Dubai: skyscrapers in the sand
Dubai was our country #71, but only the second Muslim country that we visited. The first one was Morocco a year earlier. Everything in Morocco was exotic for us: Sahara desert, date palms, camels, people in traditional Moroccan clothing, local food.
The trip to Morocco was so impressive that we decided to travel to another Arab country – this time, the United Arab Emirates. By the way, after visiting Dubai and Abu Dhabi, we bought a trip to our third Arab country – Egypt.
We went to Dubai at the beginning of November hoping to get cooler temperatures. It was an independent trip: we bought a package which covered flights, transfers, and hotel.
From the fishing village
to the international metropolis
Looking at the skyscrapers of Dubai, it is difficult to believe that only half a century ago, it was a small, impoverished fishing village. The incredible transformation of this tiny emirate happened after the oil discovery in 1966.
Now, Dubai has a third busiest airport in the world. This emirate is also a hub for finance, trade, tourism, and real estate development. A curious fact: we think of Dubai as oil-rich, but actually, it has only a fraction of oil production in the United Arab Emirates.
Surprisingly, out of 2.8 million residents of Dubai, 90% are transplants from other countries. The reason for this is the need for labor in many areas, especially in construction, oil production, and tourism.
The metro in Dubai is different from the subways in the countries we visited so far. There is nothing “sub” about it. The rails are above the ground, more precise, above the busy highway. The driverless metro trains in Dubai carry as many people as all cars on the busy 12-lane artery – Sheikh Zayed Road.
To save money on transportation, we recommend you to buy a subway pass – Dubai Metro Nol Card. The Dubai metro is very efficient, clean, and fun to ride. Seeing the incredible high risers from the train windows was more enjoyable than looking at the black walls and boring subway stations in many other cities around the world. From the train window, we could see Ibn Battuta Mall, Dubai Media City, Dubai Internet City, Mall of the Emirates, even the world-famous Burj Khalifa.
The tourists have to be aware of the different sections in the metro cars. In the beginning, we were not sure what doors to use to board the train. We did not want to enter the Gold Class car or the section for women by mistake. By the second ride, we realized that we just had to pay attention to signs painted on the floor of the platform. While waiting for the train, all we had to do was choose the unmarked spots on the platform.
In a Muslim country, women can choose to sit separately from the men on the train. A few times I used this opportunity and sat in the women’s section which had more seats available, while my husband was standing just a few feet away, behind the line separating the men’s area from the women’s.
Hotel “Novotel Dubai Al Barsha”
We stayed at the hotel “Novotel Dubai Al Barsha.” It was on the main road (Sheikh Zayed Road) and just a 5-minute walk to the subway station.
Our hotel window was facing west, and in the evening we could see the sunset. Unfortunately, because of the dust in the air, the sky was hazy. Nonetheless, we could see the Atlantis Hotel in the distance.
As is our habit, we were usually first for breakfast. We like this quiet time early in the morning before the tourist groups show up in full force. The hotel restaurant served a nice variety of fresh vegetables and fruits. They also offered delicious Chinese and Indian dishes.
In the afternoon, the hotel had free coffee served in traditional Arabian coffee pots which looked like they were crafted for a sultan. That coffee was strong and aromatic. Next to the coffee pot and tiny cups was a carved wooden chest. Inside it, were individually wrapped dates. Every day, in the lobby, we observed the men dressed in traditional white clothes (called dishdasha) sitting on sofas, drinking coffee, and eating dates.
Beaches in Dubai
Our hotel had free shuttle buses to the Mall of the Emirates and the beach.
On the bus to the beach, the two of us were the only Americans. Unexpectedly, all other passengers were tourists from Russia. During the ride, we talked to those people. Only the first-time Russian visitors to Dubai joined the sightseeing tours. The repeat tourists spent a large part of the day on the beach, swimming in the warm waters of the Persian Gulf and sunbathing.
The beach had many attractions for active people. At the stage area, the dance instructor was teaching hip hop. At another location, people were learning how to ride a paddleboard. These and all other activities were free!
The water in the Gulf was warm, clear, and surprisingly calm, almost like in a swimming pool. It was great for floating on the back because the shallow Persian Gulf is very salty; it has 20% more salt than ocean water.
You could spend a whole day on that beach without getting bored. We were glad that we came to Dubai in November, not in summer, when water should be unpleasantly warm and the sand burning hot.
We observed the locals. More than once, we saw families with kids. Men and children sported T-shirts and shorts. Women, on the other hand, were covered from head to toes in black clothing. We could see only the slit for the eyes or occasionally a whole face. Even if the material of their black flowing abayas looked lightweight, we were sure that these poor women were boiling under the layers of black cloth.
Ibn Batuta mall
If your time in Dubai is limited, you can easily skip this mall. First of all, it is far from the city center. When we stepped off the metro train, we could see the desert close to the mall.
However, many tourist brochures recommend visiting this mall because of its unique interior. The six sections of Ibn Battuta Mall are dedicated to six countries: China, India, Persia, Morocco, Tunisia, Spain (Andalusia to be precise).
Ibn Battuta was a Muslim scholar from Morocco. He visited almost all countries of the Islam world during 30 years of traveling. Here is one of his famous quotes: “Traveling leaves you speechless, then turns you into a storyteller.”
Mall of the Emirates
Another tourist attraction in Dubai is the Mall of the Emirates. It was just a 10-minute walk from our hotel. We could take a free hotel shuttle bus, but we preferred to get there on foot. This mall has a unique attraction – “Ski Dubai.” Yes, you can ski in Dubai! Through the glass wall at the west end of the mall, we saw a lot of snow and kids throwing the snowballs at each other.
The first time we have heard about skiing in Dubai was from our daughter. During one of her business trips, she had the 8-hour layover in Dubai. Instead of waiting at the airport for her next flight, she took the metro to the Mall of the Emirates and had a great time skiing!
Dubai Creek and Al Fahidi Historical District
To get to the Al Fahidi Historical Neighborhood, the oldest part of Dubai, we took the metro to the Deira area, just across the Dubai Creek. If you choose the same itinerary, you will come to the boat station for a cheap thrill of crossing the creek on an abra, a flat bottom motorized boat.
This boat can accommodate almost 20 people. These small vessels run non-stop, carrying tourists and locals from Deira to Bur Dubai, for just 1 dirham per person. You will see lots of these slow-moving old boats filled with happy tourists.
The Dubai Museum is in Al Fahidi Fort, the oldest building in the city. For a mere three dirham (about one US dollar) per person, we could see historical scenes. These three-dimensional exhibits show how fishermen, merchants, hunters lived a long time ago.
After visiting this famous attraction, you can walk through the Al Fahidi Historic District, and take a look at several small museums. They even have the Coffee Museum!
The tallest building in the world
Dubai has a huge entertainment complex which includes Burj Khalifa (the tallest building in the world), Dubai Mall, and a lake with the Dubai Fountain. You can enter the elevators to the observation deck of Burj Khalifa only from the Mall. We went to the observation decks on the 124th and 125th floors in the morning. It was fun to be able to see far away and recognize Burj Al Arab, Atlantis Hotel, and some other famous buildings.
The most expensive time to visit Burj Khalifa is during the sunset. However, we could see the sunset from our room, and we were not impressed with the view because of the haze.
After visiting Burj Khalifa, while walking through the mall, we came upon a model of the next tallest building in the world. It will stand on the outskirts of the city. The model looked like something from outer space. We should visit Dubai a few years later when this building will be open to the public.
Dubai Mall, the largest mall in Dubai
We liked Burj Khalifa and lake promenade so much that we visited this area twice. Unfortunately, the construction work in Dubai goes non-stop. While we walked around the whole Burj Khalifa Lake (in the early afternoon and again in the evening), we could hear the loud sounds of construction going on. It looks like in Dubai they plan to cover every available square foot with yet another high-rise.
We loved watching the fountains in the lake. They reminded us of the fountains in front of Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas. The Dubai Fountain is the biggest in the world, so it makes sense that it is located next to the tallest building in the world and the biggest mall in Dubai.
The first time, we watched the fountains from the bridge. We were standing in the dense crowd of tourists and locals. Later, we made sure to walk as far as possible from the crowd, and we still got a great view. While the fountains were spraying water in very complicated patterns, the Burj Khalifa tower mesmerized everyone with an intricate spray of lights going up and down.
Despite visiting three large malls in Dubai, (where else can you go in such a hot climate?) we did not buy any stuff, not even souvenirs. Instead, after walking into the Indian supermarket located a block from our hotel, we purchased a large variety of teas and spices for a fraction of cost we would pay back home. The day before leaving, we stopped at that supermarket again and used our last few dirhams to buy a few more spices.
We have read a lot about Palm Jumeirah, a human-made island in the shape of the palm tree. To get to Palm Jumeirah, we had to take Palm Monorail which transports people from the mainland to the island.
On the monorail platform, we saw large crowds of tourists from all corners of the world. We even worried that we would not be able to get on the train, but, miraculously, everyone got in.
From the windows of the monorail, we noticed that the seawater surrounding the artificial islands built in the shape of palm fronds was somewhat murky. The streets of the island looked deserted. Maybe the residents of Palm Jumeirah were staying inside on that hot day?
Atlantis Hotel in Palm Jumeirah
What did not look deserted was the Atlantis Hotel. We visited another Atlantis Hotel in the Bahamas during one of our Caribbean cruises (read my blog on how I save a kid). We still remember how spacious the grounds of that Caribbean resort were. There, we walked on the beach, passed through the tunnel with glass walls through which we could see the marine life in the aquarium above us, we could swim in a lagoon and walk through hotel grounds watching people gliding on the lazy river.
On Palm Jumeirah, we were surprised to see how small the grounds of the hotel were. The only choice available to tourists was to go to the shops or to eat at one of the restaurants. We read that instead of paying a lot of money for a visit to the Lost Chambers (the aquarium), we could observe the fish from the viewing area in the hotel lobby.
The tour book recommendation needs an update: you can NOT go to the lobby area in Atlantis unless you have a reservation at the hotel. Like all other tourists, we were stopped by a security guard at the entrance to the lobby. The whole “walk” through the hotel took us less than 5 minutes. What to do next?
The only solution was to get from the overcrowded grounds filled with tourists, hundreds of cars and tourist buses and go to the waterfront promenade. We love walking, and we can walk for miles and miles without getting tired, but not on a hot day. We found a little spot of shade, ate our snack, and hurried back to the monorail station to get the heck out of Atlantis resort area.