For those who enjoy marathon shopping amid architectural feats, Las Vegas glitz without the gambling, and fine cuisine of every conceivable type, a jaunt to the United Arab Emirate of Dubai may be just the ticket. Heading to Africa or India from either U.S. coast is seemingly a never-ending journey, even with good connections. Unable to bear the idea of a 26-hour jaunt, on my return from the African continent recently, I stopped in Dubai for a long weekend. It was a perfect three-day layover. The United Arab Emirates federation, comprised of seven city-state emirates – including Dubai – was established in 1971. Abu Dhabi was then declared its capital and its ruling Sheikh Zayed became the UAE president. He died in 2004 and was succeeded by Sheikh Khalifa.
A tax-tree trading zone since the 1890s, Persians became their first immigrant group. When the Japanese became experts in cultured pearl development in the 1930s, the pearl industry in Dubai commenced its demise. Fortunately for the Emiratis in 1958, oil – and plenty of it – was discovered, forever altering its economy and its vast desert landscape. Oil and the economics that followed also turned Dubai into a multi-cultural society.
Statistically speaking, Emiratis are vastly outnumbered by foreign workers and resident expatriates. There are over 9 million people living in all of the UAE, but only 2 million are Emirati. In Dubai alone, there are about 2.7 million people, but only 17-percent, or 460,000, are Emirati, thus making for a very interesting social and cultural collage. On any given day and in any given place, you will see men in long, white, flowing kandura robes with white or checkered keffiya head coverings, some in Oxford Street suits, and others in designer blue jeans, polo shirts and baseball caps.
You’ll also see women in head-to-toe black abayas with only eye-slit cutouts, with some wearing abayas that have complete face covering black hoods, which would seem to, but somehow doesn’t, preclude walking. And nearby will be other Arab and foreign women in all manner of dress, from partial eastern garb to completely western couture. All of this is against the backdrop of an utterly remarkable architectural skyline, manmade islands like a phoenix rising from the Arabian Gulf, retail therapy second-to-none, and a Bedouin culture and desert landscape that can easily be explored.
Like Las Vegas, Dubai has magnificent hotels, with each attempting to outdo the next. The Atlantis, Dubai’s largest – on manmade Palm Island – has a dizzying 1,539 rooms, a massive indoor aquarium and waterpark, and 16 restaurant outlets, including Nobu. Preferring something more intimate, I checked into the remodeled, 302-room Shangri-La Hotel on Sheikh Zayed Rd. Its more central location, near many of Dubai’s important sites, was a huge plus. Walking out to its beautiful and enormous pool to swim off the long plane ride, I was immediately hit with a glorious head-on view of the stunning Burj Khalifa.
Designed by American architect Adrian Smith and currently the world’s tallest building at 2,600-feet and 160 stories, Burj Khalifa opened in 2010 after six years of construction. I could barely tear myself away from Shangri-La’s vantage of it, but I finally did and took the speedy, ear-popping elevator ride to Burj Khalifa’s 124th floor observation deck, viewing all of Dubai. As the height was already dizzying, I declined the additional $100 ticket ride to the 148th floor deck.
Shangri-La Dubai’s tastefully decorated rooms are spacious, possess incredibly comfortable beds and its international staff provides impeccable, attentive service. I particularly appreciated the large work desk well stocked with office supplies, and while on a somewhat lengthy call, took relaxing advantage of the adult-size coloring pencil set and do-it-yourself postcards. The Shangri-La also has an excellent and large well-equipped gym, hair salon, barber shop, signature Chi Spa and several restaurants offering excellent Western, Chinese and Vietnamese cuisine. Its uber-chic nightspot surrounding the pool – IKandy – is marvelous, granting a fantastic sampling of Dubai’s multi-cultural melting pot, along with carts full of multi-colored candies, which for me personally spelled bliss.
For traditional Emirati and Arabic food, Barjeel al Arab Restaurant– attached to BarJeel Guesthouse – near the Al Fahidi district, was a great choice. Overlooking the Dubai Creek, near the Abra water taxi station and Dubai Museum, dining al fresco during temperate mid-winter months is a pleasure. The hummus and rocket salads were outstanding, and the cardamom-laced vegetable soup and kibbeh – minced lamb fritters – were flavorful and filling. The meal ended with sublime pistachio-encrusted baklava. Fortunately, the Textile, Spice and Gold Markets – displaying the world’s heaviest 21-carat gold ring at Kanz Jewels – were nearby, permitting heroic attempts to walk off the feast.
Overlooking the Burj Khalifa, adjacent to Dubai Mall’s Waterfront Promenade, is Abd el Wahab, Restaurant. With the patio’s waterfront views, I gorged on traditional Lebanese mezze of hummus and baba ghanoush, served with fresh-from-the-oven pita and olives, and ate the finest grilled lamb and chicken that Dubai’s Dirhams can buy. Strolling through an infinitesimal fraction of Dubai Mall’s 1,200 shops, there’s no shortage of entertainment. I kept busy at the indoor Arab-style souk, extraordinary aquarium, ice-skating rink, more eateries and DubaiDino – the original skeleton of a 155 million-year-old long-necked, whipped tail sauropod – discovered in 2008 at Wyoming’s Dana Quarry and subsequently air-freighted to Dubai.
A grand way to explore the Gulf’s ostensibly endless desert is a desert safari. My guide Faraz collected me and five other travelers in a 2012 Land Cruiser mid-afternoon. Turning off the highway 45 minutes later in the desert at Al Nazwa, we plunged into flour-like sand. Following a magical Arabian sunset from high atop a dune, Faraz then reduced the SUV’s tire pressure to 15 PSI. Possessing driving skills that would make Mario Andretti swoon, Faraz speedily maneuvered the Land Cruiser up, around and over sand dunes for 30-minutes, delivering a wild, utterly thrilling, Disneyland E-ticket-like experience through the desert.
Later we arrived at Desert Gate, a Bedouin-inspired village where we got henna tattoos, rode camels, tried fruit-flavored hookahs, ate another great, traditional dinner of salads, grilled chicken and lamb, and enjoyed male tanoura dancing – Sufi whirling – with electric capes that lit up the black desert sky. In a somewhat unusual juxtaposition given the conservative nature of Emirati culture, the evening was topped off with talented Egyptian belly dancing.
Fortunately I traveled to Dubai mid-winter during fairly comfortable weather. Summers however – lasting from April to October – can be brutal, often averaging 115 degrees with 90-percent humidity. And then there are the ubiquitous sandstorms. Thus most city entertainment and attractions thankfully occur inside – in one of Dubai’s many magnificent malls. Which brought me to a real estate developers’ genius accomplishment: Ski Dubai, the world’s largest indoor snow park, conveniently housed in Dubai’s Mall of the Emirates.
With admission, I was provided a coat, socks and boots and entered the surreal, freezing cavernous space. With a chair lift and five ski runs, zip-line, rope climbing wall, bobsled run, snowball fights, King and Gentoo penguin encounters, tubing, tobogganing and surf balls to choose from, I opted for the latter. Climbing into the massive, 10-foot diameter, soft Tupperware-like sphere, I rolled and rolled, resembled a human VitaMix blender and giggled all the way down the hill.
The Lessons Learned
With the Dubai Expo coming in 2020, the skyline will continue to change, with even more and grander architectural feats in the pipeline. And there’s no sign that its expatriate population growth will slow. All of which make a few days in Dubai before you head onward, a great diversion. Certainly, you will be well entertained, well fed and well housed.