As many of you know, when I travel, the maximum time I can spend on a beach is a couple of days (unless it’s an exceptional beach like that of French Polynesia previously blogged about). I like to explore the location, take part in the activities, taste the food, see a bit of the culture and interact with the locals so I can get a real experience. I know it’s not everyone’s idea of a relaxing holiday, but I love it, I can’t help but explore. This, to me is especially important when traveling long haul, as really why go that far if there is nothing interesting to see or do?
One location on my ‘wish list’ was a city that divides popular opinion, the modern marvel that is Dubai. Recognised as a tourism superpower, Dubai’s draw to all aspects of the tourism community is still growing, be it a holiday, a dive break, a shopping weekend, a cultural Arabian experience, take your pick…
We were drawn to the city in 2015 as a short stop over, after three weeks camper vanning in Australia. I had been frequently used the airport as a transfer hub for both Asia and Southern Africa, but have never explored the city itself. Curiosity had gotten the better of me and I really did want to see what all of the hype was about.
Upon arrival we were transferred to our hotel which was located on the iconic Palm Jumeirah. This was a decision that was much debated, as whilst researching, the options were endless. Dubai seemed to be split into a number of districts; the Palm Jumeirah, Jumeireh Beach, Downtown, the Old City and the Marina being a few. If we had wanted a more of a traditional Arabian experience, it was suggested that the old city would have been ideal location, however the distance between this and the new sites of Dubai was significant. This distance coupled with the fact that the more modern, beach all seemed to be situated either in Jumeirah or the Marina. Using the age old rationale of ‘well why not?’ We booked the Waldorf Astoria situated on the far right crescent of the Palm.
Initial impressions of the hotel were faultless, and throughout the stay it was didn’t disappoint, It was as elegant and luxurious as we had hoped, with a private beach, 2 pools and amazing views of the built up marina, famous Atlantis and flagship seven star hotel Burj Al Arab. The variety and quality of food was also impressive; with 6 restaurants located in the hotel itself manned by extremely well versed and capable staff, it was really a great choice.
This is where my continuous use of my favorite blog words, sensational, fantastic and inspiring unfortunately comes to a temporary end. The Palm itself is huge, and the transport links to the crescents are not great, in fact all transport seems to grind to a halt at the Atlantis. On certain days it took us up to an hour to get off the Palm itself, we soon discovered that taxis were always the quickest effective method. This location is only for those relish the peace and quiet, and have an appreciation for the views. This soon became my favorite place in the city of Dubai – the hotel. Also as silly as it sounds, you can’t see the Palm from the Palm! Something I didn’t really take into account when booking. If you really want to marvel at the iconic Palm you need an aerial view, such as a helicopter ride.
So what else did Dubai offer? One of our first outings was to the ‘Jumeirah Dar Al Masyaf at Madinat Jumeirah’, (a bit of a mouthful), essentially it’s a Arabian styled hotel with man-made canals connecting all of the areas. It constantly ranks in the top 5 Dubai hotels in which to stay on Tripadvisor and honestly you can see why, its decor was original yet understated, while the service and views were as good as the Palm. We were allowed to explore the Medina shopping complex, which I found to be very appealing, as it offered a more Arabian feel than all the hotels we had currently seen.
From the Medina, it was onto the Emirates Mall, which houses Ski Dubai, the largest indoor ski centre in the world – impressive! Other than that the mall was, well a standard bog standard mall! From there it was onto the Dubai Mall, the largest Mall in the world, are you picking up on the theme as of yet? TheDubai Mall is just ridiculous, it is absolutely massive, has its own fountain show, inside aquarium, ice skating rink, cinema, the list goes on and on. We found that although the variety of shops was endless, the prices were pretty much as they are at home. It vexes me that someone would come all this way to shop at the same price as home (although it claims to be tax free). The most enjoyable part of this monstrosity of commercialism was the aquarium, which allows visitors to view sharks, rays, turtles and all manner of sea life from the shopping centre itself. What did appall me was the cost, it was nearly as much as a full day diving in Australia (which isn’t cheap), to do a single dive in the aquarium! What a joke and an absolute rip off.
The mall is also the access point to the the Burj Khalifa, currently the tallest building in the world. The Burj Khalifa is as iconic as the Palm, and is visible virtually anywhere in the city standing at 828 metres tall! It’s a shame that the experience of visiting the world’s tallest building viewing deck was nothing to write home about. You can see desert one side (and not the beautiful dunes just flat white sand), and construction on the other side. I am being a tad critical here; you can see the Palm in the far distance, the vague shape of the world’s islands further out to sea, and a few other high rise buildings. It’s not like the Empire State where you can see a completed iconic city, Dubai is still incomplete. What is a wonder is comparing how it looks today to how it looked 20 years ago, that’s a real demonstration of progress!
As you may have gathered I was bitterly disappointed with downtown and central Dubai, this was followed by the fact that you are not even allowed to enter the Burj Al Arab if you are not staying there. I was simply frustrated by the whole experience; it just felt soulless. We had essentially wasted a whole day and I had not enjoyed much of it at all, it’s a very rare occasion that I would rather have sat on the beach at the hotel. I had never been so relieved to be back in a hotel…
Awaking in the peaceful tranquility of the hotel, we did decide to venture out again, but this time to the more significant old city. Unfortunately this meant about 2 hours of travel, but hey it couldn’t be as dull as the day prior. Luckily I was right; the old town was bustling with markets, historical building and museums and what appeared to be locals going about their daily business. The markets, known as Souks concentrated on Gold, Spice and Textiles, these were fun to navigate and explore. These type of markets also encouraged haggling, something I loved to do in previous trips to Egypt and South East Asia – It’s so much fun interacting with the local sellers.
The sense of a traditional cultural Dubai was far more appealing to me than the modernization we experienced the day prior. Whilst crossing the Dubai creek in an Arabian boat (to access the spice souk), you could even get a slight sense of what this place once was. I think I would’ve liked it. This part of Dubai definitely had more of a unique interesting feel, the sights, and the smells it just felt real.
By far the highlight of our Dubai experience was actually leaving the city and heading out to the desert for a Bedouin safari. This was a memory that deserves to be added to the wandering collection. We sped through the desert reserve in vintage land rovers, encountering local wildlife, trekking sand dunes, essentially witnessing the desert as it is meant to be, vast and silent. This experience also gave us the opportunity to learn about the Bedoin people, their use of falconry for hunting, their cooking practices, henna tattoos and their chosen method of transport, the camel! The experience demonstrated the heart of the local culture, it showed us that Duabi was not just the modern day amusement park it seemed.
It’s so easy to be negative these days, something of which I am definitely guilty of. However as my passion is travel, when I travel I do try to stay positive, even in the trickiest of scenarios. Some of my fondest memories have been when something has gone completely wrong. Its hindsight and after the fact storytelling which immortalises experiences into wandering memories.
So as you may have guessed, Dubai city left me feeling numb, for it had been a while since I had visited such a soulless place. I must admit it may have offered more to me if the prices were reasonable, if that yacht I was offered as I walked into the Astoria wasn’t two grand a day, or if I wouldn’t have to second mortgage my home to dive in an aquarium or skydive the desert. Even an improvement of the accessibility and review of the public transport timings would have made a great difference. Or here’s an idea, why not bring some traditional experiences into the modern city (camel racing, traditional run down souks, boat rides…). Thank goodness for the amazing hotel and sensational desert experience.
I must caveat that this is just my point of view from our experience, I have no doubt that millions of people visit Dubai and love it. However If you are like me, then Dubai is not the place for you, even for the experience, I would rather recommend New York or Hong Kong as alternatives. If you want to lounge on a beach or at a pool in the sun in a fantastic hotel, it’s definitely for you! And if you have a lot of money – well the world is your oyster in this place!