It’s been a year in the making, but at last we are on our way back to Europe! We will have six weeks road tripping through picturesque mountains, visiting castles and eating all sorts of delicious food – but first, a quick stop over in Dubai on the way over.
There are lots of reasons we stop in Dubai. First, it’s an awfully long flight from Adelaide to Europe, so it’s just nice to be able to break it up if we can. We have family here in Dubai, and I love to be able to call in and catch up for a while. It helps our bodies to adjust to the time differences too, even if mine does take a lot longer than most people thanks to an incredibly reliable body clock. And finally, we just like Dubai! There is SO MUCH to do and see here, and every time we come here it has changed and grown.
Just as an idea of how quickly Dubai is changing, when we first came here back in February 2008 it had a population of around 1.5million people. The Burj Khalifa (the tallest building in the world) was not yet completed, there was no public transport, and it was rumoured that more than half the world’s cranes were here building the thousands (probably!) of unique buildings that were rising out of the desert.
Now Dubai has a population of around 5million. Many of the buildings are complete, but that still doesn’t mean those cranes have moved on. There is still building all over the place, and with Expo2020 being held here next year, infrastructure is being improved at a crazy rate. Not content with the tallest building in the world, an even taller one is starting it’s journey towards the sky. A new rail link is being built between Abu Dhabi and Dubai that will apparently do the 140km trip between the cities in 15 minutes (sounds a little unbelievable to me, but I guess we will see when it’s completed next year). The World Islands out in the gulf are finally being developed after the 2008 GFC slowed them down. That vision the Sheikh had all those years ago is coming to fruition, but the new generation of leaders just keeps raising the bar. I am always amazed at what they have come up with for the next project.
I know I have talked a little in the past about actively collecting frequent flyer points, and this flight from Australia to Dubai is exactly the reason why I do it. Instead of spending 14+ hours squished in economy, I was luxuriating in a business class flat bed on an Emirates A380. I’m a pretty poor sleeper at the best of times, but I have no hope on a plane. At least in business class I will get 4-5 hours sleep, which means I don’t feel totally wrecked for the next few days.
We arrived in Dubai at 5:15am, and were lucky to be met at the airport by my cousin Emma. I hadn’t made any big plans for the day because it all depended on how we were feeling as to what we would do. That worked out well, because one of her kids was a little unwell, so we chose to stay at home with him and rest a little while Emma was at work.
Since our last visit Emma has moved, so we did go for a bit of a walk through her new neighbourhood to check it all out. No shiny towers here out in the suburbs, just cookie-cutter houses emerging from the desert! This house is in a new “suburb”, so literally the houses back onto desert. There are very few facilities here yet – not even a local convenience store – but there is of course a communal swimming pool, gym, and community centre, all free for the residents. Staying here rather than in one of the big hotels in the city gives me a whole different perspective on Dubai.
He was feeling better in the afternoon so decided to go to sports practice – which meant we could tag along and take a walk on the beach right near the Burj al Arab. I was absolutely stunned to find huge motorhomes parked in the car park like they were using the area as a caravan park. The beach is literally “over the fence” from one of the royal palaces so I wasn’t taking any risks with taking photos in that direction, and luckily I didn’t, because Emma later told me they are likely Emiratis in their mega-motorhomes parked there. They are notoriously “funny” about photos.
Our second day in Dubai was an epic day. First up was the school run (as I said, staying with family out in the ‘burbs gives a very different experience). School starts a lot earlier here than what I am used to in Australia (where it normally starts between 8:30am and 9am) and kids don’t tend to go to schools in their neighbourhood but rather in other parts of the city, so the drive to school began at 7am. This worked out well for me, since my crazy body clock had me wide awake very early anyway.
From there Emma had to drop into work for a few minutes in downtown Dubai, so while she did that we explored the Al Seef area. This area is along the banks of the Dubai Creek and has recently been redeveloped. Some of the walk is trendy modern bars and cafes, including rooftop bars, but since we were there about 8am little was open. This place comes to life about 4pm and goes well into the evening. This is not a nightclub area though, and don’t be expecting an evening cocktail as the sun goes down, this area is mostly filled with dry restaurants (although one or two serve alcohol if you look hard).
A little further on was what I called the new-old part of Al Seef. A whole pile of new buildings in the traditional old Arabic style. Again, many house restaurants and cafes, but there are also small shops selling traditional crafts too. I quite enjoyed walking through this area. The developers have done a great job of adding lots of little touches that add to the authenticity. Yes, I know it’s NOT old, but it kinda feels like it could be. We also saw the Museum of Illusion, which was unfortunately closed, but could be a great way to spend a couple of hours out of the heat if you have kids with you.
As Emma met up with us again, she had a call from the school that her son was again unwell and she had to go and pick him up – he would be joining us for the rest of the day.
While we waited we went to the traditional Arabian Tea House, and tried the Arabic coffee and a lovely mint tea called Sulaimani Tea. Arabic Coffee tends to be loaded with cardamon and served with dates, which always taste much better here in the Middle East. There are not a whole lot of traditional Emirati restaurants in Dubai, this is one of only three. We were only here for a quick break, but others around us were ordering delicious looking (and smelling!) breakfasts.
When Emma arrived back with her son, she ordered some food. I unfortunately did not get the names of the dishes, but I did have a small try of each, and I can confirm it is truely tasty and I recommend a visit here if you would like to try some of the local food. It also helps that it’s a lovely courtyard setting with the food and drinks served in beautiful crockery.
Feeling relaxed, we were making our way to the Etihad Museum when Emma remembered we were near the Queen Elizabeth 2 ship that is now permanently docked in Dubai and functions as a hotel, restaurants, bars and theatre. So we stopped there to have a quick look.
The ship is still in the process of being renovated, and I expect that it will take years to be fully updated as it is being done gradually. I couldn’t quite decide whether it was nice to see it decorated as per the golden era of the ship, or whether it just felt a little run down and dated. Still, it’s good to stop by, have a look, grab a drink or have a meal. You may even like to stay a night or two. Click here to see the latest rates.
Next stop was the recently opened Etihad Museum, which focuses of the coming-together of the seven Emirates (states) to create the United Arab Emirates. It is located right next to Union House, the place where the original signing took place. It is also marked by a giant flag that can be seen flying over Dubai.
I loved that a lot of technology has been used throughout the unsurprisingly stunning museum. Many of the displays were interactive, which made it fun to play around while learning. Particularly impressive is the golden staircase, that is only used by visiting Sheikhs and other dignitaries.
We were on our way to lunch, but since we were passing by, a fleeting visit to the insta-worthy beach area called La Mer was in order. This area is full of trendy restaurants and beach clubs, a water park and other activities for those visiting to soak up the sun. Next time I am in Dubai I think this will be on my list to explore a little more.
Lunch was at a fabulous little seafood restaurant called 3 Fils. It’s tucked away in the Jumeirah area, but even for a late lunch, it was busy. It’s not huge though, only a couple of dozen seats both inside and out. The food looked and tasted fantastic. The servings were small though, so if you are really hungry, I suggest asking the waiters for recommendations – we found them to be very knowledgeable about the food. It was so relaxing sitting in this quiet location right on the water eating delicious food, and we could quite easily have stayed for the whole afternoon.
By now the sick boy was starting to flag, so we were dropped at The Frame and Emma took him home for some rest.
The Frame has only opened since our visit 18 months ago, and basically it’s a big, fancy viewing platform. There is a small museum at the bottom showing the history of Dubai before you go to the top of the frame, and then when you come down, a video on the future of Dubai.
The platform at the top is 150m from the ground and includes a strip of glass floor right down the middle so that you can test your nerves and look straight down at the bottom edge of the frame. If you look to the south the view is of “new Dubai”, the big shiny buildings lining Sheikh Zayed Road. To the north is the older part of Dubai, with the emirate of Sharjah in the background. The price of 52.50AED ($20AUD/$14.30USD) was reasonable compared to the prices of some other viewing platforms around the world.
For our final day in Dubai we had a whole different plan – we were heading to the hills! I had been surprised to see a relief map at the Etihad Museum that showed some quite hilly areas of the UAE not far from Dubai, so we decided to go and have a look.
During our many previous visits to Dubai we have barely left the city. On one trip we did a desert 4wd safari, and on another we went to Abu Dhabi, but that is it. We therefore decided to check out a few new sites that Emma hadn’t been to either.
First stop was the Mleiha Archeological Centre, where we learned that the first people in this area were here 120000 years ago. It is located about an hour drive from Dubai in the Emirate of Sharjah. Quite close by is Fossil Rock, which is a good location to get some of those amazing desert sand photographs. It’s also good for climbing and getting a great view over the rolling dunes, but I recommend only doing that in winter. Even though it’s only April, already the temperatures were into the forties (Celsius) so not good conditions for climbing in the sun.
We spent about an hour in the museum, which was actually quite interesting. Some of the displays are quite realistic – including one of a full sized camel and horse as they would have been buried.
After lunch in the cafe, we ventured outside to visit the burial tomb right next to the archeological centre. This one was found to contain more than 300 bodies, all neatly laid on their sides with their knees pulled up to their chests. To visit some of the other significant sites we had read about in the museum that are in the area we had to get in the car and drive. While technically it is possible to walk, it’s not all that far, in the heat it’s again not advisable.
And luckily we didn’t walk, because we missed the turn off and ended up driving miles out of our way (the map to follow is lacking a little in detail! Tip – you won’t actually get given a map, you will need to take a photo of it on the wall of the museum) We had almost given up and were heading back to the museum when we finally spotted where we were meant to be.
The first group were grave sites, water wells, and a significant site showing the laters of the different civilisations. I’m not expert, so to me there was not a whole lot to see really. It was good to compare the sizes and shapes of the graves to what was shown in the museum though.
As we moved on to the second area, we had to deal with a UAE road hazard – camels wandering ever so slowly across the road. There were some tiny babies too that would have only been a few weeks old.
The second group of sites included a fort and a palace. These ruins were found with only the “footprint” visible at ground level. So that visitors can get an idea of the scope of the buildings, walls have been built on top of the footprints, but only to a height of around a metre. I’m not sure how I felt about this. It felt kind of fake, but I guess the alternative is a flat piece of land that would be continuously be covered in drifting sand and there would be nothing to see.
It was a hot day, and checking out the ruins was sweaty work. Some were interesting, but overall, I think the museum gave a lot more information.
Next we made our way to the town of Hatta. Located right next to the border with Oman, Hatta is in the mountains. These are not mountains as you may pictures them though, but rather dramatic peaks of dark rock and barely a tree to be seen! Unfortunately what can be seen everywhere are power lines! Dubai gets all of it’s water from desalination plants. There are over 2000 of them in the country and they all need power to run, so there are big, ugly towers and power lines in every direction.
Hatta is a popular getaway location for those from Dubai and surrounding areas. The town itself is a bit of an oasis in the desert. One of the most popular attractions is a dam where locals and visitors alike can kayak or row while enjoying the stark hills surrounding it. We were there on the last Friday (which is the day of rest for the Middle East, like Sunday in the western cultures) before summer truely kicks in, so lots of people were out and about. If you ever visit Hatta Dam, my number one recommendation is to park in the car park at the bottom! Once you head up the hill, there is almost no opportunity to turn around. We saw a whole pile of cars having to reverse because one from the top wanted to get down. And let me just add that not a lot of patience was being shown!
We now needed some more cooling refreshments, so we visited a new development called Hatta Wadi Hub. This place provides accommodation and outdoor activities for everyone. It is a great option for escaping the city in Dubai. Emma and family had stayed here for a few days during winter and had loved it. It’s a great hub for mountain biking, but there are so many other adventure activities from zip-lining to waterslides, desert hikes to archery. We didn’t partake of any of the activities, but did have a nice walk around after cooling down with a juice from the food trucks.
Soon after we were off back to Dubai. As we approached the city we started to see the beautiful colours in the desert as the sun is going down. I have already come across a few more desert activities to put on my list for next time we visit. It really is a whole new side of the country out here away from the crowds and the big city sites.
All that was left was an early night. We had our alarms set for 4am to get to the airport for our flights through to Brussels in Belgium where our Europe trip really begins.
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Josie is a forty-something budget traveller. She only discovered travel in her late thirties, but since then has travelled extensively including taking an adult gap year. She is now based in Australia and loves sharing all she has learned about travelling on a budget but with the comforts a Gen Xer requires.