For many travelers making their way to Europe, Dubai is usually just a layover—with an impressive airport full of well-stocked boutiques and Duty Free stores.
However, for those interested enough to spend a few days in the city, Dubai is a range of experiences, with one or two superlatives attached to them. After all, this is the city with a seven-star resort hotel and the highest tower in the world.
During the maiden flight of budget carrier Cebu Pacific Airways to Dubai two months ago, first-time visitors, including the lifestyle media, were surprised by the contrasting sights in this booming emirate.
Where else can you spend an afternoon “dune bashing” in the desert, followed the next day by freezing temperatures in a sprawling ski loft inside a mall? Or shop for pungent spices, dried dates and kohl in a souk, then be transported to sprawling malls filled with luxury brands?
Ours was one of the airline’s first planes designed for long-haul flights. The nine-hour flight from Manila’s Terminal 3 was long and uneventful. Those expecting in-flight entertainment—one or two movies on a shared or personal screen—should be warned: There is none. It’s best to load your laptop or tablet with movies or a season’s worth of your favorite TV shows.
It was almost 10 p.m. when we arrived in what would be our base for two nights, the beautifully furnished Melia Hotel Dubai.
On our second day, we moved to The Oberoi, Dubai—only a few months old and one of the newest hotels in the city.
If there’s one thing first-time visitors must prepare for, however, it’s the pervasive dry heat in Dubai.
At the pre-departure briefing, we were told to pack lightweight, cotton clothes with the note that women wear “modest” clothing. This translates to long pants or maxi skirts and long-sleeved tops.
Travel articles on Dubai usually list sights not to miss if one has only two or three days to spare. As we said, the desert safari, a ride on a water taxi (abra) to the souk, and a visit to Ski Dubai are all worth the trip.
Our group got the full tour beginning with a presentation by the Dubai Department of Tourism and Commerce Marketing (DTCM).
A video chronicled the rise of what was once one of the slower-moving emirates. Before-and-after photos showed how, in a few decades, Dubai has grown commercially and industrially by leaps and bounds.
Our guide, Norman Ali Bassam Khalaf, provided local color to the claims of DTCM—he himself has seen how quickly Dubai has changed.
“Forty or 50 years ago, there was nothing in Dubai. The streets were unpaved and people went around on mules and donkeys. Things began to change in the ’70s when the price of Dubai crude oil rose exponentially.
“The parliament was tasked to come up with a plan to use the funds that were generated, hence the construction boom that continues to this day despite the economic crisis in 2008-’09,” Khalaf said.
It’s hard to imagine that this emirate of glinting steel, mirrored walls and overall excess used to be a backward town, where most emiratis grew up subsisting on a diet of dates, fish and camel’s milk. Now, provided one has the means, a person can choose from all types of cuisine. Hotel buffets are well-stocked and the range of restaurants can be downright dizzying.
Fortunately, our hosts did the choosing, allowing us to sample fresh seafood at Sammach (www.binhendi.com) one evening, familiar Chinese food in an international chain for lunch the next day.
When we went on the desert safari, we did not expect our SUV to get stuck in the sand after our driver had masterfully bashed through several dunes. Instead of panicking since the sun was about to set, we quickly held an impromptu photo session that yielded some of the more stunning pictures of the trip.
Darkness had fallen by the time we arrived at the campsite where a buffet dinner awaited.
As we tucked into our meal of roasted chicken, lamb and beef, three performers danced one after the other on a wooden platform. The dances may not have been traditional—one man was lit up in colored lights as he spun around in circles—but they elicited loud cheers and applause.
At Ski Dubai the next day, we walked around the ersatz snow in quilted jackets that reached below our knees. Many of us couldn’t imagine something like this with its ski loft and snowmen—in the middle of the desert.
But then again, that’s what Dubai is for many first-time visitors, a city of contrasts and superlatives: Hot desert sand and icy fake snow; the highest tower in the world, the Burj Khalifa; and a water slide with the longest vertical drop worldwide at the Aquaventure Ocean Park.
Our guide Khalaf said that many of these structures are run and managed by the parliament. While they draw tourists and locals alike, it still costs so much more to operate them. “Despite this, they will continue to be operated and managed by the parliament because it wants to show the world that Dubai is on the rise,” he said.
More than Dubai’s capacities for sustainable growth, however, what we liked was Khalaf mentioning how Abu Dhabi helped its sibling emirate out by paying Dubai’s debts in the 2008 crisis. Now, that’s real proof of these United Arab Emirates.