A weekend in Dubai
The largest hotels
and real kindness
A peek at the future development of Dubai's tourism facilities, including a visit to one of the artificial islands which are under construction off the coast of this Emirate. Besides impressive contemporary architecture, Dubai has an interesting history, which is brought alive in the museum in the 18th century Al Fahidi fort. A trip to the desert and the village of Hatta in the mountains should be part of every visit.
Text and photos: Aurélie Montfrond
Although Abu Dhabi is the largest emirate economically, Dubai is home to one third of the population of the United Arab Emirates. It has a common border with Oman and Saudi Arabia. It has been governed by the Maktoum family since 1833. The city in the desert is under construction.
Theme parks galore
The artificial Palm Islands are growing into cities themselves just as the Dubailand project, a city within the city being developed outside Dubai and due to being completed by 2018.
In ten years time, Dubai will become a global tourism destination. Dubailand will comprise of several theme parks, residential lots - including an exclusive residential area being built on its own private golf course -, hotels, entertainment, sport complex and the largest shopping mall in the world 'Mall of Arabia'.
This seems almost unrealistic but I had the chance to visit the offices of Dubailand and had a look at the maquettes and projects. It sounded insane and I liked it. The imagination it takes to come up with such ideas and to realize them was something I really appreciated.
Some of the theme parks are due to open in 2011. There will be a Dreamworks theme park for the first time ever. As the senior executive guides me through the office, he tells me discretely that they might build a hotel in the shape of Shrek.
There also will be a local Arabian theme park where the entrance will represent a distorted view of Dubai buildings. And a Legoland, a Universal Studios Park and an area like Steven Spielberg's Jurassic Park with dinosaurs hanging out while you can learn more about them.
When completed, Dubailand will have a population of about 2.5 million which is almost twice the actual population of Dubai.
Dubai is better if you have a car or a chauffeur to drive you around. You can easily travel from and to the different parts of the city by taxi. I arrived at Dubai airport on a Friday, early in the morning. All I knew was that I was supposed to be picked up by a chauffeur.
There he was, in his beige luxurious car with black stained windows. The chauffeur asked for my bags and he smiled. I had a small backpack and I was carrying my small laptop under my arm. I had my cameras, wires, a few t-shirts and a toilet bag. Its only for a few days, you don't need to carry more. It was 8 am and already 30 degrees.
He brought me to my hotel and explained he would drive me around Dubai during my stay. I thought that was nice. I was eager to see Dubai. I asked him to come back in two hours.
The new five stars hotel 'The Address' is situated in downtown Burj Dubai between the new Dubai mall and Burj Dubai itself. It opened only last October.
I had a room on one of the floors reserved for executives. They told me I had access to an executive lounge that was only a few meters away from my room and where I could have my breakfast and free beverages 24 hours a day. That was good, as it was probably quieter there than in the main restaurant.
I had breakfast and went into my room which was immense and equipped with an iPod dock and speakers. That was the first time I saw that. I put my small iPod in it and turned the music up loud! To be honest, I don't think the speakers were more than 3 Watt but that was enough.
I took a shower, grabbed my camcorder and camera, got down to the reception and went outside, where my driver was waiting for me. We embarked on a tour of Dubai.
The smallest of the artificial islands
We drove around east and west Jumeirah and then to the only new island that can be accessed by car yet: Palm Jumeirah with the new Atlantis hotel, one of the world's biggest hotels ever built. It was built in Indian style. It has a giant arch in the shape of one of the Taj Mahal domes.
Palm Jumeirah is the smallest of the three artificial islands. There are three in total. The middle one, still under construction, represents the world map, seen from the sky. The largest one is Palm Deira with a lenght of 27 km. It has hotels and residential lots.
Along the coast of Dubai are the Jumeirah beaches. Most of them are free to access but others have a small entrance fee. They are situated halfway between Burj Al Arab and the Jumeirah mosque.
These are not to be missed. Burj Al Arab has a futuristic shape and looks like a boat. It is a well-known hotel and 240 m high. The sky-view bar at the top of the hotel gives you a fantastic view of The World Islands development. Burj means 'tower'. Burj Al Arab or Arabian Tower is a landmark of Dubai.
The Jumeirah mosque is the largest in Dubai and the only one open to non-Muslims. I did not visit it but only had a look at the exterior. It has a really elegant architecture. The mosque was built in 1975 in the medieval Fatimid style which is a copy of a larger mosque in Cairo, Egypt.
The Mall of the Emirates
'Wanna buy cheap gold?'
The Mall of the Emirates is until now the largest mall in Dubai and has 400 shops. We stopped there to eat: there was a huge food court with all the fast food possible.
My driver was telling me that this Mall was a paradise for people as it was cheap, especially if I wanted to buy gold. I told him 'It might be cheap but you still have to pay for it and I dont want to pay for anything.'
He burst out laughing and asked me if I was interested in gold. I replied 'Not particularly, unless I want to resell it, but I just want to write at the moment.' He laughed again and insisted 'So you don't want to look around the gold souks' and I replied 'I could do it but I am afraid I'll just end up being bored. I prefer white gold anyway, as yellow gold looks cheap. At the end of the day, it is just a material and it does not have any meaning on its own.' He agreed in his strong Arabic accent.
Ski Dubai is a ski complex inside the mall. It is like a big freezer with people wearing ski outfits and skis. Just have a look around out of curiosity.
We were on our way back to my hotel. My driver thought I was courageous as I had just arrived in Dubai and we had been driving around the city for four hours. He asked me if I was not tired after all this touring. I replied 'I'll have time to be tired when I get back to Ireland.' He laughed and asked 'Island of what?'
Other people I encountered when I was relaxing in the executive lounge later on, didn't understand where I was from, either. Even though they were well-traveled people. I did not blame them. They thought it was the UK. I told them that it was an island located at the western end of Europe, the last country before the United States and after the UK. We could not stop laughing.
Two executives from Saudi Arabia, wearing the traditional white dress and scarf, were sitting at my table drinking mango juice, as was I. I asked them a lot of questions, they seemed to know just everything; or maybe I just don't know enough. I thought they were really cool and it contrasted so well with the westerners. I liked it.
There is no such thing as a western culture anymore, yet we critizice and have the pretention to make moral judgements on other cultures. We only want to see the world the way we decide to shape it for ourselves.
I was reminded of two people from a British news channel who were discussing how their news headline 'Sex on the beach in Dubai' would come accross and if anyone there would be willing to talk about it. It looked like they were suggesting that people in the Middle East were not normal and that this kind of behaviour was acceptable in Europe.
But its not, it is simply indecent and isn't tolerated anywhere in the world. What were these people thinking? They certainly weren't locals, but people from the UK on vacation.
Only thirty years ago, Dubai was a village in the desert
The next day I woke up early and enjoyed an hour or so on my own hanging around outside my hotel with my MP3 player. I do that everywhere I go. I don't know if it sounds weird, but my music is part of me and I had to listen to it for a while or I would go mad.
My driver picked me up in the early afternoon and we headed towards the old parts of Dubai, Deira and Bur Dubai. Dubai Museum is situated in Bur Dubai and housed in the 18th century Al Fahidi fort. It has several galleries that show the life around Dubai over the 5000 years of history of the settlement from its trading origins to the oil boom and finally the current construction fever.
One of the galleries showed a movie and photographs of Dubai in 1950. It was fascinating to see how from a village in the desert it developed into the Dubai of today, only 30 years later. The courtyard displays traditional housing and life in the desert. The last gallery on archeology shows pre-historic objects found around Dubai such as bronze daggers among others.
Bastakiya is a series of restored buildings lying around the creek near Dubai museum, dating back from around 1900. They house museums, art galleries, shops and restaurants. This is a good spot for strolling. It is also along the shore and the creek.
We walked along the creek where you can cross in narrow boats called 'Abra' for 1 dirham. There is a magnificient view of old Dubai along the new modern high-rise glass towers and the colourful old boats docked along the creek. Later in the afternoon I went back to my hotel.
I spent the evening in the lounge using the Wi-Fi while having a capuccino in my right hand and a mango juice in my left. As there were only a few people the waiters kept asking me if I wanted anything. They were really nice, as the evening went by one would talk to me in French.
Most of them were from Morroco, Tunisia or Algeria. They thought I was Arabic because of for my middle-eastern looks and because I don't drink alcohol. It's not refreshing and I do not want to be out of control.
Into the desert
The village of Hatta is a favorite destination for the locals
On the last day I went on a trip outside Dubai and saw the desert in the direction of Hatta, a small village in the mountains. If you are interested in going on an excursion outside Dubai and have limited time, make it this one. This is also a favourite destination for the locals as its air is fresher.
We only passed by the village and unfortunately did not stop but the scenic route is worth the detour. The village has a hotel. There are rather few attractions in the centre, apart from two watchtowers dating from 1880.
We crossed the border into Oman. I could see the extended desert lying across both sides of the road. There was less and less vegetation. Almost reddish sand and low dunes were taking shape. A donkey was hanging out on his own along the road and I saw a small herd of camels from a distance.
I felt the heat coming from the desert as we were driving at 180 km. It usually takes 1 hour to drive to Hatta but my driver told me he would make it in 30 minutes. I told him I liked speed. I felt like on a racing track.
We eventually stopped at a spot where you could see and ride camels. There were also falcons which are used for the traditional sport of the Arab elite, falconry. It has a dedicated following in Dubai and birds can cost up to 150,000 Dh each.
There was a baby monkey tied to a pole, eating some kind of nuts out of a plastic bag. It was fascinating to see him gesture and move around. I asked my driver, who works for the government of Dubai, jokingly if it was ok if I took the monkey and the falcon with me. They were so cute, even the falcon. I must be mad, as at the end of the day it's just a bird, but he looked so elegant and sophisticated.
There also were a couple of ostriches and camels. One of them approached me and posed for photographs. It was funny, as there were a lot of other people taking pictures but the camels would not even go near them.
As I got closer to the camels, one of them walked slowly towards me and just stayed near me while all the other people with cameras suddenly rushed around me and started to take pictures of the camel.
We went back to Dubai and drove through Dubai marina with its avenue full of palm trees, along high-rise buildings housing luxurious hotels and restaurants on one side and on the other side the sandy beach. It was sunset and I had never seen such colours. They were melting together slowly in the sky. That is because of the desert climate. It looked perfect.
Dubai was be the most exotic I place I ever visited and people around the hotel, the airport and everywhere were so kind, I could not believe it. Generally I expect people not to care and if I am lost or I need information, I know that I won't get a proper response so I have the habit not to wait for any explanation and to just walk away.
I acted the same in Dubai aiport and as I was going to walk away, I heard the person explaining to me in an intelligent and genuine way what I had do to get from point A to point B. That was how it was all the time, they were not just pretending but people were really kind. I could sense the sincerity and it was something I had missed for quite a long time. Dubai is worth a visit and several visits throughout the years to come as it keeps growing and turning into a new city all over again.