Having been in the oil & gas industry in Houston, I’ve heard a lot about Dubai. Every week someone I know is jetting off to the UAE always returning with mixed reviews. It’s a giant sandbox. It’s so fascinating. I can’t wait to return. I’ll never go back. As a traveler I want to go everywhere and rarely do I let others opinions sway me too much one way or another. The same goes for Dubai. Since Emirates offers flights to Dubai from Houston daily, I know I’ll get there one day, but until I do, I’ll just live through my friend, writer, and fellow Texan, Kristin Shaw of Two Cannoli, and her experience. Take it away, Kristin.
Imagine a cross between Disneyworld, Monaco, and Las Vegas. Now imagine that combination times ten, and you have Dubai. It’s all of the superlatives in the world in one glittery, sparkling, one-of-a-kind place. The tallest hotel. The tallest building. The only man-made archipelago of islands. Some of the largest malls in the world. Indoor skiing. A seven star hotel. It all makes me wonder if the radio volume doesn’t go up to 13 (I didn’t check).
I had no idea what to expect, but frankly, the 10-page document my company sent to me to prepare for this business trip frightened me. Swearing in public can result in a fine or jail time. Eating in public during Ramadan can result in a fine or jail time. Public displays of affection can result in a fine or jail time. The headlines online screamed out “UK woman detained in Dubai prison one month!”
So I packed carefully, dressed conservatively, kept my voice down, and moderated any four-letter-words from spilling from my lips. And had a blast. The people were friendly, the weather perfect, and the food outstanding. I had to choose between a trip into the desert to ride dune buggies and camels or explore the city, and I chose the city – this time. There is so much to see.
Since Dubai seems to fall in the category of Seven Wonders of the World, I picked seven of my favorite things:
Dubai has an incredible array of wares to purchase, and the glittering gold market is a must-see. The entrance proclaims “Dubai City of Gold” and you’ll walk past shop after shop of beautiful bracelets, necklaces, earrings, and other baubles. The gold is gorgeously shiny and enticing, and if you’re anything like me, you’ll have a hard time walking away… even when you ask the price of the exquisite cuff you just tried on, and it’s nearly 30,000 dirhams (roughly $10,000).
As you stroll through the gold market, vendors will stop you frequently and ask you if you’re interested in designer purses and watches. If you’re interested in a great knockoff, they have them all. I passed them up in favor of the pashminas and housewares. We enjoyed haggling with the shop owners, and they seemed to enjoy it too. Don’t accept the first price; they are eager to sell and will do the best t hey can to meet your price, if it’s reasonable. In one shop, I wanted two pashminas and a beautiful hand-painted table runner, and his first price was 650 dirhams. I gave up one of the pashminas and talked him down to 200 (about $65) for two out of three items I wanted, and we were both happy.
Don’t miss the spice souk for a celebration of scents, sights, and promises of exotic saffrons and crystals of frankincense and myrrh. And for a unique adventure, jump on one of the “water taxis” across the creek for more market fun. It costs only a single dirham to cross the creek in what amounts to a wooden raft with a motor, and it’s great fun.
Dubai is known for stellar service – they opened the very first “seven-star” hotel, after all – and I was still surprised at the level of care displayed by the employees at the JW Marriott in Business Bay, the tallest hotel in the world. The hotel opened just a couple of months ago, and starting from the moment you step out of your taxi and walk to the front door, you will feel like royalty.
Coming from someone with an allergy to tree nuts and peanuts, the service was especially appreciated when it came to the dining room. They take allergies very seriously, and when I alerted a member of the staff for each meal of my allergies, they took the time to show me dish by dish what I needed to avoid. Even more impressively, they didn’t have to consult an ingredient list – they knew it by heart. Prashant, one of the pastry chefs, made my day every day when he would prepare a plate filled with tiny desserts that were safe for me, and when I was in a meeting, he sent up four dishes of my favorite: baked yogurt with blueberries and gold flake. (Yes, gold flake!)
I’ve already mentioned the gold flake on some of their desserts, and that is impressive by itself (you really don’t taste it, by the way). At my hotel, the buffet was, of course, huge. Whether you want Indian, Thai, Japanese, Chinese, Middle Eastern, or even American food, you can find it here. Breakfast was pancakes and miso soup and an omelette station and fruit, among 100 other things. Dinner was the smoothest, tastiest hummus I’ve had anywhere, along with dolmas and shawarma (in this case, marinated chicken and French fries in a wrap) and two chocolate fountains.
Even in conservative Dubai, woman show up at the beach in bikinis. I visited the public beach near the Burj Al Arab to shoot some photos, and the sunset reflecting in the sea was as gorgeous as any beach I’ve seen in my lifetime.
Dubai has plenty of beachside scenery, and I didn’t get a chance to see the archipelago The World or the palm tree formation, but when I see it, I’d like to see it from the air first. Since all of the flights from the US arrive at night, next time I’ll have to figure out a route arriving in broad daylight.
My two colleagues and I met a new friend visiting from Los Angeles, and we joined her for lunch near the beach near her base at the Sofitel. Outdoor cafes beckoned us to dine al fresco, and every possible type of food was represented, from the obviously American Red Lobster to local specialties. We tried a Turkish restaurant with interesting juice combinations and tiny pickles as appetizers, and relaxed near the sea.
Can you talk about Dubai without mentioning the malls? The two largest – The Mall of the Emirates and the Mall of Dubai – defy imagination. Pick a brand – any brand – and you’ll find it here. Need a camel milk break? Got it. Pinkberry yogurt snack? Got it. Couture fashion? Got it.
Inside the Mall of the Dubai is a huge ice skating rink, a respite from the searing heat most months of the year. Within the Mall of the Emirates is an incredible ski-resort wonderland, with a toboggan run for the kids, a hill to ski down and a chair lift up, and plenty of manufactured snow. It is something to behold.
Just outside the Mall of Dubai is the Burj Khalifa – the tallest building in the world – and a bustling outdoor area in which tourists and locals eat, see, and be seen. The water show is at least twice the size of the one at the Bellagio in Las Vegas, and at least five times as beautiful.
As a big fan of fancy, sporty, fast cars, this city is a mecca for people like me. Anywhere you go, you’ll see a Ferrari parked next to a Mercedes next to an Aston-Martin. Lamborghinis fly down the highway, and taxi drivers do their best to keep up, driving like racecar drivers. Keep your seat belt on and eyes closed. Scratch that – keep your eyes open, or you’ll surely miss something. Just keep your seat belt on.
I’ll admit I was nervous about how I would be treated as an American in the Middle East, but all of the advice I received from those who had visited before was spot on: the people are lovely and friendly. Even in the middle of the souks, which is a tourist attraction but very much in the middle of the local culture, Emiratis are welcoming and open. I didn’t feel threatened or unsafe at any time.
That said, no matter where I travel, I keep my eyes open and travel with friends and colleagues as much as possible. I read a harrowing story about travelers in Peru recently, and this was fresh in my mind as I traveled; I also know this is a rare occurrence.
I would return to Dubai someday, when my son is a little older, to explore the area again. And maybe ride a camel next time.
Kristin Shaw is a marketing manager by day, writer by night, a full-time wife and mother of a preschooler. She grew up in the RV capital of the world — Elkhart, Indiana — and is a graduate of the University of Cincinnati. She enjoyed several years in Atlanta before the mother ship called her Texan husband home to Austin. Her favorite things are family, airports, classic cars, sports, Italy and dessert; not necessarily in that order. You can reach her via Twitter @AustinKVS or her blog http://www.twocannoli.com, where she writes about relationships, motherhood and love.