22 October 2014

Stopping over in Dubai

I’d transited Dubai before – who hasn’t if you’ve flown Emirates? – but never bothered to stop over. I figured the place was worth a look and that a little luxury would be a nice treat after 10 days in much-less-than-4-star accommodation in Tanzania, so I booked in for two two-night stops, one each end of my Tanzania trip. Here’s what I got up to.

When I arrived for my first stopover in mid August 2014, Dubai was looking very hazy after a few recent days of strong winds coming from the desert. You could almost taste the sand and grit in the air and it didn’t make for great photos. I’m no mall monkey (hate the places!), nor do I like lounging by the swimming pool, so I’d booked an afternoon city tour, possibly not my best-ever idea considering the temperatures were in the forties (that’s degrees Celsius) but it seemed the best way to get a look around and the tour agency promised a ‘spectacular city’.

After picking up passengers at various hotels and our very chatty Indian tour guide, we headed round the city’s tourist sights. A lot of the impressive skyscrapers we just whizzed past on the bus so if you weren’t on the right side, you missed them. And the bus’s windows weren’t the cleanest for shooting through glass either. We zoomed past Burj Khalifa but I had a distant view of that from my hotel room. The view wasn’t pretty but I could at least get a snap of the world’s tallest building and tallest man-made structure, a real sky scraper at 829.8m (2722 feet) high. According to our tour guide, the top 30 floors are uninhabitable as the tower sways something like 1.5 metres at the top in high winds. Not my idea of a fun ride!

We stopped briefly at one of the Umm Suqeim beaches though they weren’t looking pretty either, with ‘beach nourishment’ underway, but we were able to grab a photo of a former world leader, Burj Al Arab, now the world’s third tallest building and, supposedly, a seven-star hotel.

On to a very different example of Dubai’s modern architecture, the Jumeira Mosque – this is another building my tour blurb labelled spectacular but, having recently been to the Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca,  I can’t be so generous in my praise. It was certainly a fine example of Islamic architecture, and I’m a big fan of those arches, cupolas and minarets.

We whizzed by the beach palaces of various sheiks, including, apparently ‘the ancient, beautifully restored house of Sheikh Saeed, the grandfather of the present Ruler of Dubai’, which ‘is housed in the 180-year-old Al Fahidi Fort’. And we drove through the ‘Bastakia region which has wind towered houses’ that are ‘still standing as a reminder of the graceful and resourceful architecture that predated the arrival of electricity and air-conditioning’.

We stopped for 30 minutes at the Dubai Museum. This was an interesting, if rather small museum, with some fascinating displays and artefacts, in particular highlighting Dubai’s historical links with trading and pearl diving. I could have lingered longer here but we were on a schedule and the best bit of the tour was next, a short ride on an abra, one of the old wooden water taxis that still ferries commuters back and forth across Dubai Creek. The breeze and slight water spray were refreshing and the ride was fun.

The tour finished with a short introduction to the spice souk and a wander round the gold souk. When you’ve seen the souks in cities like Tunis, Marrakech and Istanbul, those in Dubai are, quite frankly, disappointing – while the other tourists shopped, I opted for a cold drink.

The spice souk at left and gold souk on the right
Later that evening, I went on a two-hour dinner cruise on one of the many traditional wooden dhows that now sail back and forth along Dubai Creek each night. My tour blurb promised ‘a truly romantic evening’ but, as I was travelling alone amongst a mixed complement of couples and family groups, I was seated separately at my own table. I didn’t mind that though as the buffet of international dishes was delicious, served downstairs in the air-conditioned cabin, and the slight breeze while sitting on the upstairs deck was very pleasant. The waterfront wasn’t as spectacular as we were promised – the prettiest lights were on the many other brightly illuminated dhows that continuously floated by.

During my second stopover, my only tourist outing was for a so-called ‘desert safari with dune dinner’. This proved to be a stomach-churning roller-coaster 4-wheel-drive ride up and down the sand dunes about an hour outside the city, designed for young thrill-seekers who don’t mind taking their life in their hands while the drivers compete to see who can tackle the steepest-angled slopes. I was not impressed by their dangerous antics and felt so sick that I didn’t eat a bite of the apparently sumptuous Arabian-style barbeque. Nor did I enjoy the dancing that accompanied the dinner, with the rather creepy older-male tourists leering and slobbering over the scantily clad belly dancers gyrating their body parts. I was never more glad to get back to my hotel room.

So, my opinion of Dubai? Well, as you've probably gathered by now, I’m not sure I’d call the city spectacular – a few of the buildings are pretty impressive but the stopovers were bloody expensive for what I got, I think I would get bored with the place fairly quickly and it was just too damn hot. I won’t bother stopping there again but, if you find air-conditioned malls and shopping exciting, you might like to give it a try.