TRAVEL GUIDE: Dubai, United Arab Emirates

The deserts of Arabia seem like an unlikely place for a city full of culture, light and music, with streets bustling with sightseers and high-rising buildings stretching up to the horizon. But this city is the refuge for travellers from all over the world among the sands of the Arabian Desert, and was my destination for three days in April 2016.

Flying over this inhospitable landscape, there is barely more than a few crumbling hovels and the occasional barely-surviving farm to distinguish the distance across the barren sandy plains. The only modern feature is a colossal road, paved with the finest tarmac and shining almost bright in the desert sun, and following the rising and falling dunes. The small pockets of civilisation begin to clump together as you approach the coast, becoming towns that are attached to this massive road like coral to rock. Then the towns merge together, and you are flying over a city of flat sandy-white buildings. Growing in height, the buildings now seem more modern as the plane begins to descend. Here and there are tall office buildings, which become apartment blocks, which suddenly transform into decadent skyscraper: hotels, bars, villas, resorts. From perhaps the most inhospitable landscape on earth to one of its finest cities.

This is Dubai

 

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FIRST IMPRESSIONS (AND WHY YOU SHOULDN'T TRUST TAXI DRIVERS...)

Dubai is a city of diversity, in the truest sense of the word. When one pictures Dubai, they picture the Burj Khalifa, the Dancing Fountains, and the stunning skyscrapers (more on those later). In fact, when we were informed that our flight was entering Dubai, I scrambled to the nearest window to catch a glimpse of the world’s tallest building. Sure enough, it was there. It dominated the landscape, at that distance looking like a needle pointing upwards into the sky. But on the ground, where I expected to find streets full of riches and the small movements of life that bustle around far below you, there was… the desert. Stretching to the horizon in three directions, in the fourth (where we were headed) there were only sandstone buildings in small clusters. Not exactly the extravagant wealth that I had pictured in my mind. In truth, the “famous” centre of Dubai is truly the very centre. Around it, from the sea to the desert, are the low buildings and wide streets of almost any Arabian city. Sat among them was the immense Dubai International Airport: a behemoth of a travel hub, and one which would prove nearly impossible to navigate.

But navigate it we did, and were immediately shepherded into a shining black taxi. I thought it strange to be given such special treatment, but we were jet-lagged and just eager to find our way to the hotel which, although only a short hop away, was too far for our tired limbs to contemplate. When we had seen the map for the airport, we saw that our hotel was on the first right on the road. When the taxi took a left, we were none-the-wiser. This was a new city, and our driver ensured us that this was the right way. Soon we followed the circuit of the road back to the junction, where our hotel now lay ahead. The taxi turned left.

 

So we went around the circuit again, and once again found ourselves at the junction. Our hotel, and our much-deserved rest on our journey from Auckland (which you can read about here) to the UK, was once again ahead of us. The taxi turned left.

It was at this point that my father informed the driver that if he took us around the block again, he’d get absolutely nothing and we would get out and walk. It’s amazing what jet-lag will do to two normally reasonable and polite Brits.

Surprisingly, the driver suddenly remembered the route and, swinging the taxi around, took us straight to our hotel. He made an extra effort to take our bags out for us (which weren’t light) and thanked us for our service with a smile.

We didn’t tip the driver.

As first impressions go, our first in Dubai was on the negative side. That has nothing to reflect on the city, or the people, or the general feel of what would turn out to be an incredible lay-over – Dubai is an astounding city. Sadly, we feel into one of the “tourist traps” which can be found anywhere, in one guise or another. Vigilance is key when travelling, especially if you’re in a new country and you have no idea of their customs. You can very easily offend, or be cheated of money, before you’ve left the airport. But if you just keep your head on straight on your eyes open, you’ll find that coming into a new country for the first time can be an overwhelming experience, and one which will often become one of the first things you remember about a holiday.

Five Tips For Not Getting Caught In Tourist Traps And Scams:

1) Before booking, look at several reputable firms – there’s no shame in using the same companies as everyone else, if the price is lower!

2) Does it look strange, unsafe or too good to be true? It probably is!

3) These companies make money from massive numbers of tourists all making the same mistake – don’t go with someone just because they’re popular, and don’t just follow the crowd!

4) Remember that some sites will let you tour without a tour guide, providing that it’s safe to do so. You’ll save money, and might have a better experience!

5) Never have food in busy areas, and eat where the locals eat! The food will be the same (or better), and possibly tens of pounds cheaper.

And, for the love of god, don’t get the private taxis in Dubai…

ACCOMMODATION (LIVING THE HIGH LIFE VS TRAVELLING ON A BUDGET)

Any experienced traveller will tell you that booking hotels in the centre of a city is equivalent to throwing your hard-earned cash down the nearest drain. They are often overpriced, overbooked and frankly no better than what you can find for much cheaper with a bit of research and know-how.

Our hotel, Crowne Plaza Dubai, was a metro-ride away from the centre of the city. We were lucky enough to stay there for free, with the points saved from other journeys, but with a number of restaurants, bars and a pool within the hotel itself, it would have been well worth the price paid. Perhaps to entice tourists, the hotel stayed true to a high Arabian theme, with a spice stall and styled seating areas. It was a far cry from anything I’d seen before, which is to say nothing for the service offered.

If you do travel to that part of the world, be prepared to have everything taken care of for you. Not wanting to make a fuss, I tried to carry my own suitcase into the hotel. I was informed that this was actually insulting to the workers, whose only income came from the tips given by travellers for the service. I relented, although slightly bewildered.

This was not the only time during our stay in Dubai that the difference in culture was extremely apparent. This was a city made for foreign tourists and the wealthiest in society, and it clearly showed. This far from the centre, there were still houses and apartment buildings for the locals, with only a handful of hotels and other amenities on offer (what I would normally call the “true” look of a country). However, the further we travelled into the centre, the more the houses gave way to high-rise hotels and offices sporting names of big companies, some familiar and some unknown. The hotels looked more and more modern, serving the more discerning tourists or the ones who had little interest in travelling outside of the centre.

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The striking change in architecture in the centre of Dubai

If that’s your taste, or money is no object, then the centre of Dubai is for you. If you’re travelling on a budget, then don’t be ashamed at looking at hotels near the airport. The links into the centre are fantastic, the hotels are just as excellent and you might just find yourself a little slice of “real” Arabia.

MODERN DUBAI (EXPLORING THE DUBAI MALL AND THE DANCING FOUNTAINS)

Ask most people about Dubai and they will mention a small number of extremely famous attractions – The Dubai Mall, The Dancing Fountains and the Burj Khalifa. Whilst you might assume that these sights might be some distance from the other (Dubai is a city, after all) like those sights in London or Barcelona, they are actually adjacent to each other, and it takes mere minutes to walk from the Mall to the Fountains to the Burj Khalifa. So, with this in mind, we set out to spend an evening seeing them all. We started with The Dubai Mall.

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The walkway to the Dubai Mall

With a walkway running for around a mile, getting into the Mall is a feat of engineering in and off itself. The walkway runs from the metro station, across major highways and between high-rise buildings before finally getting into the shopping area itself. At times like an airport, and others like a piece of art (like above, where stained glass windows bathe the are in multicoloured light), it was an impressive start. What followed was simply mind-boggling.

Hidden among the lines of shops, from the discount to the boutique, are massive installations which would not look out of place in museums or sports stadiums. Surrounded by restaurants, an full-sized ice skating rink dominates just one small corner of the Mall. In another, there towers a massive fossilised Dinosaur skeleton. Beside these, there is the old mall, where stunning old Arabian-style streets run under the Mall’s roof, where merchants sell ornate rugs and local products, and the air buzzes with the smell of spices and incense.

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The ice skating rink
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The Old Mall
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Dubai Mall
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Jurassic life comes to the Dubai Mall

We spent hours wandering around this massive feat of commercial architecture without buying a thing. Our only port of call was the Burj Khalifa’s visitor centre, where we collected our tickets for our journey to the top of the World’s highest building. With a few hours to kill (as our ascent took place near sunset and we were still suffering the afternoon heat), we decided that we should explore the next stop on our whistle-stop Dubai’s city centre: the Dancing Fountains. We had already decided to stop by the show later, and hopefully get a better view of it in the night, but what I never pictured was the sheer size of the fountains. As were emerged, blinking in the sunlight, we looked out across the great pool or crystal blue water towards to skyscrapers which marked towering heart of Dubai. Removed from them all, and dwarfing them with its size, was the modern marvel – the Burj Khalifa.

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Dubai City Centre
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Dubai City Centre
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Dubai City Centre
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The Burj Khalifa 
THE MODERN WONDER OF THE WORLD (INSIDE THE BURJ KHALIFA)

When our time to step inside the Burj Khalifa finally came, us and a group of around a dozen other people were shown to a small plain room at the back of the visitor’s centre, lined with comfortable seats, where we would wait for one group to leave so that we could begin our ascent. After a few minutes the previous group came through the double doors. Their wide-eyed gazes and excited smiles told a story: this was an experience that wouldn’t be forgotten in a long time. What I never imagined, even in that moment, is how awe-inspiring it would prove to be.

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The entrance-way to the Burj Khalifa

From the visitor centre, we entered a long passage which took us into the depths of the building. On the wall were the names of the tens of dozens of people who had a hand in the design and construction of the skyscraper, and impressive pieces of art. This really was the pinnacle of modern design, and they were eager to show it.

With our small look into the building’s history done, we were shown into an elevator which was twice the size of any I’d been in previously, and comfortably fitted around twenty people, with room to breathe. Our tour guide informed us that this was one of the fastest elevators in the world and dimmed the lights. As a 3D show started around us, showing us what floor we were on and welcoming us to the Burj Khalifa, the elevator soared upwards. The feeling was like that when you take off in an aircraft – your body is moving, but it takes your mind a second or two to catch up. We passed ten floors in second (just over a second per floor), and lifted up high above the city. Any view outside was saved for the observation desk, but even in that enclosed space the height was obvious. This was the tallest building in the world, and we were travelling up right through the middle of it.

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Inside the elevator of the Burj Khalifa

Our ascension complete in a matter of minutes, we stepped out onto the observation deck. A full service of drinks and snacks were provide, but no one paid it any mind. We moved en-mass to the windows as the sun was setting. Bathed in dozens of shades of orange light, the sky came alive around us. By the time we pulled ourselves away, the sun had long since set below the curvature of the Earth on the horizon, and the city of Dubai had lit up in the night before us.

What I saw can only described in many words, and wouldn’t do justice, but if I had to choose one:

Extraordinary…

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People who read my blog know that I never usually advocate visiting the tourist sights when you can visit the “true” country, but sometimes there’s a good reason to step in the footsteps of millions of tourists before you. Quite simply, there are some things that need to be seen to be believed, and the memories you take away from them are worth more than any price you would pay. The Burj Khalifa is the best example of this that I have ever found, and I urge anyone who travels to Dubai to seek out a tour of this astonishing building.

We finished with a show at the Dancing Fountains, set to the sound of Jacky Cheun’s ballad “Wen Bie [Goodbye Kiss]“. After a beautiful show, we slowly made our way back to the hotel and, mere hours later, took our flight back to the UK.

FINAL THOUGHTS

My time in Dubai was short, and I considered for a long time whether I had enough experience to do a comprehensive travel guide. But whilst my time there might have been short, and over a year ago, I believe that seeing the main sights and experiencing this city first-hand gave me enough experience to at least offer some advice about places to see and go.

If you travel with Emirates, then you will have to stop in Dubai, which is the airline’s home. So, if you’re travelling into Australia, New Zealand, or beyond, and the chance comes to stay in this fantastic city, take a day to stop over and explore this meeting place of different cultures, lives and ways of living.

It is a diverse and truly beautiful place, and one which needs to be seen first-hand to be believed.

Until next time,

~ Ross M. F. Firth

FURTHER READING

If you want to learn more about me, click here.

You can read my previous blog post (TRAVEL DIARIES: Catalonia, Spain (#3)) here.

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