Published: September 17th 2006August 2nd 2006
Friday, July 28 and Saturday, July 29
We departed from Houston on our 9-hour overnight flight on a Continental 777 to Paris. Bill and I each got about 4 hours of sleep on the comfortable Business/First Class seats that recline to nearly 180 degrees. Arriving at Charles deGaulle airport at 11 a.m., CDG did not impress us with its lack of signage, confusion, slowness, general dirty surroundings, lack of chairs at the gate, and finally, the 10-minute shuttle from the gate to the airplane. The old terminal is over-crowded, but the new terminal is not yet ready, so we had to shuttle for about three miles to the airplane, which was sitting in the middle of a construction area, which itself was out in the middle of a field.
Once we boarded, however, the Air France 777 was quite comfortable, even in coach. The food was delicious, as good as what we had in Continental’s first class: Ratatouille salad with poached egg to start, choice of main course (chicken fricassee or Florentine-style salmon ravioli with a variety of steamed vegetables), cheese tray with yogurt, and an apricot tart for dessert. We even had real knives and forks
(but no hot towels or tablecloths!). The personal television monitors provided plenty of entertainment for the five and ½-hour flight to Dubai, one of the seven emirates or “kingdoms” in the United Arab Emirates, where we landed at 9:30 p.m.
The Dubai airport was buzzing with life and was clean, modern, and well-organized. There were people dressed in costumes of characters from children’s stories wandering around the terminals to entertain the travelers, especially the children. The only clue that we were in an Arabic country was the clothing of the airport personnel. The females wore the traditional Muslim headcoverings and abayas, and most of the men wore the traditional long white robes and matching white headpieces.
The cab driver to our hotel was a young Filipino lady, one of the over one million ex-patriates from over 200 nations living and working in Dubai with the 200,000 or so Dubai nationals. The ex-pats are attracted by the booming economy, tax-free working conditions, and the relaxed, almost crime-free lifestyle. Dubai has one of the lowest crime rates in the world, largely because the U.A.E. enjoys a high standard of living coupled with strict sentencing if caught breaking the law.
Our hotel, the 4-star Concorde, in the part of the city called Deira, was a glitzy luxury hotel, along the lines of a Four Seasons in the U.S. The staff were from many different countries, but all spoke English and were the most friendly and eager-to-please we had ever encountered. By the second day, they all knew our names and room numbers and greeted us cordially every time we passed. Our room was large and luxurious with roomy marble bath and king-sized bed into which we crashed within minutes of arriving.
Sunday, July 30
We breakfasted in our room on coffee and cheese croissants we had purchased from a bakery adjacent to the hotel before hopping into a taxi to the Deira City Centre Mall, where we caught a double-decker, “hop-on-hop-off” Big Bus (same company as in London) at 10 a.m. for our day in the city and on the beaches. The entire sightseeing route, with personal guide and narrator, takes 4 ½ hours if you stay on the bus and never get off. We “hopped off” at several stops, taking the entire day (about 9 hours) to complete the entire route around 7 p.m.:
• Wafi City
Mall is one of 48 spotlessly clean shopping malls that give Dubai the title of “shopping capital of the Middle East.” This particular mall is among the most elegant of the malls with shops such as Versace and Chanel and is a “city within a city” with a huge entertainment complex, spas, and trendy nightlife.
• The Dubai Museum, located under Al Fahidi Fort, was one of our favorite stops. It’s a multi-million-dollar investment making use of new technology to portray the “old Dubai.” The fort itself was built around 1799 and is thought to be the oldest surviving building in Dubai. The walls of the fort are built of coral and shell rubble from the sea and are cemented together with lime. It was the residence of Dubai’s rulers and the seat of government until 1971. Entering the fort’s courtyard, you see actual fishing and pearling boats (Dubai’s only industries in its early years), as well as early houses and weapons. You are then directed to a huge underground area where the rest of the museum’s exhibits are located. After a slick multi-media presentation on the city’s development, plus various exhibits, you come to our favorite part of the
museum, a very detailed re-creation of a typical souq (market), a traditional Arab home, and an Islamic school as they would have looked 50 years ago in pre-oil days. These dioramas come complete with disturbingly life-like dummies of people (You always have the feeling that someone real is standing next to you). Farther on in the extensive museum are interactive exhibits on the area’s desert flora and fauna plus a room filled with displays of finds from area archeological digs. Some of the pottery, coinage, weapons, and skeletons are as much as 4,000 years old. This museum is an attraction definitely not to be missed!
• The Gold Souk, the largest in the Middle East, blew us away with its sheer mass of glittering gold in the hundreds of shops, giving Dubai its well-earned reputation of “City of Gold.” Never before have I seen so much gold in one place, and all of it is 18, 22, and 24 carat.
• The waterfront along Dubai Creek, which is the city’s harbor, epitomizes the city’s personality. Modern, sleek office buildings overlook the ancient flavor of the abras (small barges used as water taxis) and dhows (Arabian sailing vessels) bound for ports
from Kuwait to Bombay, carrying anything from tires to kitchen sinks. The abras, which date back to the end of the 19th century, carry people from one side of the Creek to the other for about 10 cents.
• The Bastakia Quarter is part of the old city with its traditional wind tower houses with hand-carved wooden doors dating back to the 19th century. The landmark wind towers are a unique feature in this region and create air circulation because of their shape. The four triangular shafts catch passing breezes and channel the cool air down one side of the tower while forcing warm air up through another.
• Lunched at a small café near the Gold Souk on sandwiches and vegetable shakes. They can make a delicious shake out of any vegetable or fruit. We had carrot shakes.
• We drove by the stunning Jumeira Mosque with its elaborate design but did not get off because tourists are only allowed to visit on Thursdays.
• We also passed several amazing real estate developments available to foreign investors, who have taken advantage of NO TAXES of any kind, a favorable exchange rate, Dubai's stable government, prosperous financial markets, advanced infrastructure,
and one of the world's lowest crime rates. There are currently over 5,000 construction sites in Dubai, including over 600 high-rise buildings. In "Free Zones" companies are owned 100% by foreign investors. The Free Zone's "Media City" is already home to over 550 global media companies including CNN, Reuters, Sony, Showtime, HBO, and MBC.
• We watched as two of the most eagerly anticipated and most famous projects were being built about two miles offshore. The Palm Jumeirah and World Islands are being constructed by giant tanker-like ships spraying huge amounts of sand on top of enormous concrete blocks placed strategically in the sea, a process known as “rainbowing.” Residential units in this particular Palm Island Resort (one of three being built off the coast of Dubai) range from 1BR apts (2,500 of them) to 7-bedroom luxury villas (2,000 of them). Madonna and Andre Agassi have each purchased a villa already.(Remember--no taxes of any kind here). There will also be 25 five-star-plus international hotels. The World Islands development involves the creation of 300 man-made islands built to represent the world map. The islands have been purchased by freehold investors, ranging in price from $11 million to $36 million. (Rod Stewart
has purchased Great Britain). The entire development is about 7 miles by 5 miles, and all 300 islands are accessible only by boat or plane.
• Next on the route was the Burj Al-Arab (Tower of the Arabs) Hotel, the world's only 7-star luxury hotel and the world's tallest hotel. It stands in the sea on an artificial island. It was built to resemble the sail of a dhow, a type of Arabian sailing vessel. Suites range from $6,000 to $25,000 per night, complete with personal white-gloved butler and use of a Rolls Royce; everything that looks gold from ceilings to doorknobs to bath plugs IS real gold. It is booked for months in advance. The world's only underwater restaurant, accessible by a 2-minute submarine journey, lies below. The only way to see the inside of the hotel if you don’t have a suite is to have reservations for lunch or dinner, but they are booked months in advance as well; plus, a cup of coffee is $40 and lunch runs about $100 per person. The closest we got was a stretch of beach nearby, where we played around in the warm waters of the Persian Gulf/Arabian Gulf (depending on
whether you are speaking to Arabs or Iranians).
• The Wild Wadi Waterpark was open, but we did not join in the fun. We were told that Moslem women wear their entire traditional costumes of black silk abayas, headscarves (sheylas) and even the masks (burkhas) into the water attractions. The only day they can enjoy getting wet in swim suits is Monday, when only women and children are allowed in the park.
• Our final hop-off spot, where we spent about two hours, was the Mall of the Emirates and Ski Dubai. Dubai has five of the seven largest malls in the world, including this one, which has over 1,000 shops. If shopping were an Olympic sport, Dubai would win the gold medal hands down! Inside the mall is Ski Dubai, the world's only indoor ski slope, with five 400-yard runs of varying difficulty. Real snow is made every night. The process involves evaporating liquid water to create a cloud inside the building; this cloud is then "sprinkled" with miniscule ice particles, which allow snow to form and fall out of the cloud.
We returned to our hotel around 7 p.m., had a light dinner, and watched a little
television, which was interesting in itself. We received about 60 channels from about 30 different countries, including Qatar, Yemen, Kuwait, India, Jordan, England, Germany, Lebanon (here we watched “The Bold and the Beautiful”, Saudi Arabia, Italy, Syria, etc. Channels also included CNN and several porn channels. The perspective of the different countries on the Israel-Lebanon conflict was predictable, with Israel being demonized as a barbaric aggressor on the Middle Eastern stations.
Monday, July 31
The temperature today is expected to be about 110 with a humidity of about 70%, making a heat factor of over 120 degrees. We had coffee and croissants for breakfast and read the Dubai English newspaper before taking the hotel cab, a Lexus sedan, to the Dubai Creek for a free (free because we had taken the Big Bus tour yesterday) one-hour cruise on a traditional wooden Arabic dhow. Dubai’s traditional and modern ways of life were juxtaposed as the stunning modern architecture served as a backdrop to the wooden abras and dhow wharfage. As we cruised the length of the harbor, it was a pleasant way to view this unique city.
After the cruise, we crossed the street to the elegant Intercontinental Hotel,
where we had a really enjoyable meal. The lavish lunch buffet featured international as well as Middle Eastern cuisine and a huge international dessert bar that introduced me to the traditional Arabic dessert, um-ali, which is a type of creamy pudding topped with nuts, chocolate, and ice cream. My favorite dishes were the prawns, langostinos, and the many different chocolate desserts.
After lunch, we wandered around the streets near our hotel and found an Internet café, after which we returned to our room to get ready for the “must-do” adventure for everyone visiting Dubai, the desert safari. We were picked up at our hotel in a 4WD Toyota Land Cruiser by our driver, Oscal, a real-life Bedouin. We then stopped at another hotel to pick up four young people, who were fun to have along on this exciting experience. Matt and Gonzalo were from Argentina, and Kate and Fiona were from Scotland. Matt and Fiona were flight attendants for the luxurious Emirates Airlines.
After driving for about an hour away from the city and into the desert, we stopped at a roadside market to stock up on water and use the facilities. There was a fence separating the
highway from the desert on each side (ostensibly to keep the camels off), with nothing but sand as far as the eye could see in every direction. Suddenly there was an opening in the fence, and our driver whipped into the sea of sand dunes. As we waited for the tribe of more Land Cruisers to arrive, Oscal informed us that if any of us got sick easily, we should transfer to another vehicle. This is when we learned, to my apprehension, that he would be the lead driver, which meant extra jolts and excitement as he blazed the trail, tearing over the dunes. It. also meant, however, that he was the best driver, which relaxed me a bit, as we took off on our roller-coaster adventure.
There were about a dozen Land Cruisers in the caravan, as we went up, over, and across a vast array of astonishingly high dunes. Several of the Land Cruisers dropped out for periods of time because passengers were sick. No one in our vehicle had any problems, but we screamed a lot and hung on for dear life as we hoped the vehicle didn’t flip over. Not for the faint of heart,
but it was a unique experience and loads of fun.
We bounced, slid, and skated among the dunes to a “lookout” on top of one of the higher dunes with a breathtaking view of the endless desert, where we watched the sun set over the tranquil scenery. It was amazing to look towards the horizon and see sand dune after sand dune. It was difficult to tell the distance to or height of the next dune. I hope I never get lost in the desert because all directions look the same.
We then left the high dunes and traveled to a Bedouin village, where we received a unique insight into the traditional life of the Bedouins. Everything looked magical, as small lights lit up the complex. Before it got too dark, however, we were able to go for a short ride on camels, the “ships of the desert.” I almost got pitched off head first when my camel “kneeled” down to let me get off, but the handler caught me by the shoulder just in time! After our camel adventure, we wandered over to the Bedouin village and were treated to some sweets and some very strong Arabian
coffee in tiny cups before wandering around the camp and watching the Bedouins cooking their traditional foods over campfires. We had an opportunity to dress up in traditional costumes and to sample the sheesha pipe (“hubbly bubbly”), but we declined both and instead just sat around and enjoyed the cool desert air until the delicious barbecued dinner was served. Chicken, lamb and a variety of shishkabobs all tasted good and were nicely seasoned. Fresh veggies, hummus, tabbouleh, dates, and the delicious “um-ali” dessert completed the feast. We ate while sitting on pillows on the ground around low tables. Belly-dancing entertainment followed until about 10 p.m., when we all piled back into our Land Cruisers for the one-hour trip back to our hotels.
Tuesday, August 1
The hotel’s Lexus cab took us to the airport for our noon flight to Paris on Air France. We waited in the Air France lounge until boarding, and once again, the flight was comfortable with great food and personal television monitors for entertainment.
Some closing thoughts on Dubai
Dubai is one of the most forward-thinking cities in the world today. As its oil runs out (estimated 2010), Dubai has begun investing in
tourism and has pledged to be the premier tourist/leisure destination in the world with the "biggest," "tallest," or "only" of everything. It has a great start with the world's tallest building, only totally-underwater hotel, only indoor ski slopes, largest & most man-made islands, largest theme park/city (the $20 billion, 110 square-mile Dubailand - twice as big as DisneyWorld), largest port, and on and on. Construction continues at a breathtaking pace with more cranes per square foot than anywhere else in the world. I can’t imagine what the city will look like in ten years.
Despite being one of the most urbanized and modern cities in the world with luxury and riches seemingly without limits, the local Emiratis are extremely proud of their heritage, legacy, culture, and ancestral traditions. They have gone to great lengths to ensure that Bedouin skills and traditions remain in evidence, such as the continued building of dhows for work as well as pleasure. Men all wear the national dress, the spotlessly clean and cool white dishdasha, worn with a white headdress and cord. The women wear the traditional black silk abayas with headscarfs and sometimes a mask, or burkha. Their per capita income is one
of the highest in the world. It also has a hotel occupancy rate of 84%, one of the highest in the world.
Let's face it...getting on a plane and traveling for 18 to 20 hours (with all layovers) to go to the Middle East does not sound like fun, especially when the Middle East has such a "bad image" in the minds of most Americans. Additionally, most people (myself included, before this trip) know little or nothing about it. The first question we were always asked when we said we were going to Dubai was, “What’s in Dubai?”
I hope that I can change that mindset. A city literally being built before your eyes, Dubai is an up-and-coming destination not to be missed. We have traveled extensively, to over 70 countries, and we can honestly say that Dubai, UAE, is one of our favorite places to visit. The hospitality and customer service of this Arab nation are nothing short of the best in the world, as it absolutely caters to its guests. I can not speak enough about the people, and I highly recommend Dubai as a place to vacation.
There are more photos below