*My friend Isabella recently visited Dubai for the first time and asked if she could write about her experiences for Ladies What Travel. I knew she enjoyed writing stories and poetry for pleasure, but until seeing this piece I’d never had a chance to read her work. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did! Keri x *
I’ll be honest with you; Dubai wasn’t very high on my travel bucket list. Sparkling metropolises simply don’t really attract me as I’m more of an ‘off the beaten track’, ‘culture trip’ kinda girl, but then a work trip beckoned me there.
Challenging my preconceptions
Dubai made its first appearance in Western history books in 1095 through an entry from a Venetian merchant drawn there by trade. It later evolved around the early 18th century into a fishing village and, having reclaimed vast swathes of desert to expand, is now the largest and most populous city in the United Arab Emirates. Keen to challenge my preconceptions of the place, I decided to add on a couple of extra days to explore some culture in the Middle East.
At 2am the glittering entrance of the JW Marriott Marquis, the tallest hotel in the world (naturally), is dazzling and grand. A twinkling pattern of coloured lights spans the ceiling of the valet parking bay illuminating the parade of elite cars collecting rich, perfectly groomed young people from their night out. There was a Rolls Royce Phantom, a platinum Corvette and a matte black and crystal AMG to name a few.
Coming in from the balmy night air, a blast of icy air-conned sophistication envelops you. The lobby is a cavernous space of marble, lights and large glass vases crammed with exotic orchid sprays. This place oozes wealth and yet is surprisingly affordable to stay at.
Spread across two colossal towers, the hotel boasts a beautiful sixth floor pool surrounded by frangipani trees and sun yellow loungers with views of Burj Khalifa, an exquisite bakery, a relaxing spa, shops, six restaurants and a breakfast place called Kitchen6. Here you can choose from traditional breakfasts, American, Arabic, Asian, British, European and Indian – let me tell you that all options were delicious!
After three 19-hour working days in a row, it was finally downtime and boy, was it needed! Being the fish that I am, the pool seemed like a good place to start, so I enjoyed an early morning dip with it all to myself. Serene. Then it was on to the real treat…
Spending a night in the Dubai desert
It has always been a dream of mine to spend a night in the desert under the stars to experience the silence and expanse of undulating sands. Four of my lovely friends and I set out for a session of dune bashing: a rollercoaster ride in a 4×4 followed by an evening of culture in the desert. Outside the camp, six camels grazed on the contents of their pouches awaiting their next ride. The entrance was guarded by a gentleman in white flowing garments, proudly displaying his hunting falcon on his arm. A circular cluster of huts selling traditional cheap wares encloses a square concrete stage surrounded by plush cushions on rugs and low tables.
Settled with plates of succulent barbecued meat, flatbreads, lentil curry and salads sprinkled with sumac, the entertainment began. Out came a man in colourful pants overlaid with a sequinned skirt and on top, a plain shirt, shiny waistcoat and fez. He whirled to the entrancing music like a rainbow tornado whilst spinning bright discs into patterns.
Then the bit I’d been waiting for, belly-dancing. She appeared sumptuously dressed, a buxom young lady who mesmerised with her moves. It was so refreshing to see Dubai’s curvy, and altogether healthier, perception of beauty instead of the Western streamline, slender persuasion. After she shimmied off the stage, those returning to their hotels were invited to mount their motorised camels and depart. We sat wondering how many of us would be sharing the camp tonight until eventually, everyone left and it was just the five of us and the staff. Sweet!
That night, after dark, we shared two shisha, mango and grape flavours, in an open sided hut and played word games. Being completely unplugged from technology was blissful and I was lucky enough to share it with four wonderful, intelligent people who made for easy conversation. We wandered out of the camp and raced each other barefoot in the warm sand over the moonlit dunes and then rested at the top. The staff set up our tents in the camp and told us that the generator would be switched off at 10.30.
Sleeping under the ‘stars’
Teeth brushed and freshened up, we returned to the dune to chat and await darkness. Off went the lights and as if out of nowhere, a row of sulphur yellow streetlights appeared on the horizon, light pollution even here. Such a shame but the stars were still sort of visible and the Arabian moon spilled her bright silver light over the sea of sand. It was too beautiful! We decided to shun the tents and stay there on the dune so we laid out blankets and set up camp.
I would wake up on my 35th birthday in the desert. At midnight, my companions piled on me to wish me a happy birthday and after some more laughs and games, they fell asleep. For me, it didn’t come quite so easy; the environment was surreal. Although we were lying on sand, there was no lap of waves, only the occasional camel whisper, or food bucket being investigated, punctuated the calm silence. There were no insects, no night birds. I lay there taking it all in, the senses alert until eventually I drifted off like the fine sand around us in the arid breeze.
A few hours later, we were roused by a cacophony of little birds heralded first by a single cockerel. Dazed, we sat up, stretched and took in the view of the desert at dawn. Pretty soon our attention was drawn to a pattern in the sand. It was unmistakably a snake slither about two feet away from the bottom of our beds – close! Our guess was that as we were sleeping and motionless, it figured that we posed no threat and slipped off into the night.
There were lots of little tracks in the sand and we followed some of them but to no avail, all the critters had scuttled to shelter before the arrival of the hot sun. After a breakfast of spicy beef sausage, boiled eggs, bread, jam and black tea, we made our way back to the hotel. What a wonderful experience.
Three of us shared a family room at The Steigenberger, a swish hotel not far from our first hotel in the business bay. The marble floor was so highly polished that my flip-flops were like skates on it. We went to our beautiful room and cleaned all of the sand off our bodies and out of our hair; that was one of the best showers ever. And that it was time to flip the vibe completely and go to the Atlantis Water Park for some serious fun!
The Atlantis Water Park
The juxtaposition from the natural dry, arid desert in the middle of nowhere to this manmade, watery wonderland teeming with people was profound. We bobbed along the lazy river in inflatable donuts and rode the rapids and flume rides, squealing with glee. Everything here is geared to tourism, they’re adept in their ability to coax money from the visitors. If you pack well with lots of water and snacks, it is possible to save your money and you’re bound to have an awesome time. Better still, you’re eligible for free entry on your birthday!
The souks of Old Dubai
Weary after the adrenaline and heat of the day, we retired to our hotel for hot baths and then set out for dinner and the spice and gold souks in Old Dubai. The narrow rustic streets are crammed with small stalls, their entrances piled high with a kaleidoscope of exotic spices. There are dusky pink rosebuds, warm yellow turmeric, blue balls of indigo, rich red strands of saffron and bright green herbs and it smells divine. We picked up a few gifts and went for dinner at a light and airy restaurant called Zeif next to our hotel.
Here we relished soujouk, a dish of spicy lamb sausages cooked with peppers in olive oil, fattoush salad and flatbreads. The drink I ordered can only be described as heaven in a tall glass; an avocado smoothie with honey and crushed pistachios.
With our bellies and senses full, our cosy beds called. They were extremely comfortable and the fluffy pillows welcomed my sleepy head. Before I knew it, it was morning and time to head home. I was awakening from my Dubai dream.
Dubai – an assault on the senses
You may wonder why I call it so. It is a place of surreal contrast that you float effortlessly between, drifting from the heat and sands of the desert to the air-conned, fountain-filled towers. There is the flowing and demure covering of the women in the region and the fleshy gyrations of the voluptuous belly dancer. In a day, going from the desolate dunes to sloshing commercial water rides, from simplistic desert dwelling to abounding opulence. It is an assault on the senses that feels like a blur but not an unpleasant one.
There really is something for everyone here, for the city lover, for the shoppers, for the thrill seekers and also for the off the beaten track kinda girl…it will leave you entranced by the mirage that it is.