By Gregory D. McCluney
Rising out of the desert, framed by the world’s tallest building and another built like a giant sail over the sea, Dubai dumbfounds the first-time visitor. The eyes see a phoenix, a contemporary city of the future, while visitors tour canals in abras, traditional wooden boats. Not far away, men dressed in white attend a camel race. It seems at first like Disney’s latest and greatest project. How did this city get here, and who built it?
There’s an easy answer: The ruling family of a tiny Middle Eastern country, the United Arab Emirates, wanted to build a great city by the Persian Gulf, making a bold statement of their success and contributions to the Arab world and beyond. In doing so, they wisely chose to reflect on their past as well. Arab culture and history remain in place in working neighborhoods, souks, canals, outdoor shopping arcades, restaurants, food stalls and in museums unlike any you’ll find anywhere else in the world, especially if you love gold and spices.
The most efficient means of getting an overview of the city is to put the whole family (including friends, relatives and business associates) on the hop-on/hop-off Big Bus Dubai with commentary in 10 languages, or board the amphibious Wonder Bus, which takes passengers right into the water. These tours, along with a metro card and some cash for taxis (buses are comfortable but slow), will enhance your planning. After your tour relax, have a cold drink (only certain hotel restaurants and bars are approved to sell alcohol) and a snack along the canals and get out your city map to plan your days ahead.
Business travelers come to do business and enjoy the pleasures of meeting in some of the newest upscale facilities in the world. The term “no expense was too great” hardly makes the point. After 5 p.m. there’s more to see and do than in almost any other center of commerce on the planet. But the streets also teem with families and children from around the world, and they’re here to play. LGBTQ+ visitors should know public displays of affection are taboo, so discretion is strongly advised.
Several souks, mosques, kids’ attractions, beaches and water parks, and sights such as the Burj Khalifa deserve a visit and will appeal to almost everyone. Others, such as the golf club, Old Town and history museums may cater to more particular tastes. When the kids hit the beach, adults can enjoy a guided tour of the Jumeirah Mosque, the only one open to all faiths (except on holy Fridays). Seating 1,200, it treats visitors to a local snack after the tour (remember to dress conservatively). Then head to Etihad Museum to learn the history of the United Arab Emirates. Later, join the kids at the JBR Beach and then float the clean canals of the Madinat Jumeirah Resort and stay for dinner, choosing from a collection of 50 restaurants. Treat the kids to a night ride on the Ain Dubai Ferris wheel at JBR Beach.
Time to rest for a morning visit to the world’s largest mall, Dubai Mall, with some 1,200 stores, restaurants, an ice rink and the Dubai Aquarium. It’s the ultimate shop-till-you-drop experience for all. Sunset makes the perfect time to ascend the Burj Khalifa to the observation room on the 148th floor. For a laid-back dinner, The Irish Village welcomes kids who can enjoy their own private playground and garden. It’s a good place to meet some Europeans and trade stories over a shepherd’s pie and Guinness.
No one in the group should miss the chance to snow ski in the desert — or at least watch the scene at Ski Dubai at the Mall of the Emirates. The facility provides all clothing and equipment and serves hot refreshments. Drop the kids at the mega water park, Wild Wadi, so the adults can visit the souks in Old Town, see the gold and spice vendors and get a taste of Old Dubai, where the city actually was born. On the way home, stop for a look at the Dubai Fountain, the largest choreographed fountain in the world.
Before leaving the U.A.E., friends and family have to gather for the most memorable desert experience — a safari on the dunes. While the ski slopes, malls and amusement parks offer great fun, a real taste of Bedouin culture will never be forgotten. You can book any of a selection of safaris, from a brief Jeep ride to an all-day or overnight stay. But most include some dune bashing, quad biking, camel riding, shisha (hookah bar) and an Emirati dinner with belly dancers under the tents. It’s an adventure no one forgets. After all, Dubai defies description.
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