Atlantis-The-Palm

Dazzling Dubai

United Arab Emirates (UAE) consists of seven emirates: Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Sharjah, Ajman, Fujairah, Ras al Khaimah and Umm al Quwain. Unlike the other Middle Eastern countries UAE although traditionally conservative, is one of the most liberal countries in the gulf that has accepted cultural and religious diversity with open arms.

While having a multicuisine breakfast buffet with my family at the hotel, I realized that the guests were a healthy mix of varied nationalities and ethnicities. Nowhere else in the world during our travel have we encountered this incredible diversity of race, religion or creed. Dubai is where you will find an abaya clad Arab woman equally at ease with a European lady in a micromini or a saree clad desi. Each respecting the others right to freedom of expression be it in their choices of clothes, language or food. It is this multicultural and pluralistic environment that makes every tourist feel at ease in Dubai.

With two kids going to different schools and having varied vacation schedules, we only had a long weekend of 3-4 days to escape for a vacation. Without having much time to spare in terms of travel, Dubai seemed a quick getaway.

There is an array of attractions that are on offer, so one needs to plan the itinerary sensibly. So, what all can you pack in just three and a half days was the next thing on our minds. The kids’ choice was a priority, as my spouse and I have visited Dubai several times. Read on find out what all we did.

The first thing the kids wanted to do was visit the malls as they had heard a lot from their peers about their grandeur and shopping options. Dubai Mall and the Mall of Emirates are the most frequented malls which boast of international fashion labels, accessories, jewellery, and watches all smartly decked in shopping windows to tempt the fashion conscious.

Mall-of-Emirates
Mall of Emirates, Dubai @Rafiq Somani

The Dubai Mall has an aquarium, an underwater zoo, ice rink, virtual reality park and of course the multicuisine food court and cinemas. The entrance to the Burj Khalifa is also from this mall. All the attractions amused the kids, and before we knew it time started ticking. We ate a quick meal, and rushed as the car for the Desert Safari had arrived.

If you want to get a glimpse of the desert culture and Bedouin life coupled with some fun and adventure, then the Desert Safari is a must-do. Our driver cum guide Shakur drove us in a 4×4 Land Cruiser to the outskirts of Dubai. Another Indian couple with their precocious 5-year-old daughter joined us on the safari. The little girl’s questions and observations kept us entertained.

En route, we stopped for a quad bike ride across the desert. The kids were game for this and the thrill of riding a quad bike over the sand dunes, especially since they both are underage to get a driving licence, turned out to be the highlight of our trip. The 30-minute ride was quite an adventure as we zipped, zoomed and chased each other on the convoluted dunes.

Quad-Bike-Ride
Quad Bike Ride, Dubai @Rafiq Somani

No sooner had we finished with the ride that we got into the Landcruiser for the dune dashing. Our skilled driver advised us to fasten our seat belts and hold on tight as he manoeuvred the vehicle over the dunes, skidding, sliding, and kicking up a cloud of sand as our heartbeats raced and many times skipped a beat. One moment we were over the dunes, the next second we were careening precariously at the edge of a dune, and before we knew it, we were plunging down several feet reminiscent of a roller coaster ride. This adrenaline gushing 20-minute adventure ride is not for the feeble-hearted who can sometimes feel nauseous due to the motion sickness.  

Sand-Dune-Dashing
Dune Dashing, Desert Safari, Dubai @Rafiq Somani

The thrilling sand dashing was followed by a halt in the desert to watch the spectacular sunset. We got off the vehicles and walked bare feet, feeling the warm sand slipping through our feet. Unlike the sand on the beach which clings to your skin, the desert sand is free-flowing, and each grain of sand just slides and slips through your hands and feet.

The azure blue sky soon changed to shades of orange and red as the blazing sun was ready to set. Against the backdrop of the brick red dunes, ochre skies and setting sun at the horizon, the silhouette of a car in the foreground created a remarkable picture composition. It was now time to head to the Bedouin style campsite where we were welcomed with black Arabic coffee and a sweet.

The low seating arrangement with the stage in the centre, for the three dance performances, and the star-studded sky above created the perfect ambience. First in line was the Tanoura folk dance where the male dancer went into a spin like a Sufi dervish whirl in a spiritual trance. The multi-coloured skirt of the dancer with colourful light bulbs soon illuminated in the dark as the dancer pirouetted creating a scintillating crescendo.

Tanoura-Dance
Tanoura Folk Dance, Desert Safari, Dubai @Rafiq Somani

It was followed by the fire dance and finally the highlight of the safari the sensual belly dance. Unlike western dance forms where the emphasis is on leg work or Indian dance forms where the hands and facial expressions are prominent, in Belly dancing it is the rhythmic and undulating movements of the torso which are accentuated. Balancing a sword on her head, the belly dancer invited other women to join in the belly-wobbling act and follow her moves which made belly dancing seem skilful and artistic rather than gross.

Fire-Dance
Fire Dance, Desert Safari, Dubai @Rafiq Somani
Belly-Dance
Belly Dance, Desert Safari, Dubai @Rafiq Somani

There were kiosks selling souvenirs, sand art in bottles, henna artists to put intricate tattoos on your palms and feet. You could dress up in the traditional Bedouin garb, a white dishdasha for men and a black abaya for women and pose for pictures. A local moved amongst the visitors with a falcon perched on his arm. He would then deftly put it on their head or arm for clicking photographs.

Kiosks Selling Souvenirs, Desert Safari, Dubai @Rafiq Somani
Sand Art, Dubai @Rafiq Somani

In terms of food and drinks, there was a barbecue dinner with a mix of vegetarian and non-vegetarian dishes, a well-stocked bar and not to forget the shisha or hookah pipe. As we left the campsite, we saw some tourists posing for a picture with the beautifully decorated camel. We had barely posed and clicked a couple of photos that the camel rider took hold of the reins and muttered “Khalas” meaning “Finished, it’s over” and walked away with the camel leaving us stunned.

Having visited Dubai several times in the last two decades, I find the emirate reinventing itself and adding a new dimension to its offerings. New buildings keep mushrooming, infrastructure like freeways and the metro spring up, malls and other tourist attractions keep popping up as the old are demolished. So much so that every time I get the feeling that it’s a new place I am visiting and exploring.

  • Dubai Skyline

The 2,722 feet tall Burj Khalifa, which is the tallest building in the world is an engineering marvel. A dream that innumerable people relentlessly worked to make a reality. A high- speed elevator (600 m/min) took us in one minute to ‘At the Top’ the 124th floor or the observation deck. From here we got a bird’s eye view of the city and its landmarks which appeared as dwarfs compared to the towering structure. On the 124th floor, the feeling that you get is truly like being on top of the world! We could also climb onto the 125th floor, which was less crowded and walk along the periphery of enormous glass windows and marvel at the city.

After lunch at the Dubai Mall, we took a cab and headed to the Marina. The cab drivers are mostly South Asians from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, etc. One can have a friendly chat with them about life as an immigrant in oil-rich Dubai. The challenges of being away from families for months and years on end. The travails of surviving and saving for a better future in a constantly fluctuating economy.

We reached the Marina and were excited about taking a 90-minute speed boat ride which would take us along the spectacular coast. On alighting the boat, we were handed over the safety jackets and informed that we were the only passengers on board, so it was like an exclusively private affair. As we set adrift around six in the evening, the sun was ready to set as we passed the under-construction Dubai Eye, which is a replica of the London Eye. As the boat caught speed, we had to hang on tight to the rails to prevent us from tripping over during the bumpy yet pulsating ride. We were on full throttle as the boat wrestled with the winds and bobbed over the waves, splashing water over us now and then. A childlike thrill and excitement overtook us as we regaled at the sights that enthralled us.

Dubai-Marina
Dubai Marina @Rafiq Somani

It was now dark as the landmark buildings were illuminated, and their dazzling reflection in the water created a dramatic seascape. We cruised along the human-made archipelago of the Palm Jumeirah stopping near the ‘Atlantis The Palm’. A luxury hotel resort where the Bollywood movie ‘Happy New Year’ starring Shahrukh Khan, Deepika Padukone has been extensively shot.

  • Atlantis-The-Palm

The next stop was the ‘Burj Al Arab’ the iconic sail-shaped luxury hotel often seen on the souvenirs. On return, we saw the Kempinski hotel with distinctive yellow and green lights, the Thai floating hotel and the royal Sheikh Palaces. Our boat skipper informed us that in the evenings, one could see the royal prince playing with his pet cheetah, tiger and lion!

As we returned to the Marina, we could hear the music from the colourfully lit up dhow cruises. Since it was a weekend, a lot of families and friends were partying and having a great time. Our 90-minute boat ride had come to an end, but we carried with us memories that we would cherish forever.

After the Marina ride, we headed back to the mall for some last moment shopping. The malls were open till late in the night since it was a weekend. So, what all is there to pick and shop in Dubai? Well, here is my honest opinion. With most of the major brands now being available in India and the falling Indian Rupee and rising Dhiram, it made sense to shop in one’s home country unless you are there during the Dubai Shopping Festival. However, for brands not available back home, Dubai seems a good shopping choice compared to Europe and the US.

With skyrocketing prices gold too has lost its sheen. Unlike until a decade ago when one saw frenzied buying at the gold souks. My recommendation would be to pick stuff that is distinctively Arabic and native to the gulf. The infinite varieties of dates, the sweets like baklava, the woody scented oud perfumes, sand art, miniature camels and souvenirs.

Arabic-Sweets-and-Dates
Arabic Sweets and Dates, Dubai @Shameera Somani
Camel-Souvenirs
Camel Souvenirs, Dubai @Shameera Somani
Dubai Shopping

The city has a smorgasbord of things to explore like The Dubai Miracle Garden, Ski Dubai, the waterparks, museums and so on. The Global Village is a cultural and festival extravaganza where one can get a glimpse of the cultures of more than ninety counties. If you like history and everything that has an old-world charm, then head to the Bastakiya Quarters the city’s historic district.

And if you like everything extravagant and over the top then hire a limousine for a couple of hours. Sip on a cappuccino with real 23-carat gold flakes at the Armani Hotel located at the base of Burj Khalifa. Withdraw gold from a gold vending machine! We had not only managed to see a lot of Dubai but also squeeze in a one-day trip to the neighbouring emirate of Abu Dhabi. But that is another travelogue.

Nearest Airport: Dubai has one of the busiest international airports. Several international flights from major cities in India can take you to Dubai.
Where to Stay: We stayed at the Four Points Sheraton on the Sheikh Zayed Road since it was close to the malls and Burj Khalifa. You can check for hotels on the net depending on comfort and budget.
Travel Tips: You should book and get entry tickets to all the attractions in advance to avoid being disappointed. Desert Planners helped us with our bookings. We visited the Burj Khalifa during non- peak hours. However, if you want to view the cityscape in both day and night time, then make a booking during the evening peak hours but be prepared to shell out extra.   The Burj Khalifa entry ticket during non- peak hours cost us 130 AED per head. The 30 -minute Quad Bike ride cost us 250 AED. The Desert Safari, including hotel, pick up and drop charged us 37 AED per head. The Marina Speed Boat Ride cost us 38 AED per head for which we used the Viator App.  

This travelogue was first published in Corporate Tycoons Magazine, Dec 2018.

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