I’m of the impression that 48 hours is enough time to orientate oneself with a new city—especially if you come from a family of “Super Mario characters on stimulants,” as SVV says about my mom’s and my abundant energy, and don’t mind zipping around said city on foot for eight hours a day—or at least give you a clue as to whether or not you’d like to come back for longer. So, if given the chance to explore somewhere new in a condensed period of time, I’m going to take it. Especially in a place as vibrant and revered as Dubai. And when I saw that Emirates, my least favorite airline, offered the chance for stopovers in its hub city, at no additional cost, I knew it was meant to be and booked a day layover on each end of my South Africa trip in the spring.
As luck would have it, my pal Johnny Jet was also passing through Dubai during the same 24-hour period en route to Oman. Now, I never get scared traveling alone; I find it appealing, an adventure, a challenge. But sometimes—particularly in a region with which you’re not entirely familiar, after a very long 16-hour flight when you’re groggy and disoriented—there’s nothing better than exploring a new city with a familiar face.
Johnny’s a little more high-falutin’ than myself and was staying in a fancy suite at the Address Hotel. I was a budget traveler on this jaunt to the Middle East, particularly with a wedding and long honeymoon just around the bend, so I checked into my $78-a-night room out at the airport, took the world’s quickest shower so the people at the Address wouldn’t immediately peg me as an impostor, and headed downtown to the Address to catch up with Johnny and his videographer. They were settled into a window-front booth at the swank lounge, Neos, up top for a drink when I arrived, then we hopped on down to the VIP level to see the Dubai Tower (Burj Khalifa) in all her glory. It helps to have friends in high places sometimes!
The views of the Dubai Mall, the city skyline and the tower at night were incomparable. There was even an ongoing fountain show that put the Bellagio’s to shame! We called it an evening around midnight, and much to my dismay, I left the lap of luxury and returned to the digs of a budget traveler.
The next day found me poolside—with 110-degree heat, there’s really little else you want to do in the spring and summer—before catching my flight to Johannesburg. On the way back through, my long-time blog friend Grace of Sandier Pastures, a Filipino expat in Dubai by way of Japan (and excellent travel source if you’re traveling to the UAE), sent me all manners of recommendations on what to do during my brief time in the city. Originally, my only plan had been to ascend the 124 stories to the observation deck of the Burj Khalifa—no fear of heights here!—but the darn thing was having, erm, technical difficulties while I was there, to say the least, and it was closed during my visit. Probably for the best…
I had still not decided which route I’d choose when I was on the flight back to Dubai, but a bout of food poisoning did that for me. While I really wanted to do the desert safari—another camel-riding opp! how can you pass that up?—but my stomach wouldn’t allow it. And the open-top bus tour—say what you will about them, but they’re an excellent way to see a big city in a short amount of time—was way too pricey at $60 a ticket (San Francisco’s tour by the same company is just $24 to put things in perspective). So, after all sorts of drugs to keep the nausea at bay, I decided a day of wandering with just me, myself and my camera* was in order.
And wander I did—right down to the beach, first of all. No pictures allowed on the sand, though, or risk of having your camera confiscated! We don’t want that. What would I do with my time without my Canon for company??
After I couldn’t take the heat of laying out any longer, I cabbed it back to the center and walked down to the riverfront. I was mighty excited to visit the spice and gold souks, only to find them generic and full of the same ol’ crap you find at every market around the world. Is it just me or are all markets carrying the same goods (or rather, mass-produced crap) these days?
I’m sort of the queen of procuring affordable jewelry from local markets, and I didn’t spend a penny of the dirhams I had taken out at the bank, if that tells you something. That was fine, though, as I had big plans for that evening. Luckily, my stomach was feeling a wee bit better that night, so I was able to meet up with Grace for an amazing dhow river cruise.
There are quite a few dhow options on any given day; we chose the Radisson Blu’s Al Mansour Dhow, which is offered at both lunch and dinner. While we caught up on all the things we don’t know about each other from two years’ worth of reading the other’s blog, we dined on Middle Eastern delights and watched the city come alive at night. It was the perfect ending to a whirlwind tour of Dubai.
Would I like to go back to Dubai and spend more time? You bet. Sure, there are backwards parts to it—their attitude toward women and the new BlackBerry law, for example (I could hardly load any sites, like Flickr, on my phone when I was there anyway, thanks to the government blocking them)—that had my mind spinning. Nevertheless, it’s still one of those cities that deserves more than a mere 36 hours of my time.
Where to Stay: You can find a perfectly nice hotel room like I did at the Premier Inn for $78 a night or less. Then again, you’re out by the airport, and if you want to get into town, it will cost you about $25 each way by taxi. On the way back through, I paid $120 to stay more centrally at the Four Points Sheraton Downtown and found it very clean, contemporary and convenient. The restaurant was great and rooftop pool quite nice; I was able to walk to and from the river and the souks from there. My friend Stephanie, who flies through there for work regularly swears by Le Meridien Fairway, but it was a little further out than I wanted. And then of course, if you’re a high roller, you can check into one of the Address Hotels or, heck, if you’re already paying an arm and a leg, book a room at Burj Al Arab, the world’s only (alleged) seven-star hotel (how they garnered such a distinction, I’m still skeptical about).
How to Get There: Begrudgingly, I will say that Emirates Airlines flies direct from major North American cities like San Francisco, LA, Houston, Toronto and New York directly to Dubai. That said, fares on Delta, American, Lufthansa, British Airways, Air France, Virgin Atlantic, Continental and Qatar Airways are generally cheaper, with as little as $1,000 round-trip from many bigger U.S. cities. My tip: Pay less on them, deal with one stopover and don’t risk getting food poisoning on Emirates!
What it Costs: That’s variable, obviously. Cabs from the airport are about $25 each way. Cabs within the city usually cost me $10, depending on where I was going. UAE is one of those countries where you set a price before you get into the cab. Trust me, you want to do this.
Meals weren’t bad. I ate lunches from vendors and small cafes around the city and wound up paying around $5 a plate. Dinner can vary, like any city; if you do one of the dhow cruises, it will run you around $60 a person (including the two-hour boat ride and stellar river views). I checked out the menu at the Address Hotel and Neos Lounge, and let’s just say, that wasn’t in my budget!
In terms of shopping, I was shocked by the prices they asked for at the souks. All I was really looking for was wedding jewelry at the Gold Souk, and I didn’t find anything for less than a couple hundred dollars! Of course, those aren’t set in stone—like any market, you should always haggle—but I knew there was no way to bargain down $500 to a price I wanted to pay.
Additional Resources: Check out Sandier Pastures for more day-to-day information on what to do in Dubai.