By Hannah Silverman
Day one: Friday, January 18, 2013
I am about five hours short of purchasing my first pair of curly-toed genie slippers, seven hours away from a delicious Arabian feast and just a few moments from my first big “wow”.
It’s 5.30am when I disembark the plane at Dubai International Airport. It’s kind of chilly – not the temperature I was expecting of a desert country – yet there’s a decadent vibe already evident inside the palatial airport and in the stately way the authorities march around the terminals. However, I was soon forced to put my UAE fashion fantasies behind me as it seemed Carrie and the girls were in fact overdressed in from Sex and the City 2 (go figure). Good thing I didn’t pack my ball gown afterall.
Instead there’s a friendly, down to earth feel to this country. Tourists are dressed respectfully (well, they have to be, don’t they?) and the locals are looking pretty much uniform in their hijabs and thobes. Refreshingly, there seems to be little pretence among the people, even though Dubai is renowned for having the most elaborate, well, everything.
As I left the airport I hopped into a pink taxi, which are exclusive for women and perfect for solo female travellers. I’m then taken to my dive of a hostel. In spite of this, and ignoring the ghost town of a morning in the surrounding streets, I excitedly perused the meandering laneways in search of my first souk. Souks are like markets with a brilliant combination of fantastical foreign wares and utter crap. The problem was, I decided to fly in on a Friday and the majority of shops, certainly the souks, didn’t open until 10am as it’s considered their weekend. Tip of the day.
Wandering aimlessly around a new country has never phased me, and as a result I got my bearings and made a new friend. Throughout the day I marvelled at the Gold Souk (not so cheap and altogether gaudy) and explored the aromatic spices of the Spice Souk. Here sellers of everything from rose buds to viagra who were more than happy to chat with no pressure to purchase.
Throughout the day I boarded about five three-minute, 1dh (AU$0.25) water taxis as I played musical ports. The Deira side, where my hostel was, is home to the the gold, perfume and spice souks while the real fun (for me) was actually across the creek in Bur Dubai. Here you’ll find the vibrant Textile Souk – or Old Dubai Souk – and its colourful characters who make bartering more fun than it’s ever been, the Dubai museum (well worth the 3dh entry fee) and the historic Sheikh Saeed Al Maktoum House. Lunch was enjoyed at Bait Al Wakeel which sensationally over looks Dubai Creek and offers delicious Middle Eastern cuisine. Do yourselves a favour and try the Moroccan tea, if you haven’t already.
As I strolled along the waterfront I accidentally stumbled across Dubai Heritage Village which is a tourist trap seemingly not intent of getting a dirham or three out of you. It’s set up in traditional Dubai style with friendly Dubain faces offering free tea and a chat, cheap henna tattoos in a cushion filled tent and traditional dance, food and education.
What you won’t find on either port, however, is Dubai women doing, well, much at all bar the rare admin role, and pubs, like, anywhere (due to strict alcohol laws). Funnily enough, even suspicion or flat out lies aren’t as prevalent as you might think, with vendors actually promoting “fake” designer bags as though they themselves are cooler than Tom Ford. Mind you, I don’t guarantee every pashmina is 100 per cent cashmere, but generally these guys seem pretty legit and less persuasive than some other market populated countries. Sure you might get some harmless flirtation, but the sleaze is minimal and help is there if you ask for it. As I was spending the day with a male, it’s worth noting he received the same reception, minus the occasional flirt and subsequent “Aussie discount”.
I spent the evening walking along the waterfront and exploring the Dubai Shopping Festival, which runs from January 3 to Feburary 3 and is a celebration of the country and its multiculturalism. What better way to end the night than with a parade and fireworks?
Day two: Saturday, January 19, 2013
If you’ve got questions you’re too afraid to ask about Dubai culture, the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding is the place for answers. If you’re a know it all, better stay at home among your leather-bound books. Brilliantly set out and promising to embrace all misconceptions the centre, in Bur Duabi, gives guests a chance to take in the past and present real Dubai. I chose the Bastakiya Heritage Tour (55dh, AU$15 approx) which begins with a walk through the adjoining Old Town. Once a genuine village, the Arabian-style buildings have been immaculately preserved for use today as an eclectic mix of museums, associations, restaurants and accommodation. Thank you oil discovery and thank you government finance team.
A visit to the Bastakiya Mosque, as part of the tour, required female guests to cover up with scarves and for both men and women to take off their shoes. We were then instructed to sit on the plush carpet as the basics of daily Muslim life was explained. Questions were welcomed no matter how uncomfortable, so it was a given topics like “why do men stand ahead of women inside a mosque” and “what happens if you miss one of the five prayers of the day” were discussed.
Next, we were ushered back through the old town, past its pinkish, intricate constructions and ultimately seated on bright Arabian cushions inside the centre. We were offered Arabian coffee and a date as is traditional Dubai culture. When question time commenced, the group was not shy of asking the question on every non-Muslims lips, what does the dress code represent. Turns out it’s a welcomed expression that pays homage to Islam tradition and one that is an individual choice.
I completely recommend this tour for all the non-know it alls.
Part two of day two was a Camel Trekking Overnight Safari that I had organised through North Tours, a company with mixed online reviews online. I selected it because it was the only tour I found with an extended camel ride of 45 minutes, as opposed to 10, through the sand swept desert. Turns out this was a great call on my part – Hannah one, Murphy’s Law zero. Although the camels were chained together as to almost threaten the overall intrepid vibe, the beautiful dusty surroundings, the undulating sands and the peacefully setting sun made it a tranquil experience not to forget and a highlight of the trip.
The camp itself had an enchanting atmosphere, lit gently by small intricate lamp posts, glowing lanterns and softly burning bonfires. It was a bit hap hazard as to what to do once the camel trek was over but that was the fun, guests really could do anything in this historic playground. As Arabian music serenades the camp, you choose your own adventure; climb a steep desert hill to take photos of the sunset, ski down a moonlit sand dune, maybe even decorate your skin with traditional henna. Or if you’re more in the mood for a chill out, enter the cushion lined shisha lounge and smoke some “hubby bubbly” under hanging coloured lanterns.
The tour is ideal for friends, groups and solo travellers, even families will find there’s something for all ages. And, if you’re not content with a sleep over as I was, you can shorten the experience by only doing selected activities and staying until dinner.
For me, the star lit party really came into its element when the festivities relaxed and many guests returned to the city. It was then that I could enjoy a sense of truly being so far away from civilisation (ok, 30 minutes). As the fire crackled and the temperature cooled, it was time for some relaxing shisha, a last hooray on the sand dune and, eventually, a snooze under the stars.
Day three: Sunday, January 20, 2013
After a night sleeping in a tent, I awoke bright and early to watch the sun rise from the top of a sand dune as it cast a picturesque blanket across the desert. How early? 5.30am early, thank you very much. It was a bitter temperature, which to me sounded like an oxymoron given the rookie impression I had of Middle Eastern deserts. However, the sand eventually warmed my feet as I sat in my pajamas bonding with nature and the great outdoors.
And from deserts to designers, the next thing I knew I was sipping couture rose and lotus flower tea at Armani Caffe in the middle of Dubai Mall, the most glamorous mall in the country. You don’t pay big brand prices for tea and coffee, nor will you for its tasty looking Italian cuisine, so it’s nice to know if you can’t afford to wear it, you can certainly afford to drink it. As I enjoyed my stylish tea party for one, cliques of fashion savvy Muslim girlfriends explored the stores around me, swinging their designer bags over their concealed shoulders as they shopped to accessorise their little black dresses. So stylish were they that I observed some “fashionislams” shopping in stilettos and they looked fabulous! Something told me it was quite possible my maxi dress, Havaianas and henna stained hands reeked of tourism in their stylish shadows. Hmm, moving on.
Dubai Mall isn’t just for the ladies. Equally as prominent are the well-dressed lads who conduct important looking business lunches throughout the mall and later indulge in a man shop at stores called things like Pink and Zara. Just teasing, there are blokey sounding stores too, of course. Speaking of stores, it seems you’re nobody until somebody leases you. Louis, Dolce, Tiffany – the gang is all here, as well as affordable lines such as H&M and Mango.
If shopping doesn’t float your dhow (that’s an Arabian boat), or if your shopping companion wants a break, there is a family day care service known as the Dubai Ice Rink located in the centre of the mall. You see, Dubai Mall, in all its luxurious glory, is not just a fashion mecca. There’s a very gorgeous, very elaborate Arabian arcade suitably named The Souk, which sells expensive Arabian goods, a bundle of home wares stores and even candy bars. One of note is Candylicious which has a life size box lolly lovers stand inside and catch as many sugary sweets as they can. And let’s not forget the restaurants and cafes, including the darling of the Champs Elysees, Laudree.
Eventually I stepped outside the Dubai Mall and came face to face with the big guy, the Bur Kalifa (world’s largest building), and a waterfront surrounded by restaurants. This actually surprised me because I must have been so lost in the mall I thought there was only one exit and that I would walk straight into a taxi rink. You can imagine my delight! Spectacularly, an ornate bridge joins the mall to Souq al-Bahar with its natural stone walkways, arches and arcades full of Arabian products from rugs to riches. Beware, it’s a bit of a tourist haunt and you’ll get a much better deal at the old souks in Bur Dubai and Deira. In fact here you’ll probably pay twice, if not three times more than you would in the traditional souks.
Continuing my shopping adventure, I caught a taxi to the Mall of Emirates, which was much of a muchness really, with a very similar offering of high-end stores. Notable additions include Harvey Nichols and Debenhams, but, like Dubai Mall, the Mall of Emirates has a very distinct multicultural flavour dominated by international catwalks. If you’re looking for fashion that’s quintessentially Dubai, you’re better off at a souk. Or a mosque.
Oh and the Mall of Emirates has an indoor ski slope, Skii Dubai, not to be confused with Dubai Mall’s Dubai Ice Rink. Got it?
I had big (read, ambitious) plans for this particular evening, but I was put off by a one hour queue for a taxi to leave the mall. This meant the sun vanished before I did from the rank. For this reason, it’s best to factor in transport and give yourself enough time. If all else fails, call it a night and recharge so you can do it all again the following day.
That night I dreamt about all the designer clothing my credit card told me not to buy. Note, we are no longer on speaking terms.
Day four: Monday, January 21, 2013
When a souk vendor offers you a free cup of Arabian coffee and throws freebies into your bag, he’s doing one of two things: feeling guilty about previously ripping you off, or courting you with Middle-Eastern romance. If the latter was the case for me, I assume he overheard me use my sister as collateral for a discount on a pashmina three stalls down and was trying to up the stakes. Abby, if you get a call from a random Middle Eastern number – sorry, but thanks (loving the pashmina!).
I had returned to the textile and spice souks ready to bargain for gifts and Arabian souvenirs. By now I figured I had grasped the concept of fair prices and knew what I should be paying. Unsurprisingly, for readers of this entry, I purchased more genie slippers, as well as old-style tea sets and a range of Arabian teas and coffee. I also picked up some delicious camel milk chocolates that look like coloured rocks. Be careful when it comes to purchasing food and produce as your country might give you a big “no deal” at customs.
After dropping my bulging bag at my hotel I was driven through the CBD, or Emerald city as it seemed, with colour co-ordinated aquamarine glass featuring on most skyscrapers.
I was less than impressed with JBR walk. It supposedly has 300 shops but the atmosphere is quiet and somewhat lack lustre. Plenty of restaurants line Dubai’s first outdoor shopping strip, so factor lunch in if you decide to check it out.
Jumeirah beach is a short stroll away and worth it if only to tip your toes in the Arabian Gulf. Views of the distant Atlantis the Palm hotel and resort give the beach a wow factor, while a backward glance reveals the nearby city. From here you can walk back towards the town and onto Dubai Marina where a collection of intriguing-looking restaurants, cafes and shish bars await. Enjoy a bite to eat as you dream abut the lifestyles of the owners of the rich boats parked neatly in the marina below.
A quick taxi to nearby-ish Atlantis the Palm hotel and resort was a must see on my itinerary. This is the spectacular five star hotel that crowns the man-made Palm Island. The islands are shaped as a, you guessed it,palm tree, however you would have no idea unless you saw pictures in a guide book or were passenger in a helicopter. Atlantis also houses tourist traps including Aquaventure Water Park, the Lost Chambers Aquarium and Dolphin Bay, so expect swarms of families walking through the foyer. Does this lose a sense of intimacy, perhaps, but it’s worth a sneak peak at a pretty stand out hotel if you have time.
And then it was time for another icon, and boy is this a marvel.
Welcome to the Bur Al Arab. You know, the famed sail building otherwise known as the world’s first seven star hotel. But, if you want a stickybeak inside you’ll need an advanced reservation otherwise prepare to join fellow tourists in a frenzied scrum of amateur photographers. Keep up a patient fight and you’ll score prime real estate eventually.
You may think it’s not possible, but there is, in fact, a better view available – and it’s within walking distance. Madinat Jumeirah is a wonderland of picturesque Arabian architecture. If you’ve been flown over by a Sheikh you could probably stay here, as it is a five star resort too, but if you fund it yourself it will set you back a small fortune or a new born child. Still, Madinat Jumeirah welcomes daily visitors and diners. It features a tranquil canal, first class restaurants, bars, clubs, an old-world souk and most fabulously, views of the better half of Bur Al Arab. Think Aladdin meets Venice and you’ll get an idea. Bonus points for you if you, like me, visit at dusk where palm trees are illuminated by fairy lights and the Bur Al Arab morphs into various shades of multi-colours. I ate at Meat & Co, a well-priced steakhouse with views directly onto the Bur Al Arab and below to the glowing lanterns that light up the canal.
I took an abra ride right after dinner (motorised wooden boat) and this was one of the most magical experiences in Dubai. The only thing more magical would be if one of the lamps I bought from a souk actually produced a genie, but that’s ridiculous, isn’t it…or is it?
An abra ride will set you back about 75dh (Au$20 approx.) and lasts for about 20 minutes. Do it!
There are fun looking bars and clubs, but don’t go on a Monday as this is no club night, apparently. Still, an evening wine over the labyrinth of a complex is well worth it. Madinat Jumeirah is a must tick box for visitors to Dubai and especially for those looking for a little something, something to help you celebrate an occasion – or to simply say hello, or goodbye to Dubai.
Day five: Tuesday, January 22, 2013
This day was supposed to be a travel day, but days earlier I learnt a climb to the top of the Burj Kalifa takes bookings (go figure). I hastily logged online on Saturday only to find the only spot available was 8.30am today. Of course, you can just rock up and but a ticket, but that will cost you 400dh (AU$100 approx.) as opposed to 130dh (AU$30 approx.) online. That’s a saving of about 12 genie slippers!
A high-tech smooth glide to the 124th floor of famed building takes moments, then you have free reign to take in the 360-degree views of the city. I was a bit worried I wouldn’t be able to see anything as Dubai was choked in thick morning fog, so much so traffic was slow and I could barely see 100 metres in front of me on street level. While I didn’t get clean views, I perhaps got something better, and certainly rarer. From the top of the Bur Kalifa I saw the tips of the buildings covered in cloud, which looked like a heavenly tribute to the world’s tallest building.
Soon after it was time to descend the elevator and cab it to the airport. I just hope when I rub my souvenir lamp a genie actually does pop out and grants me a return to Dubai.