Dubai Escorted Tour – Tips for Travel to Dubai/United Arab Emirates

Two of our travel agents, Laura Pierce and Peg Giordana recently took a journey to discover Dubai/United Arab Emirates in the Middle East and brought back some valuable information for travelers looking to discover this fascinating area.

Our journey to Dubai began with our flights on Emirate Airlines.  We were lucky enough to get business class in both directions to/from JFK.  This airline is a “destination” in itself.  Your business class seat is more like your own “kiosk” with a wide screen TV, sound system, storage, and a seat that fully reclines into a bed.  They even bring you a mattress, menu to choose your meals and a wine list.  In the back of business class, on the newer model planes like we had on the return, there is a lounge with a full service bar.  Believe it or not, we had so much fun on the 14 hour flight home we didn’t want it to end.  Service was phenomenal.

We spent the night before our flight to Dubai in New York at the Hilton Garden Times Square.  The hotel was a good choice for something reasonably priced and an easy walk to Times Square and major attractions.  The rooms were standard with coffee maker, microwave, refrigerator and a safe.  It also had a nice restaurant and lounge on sight.  We took the subway to the World Trade Center complex to see the Freedom Tower ongoing construction.  There is still a lot of work, but it is going to be beautiful, with memorials, shopping mall, restaurants as well as the museum and offices.

Our Dubai trip was booked through Gate 1.  The hotel was the Royal Ascot Hotel which we were told was within walking distance to shopping, night clubs and attractions.  That was not the case.  The shopping areas in Dubai tend to be grouped by type, and the area we were in was many blocks of electronic stores.    Our trip included many tours and taxis were easy to get, so it wasn’t a problem.  But if someone is going on their own it would be a good idea to get something closer to the “Beverly Hills” area of Dubai where all the high rises, shopping and attractions are.  The main street through this area is “Sheikh Khalifa” (the current president of UAE).  Our hotel had the basic needs, hair dryer, mini bar, LCD TV.  There was a roof top pool/lounge that turned into a smoking lounge in the evening if you know what I mean.   There were eleven restaurants as well, but they were very pricey, so we tried to eat elsewhere.   The local Irish Pub had various specials every night as well.

All of our tours were escorted by a Muslim woman, Chenez, who was extremely informative.  She not only explained what we were seeing, and the history of UAE, but educated us in the Muslim culture and Islam (the way it is SUPPOSED to be, not the way we tend to hear about it).  It was fascinating to learn and enlightening to realize how abused this religion and culture are.  UAE, while Muslim, is more tolerant of modern influences.  Women covering the face is NOT required in the Koran, it is a personal choice.  The women’s’ robes, called Abayas, are becoming more of a “fashion statement” by being decorated and jeweled.  They are not required to be black although most of them are.  Head scarves are mandatory however.  The color and style of a man’s headdress tells you the tribe they are from and/or their level of “importance”.

Our first tour was a Dubai city tour.   Thirty years ago Dubai (Two Brothers) was nothing but desert and a fishing village.  Today it is a multi-cultural, architectural wonder.  There are over 200 nationalities living in Dubai.  The “original” people who immigrated from Yemen are called “Emiratees”.  Only 20% of the residents of Dubai are Emiratees.  They are treated very well by the Sheikh of Dubai, receiving free housing and education.  There are 7 Emirates, each with its own Sheikh, and no one pays taxes.  The founder of UAE wanted to turn the desert into a garden, and the country boasts 40,000,000 palm trees, more than any country in the world.  The ruler of all of UAE is Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, a very wealthy man with 4 wives, 19 daughters and 22 sons.

Dubai is the largest of the 7 and the most modern, and controlled by Britain until 1968.  It is one of the safest cities in the world with 95% of the people living there able to speak English.  Dubai is divided by Deira Creek with the old side called Deira on one side, and modern Dubai on the other.  The residents of Deira tend to be much more traditional and conservative and most of them are Muslim.  Very few outsiders live there.   Their electricity is powered by natural gas.  One month of oil will bring in 2 billion Dirhams.   They will export 2 million barrels per day.   Dubai is the 3 largest producer of oil in the world.

Their weekends start on Fridays.  Smaller shops are closed till evening following Islamic calendar.  June, July and August the temperature rises to 120 degrees with 100% humidity.  Most do not leave their homes or spend at one of the malls during that time.

Modern Dubai is known as an “architectural playground”.   It is the fastest growing city in the world. Everything in Dubai strives to be the biggest, best, most amazing in the world.  The skyscrapers and shopping malls are true wonders.  The tallest building in the world, Burj Khalifa, is located next to the Dubai Mall.  It is surrounded by a beautiful pond of water fed by the Arabian Gulf and at night there are fabulous water shows to music every 30 minutes with the Burj Khalifa lit up with changing colors.  The water show was designed by the same people who did the one at the Bellagio.  We sat at a lovely outdoor restaurant for dinner and watched three shows (while we shared a bottle of wine).  Fabulous.

The Mall of the Emirates, while smaller than the Dubai Mall, hosts the only ski slope located in a hot desert.  We sat at TGIF’s next to the window and watched people going up the ski lift and coming down in real snow, all bundled up in ski clothing.   The cost to ski was $50 USD for two hours with equipment, $30 for children.   We shopped both malls, using taxis and even the Metro once, but did not shop as much as we gawked.  Many of the shops were too intimidating to even enter, although they had many of the shops you would see at a mall here as well.  The people watching was far more interesting.  There were many westerners, but also Muslims dressed in traditional clothing.  There were teenagers in groups, dressed in the black gowns (girls) and white gowns (boys), acting like teenagers would here but NEVER boys and girls together.  You only saw them together if they were a married couple and even then there were no displays of affection in public.

Dubai is in the process of building a new international airport that will serve 160 million passengers, double the size of Atlanta.  Local flights will use the existing airport, the metro will connect both.

We drove out to Palm Island and saw the Atlantis, as well as thousands of villas and condominiums that were incredibly expensive.  The island is beautiful and everything on it is, of course, amazing.  They have had to stop some of the construction as the recession has even hit Dubai.  We saw the world’s only 7 star hotel, Burj al Arab, but you are not able to even pull into the drive unless you have a reservation there.

FYI, in UAE there is a mosque every 500m so when the call to prayer is heard you are never too far to get to one in time.  They are distinguished by the domed top and a needle shaped tower (there can be any number of these towers but must have at least one).  They do not carry their mats around in UAE and pray on the streets.  But you do hear the call to prayer all over the city and it is a little eerie at times.

Our 2nd tour was to the Emirate Sharjah (Rising Sun).  This is the smallest Emirate and by far the most conservative.  We were warned not to wear anything that showed knees or shoulders on this tour.  It was pretty uneventful after Dubai but interesting to see what the area was probably like 15 or 20 years ago before modern Dubai.  We went to the local souk (market place) and did a lot of shopping there.  The best things to shop for are spices and textiles (gold is no longer a bargain in Dubai).

Our hotel had a shuttle to the beach which we used one day.  Surprisingly, the Arabian Gulf  (Iran and Iraq call it the Persian Gulf)  is one of the most beautiful bodies of water I have ever seen and the beach was incredible.  Temperature was about 115 degrees so we spent most of the time IN the water.  And yes, the locals swim in their Muslim attire.  But there were plenty of bathing suits too so no one seemed bothered.  Bathing suits should be conservative out of respect for their culture.  But there were those who chose not to show their respect and we found this somewhat insulting to the people there.

Our last tour was to Abu Dhabi, the richest city in the world.  It is the 2nd largest Emirate and striving very hard to be the next Dubai.  There are many beautiful buildings here too, but construction on the skyscrapers and the 300 islands they are building has come to a temporary halt because of the recession.  Abu Dhabi is much calmer than Dubai even though there are 2,000,000 people who live there.  It does not have the hustle-bustle feeling as much and we had dinner at a lovely restaurant on the water that served traditional Arabic and international food.  There was also a small souk that we managed to shop a little.

On the way to Abu Dhabi is Ferrari World, the only one located outside of Italy, they claim they have the largest roller coaster in the world.  There is also the largest IKEA in the world (they had to tie me down to keep me out of there!) and the largest mosque.  The mosque is called the “Pearl of the Desert” because it is all white, and is so impressive and large it looks like a castle.  It is able to accommodate over 40, 00 worshipers.  The carpet in the main prayer hall is considered the world’s largest carpet made by Iran’s Carpet Company.  This carpet measures 60,570 square feet and was made by around 1,200 -1,300 female knotters.  The weight of this carpet is 35 ton, and took two years to complete.  This Grand Mosque has seven imported chandeliers from Germany that incorporates millions of Swarovski crystals and is 49 feet in length.  The 96 columns in the main hall are clad with marble and inlaid with mother of pearl.    It is one of the mosques that tourists are allowed to tour but we first had to put on the black gowns and head covers.  Chenez showed us how they pray and what it means; it was just another fascinating thing to learn.  And we have pictures of the two of us looking like nuns.  Totally out of character.

On our last night we had a dinner cruise with some other members of our group.  Walter, the Gate 1 operations manager in Dubai, knowing us fairly well by then, arranged for them to have alcohol on board for us.  (Bless his heart).  Normally, alcohol is only found in the hotel bars/restaurants and in night clubs or restaurants.  Many of the restaurants (such as TGIF) do not serve alcohol, and public drinking is never allowed.  So no cold ones on the beach for us!

I have to say that this was one of the most fascinating trips I have ever been on.  There were people of all different ages and interests on our tour and everyone enjoyed it.  So for those international clients that really want to experience something different and exciting, it is a fabulous destination.

Our tour guide recommended the book “Rags to Riches” if you want more in depth knowledge of the area.

If you’re interested in learning more about their journey or would like their assistance planning your own tour of Dubai, please don’t hesitate to contact Peg or Laura.

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