EXPLORING WORLD CLASS CITIES OF
DUBAI & ABU DHABI
Written by: Corbett Daniel Parker
Dubai’s ascent is unlike any other city. It forged itself from a quiet fishing village into a leading modern city in less than a generation thanks to striking significant oil in the mid-1960s. The amount of ongoing construction (even after the world economic recession) is incomprehensible. There are cranes on every corner, like downtown Miami’s condo boom until the mid-2000s.
Dubai is a tale of two cities that have more glitz and gold plating than any other city (think of America’s leading cities, just newer, nicer, and bigger, combined with the ingenuity of the Dutch for raising iconic structures out of the sea), while also carefully preserving the architecture and cultural importance of its Bastikia Quarter, Dubai Creek, and souqs (gold, spice, and textile markets being the most significant). Keep this dichotomy in mind when picking your hotel, because you can feel like you have explored two totally different countries if you stay and explore both the Dubai Creek area and the Financial Center or Dubai Marina area. You are missing out on the heart and soul and history of Dubai if you spend your entire trip basking in the sunny glitz and glamour of Dubai Marina and perusing their malls.
Dubai is clean, runs efficiently (world class Metro monorail runs like clockwork), is very tolerant for a Muslim country, and is ultra-sleek, borrowing architectural styles from around the globe. There is no better time to visit Dubai. Its current focus is on growing tourism, many of its recently constructed 5-star hotels are affordable (due to economic downturn, including the depressed price of oil), and Expo 2020 Dubai is on the horizon!
Every Dubai itinerary should include the 75-minute “Open door, Open minds” tour of the Jumeirah Mosque (Dubai’s only mosque open to non-muslims) put on daily at 10am by the Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Centre for Cultural Understanding. The tour not only provides access to the gorgeous interior, but goes to great length to provide insights into Islam and Emerati culture. No reservation is needed, just show up by 9:45am. Tour goers (women especially) are encouraged to dress modestly, although the Centre is happy to lend traditional attire to the forgetful. Absolutely make doing this a priority!
Tip: Trying the camel milk ice cream in the gift shop (about US$3) makes for a delicious, unique snack.
The Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world at 2,722 feet, is the centerpiece of a massive mixed-use development that includes the Dubai Mall (see to the right for more information) and Dubai Fountain that makes the Bellagio’s fountain show seem pedestrian. Tours take you to either the original 124th floor observatory (about US$35-$55 depending on the time of day booked) or the new 148th floor observatory (same views at over twice the price).
Tip: Visit the Burj Khalifa a half hour before sunset, so you can enjoy both the distant day time views and the awesome Dubai skyline lit up at night.
Not only is the Dubai Mall the world’s largest and most visited shopping and leisure destination, but its 1,200 shops (of course one of which is the largest candy store in the world) are joined by the Dubai Aquarium and Underwater Zoo, which houses penguins and a King Croc measuring over 5 meters and weighing over 750 kilograms. Are you starting to notice a pattern in Dubai’s mindset for attracting visitors?
Tip: This is another place to miss out on the intense heat of the middle of the day. Bring comfortable shoes!
There are two ways to visit the Burl Al Arab, the world renowned, self-appointed 7-star hotel standing on an artificial island (but merely the 4th tallest in the world). You may spend the night in one of its opulent double story suites (the smallest is 1,820 square feet) starting at about US$2,000 per night, or you can visit its Al Muntaha restaurant atop the Burj Al Arab, looking over the Persian Gulf, while enjoying soothing piano music and crisp wavy blue, green, and white colors. Those wanting to splurge a little less (or visiting in between lunch and dinner) may settle for having afternoon tea (about US$175 per person) or drinks in the Skyview Bar (US$100 minimum per person, but can include light snacks). While the drinks start at US$30, they are divine works of bartender craftsmanship. The Asante Sana drink is a 4-part artistic experience! The Snowdrop, the iconic drink of Burj Al Arab, brings refreshment to the soul.
The service accompanying one of the finest views in the world is impeccable! Don’t rush away from drinks or dinner too fast without taking in the jaw-dropping lobby. Regardless of the length of your stay, this is definitely an experience not soon forgotten.
Great views of the iconic sail-shaped building can be enjoyed from Madinat Jumeirah, where a wonderful stroll through the souk (an authentic re-creation of an ancient marketplace with traditional Middle Eastern style and ambience) and canal-side dining (a calming Venetian-like ambience) awaits you just south of the Burj Al Arab. Those wanting to spend more time here should consider staying at one of the first class crème de la crème resorts of Mina A’ Salam or Al Qasr.
TIP: You will not be granted entrance to Burj Al Arab’s island without a hotel, restaurant, or bar reservation.
Dubai Marina, an artificial canal city along the Persian Gulf, is where Dubai flexes its modern, ultra-exclusive muscle with the famed Palm Jumeirah jetting out into the Persian Gulf, the marina filled with super yachts lined by a Miamiesque skyscraper condo-scene, and Sky Dive Dubai, which is located on the beach for adrenaline junkies. This entirely manmade development continues to be improved upon in phases that top each other and when finished should constitute the largest man-made marina. In addition to boat tours, the marina can be enjoyed via a stroll down the 1.7 kilometer Walk, where world class food and shopping is abundant. You can also head to the nearby Mall of the Emirates to shop until you drop (or snow ski indoors at Ski Dubai).
TIP: Don’t settle for a pre-set cruise with canned commentary. Instead, be in control of your own personal voyage by hiring a private boat and captain, (since licenses are now required to drive a boat) and create a personalized tour of the marina’s inner canals lined with opulent architecture, out into the Persian Gulf, around the Palm Jumeirah (an iconic artificial palm-shaped archipelago that juts out into the Persian Gulf), past Atlantis the Palm (at the tip of the palm) and Burj Al Arab resorts, and to the yet-to-be completed, much talked about, The World Islands. Those wanting to burn some calories can even hire a ski boat!
TIP: Among the assortment of 5-star hotels is Grosvenor House, where you should specifically ask for a corner room with a huge courtyard patio providing panoramic views of Palm Jumeirah and Dubai Marina.
WEST Side of Dubai Creek
Immersion into the Emerati culture should start in the Bastakia Quarter on the west side of Dubai Creek at its small Dubai Museum and strolling its original narrow streets. The museum is located in Al Fahidi Fort (the oldest existing building in Dubai), and the entrance fee is just over US$1. It takes less than an hour to travel through Dubai’s history, and it serves as a nice backdrop for the rest of your time exploring Dubai. The tall dhow (traditional boat) sitting on top of the museum makes the perfect background for your first Kodak moment. By the time you leave, you will understand the recent rapid development you will no doubt notice throughout other areas of Dubai. An added bonus is the cool underground air serves as the perfect escape from the intense heat of the middle of the day.
Don’t leave Bastakia Quarter without taking a little time to stroll the narrow streets just south of the museum that take you back to Dubai’s earlier days. Stop for a strong Arabic coffee or tea on the rooftop of Bastakiah Nights (also serves a full menu) or in the intimate courtyards of Marami or Basta Art Café. Before heading across Dubai Creek, fashionistas should allow time to peruse the world-class selection of fabrics at shop after shop in the Textile Souq just north of the museum. Those seeking a very personal souvenir may take their favorite cloth to a tailor to make a traditional abaya paired with hijab head scarf (women) or kandura paired with agal headband and ghutra scarf (men).
Tip: Staying in a Dubai Creek area hotel gives you a completely different, more authentic introduction to Dubai than the beautiful beaches and world class shopping of the marina and financial areas. The ample supply of 5-star hotels, like Raffles Dubai, ensures you do not compromise luxury for such authenticity.
EAST Side of Dubai Creek
The Dubai Creek is best crossed via a 5-minute ride on an abra (wooden water taxis), just as Emeratis have done for centuries (cost less than US$1). Upon arrival, stop along the water way to admire the stacking of everything from produce to high-end electronics as high as you can see on the traditional dhow wooden cargo ships (no cranes or cargo containers needed here!). Foodies should follow the overwhelming scents to discover the Spice Souq, while jewelry lovers should mentally prepare for the significant negotiating to be done in order to take advantage of the reputation for really cheap gold at the dazzling Gold Souq. There is little need to worry about the genuineness of purchases since the government tightly regulates the quality of merchandise (NOT true for street vendors hawking fake high-end hand bags, watches, and perfumes).
Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates, sits off the mainland on an island in the Persian Gulf. It is less than 2 hours from Dubai. The highlights of Abu Dhabi include a visit to the opulent Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque and Emirates Palace, eating marina-side on Yas Island, touring the Yas Viceroy Hotel built on top of the Formula One track, riding the world’s fastest roller coaster at Ferrari World, and relaxing beachside on Sadiyaat Island.
The Emirates Palace is not only arguably the finest of the UAE’s 5-star hotels (it’s the only real palace with public accommodation); it is also a destination for non-hotel guests. Its grandeur, particularly its interior furnished in gold and marble and 85 hectares of gardens, cannot be adequately explained. It must be experienced firsthand! Those pressed for time should walk through the hotel’s lobby and gardens, while those on a more relaxed schedule should ensure they enjoy afternoon tea or a meal at one of its multiple award-winning restaurants before heading to their next destination.
Despite only being a decade old, Yas Island development (about a half hour from Abu Dhabi) has already put itself on the map by providing opportunities to have relaxing marina-side meals (eat at Cipriani to enjoy one of the finest meals you will ever have), tour one of the world’s most unique hotels (Yas Viceroy), see the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix (Formula One) racetrack, and ride the world’s fastest Formula Rossa rollercoaster at Ferrari World (arrive when it opens or towards the end of day to avoid the lines).
TIP: Since it is the nearest attraction to Abu Dhabi’s international airport, this is a great destination for those only passing through Abu Dhabi with a short layover.
The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, one of the most impressive examplesb of contemporary Islamic architecture, was built to bring the world together through its use of materials and craftsmen from across the globe. This key center of worship in the UAE features an immense Persian carpet, crystal chandeliers, and a capacity to hold over 40,000 worshipers. Women especially should dress modestly and behave respectfully to avoid causing international controversies similar to the ones recently created by Rihanna and Selena Gomez. The mosque is free and open to the public from 9am to 10pm (last entry 9:30pm) all days, except Friday, when it is open 4:30pm to 10pm. Tours are provided 2 to 5 times per day.
Paris will soon meet New York in the Middle East on Sadiyaat Island (just 10 minutes from downtown Abu Dhabi) thanks to both the Louvre and Guggenheim opening their cutting edge architectural wonders there in the next year. While development of the island is just starting to take shape (expected completion is in 2020), it is immediately apparent why the island’s Arabic name means “happiness island.” The already-constructed St. Regis resort has its own private beach (impeccable beach/zero edge poolside service) and features internationally-known culinary favorites, like Koi sushi, and nightlife attractions, like People by Crystal nightclub. They care about the surrounding nature, too. They take extreme caution to protect the Hawksbill turtles during nesting season.
TIP: Those lucky enough to stay for the night should ask their personal butler to create a massive bubble bath—a highlight for the kid in all of us!
The 411 on Dubai and Abu Dhabi
Their economy is no longer just oil. The oil sector now accounts for less than 10% of Dubai’s GDP. Finance, information technology, and tourism are now the star players.
They are inviting cities for Western tourists. 80% of Dubai’s residents are expats, many of whom are Brits and Americans that brought over their favorite stores and culinary staples. Abu Dhabi’s status as the capital of the UAE has made it a mirror of the world as well. English is widely spoken in both cities.
Almost everything requires bargaining. Outside of international department stores and restaurants, it takes patience and a knack for negotiating to ensure you get a good deal. Start by offering no more than half of the quoted price, or —even better—hirer a local to do your bargaining.
Haze covers the cities. There is a semi-permanent heat haze (with dust from never-ending construction competing with it) that obscures distant views, which can make trips to the top of Burj Khalifa not as enjoyable as one might imagine at certain times of day and year.
Alcohol is expensive, but not banned (for Non-Muslims). While visitors may not consume alcohol strolling Dubai & Abu Dhabi’s streets, like in New Orleans or Las Vegas, alcohol is readily accessible throughout each city in licensed premises (just about every restaurant and private club attached to an international hotel)…yet expensive. Residents must obtain an alcohol license to consume. UAE has a ZERO tolerance for drinking by Muslims, public intoxication, or drinking and driving!
They have world class airports. Both Dubai and Abi Dhabi’s international airports are ultra-modern, very clean, and run efficiently. Abu Dhabi’s airport even has a US Customs Preclearance facility, which allows you to clear customs before you touch US soil—you will arrive in your US destination as if you are a domestic passenger. Should you find yourself with extra dirhams or time, you can do some shopping for your next designer bag or suit at in-terminal Hermes, Bulgari, Ferragamo, and Coach stores. Should you find the need to grab a last minute UAE souvenir head to The Souk.