, which aims to take the shape of the Milky Way and Solar System. Seeing this is really…out of this world. I’ve never seen anything like it. Our favorite spot is the stunning Atlantis Palm Hotel. It’s a 1,539-room hotel that features guest rooms with floor to ceiling glass views of their fabulous Lost Chambers Aquarium. Imagine a view from your bed of an enormous aquarium where you can watch sea creatures, of all sizes, swim around until you fall asleep.
8. Think about a day trip – We really enjoyed these and would highly recommend them. The first one was to Abu Dhabi, the capital city of the United Arab Emirates. We toured The Emirates Palace that is known as the world’s most expensive hotel. It was built and is owned by the Abu Dhabi government. The 3 billion hotel is colossal and is the epitome of opulence. The seven star hotel truly shows the beauty of Arabian culture. We were in awe. Traditional decor is used inside mostly in silver, gold, marble and glass mosaics. Another highlight was the largest mosque in the UAE and the eighth largest mosque in the world.The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque is located in the center of Abu Dhabi. It can hold 40,000 people. The building complex alone measures 30 acres. The second day trip was a Desert Safari Tour. I don’t know when we’ve laughed so much. We really enjoy an exhilarating drive over huge red and gold sand dunes, camel rides and a Bedouin Camp for an evening feast under the stars while being
entertained by belly dancers. Our daughter Kelsie got “temporary” henna that is very popular in the UAE, and we all got to try on their national dress. Also, we made some very nice friends from Saudi Arabia. It was such a unique and fun experience!
Many people come to Dubai holding misconceptions about the local culture, so in order to put everyone’s mind at ease, here’s a few Do’s and Don’ts to consider. Public decency laws are not new and in Dubai you would be well advised to take these laws seriously. Men and women both need to dress conservatively and always have your knees covered. Women usually have their entire legs covered. Indecently exposed parts of the body, wearing offensive T-shirt slogans or men walking around without a shirt, even on the beach, are all unacceptable. Nudity is strictly forbidden and is punishable by imprisonment. If someone takes offense to your behavior, including offensive hand signals or swearing in public, you could be arrested – ignorance is not a defense. Drugs are really bad news – don´t even think about it. If you are caught in possession of any controlled substance you could be sent to prison for up to seven years and then deported. Anyone that is caught importing drugs into Dubai is potentially looking at a life sentence. Also, as in most countries, it is a criminal offense to be drunk in a public place. Dubai also has a zero tolerance policy when it comes to drinking and driving, and if you are caught with the slightest amount of alcohol in your blood you will go to prison. Take a taxi, they are cheap and plentiful!
Ramadan is the holy month. Muslims strictly observe the traditions of Ramadan and it is a time of fasting between sunrise and sunset. The fast is broken at sunset with the Iftar feast and celebrations. During Ramadan there is no alcohol served and no live music, dancing or other entertainment until after sundown. Most hotel restaurants will still serve food to internationals, but you will be discreetly screened off from view of the general public. Please remember to respect local traditions. Do not eat, drink, chew gum, smoke or swear. If you are intending to drive during Ramadan take extra care as sunset approaches. At this time many people will be driving home having not eaten or drunk anything all day and are ready to break their fast. Traffic at this time can get rather crazy. I would be aware of this holiday when planning your trip and would recommend going at another time. We have been to Dubai twice during Ramadan and it was very challenging. It’s the only time I ever remember having to hide to eat. One can become very creative!
This Arabian oasis is clearly an exotic place with enormous wealth. It has such a unique vision of ancient tradition combined with modern design. The United Arab Emirates is a safe, politically stable country, which has a good education system, up-to-date healthcare facilities and modern infrastructure. The sun shines almost every day, there are numerous world-class attractions, famous hotels, impressive restaurants, amazing shopping and great sports facilities, plus remember… everything is tax-free. I can certainly say Dubai is a great destination and is well worth a visit!
Terri Guthrie, who travels around the world with her husband, will write about Paris during the holiday season.