After arriving on the best flight we’ll ever have in our life, the first stop on our around-the-world adventure was Dubai.
Real talk: there is SO MUCH to do in Dubai. Beaches, shopping, outdoor adventures, skydiving, and even indoor downhill skiing (because, Dubai). There’s a reason it is becoming one of the tourism capitals of the world, and you could easily entertain yourself for days.
However, we only scheduled a long stopover in the city on our way from Washington, DC to the Maldives. So we had roughly 36 hours to see Dubai.
Since Emirates streamlines the arrival process for business class passengers, we breezed through Dubai International Airport and were in a taxi to our hotel within 20 minutes of landing. While we had lay flat beds onboard our flight and were able to sleep, we were still a little tired and in desperate need of a shower.
Luckily, we scored a great deal on a room at the JW Marriott Dubai, and we were able to check into the hotel at 9:00am so we could shower/power nap before exploring the city. I had purposely checked on TripAdvisor for hotels with early check-ins near the airport, and guests mentioned the JW Marriott consistently allowed guests into their rooms well before the normal check-in time. I honestly don’t know why or how, but Marriott has randomly given me Gold status, which also gives us the option of late check-out and free breakfast, which I’m always a sucker for.
The hotel was fine, but clearly it was built in the first wave of hotels when Dubai started to become the international hub that it is today. The newer, fancier JW Marriott Marquis is closer to downtown and the more luxurious option of the two JW Marriotts in Dubai. Fun fact: at the time of our visit, the JW Marriott Marquis was the tallest hotel in the world (superlative count: 1).
After recharging our batteries, our first order of business was taking a ferry ride to the Dubai Marina. We could have easily taken a cab or the shiny new metro, which has the world’s longest driverless metro line (superlative count: 2). But in a city known for its tall buildings, the ferry gave us the chance to see the famous skyline from the water.
There are a lot of super touristic yacht/boat rides you can take for a half day. But given our limited time, the ferry ride to the marina seemed like the most time efficient way to 1) see the skyline from the water; 2) cruise on the Persian Gulf; and 3) travel to the Dubai Marina. The ferry would also give us the opportunity to cruise around the Palm Jumeriah, the world’s largest man-made island (superlative count: 3).
The ferry ride itself was a little bumpy. Ok, it was a LOT bumpy. I’m not sure if it was the weather or if the Persian Gulf is always a tad choppy. Or maybe our bodies were jet-lagged and tired. But after 90 minutes aboard the ferry, we were ready for dry land.
Our visit to the Dubai Marina was our introduction to the insane amount of money being invested in the city. Like, boatloads of money. Actually, more like yacht-loads. They started building the Dubai Marina only 15 years ago, and once the marina is 100% completed, it will be the largest man-made marina in the world (superlative count: 4). Things were pretty quiet on our Sunday afternoon, so we grabbed lunch and walked along the marina for a bit.
After hitting up the Dubai Marina, we grabbed a taxi and headed to the the Dubai Mall, the largest mall in the world by total area (superlative count: 5). We wanted to strategically time our visit to the mall so that we could see the fountain show in front of the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building (superlative count: 6).
We’re the type of millennials who would rather use the convenience of online shopping (shout-out to Jeff Bezos) rather than going to malls. In fact, we try to avoid malls. But the Dubai Mall is a destination in itself and is about more than just shopping. From art exhibits to ice rinks to a ginormous aquarium, we found plenty of things to explore within the mall.
We initially approached the aquarium and saw line of people waiting for their turn to enter. We heard it was big, but we were impressed with the sheer size of the tank itself and all sharks, manta rays, and other sea creatures casually enjoying their Sunday afternoon swim.
Well, when we continued walking, we realized that what we initially saw was less than 1/4 of the aquarium. THIS THING WAS HUUUUGE. Mind blowingly huge. As we learned, the aquarium/tank has the world’s largest acrylic panel, which weighs over 250 tons and is 30 inches thick (superlative count: 7). And conveniently, this awe-inspiring fish tank was directly across from the world’s largest candy shop (superlative count: 8).
It was almost 6:00pm, so we headed outside of the mall for the fountain show. It seems like every tourist city is trying to have a crazy fountain show, and Dubai being Dubai, it has the world’s largest choreographed fountain system (superlative count: 9). Think the Bellagio in Las Vegas fountain show, but on steroids.
The fountains are at the base of the Burj Khalifa, so having the world’s tallest building as a backdrop to the world’s largest fountain show was impressive.
We wanted to see the fountain show and Burj Khalifa both while it was light outside as well as after dark, so we made reservations at a restaurant at the Dubai Mall (Awani) with an outside patio overlooking the fountains. After the 6:00pm show, we went to the patio to eat kebabs and hummus while the sun set on Dubai.
I’ve already established that I’m a sucker for hotels with free breakfasts. I’m also a huge fanboy of rooftop bars. And since we were in one of the skyscraper capitals of the world, I’d be remiss if we didn’t partake. I had a couple in mind based on my Tripadvisor search, and when our Emirates flight attendant recommended Level 43, I figured that must be a winner. And indeed, the views did not disappoint.
At this point, we were running on fumes. We had a crazy awesome flight to Dubai, and long day jumping through the city’s main sights. We called it a night and hopped in a cab back to our hotel.
Throughout our crazy, three week trip around the world, we purposely built in extra time here and there to sleep in and relax. Even in business class with a lay flat seat, sleeping on a plane still doesn’t count as *real* sleep. So we decided to not set an alarm at all and take advantage of the opportunity to catch up on sleep. Especially since we had another overnight flight later that day.
I woke up and tried to look for the Super Bowl on TV, but instead, all I could find was camel racing. Because, Dubai.
We really wanted to head into the desert, and most of the desert excursions left in the afternoon and returned around 10:00pm. Our hotel granted us a 3:00pm late check out (again, thanks to the random Gold status. Not that I’m complaining…), so we lounged in our room until our tour company picked us up at 3:15pm for our desert adventure. There are a slew of companies to choose from, but we went with Arabian Adventures.
Our guide picked us up first, and the we picked up two older couples from Mauritius. Yes, Mauritius. As in the island country in the Indian Ocean off the coast of Africa. How often do you share a vehicle with Mauritians? A great example of Dubai’s attraction as a global tourist destination.
Our guide then drove us out of the city, and it didn’t take long to reach vast expanses of desert. How did a megapolis like Dubai come about from this barren landscape? We drove by the brand new Meydan horse racing track, which hosts the world’s richest horse race, the Dubai World Cup (superlative count: 10). We also passed a camel hospital. Because, Dubai.
After an hour’s drive, we reached our first stop in the desert where we rallied with a couple dozen other Arabian Adventures vehicles and snapped the requisite desert picture.
Our guider/driver forewarned us that in order to travel to the dinner destination in the middle of the desert, we’d have to go “dune bashing” through the sand dunes. We followed the line of SUVs and bashed our way through a series of dunes.
We thought it was awesome. We were bouncing all over the place, sand was flying everywhere, and the view out the front windshield went from nothing but blue skies to nothing but golden sand. But apparently the Mauritians weren’t prepared for all the dune bashing. One of the women started uncontrollably sobbing mid-dune bash, so that made things awkward. We’ve seen our fair share of sand dunes in Michigan (yes, Michigan), but I’m guessing the Mauritians haven’t.
We ended up switching vehicles because the Mauritian woman refused to go on, but we eventually made it to our spot in the middle of the desert to watch the sunset.
Once the sun went down, our caravan of dune-bashing SUVs went to Arabian Adventures’ desert oasis, which the company described as “a Bedouin-style camp where desert activities and a bonfire await”. We absolutely LOATHE cheesy tourist traps, but since the price and timing of the tour went well with our schedule, we figured we’d swallow our pride and join other tourists being herded from one sales pitch to the next.
Thankfully, the desert oasis was much better than what we expected. We started with a quick camel ride.
We then headed to dinner inside the oasis. Dinner was actually very nice, and included a few beers (which never hurts).
And the cheesy belly dancer? Still a little cheesy, but at least she didn’t bring in people from the audience to awkwardly incorporate into the show. Or goad the crowd into clapping every minute throughout the performance. You can tell we’re usually not big fans of big, organized tour groups.
After the belly dancer wrapped up her short performance, they turned off all the lights at the oasis and invited people to lay down on the stage area and take in the stars. This was actually really cool. Though maybe it’s because living in DC, Taryn and I are only able to see the stars a few times a year.
It was super dark, and we found our original guide and the two Mauritian couples. I guess the one woman miraculously found the courage to press on with the dune bashing. Lucky for her, it was too dark for more dune bashing, so we drove on actual roads back to the highway and eventually Dubai.
We made it back to our hotel around 10:00pm, but our flight wasn’t leaving until 4:35am (I know… hardly an “overnight” flight). Since we had time to kill, we went to the nearby Cielo Sky Lounge for one last round of drinks while taking in the Dubai skyline.
We stopped back at our hotel, grabbed out luggage, then headed to Dubai International Airport around midnight. I wanted to give ourselves plenty of time to enjoy the Dubai business class lounge experience, and needless to say, Emirates didn’t let us down. But that’s for another post, so be on the lookout in the coming weeks for our lounge experience at the Dubai International Airport as well as aboard our Emirates business class flight to the Maldives!
Final superlative count: 10. Because, Dubai.
Overall, we had a fanatic visit to Dubai. At the same time, we don’t have a strong desire to go back and see even more examples of over-the-top luxury or tourist attractions. It’s a truly cosmopolitan city with a wide array of restaurants, activities, and sights to see. But much like Las Vegas, it all feels a little fake and disingenuous.
What’s also different is the fact that the overwhelming majority of the “local” people we interacted with weren’t local Emiratis at all; they were guest workers from different parts of the world. The drivers/guides with Arabian Adventures, for example, were mostly from Pakistan or India. Many of the manual laborers are from the Philippines. Our only interaction with a true local might have been while passing through passport control upon arrival at the airport. I guess that’s what happens when your country has oil wealth. But the lack of local character takes away from the authenticity.
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