For nearly two decades, Dubai has been portrayed as a veritable land of plenty by professional expats and jet-setters who flock to the desert oasis seeking opportunity, lavish lifestyle experiences and adult play in the ever-expanding seaside metropolis.
When I booked my recent trip with East Texas Bama, I had similar visions dancing in my head. In each, I’m decked out in some Arab-inspired frock, sipping something strong, and spying something beautiful. To me, Dubai would be every fabulous US destination wrapped in one: it’s bustling, Midtown Manhattan and sexy, South Beach, Miami; it’s the wild Las Vegas Strip and elite Rodeo Drive; it’s exciting and luxurious, sexy and alluring. But could one place really ever be all of those things? Somehow, Dubai is. And it seems to have been built that way.
The brainchild of liberal-minded, West-friendly, filthy-rich Arab sheiks, present-day Dubai was designed to tickle the adult fancy with a little opulence and R&R. Here, you can have it your way. But with so much going on and come-hither fingers pulling tourists in countless directions, one has to be clear about what her way actually is. The thing is, along with all of those other fabulous characteristics, Dubai is also fast-paced, moody, and super expensive (be prepared to spend lots of money, should you visit). Like Vegas, there are winners and losers here. The latter try to take it all in, get Dubai-beaten, Dubai-angry and leave Dubai-broke. The former get smart, focus only on what’s most important, and spend the rest of their time poolside, beachside, and tableside (where they stuff their faces). After trying to do everything listed in my travel itinerary Google doc (yes, I do that) and running myself ragged my first two days in Dubai, I became the former and got travel smart. I focused only on what I absolutely had to experience in this special place, things I could only see and do in Dubai. The result was a romantic, exciting and informative quest that begs return.
Below, check out my list of Dubai do’s and don’ts. There are some highlights you won’t find elsewhere and pictures that’ll have you ready to book your Dubai vacation.
Do this in Dubai-
1. Marina Walk foodie tour: Dubai has long attracted entrepreneurs and professionals the world over seeking opportunity and a leg-up in the oil-rich nation. The impact on the culture is a New York-style hodgepodge of humanity where every race, creed, and religion is represented. Where people go, they bring their food, and Dubai has it all. A central location that features many of the foodie offerings is Dubai Marina Walk, a winding walking strip kissing the water that provides beautiful views of the city at night and an opportunity to peruse small food vendors and shops. Cuisine options go from simple pizza to complex Persian. In between, foodies will find Italian, Indian, Japanese, Chinese, Mexican and American delights. Some locations even boast offerings from around the world. Perhaps the best thing about the food, is most places are reasonably priced. Top picks: Indego By Vineet (Indian); Royal Orchid (Thai); Buddha Bar (night life and Asian-inspired eats).
2. Al Awir Desert Safari: While I’d never heard of one of these desert excursions before booking my trip to Dubai, I was immeditatly game when I stumbled upon the website. One thing that’s missing from much of the pomp in Dubai is ancient culture and visions of what was there long before the big buildings, manmade beaches and highways. Dubai was once a small trading post featuring fishing and a thriving pearl market. While stops at the old souks can give a glimpse of this past, it’s mostly been wiped away by so called progress. While I knew the safari wouldn’t take me back in time, I was sure it would take me away from the city, beyond what I knew and show me something different. At differing price points for half and full day visits, the Al Awir Desert Safari features a day in the desert, dune bashing, four-wheeler riding, camel/horse rides, henna painting, hookah, full dinner, drinks (non-alcoholic), and entertainment. We booked with Dream Nights Tours for $60 per person.
3. Dubai Fountains: Designed by creators of the Fountains of Bellagio in Vegas, this fountain features a water show choreographed to music. The water shoots up some 500 feet in the air and dances back down to the 30-acre Burj Khalifa Lake. The show starts every 15-30 minutes and ends late in the evening. Go at night (I went a 9:00 pm) and witness the glowing lights of the Burj Khalifa just beyond the fountain. While I wasn’t at first impressed with the show, the atmosphere around the fountain made it one of the most memorable moments of the trip. There are families and couples, tourist groups and locals, hanging around the fountain, all eyes glued on dancing water as they delight in the spectacle. For a few minutes, as the music plays, we are all happy and mesmerized by the most basic of elements in the world. Tips: Have a drink at one of the cafes outside the area of Dubai Mall facing the fountains before taking in the show. Sit back and watch as others enjoy it all. During one of the rotations, head to the bridge and get a good spot. We sat at California Pizza Kitchen. Yes, just about any major brand you can think of has a presence in Dubai and, to our surprise, popular American chain The Cheesecake Factory recently topped a new consumer satisfaction index behind only Apple and Emirates Airlines.
4. Dubai Metro, Public Transportation: When I travel, one of my delights is enjoying a little local flavor. The best way to get a quick glimpse into life anywhere is experiencing the daily commute. People come and go and rush and post up on public transportation in every city, and Dubai is no different. After taking too many Careem rides (Uber in the Arab world), we got our train passes and took on public transportation. While their lines aren’t very advanced, trains go to most attractions here–the malls, monuments and Jumeirah Beach. The trains are cool and seem to operate rather efficiently. Aboard the trains, you see the people who make Dubai go. These are the hotel workers, the everyday people — they are you, at home. They represent most every nation and class and have in their eyes a drive that explains everything you need to know about why they’re in Dubai — to get a chance. Beyond the train, it’ll be hard to notice these people as they serve your drinks and massage your shoulders during your vacation, but on the train, they’re kissing their boyfriends, playing Words With Friends on their iPhones, or catching a quick nap before the day begins. Tips: There are special areas on the trains for women and children. Get a weekly pass if you intend to take multiple rides. Don’t try to ride for free. You’ll get caught, and you don’t want trouble while abroad.
5. Jumeirah Beach at Night: While most envision a bright, sunny shoreline speckled with sexy sunbathers, the best time to visit the beach in Dubai is at sundown. Think calm, clear water that has been warmed by the sun all day. It’ll remind you of a bathtub with tiny Jacuzzi ripples. Jumeirah Beach comes alive in the evening. The restaurants stay open late and the strip, just steps away from the beach, sports the hottest cars in the city rolling along to the hot spots. Tip: For a romantic evening, have a bite to eat on the beach, walk along the beach, and post up at a cafe on the strip to take it all in.
Skip this in Dubai-
1. Dinner cruise: If you’re seeking romance on vacation, the first thing that commonly comes to mind is a sunset dinner cruise. Of course, I looked into this and even picked out a dinner cruise (which I won’t defame here), but in the end (and after reading reviews), I realized, it’s a tourist trap. Here’s the thing: the best food isn’t served on the dinner cruise. The cruise is available without the dinner. Did you catch that? If you want to have a spectacular dinner, Dubai has lots to choose from (see Do #1). If you want to cruise, there are many captains willing to take you around Dubai a few times — and for half the price of the dinner cruise. There’s no need to mix the two. Most reviews of dinner cruises aren’t foodie friendly. It’s all wedding reception food, uninspired buffets and filler. Skip it.
2. Dubai Mall: Now, I’m not poor, but I’m certainly not rich enough to shop – for real, for real – at Dubai Mall. With so many options back at home and online shopping, it didn’t make sense to spend money in the mall. Who goes on vacation to shop in a mall? Dubai isn’t Paris or Milan. Dubai has fashion from Paris and Milan. Get into the culture if you like and visit tailors in the Old Souk or check out a few of the fab local designers. People go to the malls here to cool off and people watch.
3. Burj Khalifa–View from the top: I’m ready to admit it: We got got! (New York slang for being cheated, robbed, fleeced). And it was my doing (it’s hard to catch Jay in a tourist trap). Should you visit Burj Khalifa, don’t spend the extra money to go all the way to the top (which actually really isn’t the top). The experience cost us some $300 for a short elevator ride to the 148th floor, some cheap treats and tea. Like, I may not be VIP, but I know when I’m being treated like a VIP, and this wasn’t it. (Burj: do better!) Plus, it was hot up there. We couldn’t wait to get down. The only good thing about the view up there is you can see the future of Dubai, where it’s going geographically. Aside from that, save your money.
4. Water Parks and theme parks: I know it’s hot in Dubai and you want to cool off, but did you really spend your hard earned money and hours on a plane to visit a water/theme park you can surely experience back home? For sure, the Dubai parks are tricked out and cutting edge, but Splish Splash there is Splish Splash here and save your theme park headache for Disney. These places are for tourists, and inexperienced ones at that.
5. Expensive Hotels: I wanted to stay at the super expensive Burj Al Arab so badly, but toward the end of our five-week holiday, this just wasn’t sane. Dubai is home to most every luxury brand hotel one can imagine and with so many to choose from, prices tend to be quite reasonable within the 5-star range. Jay and I enjoy staying at Intercontinental hotels and decided on the Dubai Marina location. The stay came with a daily Vegas-style buffet breakfast, turn down service and extra care from a very attentive staff (someone met us in the hallway to ask if they could assist us in any way — I was so impressed). Better, the hotel is across the street from the metro, on the marina, and just steps from Jumeirah Beach. They also have a spectacular pool-side spa that stole a day from us … and we’re not complaining. Tip: When choosing a hotel in Dubai, don’t think a high price tag equals best. Shop around for a deal. Go for ones with breakfast and shuttle service from and to the airport.
See pictures from our Dubai vacation below. To see more picture from our travels, follow me on Instagram at @blackwritergonerogue and East Texas Bama at @easttexasbama.