Coun­try of Con­trasts: Coun­try of Con­trasts:

MELINDA MUR­PHY and her fam­ily went to Dubai sim­ply to visit friends, but it turned into one of the most di­verse and fun trips they’ve ever taken.

Expat Living (Singapore) - - Contents -

A fab fam­ily hol­i­day in the UAE

Thirty camels pressed their noses to the metal gate, their knobby- knees danc­ing with ex­pec­ta­tion. Hun­dreds of oth­ers waited their turn in the park­ing lot at the Al Mar­moom race­track in Dubai. When the gate lifted, the camels took off in a dusty cloud, lop­ing around the track wear­ing elec­tronic jock­eys that re­sem­bled mon­keys on their humps. The jock­eys were con­trolled re­motely by men in gi­ant SUVS, also rac­ing along paved roads on the out­side of the in­cred­i­bly long track; so long, in fact, the only way to see what was hap­pen­ing at the far end was to watch a gi­ant tele­vi­sion screen. As one race fin­ished, the next be­gan.

We were the only West­ern­ers around, with no other women in sight. In fact, there were very few spec­ta­tors at all. Be­cause we were in a tra­di­tional place, I was dressed re­spect­fully with knees and shoul­ders cov­ered, and felt to­tally wel­come. We watched from a glass bridge that spanned the wide dirt track above the start­ing gate. Men in tra­di­tional clothes of­fered us free mint tea. I knew I was get­ting a glimpse of a part of Emi­rati cul­ture most tourists don’t see, a her­itage dat­ing back more than 1,000 years. Some feel that camel rac­ing is cruel to the an­i­mals – or, worse yet, to the chil­dren who are of­ten forced to work as jock­eys. The UAE, how­ever, was the first coun­try to ban child jock­eys (in 2002) and camels are revered there.

Af­ter we tired of watch­ing, we walked around to get a closeup look at the an­i­mals. Ev­ery­body gave us a big smile and was happy to show us their camels, es­pe­cially our chil­dren. One

camel was sport­ing an or­ange neck. I found out later that camels who come in the top three spots are rubbed with pre­cious saf­fron as a re­ward. By the way, gam­bling is il­le­gal in the United Arab Emi­rates, but there is prize­money to be won. And so went our first morn­ing in Dubai. We fin­ished that same day stand­ing be­low the Burj Khal­ifa, the tallest build­ing in the world. Wide-eyed, we watched with crooked necks an in­cred­i­ble light show that lit up the en­tire side of the 163- floor build­ing, chore­ographed to Adele’s “Sky­fall” in uni­son with the Dubai Foun­tains, which danced rhyth­mi­cally be­low. It was quite sim­ply amaz­ing, unlike any light show I’ve seen. (Check out ex­patliv­ to see a video of the show and more.)

That sin­gle day per­fectly demon­strates the con­trasts of Dubai, a coun­try deeply steeped in tra­di­tion, which also em­braces the newest and most modern of ev­ery­thing.

The Sand

No trip to Dubai is com­plete with­out a desert sa­fari. We chose Plat­inum Her­itage Luxury Tours and Sa­faris as it’s one of the only tour op­er­a­tors al­lowed in the Dubai Desert Con­ser­va­tion Re­serve. We met our guide in the city and he drove us about an hour out into the desert. Feel­ing like real ad­ven­tur­ers with scarves tied around our heads, we climbed into a vintage 1950s Land Rover, tak­ing off across the sand into the re­serve. We spot­ted lots of Ara­bian oryx (a type of an­te­lope), stopped at an oasis, and then wan­dered on foot for a bit. My kids loved feel­ing the silky sand be­tween their toes and learn­ing about the desert from our kind and knowl­edge­able guide.

When we re­turned, we watched a fal­conry show then feasted on Be­douin-style food in­clud­ing warm camel milk and camel stew. “Come on, Mom. It might be your favourite food.” Why is it that things you tell your kids al­ways come back to haunt you? I took a deep breath and tasted it. Guess what? Both were shock­ingly good! Af­ter din­ner, some men did a tra­di­tional Yola dance, fol­lowed by drum play­ing and singing, en­cour­ag­ing ev­ery­body to join in. My daugh­ter and I got henna on our hands and my son got a henna scor­pion on his arm be­fore we all climbed on camels for a short ride through the dark desert un­der a full moon. It was mag­i­cal.

The Surf

Dubai sits on the Ara­bian Gulf so there is plenty of room for fun in the wa­ter. JBR is Dubai’s ver­sion of Sen­tosa, with an in­cred­i­ble boardwalk that in­cludes dozens of restaurants and thou­sands of sun­bathers. Just off the coast is Aqua­fun, the world’s largest float­ing ob­sta­cle course (it spells “Dubai” from the air). We didn’t have enough time to try it, and the kids were happy enough play­ing in the big waves, but it’s def­i­nitely a spot for fam­i­lies to visit.

Fun­nily enough, my favourite thing at JBR was a lit­tle Turk­ish ice-cream food cart near the Shake Shack. The ven­dor did a lit­tle com­edy act of sorts, a mag­i­cal game of “keep away” that made it hard to grab your cone. Each kid gig­gled in­ces­santly as they tried to nab their icy treat.

One morn­ing, we rented self-drive boats from Hero ODYSEA. Each adult took one kid and we headed off for a 90-minute ad­ven­ture, pass­ing right by the Burj Al Arab, one of Dubai’s most recog­nis­able land­marks, home to a seven-star ho­tel. We also got to peek at some of the royal palaces only vis­i­ble from the ocean, and parts of fa­mous The Palm Jumeirah Is­land. The waves were pretty big, which made me ner­vous at first, but I quickly re­alised the in­flat­able boats were sta­ble and our guide JC was good at his job. This was my hus­band’s favourite part of the whole va­ca­tion. The kids? Well, I’m still a bit deaf from my daugh­ter scream­ing in de­light each time we hit a wave.

The Shop­ping

Dubai is also fa­mous for its shop­ping – it has more malls than Sin­ga­pore! We spent a lit­tle time at The Dubai Mall, one of the largest in the world with 1,200 stores tucked in the shadow of the Burj Khal­ifa. Truth? It has the same stuff you can find any­where in the world and the prices aren’t much bet­ter than here.

I far pre­ferred our trip to Old Dubai. We started at the Dubai Mu­seum, a charm­ing, well-done, hands-on mu­seum in the Al Fahidi Fort that ex­plains the his­tory of the city in a way that my kids en­joyed. We then wan­dered through the tex­tile souk and took a dhow, a tra­di­tional Arab boat, across the Dubai Creek, which is ac­tu­ally a very busy river. There, we wan­dered through the spice souk, com­plete with gi­ant gold bowls piled high with saf­fron and bags of other un­fa­mil­iar spices. The kids worked with a crafts­man, chose colours and watched as he painted pic­tures out of sand in­side bot­tles for them. The gold souk boasts win­dow af­ter win­dow draped with eye-pop­ping gold jewellery.

One evening, we ex­plored Global Vil­lage, a place that’s a bit hard to de­scribe. It’s a gi­ant – and I mean gi­ant – com­plex that has smaller ver­sions of the world’s best-known land­marks, and ar­chi­tec­turally-ap­pro­pri­ate build­ings rep­re­sent­ing coun­tries, each hawk­ing wares from that part of the world. There’s a gi­ant street of food from across the globe, too. The real high­light was the wild show of amaz­ing car and mo­tor­cy­cle stunts and dar­ing feats by per­form­ers. It seemed a lit­tle out of place amidst the pro­fes­sional cul­tural dances on the stage, but my kids loved ev­ery heart-pump­ing minute. (This place was my daugh­ter’s favourite!) Global Vil­lage is sea­sonal and just closed out its 24th year with six mil­lion vis­i­tors, a new record. Imag­ine what next year’s 25th an­niver­sary will bring!

The grand­daddy of all shop­ping was a trip to an­other of the coun­try’s seven emi­rates, Shar­jah, a more tra­di­tional area. There, our friends took us to the Cen­tral Mar­ket, also known as the Blue Souk be­cause of the blue tiles on the out­side of the mul­ti­ple build­ings. The labyrinth of hall­ways is burst­ing with great deals – ev­ery­thing from jewellery and pash­mi­nas to an­tiques at far bet­ter prices than in Dubai. We went to buy a rug, which was ac­tu­ally fun be­cause of Adil, the owner of Es­fa­han Ex­hi­bi­tion Ltd. He was a funny, low-pres­sure sales­man who seemed to un­der­stand and re­spect our bud­get. The best part? He has seven kids of his own so he was pa­tient as ours did som­er­saults across the car­pets.

Kid Time

We splurged and spent one night at world-fa­mous At­lantis The Palm, Dubai. A night at the ho­tel in­cludes en­try to the spec­tac­u­lar wa­ter park at­tached. (Hint: check in at 9am and hit the park when it opens at 10am. You can also use the park the next day, too, even af­ter check­out). There’s no lazy river here. In­stead, a bunch of ex­hil­a­rat­ing white-wa­ter rivers are all in­ter­con­nected mean­ing you can float a zil­lion dif­fer­ent ways and never quite see it all. The park is also fa­mous for its slides; our favourites were Zoomerango and Aqua­conda, two wild fam­ily rides. The re­sort also has lots of restaurants, a mas­sive pool and a small but well-done aquar­ium. Some choose to swim with sharks or feed rays, but we didn’t shell out for that (or for the pricey un­der­wa­ter room).

Dubai has lots of wa­ter parks and amuse­ment parks, by the way. You could spend a week there and check out a dif­fer­ent one ev­ery day.

Adult Time

We left the kids home one night and headed to Souk Mad­i­nat Jumeirah, a lovely area dot­ted with ex­pen­sive restaurants, high-end shops and fancy ho­tels on the Dubai Wa­ter Canal, a man-made stretch of wa­ter with gor­geous views of the Burj Al Arab. The 2km strip was built to feel like some­thing from ro­man­tic days gone by and the shops here have more tra­di­tional wares than in other malls. If you can’t make it to Cen­tral Mar­ket, but want some Mid­dle East­ern trin­kets, this is a good bet. I loved it.

The Side Trip

We drove four hours north through sev­eral other emi­rates to Mu­san­dam, a small en­clave of Oman that sits on the Strait of Hor­muz and is sur­rounded by the UAE. The land­scape here is dra­mat­i­cally dif­fer­ent with craggy moun­tains jut­ting out of the sand, re­flected by pris­tine turquoise wa­ter. Our ho­tel, the Atana Mu­san­dam, was lit­er­ally in the mid­dle of nowhere with lit­tle there other than wild goats, the small town of Khasab and a gi­ant hy­per­mar­ket. The res­tau­rant has a va­ri­ety of food, but we were par­tial to the Omani dishes, a bit dif­fer­ent to other Mid­dle East­ern food I’ve had.

We took a dhow tour with Dol­phin Khasab Tours around the fjords, some­times called the “Nor­way of Ara­bia”. Our wide, slow-mov­ing boat was draped with Per­sian rugs and comfy cush­ions. The scenery was beau­ti­ful even though we were in the mid­dle of a sand­storm so the vis­i­bil­ity wasn’t the best. There were lots of jel­ly­fish in the wa­ter, but the cap­tain knew where to take us so we could safely snorkel and spot all sorts of sea crea­tures. Of course, the real rea­son to go is to see the wild dol­phins play­ing in the wa­ter. What a treat! There are also some off-road moun­tain tours avail­able in the area, but they weren’t ap­pro­pri­ate for our friends’ six­month-old baby. (Note: If you go, cross­ing the bor­der can take some time. Women trav­el­ling with chil­dren apart from their hus­bands should have copies of their hus­band’s pass­port and a let­ter signed by him say­ing it’s okay for you to leave the coun­try with the chil­dren.)

The Verdict

I went to Dubai not re­ally know­ing what to ex­pect. So, what did I learn? Ex­pect the un­ex­pected. It re­ally is a place of in­cred­i­ble diver­sity. A woman in an abaya will be on the beach next to a woman in a string bikini. Camels walk next to gi­ant Land Cruis­ers. Dhows lum­ber next to speed­boats. The best part for me is that our kids got a taste for things they sim­ply haven’t seen in Asia and they loved each and ev­ery ad­ven­ture.

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