Dubai: Ultra-modern city makes a great getaway
It’s surprising, dynamic, delightful, and, according to the World Tourism Organization “the fastest-growing tourist destination on earth.”
My husband and I spent last Thanksgiving in Dubai, a tiny Persian Gulf emirate and a perfect place for a sunny break from the cold and dreary European winters.
Many of our friends and relatives thought we were crazy to vacation in the Middle East, but we proved them wrong. We enjoyed a clean, safe and ultra-modern city; beautiful, warm weather; a day at the beach; a thrilling desert safari; delicious meals and luxurious accommodations.
“I love it here. I find it very European. The weather is great. There’s a great mix of people,” said Claire Malcolm, a British citizen who lives in Dubai, “a young, party city.”
“You can drink here. You can wear a bikini on the beach,” she pointed out. And, “I feel a lot safer here than I would at home.”
Dubai, one of seven emirates in the United Arab Emirates, sits on the Persian Gulf in the northwestern region of the UAE. It borders Qatar to the north, Oman to the south and Saudi Arabia to the west. With a population of a million, Dubai is the capital of the emirate of the same name and the second largest (after Abu Dhabi, capital of the UAE) of the seven emirates.
These days as you drive around this post-modern metropolis of eight-lane highways, numerous construction sites, heavy traffic and fast, sleek automobiles, it’s hard to imagine that until the early 1960s the only means of transport in Dubai was donkey or camel.
Look up at the skyline of innovative and dynamic architecture and try to imagine that not long ago this was all desert inhabited primarily by Bedouins living in tents.
The airport was our initial surprise — a huge complex of glass and marble, all sparkling and shining, with most people wearing western, not Arab, dress.
A Sudanese taxi driver, who has lived in Dubai for 26 years, took us to our hotel where we had dinner served by an Indian waiter and a British waitress. Only 17 percent of Dubai residents are UAE nationals, we learned, and the common language of the 120 nationalities that live and work in the emirate is English.
Today, among all the impressive buildings, are 285 hotels, including 28 with the five-star rating. We stayed in the swanky Fairmont that had just opened the previous February. At a convention of the Society of American Travel Writers in the States, I had placed a bid at a silent auction for four nights at the Dubai Fairmont for $100 — and won.
The hotel is outside the center of town, and even though taxis are reasonable, we took a bus for our first excursion downtown to visit the souks. We noticed that all bus passengers were male, some wearing the national dress (long, white tunics), although a section in the front of the bus was “reserved for ladies.”
We got off at the bus terminal and went to the port where we lined up for a boat ride across the Dubai Creek. The bus ride cost just one dirham, about 27 cents, and the boat ride, 50 fils, or about 13 cents.
The creek, a 12-kilometer-long inlet from the Gulf, divides the city into two parts, Bur Dubai and Deira. Unfortunately, we arrived at the gold souks at noon when shops were closing and many people were heeding the call to prayer and heading to a mosque. Shops would not reopen until evening.
If we couldn’t shop, we’d swim. We returned to the hotel where we picked up vouchers for entrance to a private beach, the Metropolitan Hotel and Beach Club.
The beach was lovely — clean, not crowded, with a pleasant water temperature. We heard lots of British English spoken by those sunning in their beach chairs near us. We took a walk and passed big groups of SUVs parked in the sand. Many of the owners and passengers were in the water riding jet skis.
In the distance we could see Dubai’s famous landmark, the Burj al-Arab or Arabian Tower at the Jumeira Beach Hotel. The 60-story, sail-shaped structure, which was completed in 1999, was built on an artificially constructed island. It even has an underwater restaurant.
That night we went back to the gold souk with its 700 shops, which were doing a brisk business. Most of the gold for sale is 24 carat, vibrant yellow-orange shimmering in amazing window displays, top to bottom with rows of bangles, necklaces, rings, brooches, bracelets. Some of the necklaces were so enormous they covered the entire chest. A guide later told us that 10 percent of the world’s gold production is bought in Dubai.
It was time for dinner. We walked along Banyas Road, the busy thoroughfare bordering the Creek, to the Riviera restaurant where a waiter cooked a fried rice mixture, a Japanese specialty, on a grill adjacent to our table. His show was fun and the dinner (main course, soup, salad and dessert) cost about $12.25 each.
This restaurant served no alcohol, although restaurants that belong to international hotels are free to serve alcoholic beverages.
We continued our walk along the Creek, past rows of tied-up dhows, wooden boats that haul produce and other goods to Iran, East Africa and India. At restaurants along the water, men smoked water pipes and sipped tea.
There were also groups of men, resplendent in white headdresses and floor-length white tunics, gathered on the decks of anchored yachts, their SUVs parked on shore. As he looked at the traffic, both in the street and on the sidewalks, my husband remarked, “90 to 95 percent of the people on the streets here are men, and 75 percent of the vehicles are Japanese.”
While women are not suppressed in Dubai (they can work and drive cars) they seem to remain at home. Occasionally you’ll see a surprising sight like a veiled young woman clad head to toe in a black abaya trying on running shoes at a sports shop.
We signed up for a “Big Bus” tour of Dubai on our second day in the city. The British tour company, which runs these hop-on, hop-off buses, has recently come to Dubai. Since we got on and off several times, we encountered different guides, but all were well informed and shared some interesting facts about Dubai.
Sheik Rashid Bin Saeed Al-Maktoum, who died in 1990, is considered the father of Dubai, one guide told us. “He put oil revenues back into Dubai,” the guide said. His picture is a frequent sight in the emirate. The sheik also continued to follow an open trade policy, which fostered Dubai’s development as the renowned world trade center it is today.
It was fun to ride the bus past amazing buildings, high-rise towers of reflective glass in shades of blue, green, gray, pink and copper. The colors of the buildings and the mirror images they reflect change with the sun. Dubai also has some 500 mosques, as 45 percent of the population is Moslem. Other religions are tolerated, however — the guide pointed out St. Mary’s, a large Catholic church.
Dubai, often called the Hong Kong of the Middle East, is a shopper’s paradise with some 29 shopping malls. We visited the Wafi center, one of the biggies, which was almost like being in America, complete with Christmas decorations (Santas and trees) even though it was the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. This is a high-end mall with many designer boutiques: Cerutti, Jaeger, Escada, Chanel, Guy Laroche, etc. There is also a gourmet shop to die for, Goodes, on the second floor, with food displays that belong on magazine covers. Starbucks is there, too.
We had dinner that night at the Sphinx, a trendy place just adjacent to the shopping center. One of the bus guides had recommended its 99 dirham (about $27) special, a three-course gourmet meal with a half-bottle of wine. It was wonderful, and so was eavesdropping on the conversations at the surrounding tables, occupied mostly by expatriate Brits.
On day three, after a visit to the city’s bounteous food and fish market and a walk through the spice souk, we went back to the hotel to lounge around the lavish outdoor pool on the ninth floor. There are actually two pools, sunrise and sunset. You choose the pool where the sun happens to be when you want to swim.
Late that afternoon we departed for our desert adventure. We rode into the desert in a Toyota Landcruiser with guide and driver Josef, who was determined to show us some thrills. He kept switching stations on his radio, from loud, screeching Middle Eastern sounds to contemporary American music. It was as if he needed the music for inspiration for his daring moves.
Straight up a dune at full speed, then a quick downhill turn, with the vehicle tilting heavily to one side. I thought for sure we would turn over.
“Is it OK to go fast?” he asked. More than once we got stuck, but he had the skills and knew the tricks to free us. We were bounced, jilted and bumped, but it was fun.
We were with a group of other SUVs, and all the vehicles stopped at the bottom of a hill. We climbed to the top to watch the sunset, an almost mystical experience in this landscape of vast desert where the sand meets an ever-changing, multi-hued sky. Before the sun set and the air quickly cooled, some daredevils in the group tried snowboarding on sand. Most crashed and burned near the bottom of their ride.
We then drove to a camp for camel riding, dune buggy driving, photos in Arab dress holding a falcon, and a delicious barbecue dinner of Arab specialties.
Husband Bob said the camel riding (a guide leads you around on the animal) reminded him of parents taking their kids to a carnival where they could sit on a donkey and be led around. Dune buggy driving was the main attraction with most who tried it begging for a longer ride than the 10 minutes allotted.
Dinner, tasty grilled meats, salads and vegetables, was the best part. Afterward, we sat around a campfire in the dark and marveled at the magnificent star-filled sky. Belly-dancing is a usual feature of the desert safari after-dinner entertainment, but as it was Ramadan, dancing was prohibited.
On the way home, Josef, a Bedouin and the first and only UAE citizen we met, told us that he lived in a Bedouin village, but in a house, not a tent.
“We used to live in tents,” he said. “Now we just have a tent in front of the house to receive guests.”
Back in the 19th century, Dubai was a small and insignificant pearling and fishing hamlet. It already had trading links with the British, however, and by 1892 the British extended their power through a series of agreements with the sheiks.
Things began to happen in the early 20th century, when the Al-Maktoum dynasty (they still rule Dubai) convinced a British steamship line to switch its main port of call in the lower Gulf to Dubai.
The small town of just 10,000 became a trading center where Arabs, Persians and Baluchis (people from parts of what are now Pakistan and Afghanistan) lived. Tax exemptions were granted to foreign traders. And it’s trade, not oil, that remains the foundation of Dubai’s wealth.
Rulers of sheikdoms founded the Trucial States Council in 1951, which became the forerunner of the UAE Supreme Council. Dubai became one of the seven members of the UAE in 1971. While trade reigned supreme, the discovery of oil near Dubai in 1966 made an impact and led to a massive program of industrialization in the mid-’70s.
“No one used to come to Dubai. It was just desert,” one of our bus guides had told us. “See that new apartment complex? A few years ago it was just sand.”
Currently under way is creation of the world’s largest artificial islands and tallest buildings. Some 350 million cubic feet of rock, sand and earth are being placed in the Persian Gulf in the shape of two palm trees. The project will create 75 miles of new coastline where 5,000 homes and 30 hotels will be located.
As Malcolm, the British resident said, “Turn your back one minute, and there’s a new building.”
— Leah Larkin, a member of the Society of American Travel Writers, is a journalist living near Stuttgart, Germany.
If you go
Getting there: We flew Lufthansa from Stuttgart to Frankfurt, Germany, then on to Dubai for 460 euros per person round trip. The flight from Frankfurt was 5½ hours.
When to go: Summers (mid-June until mid-September) can be very hot in Dubai, up to 122 degrees Fahrenheit. However, everything is air conditioned, and residents say the humidity is only bad for about six weeks. We found November weather delightful with temperatures in the low 80s.
Accommodation: Hotel rates vary greatly depending on season and room category. Fairmont room rates start at about $240 per night. The three-star Ascot Hotel in the city offers a room for three persons in November for $66.17 per night, and the Oasis Beach Hotel outside the city at Jumeira Beach offers a double room with breakfast in November for $95.03 per night. Reasonable package trips including both airfare and lodging are available through travel agencies.
What to do: Swimming, golf, sailing, scuba diving, windsurfing and horseback riding are popular outdoor sports in Dubai. Jan. 15-Feb. 15 is the date of an event called the Dubai Shopping Festival, in which several outlets offer super deals and around-the-clock shopping. The festival also includes performances and shows by an international mix of musicians, artists, street performers and fashion designers. The event has grown steadily since its origins in 1996.
More information: On the Internet at: www.dubaitourism.co.ae.
— Leah Larkin