Dubai literally blew my mind. For the first time, I can honestly say I had culture shock in a new location. Sure, I had some preconceived ideas what I would find in the city with the tallest building in the world. What I did find exceeded those expectations.
I arrived in Dubai on Friday morning in a rented car for a holiday weekend with Louise, my host in the UAE. Sunday was Mawlin, the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad, Peace be upon him. I was to learn more about the significance of the holiday as the weekend continued.
As soon as we made it to the hotel, we dropped off our bags and shortly thereafter were headed back out on the local metro to the City Center (not to be confused with Downtown Dubai). The metro is mostly elevated above ground, similar to the skytrain in Bangkok, and I was able to see several of the landmarks of the city. These included the Burj Ar Arab – the 7-star hotel shaped like a shell, and the Burj Khalifa. My first sighting of the tallest building of the world made me giggle, and the first thought in my head was “That’s insane!” I literally had goosebumps and I had to position myself closer to the window to see just how high it went. It just kept going. On subsequent sightings of it, I was wont to have the feeling it was just a little unreal. Even looking at my photos, I keep thinking I’m looking at an artistic rendition.
From there, we caught another bus, which brought us out into the Al Awir Desert where we were transported to a safari camp by modified 4x4s. You can read all about the wonderful time I had riding camels, eating the food and watching the numerous dances here.
The safari was over by 8:15 and by 9 we were back in Dubai. Before returning to the hotel, we made a stop at the Dubai Mall. This mall is the fifth largest mall in the world in terms of square footage, but it’s first for the number of stores – over 1200 in total! The mall also has an aquarium, an ice-skating rink and a three-story waterfall. I couldn’t believe the range of stores, and not just American stores either. While there were all the usual, I also saw places like Rainforest Cafe (where I used to have company dinners in Los Angeles) and Louise went to her favorite Filipino fast food restaurant Jollibee.
Dubai Mall is also next to the Burj Khalifa. As I walked out of the mall, I was once again shocked at the magnitude of the building, especially as this time I was practically underneath it. At night, the becomes a full art show, with thousands if not millions of LEDs covering its surface and changing colors. Then, as happens every half an hour from 6 PM to 11 PM, the Dubai fountain water show started. For five minutes, the water gushed up to 150 meters in the air in beat with a middle-Eastern song.
After the show, it was time for bed. We were both exhausted, and we had to be up early the next morning. Our alarms were set for 6:30. We had the buffet breakfast at our Ibis Hotel, and were back on the metro by 7:30 headed to the City Center again, this time for a bus tour around the city.
The first stop of the tour was at the Dubai Museum, built into and beneath the Al Fahaidi Fort. I didn’t realize how extensive the displays were, as most was underground. We were almost missed the bus, but there was so much information to get at the museum and half an hour just wasn’t enough. We could easily have spent two hours reading all the panels and learning about the Emirati culture. After all, the UAE has only been a country for 45 years, and what happened before that is really interesting.
From there, we went to Jumeirah Mosque. It’s one of the nicest and oldest mosques in the area. There are 75-minute tours around the mosque everyday at 10 AM, but we arrived long after that. I had forgotten to wear pants that day, but the traditional white robes were available for me to don before I entered. It was a far cry from the Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi, but also nicer than many other mosques I’ve been in.
We only stayed for a few minutes, and then went to our next destination. This was Jumeirah Beach, next to the Burj Al Arab. That’s the opulent, luxurious and incredibly expensive 25-story building behind me on the right, commonly referred to as the “only seven-star hotel in the world.” This is actually an incorrect datum, never propagated by the hotel nor recognized by the industry. There were a lot of facts that I had incorrect about the building. I thought it cost closer to 15 billion to construct, rather than only 1 billion. I was also told years ago that it had traded hands in the biggest gambling loss in history. While that might have been true, I can’t find anything on the internet to prove it. However, rooms starting at $1800 a night and going up to $24,000 for the Royal Suite is definitely real.
A couple minutes down the road is the Madinat Jumeirah Souk. A souk is an Arabian marketplace or bazaar, and this one was quite fancy, with the Burj Al Arab in view from the patios. Stalls contain what you might expect to find in a bazaar – spices, colorful cloth and bronze figures of camels. There were also a bunch of restaurants and other stores, such as a Japanese sandals stall.
Next we went to The Atlantis Hotel on Palm Jumeirah Island. This fancy hotel doesn’t cost as much as the Al Arab (rooms start around $350 a night), but this one does sport its own aquarium, waterpark and dolphin bay. You have to pay extra for those, and I didn’t get to see them personally, so I can’t really comment on them. The island however is a real marvel. It an entirely artificial island in the shape of a palm tree, with dozens of hotels and residential buildings built on the “fronds.” While Palm Jumeirah Island is the first island of its kind, three more are currently under construction and slated to open by 2020 for the Dubai Expo.
Our final stop was the Dubai Marina Walk, along the Dubai Marina. There wasn’t anything particularly special about this location. It was beautiful, but so are many parts of Dubai. What was significant for us is we finally got our lunch, around 2 PM. The tour guide had mentioned the local restaurant chain was called Mandi, and we found one on the Walk which we decided to try out. We both got chicken on rice, but cooked with very different flavors. I liked both of them, even though I’m not the biggest fan of chicken. This was followed by a kanafah dessert. At the time I had no idea what that was, and have since learned it’s a sweet vermicelli (thin rice noodle) and cheese pastry soaked in syrup and garnished with ground pistachio.
After that, we went back to the hotel via the Mall of the Emirates. This one isn’t nearly as big as the Dubai Mall, but it is the only mall in the world with an indoor ski slope.
That night, Louise had one more surprise for me. We went out to Dubai Creek, where we boarded a dhow for an evening cruise and dinner. While I really enjoyed the food, I’d have to say the cruise in general was a disaster. The company putting it on had no sense of organization, and most of the guests had to change their seats more than once as others arrived. We were originally going to eat on the deck, but were told the dance would be below deck so went there to eat. The food was good, a mix of Arabian, Italian and Indian cuisines, although Louise didn’t like it. And there wasn’t any show. After the cruise, the same man who had said the show was downstairs informed us that there was no show or alcoholic beverages because of the holiday, since it was literally a Holy Day. While I’m not one to complain, most of the other guests were more vociferous about the poor quality and three walked out before the voyage even started.
Finally it was time to call it a day. Two days of non-stop adventures was starting to take its toll on me. Coupled with a little too much air conditioning in the hotel rooms, I was starting to develop a rather annoying cough.
Meeting the other Skye
On my final day in Dubai, something truly incredible happened. The story starts back in February 2015, just a couple weeks after I left the US and launched my new blog. I received a text from a disgruntled girl in Italy. She said I had taken her idea for a website name. Turns out her name was Skye too, and it was one of those things what just made us instant friends. Even though her blog never really got launched (it’s coming now at Skyesavannah.WordPress.com), I’ve helped her for the past two years with questions she’s had about getting set up. She had a setback a few months ago when her laptop was stolen and she lost all her video edits she was going to use for her vlog.
I missed her by a couple days in France once, and then just a few hours in London another time. Then this month she mentioned she would be in Dubai for her birthday, miraculously on the same day I would be there. It was a small window, but there was a chance we could connect.
At 2 PM on Sunday afternoon, we finally met at the Dubai Mall. I only had a couple hours before I had to start driving back to Abu Dhabi to return the car, but it was enough. We got some photos together beneath the Burj Khalifa, and then grabbed some delicious ice cream, ironically from a store originating from Beverly Hills. It isn’t the story here, but they create the ice cream on the spot with liquid nitrogen.
Hopefully I won’t have to wait another two years before I meet up with her, but she’s off to India to act in some movies while I head off to Thailand to meet up with my brother and then get a job teaching English in Taiwan!
And that was that. We said our goodbyes, and I ran to the car to drive back to Abu Dhabi. It was a whirlwind couple of days full of great adventures. I made a lot of observations about the UAE and Dubai. The city is definitely still under construction, and I look forward to going back for the 2020 Dubai Expo, when it’s supposedly going to be completed. We’ll see. Maybe I’ll get culture shock all over again.
Planning to visit the UAE?
Here’s some extra reading to save hundreds on your next vacation or stage of your journey.
- 5 Steps to Book Cheap Flights
- Hostels: To Book or Not to Book
- Is Workaway Worth it for the Traveler?
- Travel Advice: 10 Benefits to Traveling Solo Around the World