I don’t tend to use this phrase much as it’s so overused but Dubai really is like Marmite – you love it or you hate it. Considering I keep going back, it’s safe to say my opinion is the former! A combination of flashy cars, oversized shopping malls, thrilling theme parks and enough sun to last you a lifetime, Dubai is a place like no other. There’s no denying that the heat can sometimes become uncomfortable, especially in the summer months when it climbs to a sticky 50c at times, but the ice cold air conditioning that blasts you at every indoor opportunity is nothing short of heavenly and makes things bearable. This year, we went away with a big group of my family at the end of July, one of the hottest times of year to visit the United Arab Emirates. A lot of people said we were crazy but with promises of an extensive all-inclusive cocktail list and 5 refreshing swimming pools to choose from at the Jebel Ali Golf Resort and Spa, we happily took our chances! After a 7 hour flight from London Heathrow, we arrived at Dubai airport, one of the busiest airports in the world. We then had a 45 minute transfer before we stepped into the oasis of the Jebel Ali, around a 30 minute drive from downtown Dubai. Downtown Dubai is not necessarily a very busy city but it was nice to stay slightly further out. I first came to the Jebel Ali with my parents in 2004 and we like it so much here that we don’t tend to stay anywhere else. The staff are friendly, the hotel and grounds are beautiful and with 7 different restaurants to choose from, all serving different cuisine, it’s safe to say we were never hungry! The hotel also has a shooting range where we each had a go at shooting a 9mm pistol with guidance from a dedicated instructor. Not wanting to blow my own trumpet but getting 4 in the bullseye wasn’t bad for my first attempt whilst wearing 6 inch heels! 😜
While in Dubai we went on a couple of excursions, one being a Desert Safari and the other being a Penguin Encounter at Ski Dubai (yes, you read that right – SKI DUBAI – but more on that later!) which were both based outside of our resort. There are a number of things to bear in mind when out and about in Dubai. The culture and religious views of people in this part of the world say that it is unacceptable for women to show their bare shoulders or legs in public. Any public display of affection between couples is also frowned upon. There is no need to refrain from showing a lot of skin or holding hands within your hotel, but it’s important to abide by their laws when at the shopping malls or in downtown Dubai as you may be stopped by police if they feel you are not being respectful. Saying this, it has never affected our time spent outside of the resort and I think in recent years, the people of Dubai have actually become a lot more relaxed and tolerant of the English culture. After reading a lot of great reviews for Desert Safari Dubai, I enquired about a trip for 6 of us via their website (www.desertsafaridubai.com). After a few emails back and forth I decided to spend a little extra and upgrade our ride to a Hummer which in my opinion was well worth the money. All in all, we were in the Hummer for around 4 hours and were grateful for the extra space it gave us. We arrived in the desert after an hour’s drive from the Jebel Ali and were ushered into a row of gift shops while our driver let all of the air out of his tyres before our dune bashing session. There were a number of pushy shopkeepers mulling around trying to get us to buy traditional costume in the form of head scarves and robes which made us all feel slightly uncomfortable. It was a side to Dubai that I hadn’t seen before and it wasn’t a place I would want to visit again. After around a 15 minute wait, we piled back in the Hummer and edged forward into the desert. Our driver wasn’t much of a talker but he sure knew how to ride the sand dunes! We had a 20 minute thrill-ride going up, down and sideways(!) along the dunes at stomach-churning speed before stopping in the heart of the desert for photo opportunities. As we stepped out of the Hummer, cameras in hand, I was surprised at how windy it was. So much so that I lost my sunglasses, hat and scarf all with one huge gust of wind! This paired with the ridiculous heat made it quite an unpleasant environment to be in. Nevertheless, we climbed the tallest sand dune (with much effort I must add) and the view was fantastic, all you could see was desert for miles and miles with no other cars, people or even landmarks in sight. We pumped the tyres back up and drove to base camp, around 25 mins from where we did the dune bashing. Base camp consisted of cushions on the sand for you to sit on, a small shack that served drinks and an undercover area where a lady was carrying out Henna tattoos; not the most luxury of sites but it certainly felt as if you were in the middle of a desert! Here we rode camels and were given the opportunity to do some quad-biking but after an afternoon of adrenaline, we decided to sit this out, choosing instead to get a drink from the shack and wait for the traditional arabic entertainment to start. We watched the blood-orange sun set on the horizon and settled down to watch the dancers, one being a very scantily-clad belly dancer which I was surprised to see in a country like Dubai who impose such a strict dress-code for women. A BBQ was included in the price of our excursion and although it looked perfectly fine to eat, we chose to wait until we got back to the hotel to have dinner. It’s definitely an experience I would recommend, even if it’s just to say that you have spent a night under the stars in the middle of an Arabian desert. It’s certainly an experience I will remember.
Now onto my favourite experience I had in Dubai…! This took place within the second largest shopping mall in the world – The Mall of the Emirates. The Mall of the Emirates is huge with over 700 shops, an indoor theme park, a 500 seat theatre and of course, the main attraction, Ski Dubai (https://booking.skidxb.com). Ski Dubai is an indoor ski centre, boasting 22,500 square meters of fun in a – 4c environment. With skiing, snowboarding, tobogganing and snowy adventures to be had, it’s not an experience you would necessarily associate with the skyscrapers and deserts of the middle east but that is part of its appeal. While we didn’t do any skiing on this trip, we did visit Ski Dubai to meet with the 3 ft tall residents that live there – penguins (Gentoo and King penguins to be exact)! We booked an exclusive encounter, which at just over £100 each, wasn’t cheap but this package ensures that it is a 1-to-1 experience with your group and the penguin trainer (if your group size is 4 persons or more). It’s an experience that can only be done in Dubai and nowhere else in the world gives you the opportunity to cuddle, feed and play with penguins in such an intimate environment. We were first kitted out with Ski Dubai snowsuits before making our way to the Penguin meeting point and being introduced to our dedicated trainer. He then proceeded to take us into the freezing cold habitat where the penguins live, 19 in total including a number of chicks that were born this year. We were given a behind the scenes tour before we were introduced to all the penguins by name (McFatty being my personal favourite!). We were told lots of interesting facts before we were given opportunities to stroke, cuddle and feed the penguins. It was the most amazing experience, all captured by our own personal photographer who followed us around the habitat. As part of the price we paid for the encounter, we received 1 photo per person and then they offer photo packages for you to purchase afterwards. These are not cheap though – before we bartered the price with them they asked us for another £100 for all the photos on a disc! I won’t go into too much detail of what happens during the encounter as I don’t want to ruin the fun for anyone else but it’s something that I can happily tick off my bucket list. Find out more about the Penguin habitat here – http://skidubaipenguins.com. There’s even a package that allows you to swim with them!
The largest shopping mall in the world is also located in Dubai – The Dubai Mall. With over 1200 shops, an ice rink and an underwater zoo and aquarium (that you can see by going on a glass-bottom boat ride!) among other things, it really is a monster of a mall but a very impressive one at that. Walking through the indoor Souk here is mesmerising with 220 jewellery outlets that are full to the brim with gold and rare jewels (including the biggest diamonds you will ever see) – you’ll be sure to fall in love with something! The original Gold Souk can be found in an area called Deira and is open 7 days a week. This busy outdoor market is the place to go for bargains or if you are in search of a momento to take home with you. Just next door is also the Spice Souk – just as interesting a place with a rainbow of weird and wonderful spices on display for you to purchase or taste. Dubai Mall is also home to the Dubai Fountains, the world’s largest choreographed fountain system in the world set on the 30-acre manmade Burj Khalifa Lake and designed by the same people that built the Bellagio Fountains in Las Vegas. The shows are scheduled at 1pm and 1:30pm during the day and then every 30 minutes from 6pm in the evening. The musical displays definitely have the wow-factor, especially with the Burj Khalifa soaring majestically above them. The Burj Khalifa is the world’s tallest building (we’re beginning to see a bit of a theme here…) at 830m tall meaning it’s three times as tall as the Eiffel Tower and nearly twice as tall as the Empire State Building. It was made famous in the latest Mission Impossible film and believe it or not, Tom Cruise was granted permission to climb up and have a seat at the very top of the spire. Rather him than me! Entrance to the Sky Observation Deck can be accessed through the shopping mall but it is extremely pricey (see prices and information on peak timings here – https://tickets.atthetop.ae/atthetop). However, discounts can be had if purchased in conjunction with tickets to the Aquarium or if you visit outside of peak hours so it is definitely worth looking into this before booking your visit. There is no real need to purchase tickets in advance of visiting the shopping mall as you can book a time slot for entry every 30 minutes until closing. The only slots that tend to get booked up are at the time of the sunset as the views are pretty spectacular. You have to go through a security check, similar to the ones at an airport but this doesn’t take long and the lift travels at 10 metres per second, meaning it takes just under 1 minute to reach the 126th floor! The view is fantastic and as it’s the tallest skyscraper in the world, it’s a must-do in Dubai.
One thing to bear in mind when you leave a shopping mall – there are organised queues for taxis with staff pointing you to available cars when you near the front of the queue. The staff will automatically point you towards an unmarked taxi who will charge you double the price of a normal one! The staff here obviously have some sort of deal going with the unmarked taxi drivers and although it is perfectly safe to get in one, if you are on a budget make sure you refuse and ask to ride in a marked taxi!
There are a number of different water parks in Dubai but Wild Wadi next door to the Jumeirah Beach hotel is my favourite (http://www.jumeirah.com/en/hotels-resorts/dubai/wild-wadi/). It’s not as big as some of the others in Dubai but the rides have got some serious thrill-factor with signs telling you not to ride if you’re the sort of person that eats your pizza with a knife and fork or if you always safely eject a USB!
If you are staying at the Jumeirah Beach, entry is free. As my little brother was a bit older for this trip, we decided to take him on some rides with a hilarious outcome – our favourite ride being the Burj Surj.
Saying this, the Aquaventure waterpark at the Atlantis hotel on Palm Island is a lot of fun too. Again, if you are staying at the hotel, entrance is free of charge. With a Leap of Faith waterslide that takes you through a glass tunnel within a shark-infested aquarium and a Dolphin lagoon where you can swim with them, it’s a unique attraction to visit. While we didn’t go to the Atlantis during this trip, it’s worth a visit if you’re a bit of a big kid at heart! (https://www.atlantisthepalm.com/marine-water-park/aquaventure-waterpark)
The other main thing to see in Dubai if you’re into ticking off all the sites is the Burj Al Arab. Built in 1999, it has prided itself in being the world’s only 7 star hotel. The distinctive shape of the hotel that mimics a sail is arguably the most recognisable structure in Dubai, known for it’s ridiculously luxurious interiors and services that it offers. It sits on an artificial island that is 280m from Jumeirah beach and you also gain free entrance to Wild Wadi waterpark if you stay here. Rooms can cost from anywhere between £2,000 and £4,000 per night and it seems to be more of a statement to stay here than anything else. When I was a bit younger, I went to the Al Muntaha restaurant positioned on the 27th floor with a magnificent view of the Arabian Gulf. It’s a once in a lifetime experience with menu prices that also reflect this! A visit to the Burj Al Arab should be on your list of things to do in Dubai but take along a credit card with a high limit if you plan on stopping for a drink! This short video uploaded to their official YouTube account should give you a feel for it!
Dubai is fast becoming a tourist hotspot, especially for the English and it’s easy to see why. When I need to recharge my batteries or fancy a (LARGE) dose of vitamin D, it’ll be my go-to holiday destination for many more years to come.