I was reeling with very high expectations of Dubai before I got there and although I had a rough plan laid out on how to spend my five days in the most famous of all emirates, I really couldn’t anticipate how overwhelming some of the attractions would be, how big the emirate actually was (silly me thinking all the attractions were sitting next to each other, either concentrated in the downtown area or just a minute or two away) and how much time it would all take for it to be possible for me and my family to see everything we wanted to.
I thought five days were plenty, but after spending the first one recovering from jet lag and devoting the last one to some serious basking on the beach, I realised that despite all there is to see and do, when you only have one day before you have to head back to gloomy, grey and dreary London, it’s hard to drag yourself to do anything other than soak up the sunshine on the sands of Jumeirah Beach. Also taking into account the fact that they were my last holidays of the year before facing the long and cold British winter, on my last day in Dubai tearing myself from the beach simply wasn’t an option.
So, what did I manage to do in Dubai in three days of sightseeing? Well, I should actually say two because the third one didn’t work out the way we had planned due to factors beyond our control (overly delayed check-in to the hotel, cranky, hungry child, alluring pool beckoning… you get the picture). Nevertheless, it must be said, that for having devoted only two days to sightseeing we did manage to do most of the things on my initial plan, even if two of the major attractions I had high hopes for seeing had to be left out; in one case because I got lost and couldn’t actually find the place (more on that frustrating moment later) and the other because I had simply run out of time. Well, there I have my excuse for going back!
On the other hand were the challenges that travelling with an 18-month-old toddler entailed, and when you have a child’s routine to deal with, a lot of things come less feasible to do. But still, we managed to see a lot whilst adhering to my son’s curfews and ensuring we all had a good time. A nice balance of family time and adult time was achieved in the end and if there’s anywhere in the world where travelling with a a baby in tow is made easy, that’s definitely Dubai! With the hotels’ fantastic child-friendly facilities, the attentive child-loving and caring staff and the cheap babysitting rates; an escape into the night for some childless adult fun is an easy to achieve mission in Dubai.
First impressions first – Doubletree Al Barsha and resting off that jet lag
Our stay for our first three nights in Dubai was at the Doubletree by Hilton Al Barsha, a new hotel that had only just opened four months earlier (in May 2014) and Hilton’s first Doubletree hotel in Dubai.
What surprised us first (and most) of this hotel was its location. As we approached it we couldn’t believe how it looked as though it sat in the middle of nowhere. Rising tall amidst flat golden stretches of sand and some scattered buildings here and there, this is a picture of Dubai we had never envisaged.
We had, of course seen photos of the hotels online, the ones posted on the hotel’s official website, but these had been carefully arranged so that they didn’t show the hotel’s surroundings, all taken above a certain level over the ground or partly covered by some conveniently placed foliage (that we didn’t see anywhere around by the way). It’s definitely not the picture of immaculate, over-developed Dubai perfection you’re used to. I’m sure that in a couple of years’ time the panorama surrounding the Doubletree Hilton Al Barsha will be entirely different though, so maybe I caught a rare glimpse of unused Dubai land. Maybe it was a rare privilege after all, but it gave you a rather odd feeling.
You also don’t expect the magnificently huge Mall of the Emirates to sit amidst all this “undevelopment”, as every poster advertising this mall, every magazine photograph and every promotional picture is carefully shot from certain angles (mostly at nighttime) and cleverly Photoshopped so you don’t see what surrounds it.
So the hotel, in all its magnificence and shiny glory looked deeply isolated despite some other tall buildings being located near it, in the not-so-far distance. All, in all, a very strange, eerie feeling indeed. Not your typical picture of Dubai.
The impression when walking into the hotel was completely different to our initial reactions to the outside location. Once we stepped inside we were impressed by the immaculate cleanliness and beauty of this modern hotel. At the entrance we were graciously helped by a bell boy who right after opening the car’s door for me, helped me strap my son to his pushchair and immediately disappeared to take care of our luggage.
Then we were led to the check-in area where an all-smiling desk clerk swiftly took our details and promptly advised me that my room would be ready in minutes, that they were just putting the cot in place (we had arrived three hours before official check-in time!) which actually seemed like seconds. We were marvelled at the speed of it all and the great consideration to our son who was a bit cranky at the time trying to squiggle his way out of the pushchair. While we waited we were handed two of Hilton’s signature cookies, so fresh and warm they melted right into your mouth, just what you need after a long morning with no breakfast.
Noticing my son’s increasing restleness, after just a couple of minutes she gave my husband the keys so that he could go and settle him in the room while she finished the check-in process and I signed forms. So kind and thoughtful, this special and considerate treatment was highly appreciated and continued throughout our stay. I had never stayed at a Hilton before, but if this kind of intuitive service is their signature across all of their properties and brands, this won't certainly be the last.
Throughout my stay at the Doubletree Hilton Al Barsha, in terms of personalised treatment, attentiveness and helpfulness, everyone in the hotel always went out of their way to help. The service is invariably five-star and more. A smile was always at the ready, a kind word, and a speedy attitude to handling requests. In terms of courteous treatment, attention to detail and customer service, there is not one single in which they could have been better.
The room itself was not exactly what we expected after having browsed photos of the hotel’s standard rooms as published on their website. Those there featured an enclosed yet see-through bathroom and what looked like a more spacious seating area. But, it was a complimentary stay after all, so who could complain? We weren’t planning on staying in the room too long anyway so why would we need any more space? It was simply perfect.
Even more perfect was the fact that they had thought of everything in advance, I didn’t need to remind them I needed a cot in the room (which I did have to do twice at The Westin, more on this later) as they had already taken care of that prior to our arrival.
The bed, oh the bed! It was dreamy in every way, the most comfortable place I’ve ever laid in, and the most restful sleep I had had in years, even despite my son’s abrupt and sometimes teary nighttime awakenings (some things can’t be helped…oh, the joys of travelling with a one-year-old!). A night between those bed-sheets really restores and rebalances you.
We had excellent views directly facing the Mall of the Emirates and part of the pool below (if you stretched your neck). Everything in the room was spotlessly clean and looked brand new (this is a new hotel that just opened so perhaps this was to be expected). The desk was comfortable for planning our daily routes on our big map, even my son loved doodling there.
The only minor point perhaps is that there was only one electricity power outlet at desktop level, so we had to unplug lamps to charge more than one device at a time.
The hotel’s interiors, corridors and lobby areas where equally spotless, gleaming with cleanliness and shine. A delight to walk through every day. A glass lift showed you a panoramic bird’s eye view of the lobby and the street below as you descended from your room-level floor.
We were informed that the hotel’s recreational facilities included a pool and a 24-hour gym, neither of which we had a chance to see or use as we packed our daily agendas to the top every day. Besides, we knew we would get plenty of pool and beach relaxation at our second accommodation, The Westin Mina Seyahi hotel on Jumeirah Beach, so we saved the sun-tanning for last.
Moreover, at several times of day I looked down to the pool from the window in my room and I noticed that it never gets full or partial sun, as it sits surrounded by massive blocks of buildings on almost all sides. This means the pool area never gets direct sunlight which I found a bit gloomy and off-putting (what’s the point if you cannot properly sun tan?). But like I said, I’d get plenty of sun-tanning opportunities in the next few days so this didn’t really bother me in the least.
The imposing Mall of the Emirates
Needless to say that after a sleepless overnight flight, we almost instantly crashed onto our beds right after entering the hotel room and took quite a long nap. By the time we woke up everyone’s bellies were rumbling. It was past 3 p.m. so we headed to the Mall of the Emirates next door for some decent grub.
Getting across from the hotel to the mall on foot was done via a rocky makeshift pathway (not heel-friendly) and it certainly wasn’t the red carpet treatment you expect in Dubai. Since the last hotel shuttle to the mall had just left (it departed every 15 minutes but we were really hungry to wait) we used the rocky path and made our way there on foot. It seemed longer than it was simply because of the heat which enveloped you with its dense humidity.
After crossing the street and accessing the mall through the car park (not the safest of ways, we didn’t see anyone else doing this, which made me wonder; where we the only adventurous ones, or the most disorganised for not planning ahead to leave with the shuttle?). I can’t say how much of a relief it was when the mall’s automatic glass doors opened and the cool gush of air refreshed our senses.
We were greeted by an ornate central fountain of mer-horses (horses with mermaid fish tails) in front of us and a huge horse statue to our right. It then opened into a large central atrium leading to many different, spacious aisles. It was grand, floors where gleaming and polished to perfection, it was shiny, it was immaculately spotless, ultra-bright and really, really large. You can sort of get an idea of the size if you think of London’s Westfield, yet this one is slightly more than a third larger, larger even than the UK’s largest; the Metrocentre in Newcastle.
By the time we had reached the mall we were literally starving so all our efforts went towards finding the fast food court as fast as possible.
Fast food in Dubai – not exactly glamorous yet surprisingly high quality!
Upon looking briefly at the numerous options of dining venues on the extensive mall map, we decided to hit the food court and go for fast food as my little one was on an I-only-eat-pizza-outside-of-home phase (and he stuck to it all throughout the trip).
The lady from Dubai Department of Tourism and Commerce Marketing that came to train us at The Holiday Place had said to me that in Dubai even fast food was glamorous, and I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to verify her claim.
Whilst actually calling the fast food at Dubai’s malls glamorous is a bit of a stretch, all fast food outlets are eye-catching, modern, immaculately clean, amazingly efficient and there’s a variety of choice on offer like you wouldn’t believe (you can choose from over 10 different types of world cuisine). From Greek to Lebanese, Italian, Moroccan, Chinese, Japanese, Thai, Mexican, American, Indian and more, unless you’re a person that knows instinctively what they feel like eating, you’ll spend a while browsing from station to station, checking out the varied menus.
The other outstanding thing about fast food in Dubai is that its quality is actually pretty amazing. Sure, some outlets might do better than others on this front and I didn’t try them all but the ones I did try were faultless, I actually couldn’t believe that the pizzas at Pizzaritos came from a fast-food venue; really? They where thin and crispy, cooked to perfection in a wood oven, overflowing with generous portions of ingredients; what more could you ask for? They actually give Pizza Hut, Papa John’s and even Pizza Express a run for their money...and for much less!
Two medium pizzas, a chicken salad (to share) and two drinks, cost us only 59 dirhams – that’s just £10 for a deliciously filling, quality lunch for two people, which means the actual pizzas worked out at under £5 each. If that isn’t great value, what is? And, you’re in Dubai after all, not the cheapest of places to be, but the standards are very high even when the prices are low. Like I said, it was so much better than the pizza at fast food joints in the UK (or much of Europe I'd dare to say), and I’ve tried a few. I don’t know about glamour, but Dubai definitely does the quality.
For the same price, we ate at Panda Chinese and got, one large bowl of chicken noodle soup for me (with more big chunks of chicken than you could count), a plate of Chow Mein for my husband, and four Cha Sui Buns (they were out of the prawn dumplings I wanted) plus soft drinks. It all worked out at 59 dirhams at the end, again very good for what you got, even when my husband didn’t rave about his Chow Mein (nothing special, similar to what’s served at those all-you-can-eat buffets in London’s China town). But I was raving about my noodle soup; it was out-of-this world delicious! So much flavour contained in that bowl, and so filling too, it was only soup and I couldn’t finish it. And the Char Sui buns were full of barbeque-flavoured filling right to the edges, not concentrated at the centre like they make them in most Dim Sum eateries in London’s Chinatown, or how they sell them at most oriental supermarkets.
On my last visit to the Dubai Mall, I tried Lebanese cuisine at Karam Express, and although a meal for two worked out slightly pricier than at the previous outlets, we got to sample authentic Lebanese delicacies that we both really enjoyed. My husband had a chicken shawarma while I went for a Plat du Jour (my son had to stick to pizzas as he continued refusing to let anything else touch his lips).
Common to many of these fast food venues there is a little beeping device they give you at the time you order so that while it gets ready you can go find a seat and settle down before the beeper goes off telling you your order is ready to be picked up at the counter. Maybe I’m a travel ignoramus, but I hadn’t come across this handy contraption before. It's great! No queuing or standing around to wait for your food.
Of course, you also find the unavoidable presence of international well-recognised fast food outlets such as Burger King, Subway and McDonalds plus many other internationally recognised brands but we didn’t go to Dubai to have what we have at home. In fact this budget food proved very handy in terms of location (every manner of fast food possible was located all under one roof in the main malls) and timewise, as with a small child in tow you’re always on the go and can’t really enjoy more elegant cuisine. First there’s the fussiness factor and secondly, our rambunctious 18-month-old won’t stay strapped to a baby seat for longer than 20 minutes; so fast food was always the preferred choice.
Magic Planet at Mall of the Emirates – fun for kids all ages (and some adults too)
Needless to say that after tucking into some Chinese fast food at Mall of the Emirates, we didn’t do any sightseeing like we had planned on our first day, we were partly too tired and partly didn’t have that much time for going anywhere as my son’s curfew is between 7.30 p.m. and 8 p.m. at the very latest. We could sometimes stretch his sleeping hours a little bit but not significantly, he was wiped out at the end of each action-packed day and it felt a little cruel after all.
So, strolling along the mall we came across a children paradise called Magic Planet and decided to treat our little one to some well-deserved fun after long hours in a plane and little fun. How it works there is that you need to purchase a plastic card with however much money you want to put on it and then use it on the attractions you wish. At first we ran the card through some carrousel-type of attractions but seeing my son wasn’t too interested we quickly moved on and ended up paying an hour’s worth of soft play on a maze-like playground that my son didn’t want to leave.
With everything from huge Lego® blocks, to slides, touch-screens with games, soft cubes, seesaws and child-sized houses, this entertainment centre for toddlers ensures great fun for little ones. I’m sure we went over the hour we paid for but nobody rushed us out and it was only when we began to see signs of tiredness in our son that we left.
I must stress that Magic Planet has fun for all ages and a whole area dedicated to arcade video games and the likes, so it’s not just for children, there are activities for everyone in every age group, from tiny babies who can just about crawl to fully-grown adults.
When we left Magic Planet it was close to 6pm which meant it was dinner time for our son and with him being the fussiest of eaters we decided to go to the grocery supermarket (Carrefour) found on the mall’s lower level and buy some bread, ham, juice and other quick bites for breakfast next day.
Day 2 – the Burj Khalifa climb, the Dubai Mall and the Dubai Aquarium
We got introduced to this magnificent tower almost straight away, shortly after landing in Dubai. Whilst being driven to our first hotel from the airport, it was one of the first things we spotted along the way, and you can’t help but, it’s twice as tall as the rest of buildings in the landscape. There’s no room for mistaking it. Height, design, futuristic look, shiny metallic exterior, big pointy end inching towards the sky… you simply cannot and will not miss it from virtually any point in Dubai.
We arrived there via taxi the next day, as we ended up getting ready to leave the hotel later than we had expected. Initially we had thought of taking the Metro but it wasn’t a feasible option as the clock struck 10:30 a.m. and we had tickets for entry to the Burj Al Arab at 11:00 a.m.. Not knowing how long the journey would take we hurried to grab a taxi and the hotel had two waiting outside so soon enough we were on our merry way.
The taxi journey was short and sweet and the car dropped us off in front of a hotel which I believe was The Address Downtown Dubai. I was so engrossed in trying to find out how to make our way from there that I didn’t even give a second glance to see where we were. But soon enough we spotted a bridge connecting to the Dubai Mall - apparently the only way to access the At the Top attraction in Burj Khalifa was through the mall. We froze halfway through the small bridge as we admired the stunning view of downtown Dubai. From the bridge you had a postcard-perfect picture of the Dubai Fountains and the massive Burj Khalifa in the background. It simply was breathtaking. I took out my camera and snapped away perfection.
The sign at the end of the bridge read: “The Village: the Waterfall” and soon after stepping into the air-conditioned glory of the Dubai Mall we understood the title as a magnificent feature of a waterfall rose tall over two levels. The colossal waterfall was dotted by various human figures in diving positions and the trickling sounds of the cascading water created a soothing, inviting atmosphere.
After following signs we finally arrived at the entrance of the At the Top experience and we joined a group in the queue. Groups went up every half-an-hour and we had our tickets booked prior to our arrival to Dubai, as they were cheaper to obtain online than onsite. It cost 125 dirhams per person (200 dirhams for prime viewing hours) and children under four went free. Of course there were add-ons available such as the SKY experience, which took you 24 floors higher than the main observation deck and included refreshments, for 500 dirhams per person. Another option was to book a fast track ticket for 300 dirhams, but I'm not too sure it gave you that much of an advantage. We had standard tickets with no extras as we were in it just for the views and we felt they didn’t need anything on top. As for the fast track, I really saw no need, the queues were small and moved swiftly, we didn’t really wait around at any point, and in any case never longer than a couple of minutes….all in all, the experience was as smooth and faultless as it could be.
I had read that the most spectacular time to visit and take in the sweeping birds’ eye city views from the top of the Burj Khalifa tower is at sunset when the clear blue skies are overtaken by various hues of pinks and oranges before dusk finally sets in and all of the city’s many glittering lights start twinkling in the dark…But, travelling with a small child, sunset coincided with his dinner and bedtime routine, so it wasn’t an option for us this time.
Still, the experience was nothing short of breathtaking, and even when the observatory isn’t located at the very top of the building as you expect (and as the slightly misleading title “At the Top” suggests) the views from the 124th floor (there are 184 in total) are really jaw-dropping.
Before going up you follow a series of dark (but perfectly lit) corridors with high-tech panels on the walls giving you an insight into the stages of the construction of this grand masterpiece. Then you come to a halt in front of the lift where a guide gives you a brief introduction to the Burj Khalifa and the views you’re about to witness. A few seconds on and it’s time for the doors to open and the official countdown (or should I say “countup”?) begins as the doors close and it shoots up at full speed ahead.
Once at the top you can choose to take in the views from cool air-conditioning comfort or step into the outside terrace and scan the city below from a more spacious area.
There is little I can say about the actual views themselves and what you experience once you’re there when the photos do a much better job and are pretty self-explanatory. I must have taken a million pictures, but there’s a good selection of them here so I’ll let you peruse them yourself.
Next stop was the Dubai Aquarium and Underwater Zoo and this is something we were gearing ourselves up for, especially since our little one is mad about everything and anything in the animal world.
After running around in the observatory he was totally wiped out and soundly napping on his pushchair, so we took a time-out ourselves and enjoyed a quiet lunch in Dubai Mall’s food court. We even had some time to spare afterwards to leisurely stroll around the mall, have a delicious mix of frozen yogurts and browse the shops.
After a couple of hours and seeing it was 3 p.m. and our little one hadn’t yet woken up we decided to buy the tickets and go in anyway as he’d be up any minute. No sooner had we stepped in front of the first tank he opened his eyes wide and jumped up from his seat. In less than a few seconds he was running all over the place, back and forth from tank to tank, all the while pointing and crying at the top of his lungs “fish, fish, fiiiiiiiiish”. It was really amusing to watch and no doubt a thrilling and enriching experience for him.
The aquarium is really and truly spectacular. I’ve been to the one in London, and although that one is certainly impressive, this one feels bigger and better. There are many tanks of all shapes and sizes, housing all manner of marine life. From tropical fish to penguins, turtles, jelly fish, octopuses and more. They’ve got a giant crocodile in one of the massive tanks - their latest acquisition at the time of our visit - and it’s a really, really huge one, I’m from a country with one of the largest and best preserved crocodile reserves in the world, and I have never seen a croc that big.
But what really steals the show here as the most unique of features is the awe-inspiring Shark Tunnel. In fact it’s an attraction of its own and probably a most popular one than the Underwater Zoo itself. Walking underneath that glass dome full of sharks and other big fish and watching them swim over you or beside you is really an experience. It’s like a big wave just about to gulp you up. My son never for a second stopped pointing and refused to leave the tunnel several times. It took us a while to get him out of there (a little penguin soft toy bribe helped, and it worked out free as our entry ticket included a voucher for a free item from the souvenir shop – such a nice touch ensuring no child walks out of there empty-handed).
The Dubai Mall
Almost three times the size of the Westfield Shopping Centre in London, which is the fifth largest in Europe, it’s no wonder that the Dubai Mall is the largest of its kind in the Middle East and far larger (with a difference) than all the ones existing today in Europe.
Something we missed and weren’t aware of (yes, this mall is THAT big) was the Dubai rink which offered a Toddlers Package session to help them learn to skate and Penguin Pals (penguin-shaped, scooter-type contraptions that little ones grabbed onto for support). I’ve never seen anywhere that offers that much support and dedicated services for kids below 100 metres in height, so we couldn’t believe we had missed the chance to get our son on skates. Yet another reason to be back I suppose.
Fountain Dancing Show – best experienced at night and from not-so-obvious spots
To be honest my first impression of the Dubai Fountain spectacle was quite disappointing. Having heard so much about it and read so much about it as one of the top recommended attractions in Dubai geared me up to brace myself for something truly out of this world; I guess that’s the downside of building things up too much, they are grander in your imagination than in reality.
It was a beautiful show nevertheless and we got to appreciate it more the second time we witnessed it as the first attempt was a bit haphazard and the view a very obstructed one. As the clock hands approached the six o’clock mark we hurried out of the Dubai Mall in the direction of the fountains to watch the show. It was five minutes before the first dancing session started and already the place was crowded. Every spot by the veranda in front of the fountain was taken, and a long line of people stretched all the way as far as we could see. With me not being the tallest of people, all I could see was the mist going up in the air and only the tallest outbursts of water shooting up in the sky. The first impression of the fountains was hugely disappointing for me.
Colours and lights? Yes there were lights, but only after it got dark was the fountain lit up and there was only one colour in the lights, a yellowy orange, and that was that. I’m not trying to undermine the amazing feat of engineering that the building of these fountains must have entailed. Indeed they are worthy of admiration, yet the build-up to them was such in my mind that perhaps it was impossible for it to live up to my expectations. I imagined dancing bursts of water that changed in colour as they swayed with the music and indeed there were big burst of it making different shapes and choreographies, but none of the colour, or very little of it. The show also seemed a bit short to me at the time, although it approximately lasted a good five minutes, which is a really good length after all, but like I said, the first time I was trying to do jumps and somersaults to try and see something among the crowd blocking me, so in all those endeavours time passed at a faster rate.
However, our experience was significantly improved by watching it again a second time around (after 6 p.m. it is repeated every 30 minutes) when it was much darker, the yellow hues of the water stood out against the background and the dancing shapes were more visible and striking. Also the great big difference to appreciating it more was being able to watch it from one of the abra boats available to hire from the Dubai Fountain Lake Ride, which circle around the fountain for around half an hour and which cost 65 dirahms per person (not cheap at all I know, but worth it for some stunning picture-taking). At first I had a mental lapse and confused these abras with the real original abras at Dubai’s Creek which I had heard you could board for only 1 dirham and at the time had a bit of an argument with the man selling the tickets explaining that I knew they should cost just one dirham not sixty five! I thought I was being scammed for being a foreigner and it wasn’t until checking my Dubai travel guide later that evening that I discovered my silly blunder with utter shame.
Well, needless to say that from the comfort of the abras the experience was a totally different one, not only did I get to see the dancing fountains from different angles as the boat glided along but we also were the closest we could have been to it with nothing or no one standing between us and the shots of water.
On a different day when we had made it our mission to walk further along the Dubai Lake Fountains promenade to try and see what lay beyond (and sadly discovered there was nothing but road blockage due to building works) but the venture there wasn’t totally pointless as we had found a great crowd-free vantage point from which to enjoy the fountain with nothing interrupting the view. We enjoyed it from a totally different angle than the boat, just as beautiful if not more so.
In conclusion, my advice would be to always witness the fountain show after dusk and preferably either onboard one of the abras or from the other end of the fountain, where it’s always practically empty as most people crowd around the exit of the mall and the adjacent cafes. Maybe the lack of crowds in the area will change in the near future as we noticed some building works in that part going on which will give way to The Opera District. But in the meantime it’s the place to go if you want to get a really good view of the fountain show away from the crowds.
Day 3 - Taking the Metro and exploring Old Dubai
On the second day of our Dubai holiday we set out to do as much as possible and see Old Dubai as much as time (and heat) allowed. The easiest way to get the Dubai metro was via the Mall of the Emirates right in front of our hotel, so we headed there after breakfast, some time around mid-morning.
Although the mall itself is, as I described earlier, beyond massive, we didn’t think the walk towards the metro station would be so…well, pretty much endless. The many corridors linking the mall to the metro were really long, airport-long or double that size, at times I felt I was in Gatwick walking towards the very last of the boarding gates; only it actually took us longer. It was like a marathon, you really, REALLY had to walk from one end to the other so to say that the metro station is inside the mall is something of an overstatement, the station is connected to the mall yes, but by a long, airport-like series of corridors upon corridors.
Now for the actual metro station…wow! I have not encountered anywhere in Europe stations that are as squeaky clean or shiny. Everything glistened and sparkled, the floors shined, glass and metal fixtures gleamed and clear signs led you through. Of course the metro is brand new but something tells me that years down the line it will continue to be as impressive if not more so. This is Dubai after all and they’re always looking for ways to outdo themselves. The metro will be no different I’m sure. For now they have strict policies in place regarding eating, drinking and chewing gum on the train, with neither of these being allowed and subject to fines.
The views from low-rise to high rise were amazing. With my camera at the ready I snapped up like mad and must have accumulated over 30 photos along the train ride! The constant question popping in my head every now and then as I admired it all was: what are they going to fill it all with? Are there really enough people here to fill it all up? Does the population here grow at a fast enough rate for these new buildings not to remain vacant for years? I guess that there’s always people investing in new builds in Dubai, even when its fast pace seems to outdo the normal rate of population growth; they must know what they’re doing, they must generate enough business for someone to take all these grand buildings off the market in a pretty speedy fashion.
My only critique of the new Dubai Metro is that even though the carriages are big and spacious, they don’t make the most of this pace seat-wise. On all journeys I had to stand, even on some really long ones, yet there was ample space in the middle area where more seats could have been fitted.
Old Dubai and its many enchantments – away from high-rise and into real life
As soon as we stepped off the metro station and took in the sights we knew we were about to enter into a totally different side of Dubai. Right from the metro station just by scanning around you felt in a different place. This is where we got to see real Dubai urban living, away from the gigantic malls and glitzy downtown bars, away from the herds of tourists and camera flashes, away from the glitz and glamour. It’s the plainest Dubai you will see but one that gave us the rare satisfaction of experiencing a more down-to-earth side to the always manicured Dubai perfection.
And we were glad for it; we welcomed the ordinary lifestyle, the little shops, the high-rise blocks of flats housing Dubai’s humblest population. Here live the hard-working locals and foreign workers that made it all possible – the impossibly high malls, the gleaming perfection of every hotel, the warm smile that greeted you. We saw the people behind the well-oiled money-making machine and thriving construction boom, the humble day-to-day workers behind every stunning or futuristic Dubai marvel.
Urban Dubai is a refreshing sight. It doesn’t try to impress you around every corner and while it could never be described as shabby either, it’s not the glossy Dubai brochure-feel that you get everywhere else. The streets’ layout and design feels European in many ways, and were it not for the Arabian signs and the merciless heat, some parts of it could easily be confounded with some London neighbourhoods. The only one thing that struck us as futuristic there was an enclosed air-conditioned bus stop – very convenient if you were to wait for a ride under that heat!
Strolling through the streets we soon realised we were the only tourists there. It wasn’t hard to figure out why; walking under Dubai’s extreme 38-degree heat is not something most Europeans would consider doing on holiday. But me, being from the Caribbean (used to withstanding stickier, more humid heat) and my husband being Andalusian (from Spain’s hot southern region) meant that we could manage – which is not to say we thrived under the heat…like I said, we managed.
Following the directions of some friendly locals and the map we had brought along soon enough we found our fist stop on that day’s itinerary: the Dubai Museum. Parked in front of it we saw a coach bus from which some tourists descended – of course we were the only ones to brave the heat and make our own way through the streets on public transport…and with an 18-month-old in tow! We felt proud of ourselves.
Built inside Dubai’s oldest existing building, the Dubai Museum sits on the site of the Al Fahidi Fort, dating back to 1787. The first thing you could appreciate once you stepped into the inner courtyard were the different types of traditional abras on display, a couple of old canyons and a reconstructed Bedouin hut with a thatched roof. On some of the inner corridors a glass mural showcased various artefacts relating to ancient Dubai, from old swords and sables to shields and traditional musical instruments.
Through a series of displays on various air-conditioned chambers, with life-like wax figures depicting different aspects of traditional rural life, the museum brought to life the history of the emirate from its early beginnings when its population was reduced to Bedouin tribes. It told the story of how the emirate had transformed from a virtually uninhabited region exploited by pearl divers to a thriving, economically independent nation who rapidly and successfully developed at an unbelievable rate.
From there we made our way to Dubai Creek as we wanted to cross it on one of the traditional abras and explore the old souqs on the other side.
After approaching the dock, the man in charge of loading the abra came to ask us how many of use were there. The abras are packed to the brim with every seating space available used. We got to share it with everyday locals which added to the experience. Of course they all could tell we were tourists but for the lack of other tourists around we didn’t feel like ones ourselves. And like locals we also paid the ultra-cheap fare of just 1 dirham (that’s just 18 pence!). For the price paid we got more than we could have wished for. The views of old traditional Arabian boats passing us by and the ones docked away were a real feast for the eyes. We enjoyed every second of the sailing experience, including the chat with one of the locals seating next to us who asked us where we were from and who was surprised to meet his first ever Cuban! I was also surprised about his knowledge of my little Caribbean island.
Once on the other side we stopped for a few minutes before deciding which way to go to find the famous Deira Souk, the Spice Souk and the famous Gold Souk. On our way to finding the docks to cross the Dubai Creek we had already passed a large traditional market area whose name was unbeknownst to me as we didn’t recognise it on the map nor were there any clear signs telling you where you were. Looking at the map later on that day we discovered we had been at the Old Souq, also known as the Bur Dubai Souq.
It was there that my husband got stopped by one of the shop owners as he fitted him with a silk scarf on his head, in the manner that Emirati men wear them traditionally, officially known as keffiyeh. He then took us to his air-conditioned shop and persuaded us to buy a scarf which he assured us was the finest silk quality. After bartering for a while I walked out of the shop with a really nice and soft souvenir around my neck. Housed in ancient, traditional Arab buildings that stretched for a seemingly endless boulevard that offered no shade to the relentless sun, the shops spilled onto the long and narrow pedestrian streets, creating a beautiful, postcard-perfect, vintage-looking scene that seemed taken out of a film.
But now, on the other side of the creek we were navigating the streets carefully, double-checking the map at every turn until we finally found the entrance to the “Grand Souq Deira” as the sign post read.
Housed inside a long warehouse with many internal corridors and beautiful wooden beams shading the front porch from the radiant sunshine; lines and lines of shops beautifully displaying all forms of colourful textiles, handmade rugs, cushions, bags, scarves and traditional Arabian fabric shoes in every colour imaginable. There were intricately designed lamps with fantastic stained glass mosaics in the most beautiful combinations of colour. It was a real treat to the eyes, and I didn’t stop to linger at every shop and admire the items more carefully only because shop owners came out to instantly to try to entice you to buy something. I still managed to get some good shots of it all, and if I ever go back to the Deira Souq, by watching my own photographs carefully I know which items I would try and bargain for.
Now, we aren’t entirely sure if we ever came across the Spice Souq, or if indeed the Spice Souq, as we believed, was housed inside the Deira Souq. The reason for us believing this was the fact that a certain area of the long hall of the souq had many shops with large sacks of spices. After passing a good number of them and then not finding any other separate location dedicated solely to spices we concluded this must be it, a part of the Grand Deira Souq instead of a souq of its own. But we felt a bit lost there, so we can’t be sure.
It was already getting close to 2 p.m. and neither of us had had lunch (our son was happily napping away in his pushchair) so we thought we better make the best of the next hour to finding the Gold Souq before getting the Metro back to our hotel. The sun and the heat were at their most intense at this point and after a few hours of walking around since arriving into Old Dubai, it was beginning to tire us down. We hadn’t had a single air-conditioned stop since our time at the museum so there was only so much more we could take.
We followed the directions on the map the best we could to try and find the apparently adjacent Gold Souq, but every attempt took us to a dead end. We ask three different locals and they all gave us conflicting directions that took us nowhere. We got really frustrated, it was getting late, bellies started growling, our son woke up demanding to be fed and we had had enough of walking around without really knowing if we were going in the right direction or what to look for. We gave up. We threw in the towel.
The Arabian heat won this battle. So, we really did try, and failed miserably in our attempts to see the Gold Souq. Initially we thought we’d have another go at finding it another day, a day that would never come because we only had two more days in Dubai and half of one of these was spent transferring from one hotel to the next and bearing the extra long wait to check-in (more on this below). And on our last day we simply couldn’t be dragged out of Jumeirah Beach to head into Old Dubai once again, facing the overpowering heat, interrupting our last chance of sun-tanning and general poolside merriment at our hotel. We weren’t going to let it happen. It wasn’t to be… maybe next time?
On our way back to the metro station we passed a colossal mosque of jaw-drapping beauty. As we can't read Arabic we didn't know which one it was but later found out it was the Grand Mosque, and indeed grand it was, quite the impressive sight. We felt tempted to go inside it, I even had just bought a head scarf to cover my head and shoulders, but it was a lucky thing we didn’t as I only learnt that afternoon while reading a Dubai travel guide from our hotel room, that visits to mosques had to be arranged through a local travel agent…
I was glad I avoided the embarrassment of being thrown out or the mosque, frowned upon or told off. Next time, I’ll make sure to arrange a visit as I’ve read some of the mosques are truly breathtaking on the inside. Judging on the outside some of them indeed looked spectacular. But on this occasion we decided to call it a day, got back on the metro, ate at the Dubai Mall and spent the afternoon relaxing in downtown Dubai.
Change of location – checking into the Westin Mina Seyahi
On the morning of my fourth day in Dubai we packed our bags shortly after getting up. The transfer for our next destination would be picking us up at 11:00 (which coincided with the hotel’s check-out time) and no sooner where we in reception that they there waiting for us. So on we went towards our last and final stop in Dubai: The Westin Mina Seyahi Beach Resort & Marina.
The 15-minute drive was nice and scenic; once again we got to gaze out at skyscrapers in the distance, looking almost eerie due to the particles of sand dust blurring the views the farther on you tried to look, and the always prominent Burj Khalifa rising tall amidst the rest, more than twice the size of everything surrounding it. Likewise, the unmistakable Arabian dhow sail shape of the Burj Al Arab stood out, looking elegant and distinctive among every other building near it. It was a shame that in the end we didn’t have time to see it more up-close during our trip…but there’s always next time I suppose.
We arrived at the Westin Mina Seyahi close to 11.30 a.m. and little did we know we were to be left to stand around waiting for or room to be ready until nearly 3 p.m.! So first impressions weren’t the best; it all was pretty frustrating and infuriating to be honest. But it wasn’t a bad start right from the beginning, in fact from the warm welcome we initially received we couldn’t have expected the “abandonment” that was to follow.
The bell boys that greeted us on arrival couldn’t have been nicer or more helpful, every single one of them was kind and courteous and they always had a nice smile and nice words for our little one. If I haven’t said it earlier on this post, they really love children in Dubai! They honestly and truly do! Giving them the warmest, friendliest smiles and the nicest gestures of genuine care, people always approached us with the kindest treatment towards our toddler. We got stopped numerous times to hear nice comments about how cute our son was, what a lovely curly head of hair he had, asked what his name was, his age, etc. There was a sweet interest from a lot of people that saw him pass by. In some countries or destinations they may find children a less-than-desirable nuisance (which I know they can be at times!) but not in Dubai, never in Dubai! At least not in our experience.
During check-in at The Westin it was no different; while a lady at the desk checked our details, another clerk brought us a welcome tray with two glasses of juice and two macaroons, and for my son (who was incredibly cranky at this point trying to wriggle his way out of his pushchair) a gift bag with a small stuffed camel and a plastic toy night light (the ones you press to turn on/off). Needles to say it was incredibly well received, even if it could only barely distract him for only the next half-an-hour…but then again who expects to wait any longer to be checked-in?
After registering our details, the lady said it would take a little while for our room to be ready so she gave us a complimentary voucher to get drinks at the bar while we waited. She said once the room was ready she would call me on my mobile.
We were really hoping they wouldn’t take too long because my son was really restless and getting worse by the minute. So while we drank our complimentary drinks we did our best to entertain him. But an hour passed and no sign of a room yet. I went to check at the desk to see if I had somehow missed the call or they couldn’t reach my mobile but I got told that the room still wasn’t ready, and they had no idea when it would be, apparently it was on a queue…well, the hotel didn’t look that busy to me and there was no queue at the check-in desk when I got in.
My son’s irritability got worse and my husband walked him to sleep…of course we couldn’t put him down because we didn’t have a bed to do that in! Another hour passed and I really thought they must be joking, what on earth could take that long for our room not to be ready at 2.30 p.m.! I do realise that hotel policy has check-in time established at 2 p.m. but we had gotten there nearly three hours earlier and it was half an hour past two already! What a difference back at the Hilton Doubletree; where we had arrived at around 10 a.m. and we had a room ready (cot included) in less than five minutes!
Finally, after my second or third enquiry we were told to wait at the desk, they made a few phone calls and finally we were given our rooms keys! Then on arriving to our room we noticed they hadn't put the cot in place, so I had to call reception to request this. Quite a rocky start and it was way past lunchtime, neither of us had eaten anything and our plans for the rest of the day had to be altered as a consequence. We had thought initially, if we had been given our room earlier, to have a quick lunch and right after perhaps take a taxi to see the Burj Al Arab and stroll the surrounding area. But after our son woke up at around 3 p.m. and seeing the poor thing hadn’t had any form of recreation all day (being strapped to a pushchair the whole morning) we ended up getting our swimwear on and eating by the poolside as we watched our son make a delighted splash. They had his favourite: pizza! So everyone was happy.
Pools for everyone, immaculate grounds and the pretty private beach section
The hotel itself was magnificent, the lobby was grand and spacious; polished marble gleamed everywhere, the ambience was elegant and soothing, nothing ever felt rushed (of course, not even check-in!) and it gave you a really peaceful, holiday bliss that helped ease away our initial upset over the time-wasting and the whole check-in ordeal.
The pool area and the lush grounds surrounding were nothing short of impeccable. Perfectly manicured in every way with verdant gardens all around it, you had three pools to choose from. There was a large infinity lap pool with three tracks for competitive swimmers to keep up their fitness level, a zig-zagging freeform swimming pool below for more leisurely and romantic bathing and the oh-so-amazing children’s pool, complete with a waterfall, a fun slide and a large shaded area to protect little ones from the intense heat! It was perfect in every way and my son thoroughly enjoyed every second he splashed around in it.
He even made some pool-play friends during his time in the water. Seeing him so happy there (not that we minded the doing-nothing-laying-back approach either) it was hard to even consider tearing him from there to do some family sightseeing. So the next day we forwent every plan on schedule of seeing anything pending in our list and decided to dedicated the entire day exclusively to pool and beach recreation. We all deserved it and needed it after three frantic days of non-stop walking around, ticking-off planned activities and sightseeing. And, all in all, it proved so very worth it. After all, the plan was to get back to London refreshed and slightly-suntanned. Mission accomplished for a day.
For the day and half we were at The Westin, we divided our time between the pool and the beach, favouring the pool mostly for two reasons: the stretch of beach wasn’t the best one (rocky or shelly on the shoreline once you started entering the seas)and my son wasn’t too keen on the sand or the waves (there were hardly any but still they scared him a bit and he refused to go past the shoreline) and on the pool he felt more secure (plus he really loved the water slide!).
We normally headed to the beach in the late afternoons, just before dusk, partly because it gave us a nice and scenic place to unwind before heading to our room and getting our son into his bedtime routine (the beach was virtually empty at that time of day) and partly for the beautiful sunsets that could be admired. We did head to the beach one time mid-morning just to compare it to how we had experienced it the evening before, but seeing we still preferred the pool we didn’t spend that much time there.
In terms of scenery, the beach looked absolutely beautiful, so much so that you could hardly believe it was manmade, and trust me, I know my beaches, being from a Caribbean nation not just any beach is up to my standards. However I found the strip of sand between the sun beds and the water was way too narrow, the quality of the sand wasn’t the finest (for my personal liking and I guess this is to be expected with it not being “natural” and all) and a scary sign at the entrance reading: “WARNING! Swimmers please beware of jellyfish” which included a photo of a jellyfish bite on a bather’s thigh/bum area (yes, really, the sign included graphic images!) immediately put you off bathing.
Another thing that I found odd and not to my liking at all is how close boats and yachts were to the shore, you really felt as though they were just a few feet away. In fact, just a few metres into the water there was a long rope in place limiting how far out you could swim and I liked this even less. Since when is restrictive swimming fun? Having said all that, the beach did look beautiful and for that reason alone we spent some time there, looking into the horizon (the iconic Atlantis, The Palm looked so close in the distance), building some sand castles (not the best I have to say, again due to it not being the best sand).
The radiant sunshine helps and if you judge it on looks alone, this beach is close to paradise…and I can only say close because then I got to compare it to the public stretch of Jumeirah Beach which I found to be much more stunning, shell-free and with truly see-through crystalline waters. On top of it all the stretch of Jumeirah Beach found at The Walk had less restrictive swimming policies so I wondered who knowing this would favour to stay at the Westin or any of the adjacent resorts with the poorer quality of beach. I guess you only know if you compare.
The Westin Mina Seyahi experience
Our room at The Westin was first-class, top-notch and splendid in every way, plush in every sense, ultra-spacious and with the most magnificent views over the beach. Each morning we woke up to sumptuousness, we really felt like we were living the lap of luxury. The room featured an enormous king-size bed that could fit up to four people easily (if not more), large bedside tables with every modern gadget, including iPod docking station and an all-in-one temperature-controller-radio-alarm-clock appliance that probably did more things than we had time to check. We also had massive his&hers walk-in wardrobes (one on each side) that led to the equally colossal bathroom with an ample washbasin, a separate toilet area with bidet, an expansive shower area closed off by a glass door and a beautiful bathtub.
Our son’s crib was pretty, it fitted in the room perfectly (how could it now with it being so large) and the only criticism would be the lack of padding on the bars as my son would wake each time he knocked his head on them, and seeing the cot was on the narrow side this happened quite often. Although probably much cheaper, the fabric cot at the Doubletree was way more comfortable and wider, if my son was to hit his head against the sides it would be against a soft net and not bars. There was also a relaxing plush chair with foot rest, a tall lamp and a small table with magazines next to it and a desk with two chairs.
I cannot comment on the quality of the restaurants at The Westin Mina Seyahi, or those at the sister property next door, Le Meridien Mina Seyahi (you actually had access to both resorts as part of your stay) as we ordered pizza from the pool the two lunch-times we spent there and for dinner we ordered room service on our first night and dined out on our last evening there. All I can say is that at least from the outside they all looked beautiful and promising.
There was one Italian restaurant by the pool and one Thai restaurant (open for dinner only) in front of the buffet-style Blue Orange Restaurant where we had our breakfast each morning. We know of them only because we went past them every day on our way to breakfast and the pool. If there were other restaurants onsite I wasn’t aware of them, neither did we take the time to find out; we were only there for two nights and nice meal experiences within closed walls weren’t possible during the day (with a fussy eater that has trouble to sit still at the table and the pool beckoning him just outside). So for everyone’s sake and happiness we favoured the efficient (and tasty) pool menu which turned out to be just what the doctor ordered.
The first evening of our arrival at The Westin we were so tired after running around after our little one in the pool that we decided not to move and order room service. We ordered a large pizza (part of which was for my son as pizza was all he ate during the trip…well, that and bread), nuggets and chips (in case he could be persuaded to eat something else) and a lovely vegetarian noodle dish. We shared everything and found it truly delicious, way more so than we expected.
The pizza was flatter, crispier and far more flavoursome than the ones served at the pool…yet they were cheaper! We couldn’t believe it, even the nuggets were great quality and so were the potato wedges and, of course, I have hardly ever tasted a vegetarian dish as flavoursome as those oriental tofu noodles! And all of it at such a great price too. Our bellies slept happy that night (and the next one, but that dining experience was another adventure of its own, so much so that I dedicated a separate blog piece to it – Dining at Ossiano)
Yes, there were some mishaps in the beginning and we didn't get off to the best start at The Westin but a day before our departure we received an apologetic letter fromt the hotel manager together with a fresh fruit bowl. A nice gesture.
They did try to amend their mistakes but the apology for:
"the extra time to properly prepare every detail of your room"
Did come two days after it all happened and on the evening before our departure...it wasn't the speedier of responses. It also was supposed to be a welcoming letter and we were about to leave the hotel so the timing didn't make much sense.
Still, despite the fact that the extra time they took didn't seem to allow for fitting the cot after three long hours of room tidying, the overall experience of the resort and the facilities outdid the initial shortcomings. We would definitely be back.