Dubai – 20 tips for lucky traveler going to this oasis in the desert Barbara Kingstone April 10, 2012 Dubai, Middle East, Shopping Dubai is known for many things but certainly the top three factors that immediately become apparent are dining, the major and eclectic architecture,finance and shopping ( Shopper’s beware, this is a duty fee trade zone so shop). What’s so interesting in this city is there is something for everyone’s taste and bank account. And it’s important to know that bigger is better and no other country comes close when it comes to size in various categories. Dubai is one of the 7 Emirates and also the name of the city south of the Arabian Gulf. Once a trading and pearl hub, it’s a city of expats and over half the population of 1.5 million people are from India and Pakistan. It’s an area that sits on the Arabian Desert with it’s fine, clean and nearly white sand naturally made from crushed shells and coral. The red colored sand occasionally seen has iron oxide. Vegetation is wild grass, many date palms and neem which are indigenous while eucalyptus were imported. As for the architecture, at first glance it looks like a playground for students’ new ideas as skyscrapers have a twist or a turn, another features a huge ball at the top, there’s one in Abu Dhabi that looks like an Oreo cookie and inclusion in some of Modern Islamic designs. Others included in this strange mixture often have a combination of Moorish, Gothic, Modernistic and a mish mash of everything. It give this city a unique, futuristic vision in what is possible to design such incredible, unimaginable buildings and has more taller skyscrapers than anywhere else in the world. 1. Top of the list and almost top of the world is the Burj (tower) Khadifa. Once, Toronto’s CN Tower, was considered the tallest free standing structure in the world. But ,alas, no more. Khadifa has 160 floors but only allows visitors to the 124th (the elevators of only 12 people each, takes about 20 seconds to ascend) since there are offices and even a few residences on the upper, upper storeys. And rumor has it that the architect has the world’s largest bathroom on the top floor. It’s not big surprise that at Khadifa you could buy various pieces and prices of gold at gold (of course) colored vending machines located in easily accessible placements. The view from the top is worth the 400 Dirhams. But if you book on-line, the ticket price is 100 Dirhams. And know that if you intend to visit, book well ahead of time. Sold out is business as usual. Besides the astonishing view of the city, there are facts about the structure, how many were involved in erecting this extraordinary building and other interesting facts, posted, artfully, as you exit 2. Dubai has 16 stunning gardens but depending on the time you spend in this bustling city or if you have a ‘green thumb’ and want to see all, you could start at one that’s conveniently located just outside the Burj Khadifa. The Cactus Garden is worthy of precious time to wander through this well thought out and almost Zen-like atmosphere. And for total silence, there’s Al Quoz Park…a bit off -the- beaten path but great for the equilibrium. 3. And also, if you have deep pockets and are suddenly yearning for terrific Italian food, while at the Burj Khalifa, make a reservation at the Armani Hotel Dubai’s Armani/Peck, one of the five restaurants of the hotel, all overseen by young, innovative, Italian born, Chef Emiliano Bernasconi. A‘must’ on this variety -filled menu is the best creamy,Risotto mantecato ai funghi porcini e tartufo (Risotto with porcini mushrooms and black truffles), this side of Italy. The Armani Hotel Dubai located in the Burj Khalifa, occupies from Concourse Leve to floor 8 and floors 38 and 39, with incredible views, and sensuous curved walls with interesting textures. It is the first hotel totally designed by the world famous designer, Giorgio Armani, which every true fashionista knows about or has a collection of this savvy, svelte, refined elegant designs. From the soft taupes and greige coloration to the flower arrangements (a mandate from G.A-.,is that there be only two colors of flowers including the vase or just a single color) to the flooring, sumptuous furniture, fabrics, zebra wood paneling and amenities ,all designed by the Maestro, all expectedly elegant, with great simplicity and very sophisticated. It’s a far cry from the self declared 7 star, over -the -top, Burj Al Arab. The Burj Al Arab, with 60 floors, and lighting that changes from purple to green, was once the only hotel of that height. But it’s now been bypassed by another, Rose Rayhee by Rotana, a new benchmark for comfort. But Burj Al Arab is still a great place to visit. However both Armani and Al Arab have heavy security and you must either be a guest, know a guest, or have restaurant reservation, to get past the various guards or to get your name on a visitor’s list. 4. It may be very hot and sticky outdoors, but just a few metres away from the Burj Khadifa is The Dubai Mall, the largest ( of course) mall in the world. and very air conditioned inside. Sure, there is every fashion label available at the hundreds of boutiques and many eateries, even a Starbucks, but that’s not the issue here. Go directly to the skating rink and either rent a pair of skates and try standing up or if you’re familiar with ice, just zoom around and see the amazing looks of those struggling to stay upright. Kiddies have wonderful ‘Penguins’ to hang onto while learning the skill of a potential Olympic competitor. 5. It seems you can’t go too far from the Burj Khadifa without seeing some staggering sights. Every half hour, The Fountain of Dancing Waters, delights as the the waters sway, shoot upwards and create circles with the sound and tempo of the music. Las Vegas’ Bellagio Hotel, was obviously the inspiration, but, of course, in Dubai it’s many times the size of what now seems like a small Las Vegas attraction. 6. At the Emirates Mall, another mammoth complex, expect to spend several hours here and certainly if you’re on a spending spree, this is the place. But shopping aside, its unique feature is a large area of various sized ski slopes which are encased in glass. Rental of equipment is available and the best time to visit or to partake or just be a bystander, is early morning. Also, the aquarium is so huge, with such a variety of also large fish, will also take time to evaluate. 7. Hungry. Well where does one start? The food is international and major chefs from around the world have relocated here. Italian Roberto Rella, opened his swell restaurant , Roberto’s, while I was there and it’s a no brainer. It sheer culinary art at its best. Not only is the space perfectly decorated with great floral arrangements and enough space between the white linen covered tables, Roberto seems to be present at all times, making sure that each client is happy. And with this joshing, jovial man who was head hunted by the BICE Group and became the Restaurant Director of Operations for the Middle East and Asia, he’ll never retire and will continue to dedicate his life to mastering the business. For many years, he had a partner but decided to open on his own. Even at the ‘soft opening’ there was a large, loyal clientele which turned out for lunch. The location is in the Dubai International Financial Centre (DIFC). 8. Since you are in the DIFC, which has become a serious art gallery centre,take time to see the various exhibits which includes many Middle East artists who have produced unexpected, modernistic canvas. Also, visit Christie’s Auction House for upcoming sales. 9. It is really a ‘must’, to stop and shop at Aliel, a bijoux of a jewelry boutique next to Roberto’s. Here, the designs by youthful, beautiful, Amynah Hassanali, are perfectly crafted, mostly in Italy. Amynah’s has most original designs and the former IT professional -turned-jewelry designers, comes by it naturally. Her family has been in the business for decades but their very serious shop (read; huge sized diamonds) is in another area of the city and where the gem stones sell to the princes and princesses of the seven Emirates and to well travelled art and jewelry collectors in Dubai as well as the Royal families of the UAE. Amynah has a different ‘take’. Her ideas are the antithesis of the large two storey shop. Her designs have a modern twist, more youthful attitude and price tags that don’t give you instant indigestion. Amynah’s idea is not to spend money on expensive fashion/costume jewelry since, for a few hundred more Dirhams, you can have exquisite, lifelong and beautifully designed gem stone creations. The signature pieces are gem stone insets on different gem stones and are incredibly original. Of course, she does have a vitrine filled with perfect, white and rare deep yellow diamonds, plus emeralds and rubies. If you’re truly interested, there’s a private room where you can try on these pricey baubles and think about these earrings, rings, bracelets and neckpieces. (all these establishments are on the first level). 10. Ah, more eating. Since taxis are very inexpensive compared to cabs in large European and American cities, go to The Dubai Polo and Equestrian Club, for a poolside lunch or sit out of the blazing sun under an umbrella near the polo grounds. There are many reasons to visit and one is that it’s part of Dubai’s famed Palm Desert where the three man-made islands are shaped like a palm tree. However, unless you’re in a helicopter, it’s difficult to visualize. But visiting this area filled with luxurious palatial homes, this five star hotel with rooms and villas, is perfect to hang out for a few hours over lunch or drinks. Non members are welcome to visit. However, staying for a few days is a warm, fuzzy and relaxing experience since it’s far from “the madding crowd”. As expected among some equestrian accessories, the interior is sleek, airy, filled with fine modern art and sculptures, the bar has any drink you request, and even though the service may be slow, the full menu with various salads, desserts, great coffee, make it all worthwhile Even the spa is a perfect place to spend part of the day. 11. With perfectly paved four lane highways, in less than 2 hours you could be in Abu Dhabi. For the time being until this oil rich Emirate starts it’s massive building effort to compete with Dubai, the Mosque, the largest in the world, is the only place to see. It brings back memories of Agra, India’s Taj Mahal with the inset of semi precious stones on the many pillars and also in the white marble flooring. The white exterior tiling (it my look like paint but it’s pure white and perfectly set tiling) is an astonishing accomplishment. To use the word stunning again, is really not giving enough credit to this massive edifice worth the time and drive. A tip is to take a pair of socks since part of the Islamic religion is not to wear shoes in any mosque. So your shoes are bagged for you. Also, there are Abayas (long black robes for women) and head scarves, free of charge, which every female must wear to enter. On your return trip, if you happen to be thirsty or hungry or yearn to be back home, there is only one place to stop along this highway. There’s a ridiculous food court at a gas station, with Domino’s Pizza, Burger King etc. But that said, it was difficult to find a table so locals must like the change from hummus. 12. Another few hours from Dubai is a mirage, or what seems like one. Isolated, and on the legendary Liwa Desert, the well deserved 206 luxury room, five star Qasr El Sarab Resort, is located in the desolate, dune filled, uninterrupted glorious golden desert (The Empty Quarter), without another building or building crane in sight. From afar it looks like sand castle sculpted on a beach but as we approached, it is a palatial,castle-like designed hotel with five star everything. Except the tide won’t wash this sand castle away. Activities include a morning hike through the desert. It may look easy but this escapade on fine sand is deceivingly difficult to navigate. After that fete, have an el fresco breakfast and watch the changing colors of the dunes as the hot sun seems to use a paint brush. There are other activities – either have a desert camel ride, archery or a 4×4 desert safari. try your hand at falconry and archery. And since the suites are spread out and none is in the main building, there are 25 buggies to take you to and from your accommodations or learn the short cut and walk through an open – sided tunnel overlooking the grand gardens and pool. The general manager, Wael Soueid, a former urbanite who is passionate about this resort, is filled with information and happy, time permitting, to show off the landscape. He happens to be the one of the friendliest people and makes you feel as though you are the only guest…even when the hotel was filled to capacity, as it was when I was there. I’m not Lawrence of Arabia but I could see developing an attachment just watching the color of the sand with its shadows and moving dunes. What a delicious desert delight.The hardest part is leaving the room and our terrace. The Garden Suite had all the earmarks of an Arabian room but modernity came in the form of an espresso machine, beamed and tatami decorated ceiling, a Moorish styled alcove for the head board, the Moroccan styled chandelier which casts great designs when turned on in the evening. The bathroom has special features…an oversized oval tub, double sinks, separate shower and enough counter pace for toiletries and cosmetics and mercifully lime stone flooring…not slippery marble floors which may look good, but when wet, slipping is a death defying problem. As for the large villas, it’s not unusual to see a helicopter land, a personal chef carrying loads of food for the Sheikhs and their family who seek complete privacy. 13. If you like fish, then the Marine (called The New Dubai), is the place for dinner. You can’t go wrong with any of these fish eateries and do try to sit outdoors and see one of the 15 beaches. The fish seems to have come directly from the sea and flipped onto the grill. It certainly tasted so fresh at Flooka, a busy place to see and be seen. 14. The Gold Souk in Deika area, is what it says… shops selling gold jewelry and there are 250 to choose from. If you are serious about purchasing, it’s worth taking time to see as many as you can before deciding. And don’t be shy about bargaining. It’s expected. The aroma will lead you to the nearby Spice Market. It’s in this area where Dhows are so picturesque and wait until sunset and take a classic ride up the Creek. 15. While in Deika, take a ferry a.k.a an Abra, (about .50) across the natural inlet, Dubai Creek, which runs through the city. On the other shore where there are more gold shops, stop and have pastry, mint tea or a meal at the waterfront’s, Bayt Al Wakeel. The manager, DeSouza, seems to be there night and day and he’ll try his best to find a table outside overlooking the Creek 16. In the old city of Bastakiya, X.V.A Art Hotel and Cafe, is a true find and a fine boutique hotel with only 9 spotlessly clean rooms. It certainly is one of my favorite places for atmosphere, location and getting the true feeling of being in this part of this world. There’s a central courtyard where you can have fresh juice or something more substantial and is one of the most pleasant indoor/outdoor spaces. To add to the allure, their boutique offers wonderful women’s designed dresses, jackets and jewelry designs from Afghanistan, Tunisia and other Middle East countries.. and all are in such great taste with a reasonable price tag. Bastakiya is also where you’ll find The Orient Hotel, another swell boutique hotel. Both are near the museum and many other fine sights and shops. 17. All cities should have a transit systems that runs as well as Dubai’s elevated means of transportation. Atkins, an international engineering consultancy firm, headed this massive undertaking and it seems that every Emirati is so proud of this fast, longest, fully automatic rail system in the world. It is the height of efficiency. So far, there are Red and Green lines but in the near future, there will be Blue and Purple lines going in all directions of this spread out city. And since this is a city where having the biggest and best in the world, I would say that this is one subway design that fits in with all the great and interesting architecture of Dubai. And it’s spotless that leaving any litter would be an insult. 18. If you happen to be in Dubai in March, don’t miss the exciting annual Art Dubai exhibit at Madingat Jumeirah. Gallery owners from around the world have selected their finest artwork which goes from abstract to totally avante garde and mid stream for those less adventurous. It appeals to both Emirati and expats and it’s one of the few venues where I saw a mix of both cultures. Sheikhs were seen buying up several canvases. It a fine event where the by-invitation only opening night is like a fashion catwalk. Everyone dresses elaborately. The week long show has a small admission charge. 19. Other events seem out of character but Celine Dion, Elton John, Shakira and more celebs have had concerts at the Cultural Centre to always sold out events 20. Time just flew by but I would have loved to write a fashion story about the Abayas, the over the clothing black women’s robes. Some were so stylish with exquisite embroidery, others with sequins, and one I adored was like a Dolce & Gabanna design with leopard print chiffon floating from the edges of the sleeves and front while another had great handmade lace inserts. However, that said, there’s nothing boring then the men’s usually white dish -dashes,long tunics. They may be great for the hot, steamy weather when the mercury begins to climb after April, they may be comfortable but are certainly not a fashion statement (nor should they be for religious purposes). So after visiting all the above, it won’t be a surprise to learn that Dubai is the 20th most expensive city in the world with the largest of almost everything and perfectly bundled offering fun and adventure and an chance to learn about the culture of this new modern day, Islamic city.