What we did:
– W The Palm pool day US$55
– Burj Khalifa light and fountain show, Serafina Restaurant Terrace
– Dubai Mall & Aquarium (free to look…unless you shop!)
– Dubai Museum & Bur Dubai Souk, US$1
– Desert Safari Tour, US$80pp
When Ben and I were invited to a wedding in Lebanon, we thought this was the perfect excuse to explore a bit more of the Middle East, a place neither of us had travelled in before.
I was coming from the UK, Ben from Sydney, and my good friend Emma lives in Dubai – making it the ideal starting point for our Middle Eastern Adventures.
I landed at 8am and whizzed through passport control. Various nationalities are eligible for a free 30 day tourist visa on arrival in Dubai, latest list here.
Emma was working and Ben didn’t land until that afternoon. How to spend the day in 40+ degree heat having just come off an overnight flight?
The W Hotel on the Palm opened in Jan 2019. We spent an excellent pre-flight day at W Seminyak, Bali last year, so I thought I’d see if I could do the same in Dubai.
Given it was Ramadan and hotels were generally quieter, I didn’t need to book. There was no entry charge/fee for a lounger however there was a minimum spend of 200Dirhams = US$55. Now food and drink is pretty extortionate in Dubai, so this got me a mocktail, a tuna poke bowl and a watermelon ice cream…and of course a prime spot by the pool for the day.
Given the hotel only opened in Jan it surprisingly felt a bit dated already, but perhaps it’s just hard to keep things looking fresh in the searing heat of the desert.
I took an Uber from the airport to W and on to Emma’s that afternoon. Uber’s were surprisingly expensive with both trips costing around US$35. I learned that the favoured app of the moment by locals is called Careem, where you can pre-order and which is usually the cheapest way to get around.
One of my drivers was from Pakistan and one was from Bangladesh. This is pretty representative of the labour force in Dubai – of the 9.4M people in the UAE, only 1.2M are Emirati citizens and the other 7.2M are expatriates.
Now just to clarify because I’ll admit to getting confused by this in the past…the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is a country, it is then made up of 7 Emirates, of which Dubai and Abu Dhabi are likely to be the 2 you’ve heard most about.
That afternoon we all came together at Emma’s apartment and had tea and a catch up before heading out for the evening.
What is it like travelling to Dubai during Ramadan? The 30 day annual period where Muslims fast between dawn and dusk. I wasn’t sure what to expect, would we be able to get any food and drink during the day? Would anywhere serve alcohol?
As it was, it didn’t have a huge impact on the trip. The W was still serving food, drink and alcohol during the day, as I assume most large tourist geared hotels do.
When we went out for dinner that night at Serafina, situated in a awesome location directly opposite the Burj Khalifa, with an uninterrupted view of the daily extra extravagant light and fountain show which runs at roughly 15 minute intervals throughout the evening. The restaurant didn’t open until about 7pm, and the waitress told us we could order alcohol but it wouldn’t be served until after the official Iftar (breaking of the fast) time.
After dinner we went for a stroll through the neighboring Dubai Mall. I must say it was unique to see hundreds of fish swimming around an aquarium in the middle of a shopping centre, and a huge internal waterfall. Despite people’s recommendations that you could spend days in there, 30 minutes was probably enough for me!
The next day Ben and I went sightseeing. Again there’s only so much you can do when the mercury is in the 40s, so we got a taxi to Dubai museum, which had a good history of how the city grew off the back of it’s port to become the hub it is today. It was interesting to see how the decisions by the Royal family to invest in infrastructure early in the 20th century then facilitated the rapid expansion once oil was discovered in the 1960s and 70s.
It was only 3AED (US$1) to enter the museum and I’d recommend it to anyone who’d like to see a little more of Dubai and its history.
We then strolled through the neighbouring Bur Dubai Souk. I’d hoped that like a previous trip to Morocco during Ramadan, the shop operators would be conserving energy rather than expending it on the usual intensive sales pitches, but no, shouts of “Shakira Shakira” still echoed after us, with relentless attempts to swaddle us in pashminas.
I can only assume these sales tactics must work on some people, but for me it’s such a turn off I will just power past the stall without even looking if I’m getting harassed.
So we didn’t last too long in the Souk. Pashmina’d out we returned to Emma’s place to prepare for that evening outing – the desert safari.
There were a whole host of options for desert safaris from Dubai. Em said she’d previously done one that was a bit budget, and they then ranged up to VIP exclusive picnics.
We opted for a ‘mid-range’ provider, the somewhat generically named Desert Safari Tours. It cost US$80pp and I’d say was well worth it. The tours still run during Ramadan and the only differences are no belly dancing and no alcohol is served.
They collected us from Em’s apartment in a small Jeep with just one other couple in. We drove about 45 minutes out of Dubai and what started as somewhat tame off-roading quickly escalated into full on ‘dune bashing’. Luckily our driver seemed pretty skilled, so it was just the right amount of adrenalin!
After being offered option of quad biking we then pulled into a desert camp. It was definitely geared for the tourists, with a row of camels awaiting us.
We went for a quick ride – although not as quick as their max speed of 60kmph (#Camelfunfactnumber3) and Em attempted to get a camel selfie, which was an amusing balance between needing to get close enough for the photo, but not wanting to get so close you get bitten!!
As the camp fell into shade the temperate quickly dropped and we had a really delicious Middle Eastern buffet dinner. Followed by Arabic coffee and dates.
In the absence of belly dancing we were treated to an Egyptian inspired whirling dervish dance. He made it look so easy, spinning 3 ‘skirts’ around his waist, neck and overhead simultaneously. However I suspect it is like hula hooping and if I was to try I would quickly be tied in fabric knots.
It was then announced that the lights would be dimmed for the finale, which featured 3 ‘very special guests’… the lights went out, anticipation grew, and then 3 of the camels that had been outside all night begrudgingly strolled across the top of the dune outside the camp….. I was waiting for them to light up or something. Perhaps a slightly anti-climatic finish but an excellent evening.
The next morning it was up early an on a flight to Amman, Jordan.
I had certain pre-conceived notions of Dubai: hot, artificial, expensive. It would be fair to say that those were proved true, however it was still a brilliant couple of days and well worth it to spend some time with Emma and see her life there!
Next up…driving around Jordan.