“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” ~ Mark Twain
After spending a little time in Abu Dhabi with my brother, I hired a car service to take me to Dubai. Though shuttle buses leave Abu Dhabi for Dubai about every 10 minutes and I was willing to give that a try, Steve felt more comfortable with me in a car with a driver. Sometimes he’s more prudent than I am. The driver was early for my 7:30 a.m. pickup (I wanted to maximize my three short days Dubai), and by 9:00 a.m. we were pulling up to my friends’ fabulous house across the street from Jumeirah Beach.
Dubai, having discovered only modest oil reserves in 1966 united with the other six Emirates in ’71 and has since shaped itself into a regional magnet for tourism and westernized commerce. Most of Dubai’s residents are from somewhere else – eighty percent of its population is composed of ex-pats, including a huge contingent of Brits. The fact that they pay no income tax to the motherland while working there means you can’t swing a cat in Dubai without hitting a Brit. Dubai is as comfortable an entrée into the Middle East as a not-quite-ready-for-full-immersion westerner could want, because while it’s still East meets West, it’s heavily skewed toward the West.
In the seven years my friends, Brook and Benjamin (best hosts evah!), have lived in Dubai the construction crane has been the unofficial bird of the emirate. Skyscrapers have sprung up like mushrooms following a rainy night. It is Vegas on steroids minus the casinos. Some call it Disneyesque. It’s a city/region of superlatives: the world’s tallest building (the Burj Khalifa), the world’s only seven star hotel (the Burj Al Arab), the world’s fastest roller coaster (the Formula Rossa at Ferrari World in Abu Dhabi), a 20,000 square foot indoor ski slope in a mall in the desert (Ski Dubai) which makes the Mall of the Emirates one of the world’s largest.
So where to begin in this town? Brook was all too happy to pack in as much as I could want. As far as I was concerned, in for a penny in for a pound. I decided to go full tourist, and it was fantastic! Here’s how it went down.
Our day started with a visit to the Dubai Ladies Club, which is a women only wellness facility – think fitness center with a pool, a full schedule of trademarked fitness classes, and a spa. I was about to experience my first hammam, which is a “deep cleansing body treatment performed on a warm marble slab under an infusion of eucalyptus scented steam using Moroccan black soap followed by a deep and vigorous exfoliation with a traditional kassa.” [Photo credit: Dubai Ladies Club]
Nadya, my hammam specialist, a sturdy gal from Morocco, had me lie face down on the slab. I was naked except for a pair of disposable undies courtesy of the DLC. Nadya’s first question to me as she sprayed warm water all over my body and applied the soap was, “Vhy you vearrr your brrraah too tight?” I just chuckled and said, “Do I?” Then the vigorous exfoliation with the kassa (exfoliation mitt) began. Nadya scoured me with the grim determination of Christina Crawford polishing the family silver for Mommie Dearest’s approval. Had she used 150-grit sandpaper, I don’t think it would have felt much different. She was all too delighted to show me the gross, copious amounts of dead skin she had scrubbed off me. Then she slathered on a thick honey / milk mask, turned on the steam, and left the room for awhile. But her promise to make me soft like baby was made good. After rinsing away the honey slurry, my skin glowed like it hasn’t in years.
So what cool thing could possibly follow a hammam? I’ll take Things You Don’t Usually See in a Mall for $1000, Alex — a visit to an indoor ski slope in the desert, of course! Ski Dubai is at the Mall of the Emirates. It’s 20k square feet of winter fun inside of a giant, silver, insulated pod attached to a mall. The carbon footprint of this place must be astounding. Aside from the typical activities of skiing, sledding, and watching the Penguin show (ok, not so typical), Ski Dubai boasts the world’s only indoor black run. Brook and I just watched from the giant windows, but I count seeing women wearing burkas under parkas as one of the most interesting sights of the trip.
As if Ski Dubai and a hammam weren’t enough for one day, we also grabbed the kids from school and headed over to see the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa, which is also not surprisingly attached to a mall. Its design gives a nod to the spiral minaret. It is 829.8 meters (2,722 feet) tall with the world’s highest outdoor observation deck at floor number 124 (there are 163 floors in the building). The elevator speeds you to the top with a one-minute ride. And while I decided to skip BASE jumping from the Burj, the view and the people-watching were certainly exciting enough.
I was going to head back to Abu Dhabi the next night but Dubai had so much to see that I stayed to give myself a full extra day there. Day two included an entertaining visit to the souks (the city’s open air specialty markets) where we helped some merchants hit their daily quota and bought numerous pairs of hand-made, embroidered shoes from Pakistan (each shoe fits either foot — there is no right or left), haggled over the price of tea with a quick-witted, funny Afghani guy in the spice souk (and ended up leaving some of our money with him), and looked but bought nothing in the gaudy recesses of the gold souk.
To balance the day, we visited the other end of the spectrum and had tea at the Burj Al Arab, one of the world’s only seven star hotels. A beautiful, sail-shaped hotel with a helipad located near the top, the interior is far from subtle. The hotel is located on an island and access to it is controlled by a guarded gate on the mainland where entry is only allowed if you have a room, or dinner, or a tea reservation. If you visit for tea, you might just hear a harpest playing Christina Aguilera and Coldplay tunes as the wait staff snaps photos for your scrap-book. And when you leave, you might just see a plethora of Lamborghinis and Bentleys parked out front, which will make it quite amusing when the valet finally pulls your practical, well-used, Volvo kid mobile out from the depths of the parking garage and wishes you farewell.
To bring ourselves back down to Earth, we had dinner that night at Bu Qtair, an Indian curry fish shack in sight of the Burj Al Arab. Its specialty is spice-rubbed fish and shrimp caught daily and served with coconut fish curry sauce and paratha bread. It was crazy good and the place has become quite the popular spot since Anthony Bourdain found it.
My final day in Dubai involved camels. I wanted to ride one, but we couldn’t find a place conveniently located enough to make it happen in our limited time so we settled for visiting a heritage site and petting and feeding them. I even sat on one long enough to get a photo. (A couple of days after returning to the U.S. I saw this article on CNN about an outbreak of cases of MERS — Middle East Respiratory Syndrome — that was discovered in the region just before I came back home. Guess where the MERS virus consistently resides? In camels.)
Then it was off to get henna tattoos. As a general rule, I’m not a fan of permanent tattoos. I’ve never considered getting one, but a seemingly exotic henna tattoo applied in the Middle East that fades in 10 days appealed. I loved the result. The Indian women who applied it told me the design I chose was “very Indian”. When I got home my friend Shannon became obsessed with my henna tattoos because she’s dying to get a cuff permanently tattooed on her wrist. On the other hand, all my daughter Molly had to say was, God. I hope that’s not permanent, Mom.
I loved this trip. I want to see more of the region. The coolest thing about it was that, even at forty-five years old, I managed to go on a trip and see something every day that I had literally never seen before. I’m not sure how many of those types of trips I’ll be able to have, but I certainly hope for more of them.
“Without travel I would have wound up a little ignorant white Southern female, which was not my idea of a good life.” – Lauren Hutton