Travel specialist Elaine Fitzgerald gives us a snapshot of life in Dubai, complete with hot spots and tips for navigating Dubai’s culture. From the Burj Khalifa to desert safaris, Fitzgerald did it all. See her photos and share in her journey
By Elaine Fitzgerald
Every day I welcome guests who come from all over the world to stay in my group of boutique lodgings by the beach in Pompano. They marvel that I get to live full-time in a vacationland where I send them off to uniquely special places like Butterfly World, Shipwreck Park, the “Venice of America” waterways and the Everglades.
Guests at my Beach Vacation Rentals properties often ask me where I go on vacation, when I already live in greater Fort Lauderdale — one of the world’s most popular tourist destinations. Just like them, I also yearn for the exotic and different, and most recently for a girlfriend and me, it was a week in Dubai — one of the seven emirates that make up the United Arab Emirates (UAE). It was worth every bit of the 16-hour flight time and eight-hour time difference to get there.
Never mind that my visit to Dubai in May had afternoon highs that topped 100 degrees Fahrenheit each day. The temperature goes much higher later in the summer. Evenings in this desert land were a balmy, breezy 82 — perfect whether for heading out in heels to dance at the International Tango Festival (one of our purposes for going) or to relax under brilliant stars in a Bedouin–style camp during a camel safari.
This is a land of extremes, from ancient to ultra modern. English is the common language used across the nation, where only about 18 percent of the inhabitants are UAE citizens. The rest are considered expatriates and come from many other countries to work and prosper there. Considering Dubai has no language barriers, is a U.S.-friendly nation, has easy and cheap public transportation and is safe (with almost no crime), Dubai makes the perfect mother/daughter or girlfriends’ getaway. Surprised?
No, you don’t have to cover your head unless you visit a mosque, or want to keep the blowing sand out of your hair and mouth on a camel or 4WD safari. While you can wear almost anything western and not be bothered, my friend and I preferred to respect the locals by not wearing sleeveless tops, and by wearing dresses or pants that went to, or covered, our knees.
We actually did enjoy being able to ride in metro train cars reserved just for women and children. A sign inside warned of a 100 dirham fine to any man who entered these reserved cars. We did not enjoy going back to our hotel apartment to check our emails and find out that the country somehow blocks all online dating sites.
TIPS FOR COUPLES: if you are not married and traveling together, make sure you wear wedding rings or you may not be able to check in to your hotel. And no touching or public displays of affection. It sends authorities scrambling toward you and talking on their radios. On our city tour, a honeymoon couple from Mexico did not know this and their movie-style kiss in a shopping area caused quite a ruckus.
Rifts from local customs by visitors seem to be more tolerated these days as the UAE shifts from an oil-based economy to one that is tourism based. This young country that became a giant in less than 50 years due to oil, now has only a small fraction of its oil reserves left. The ruling royal families of each of the emirates that make up this nation are making a concerted effort and vision to create the biggest and best of everything here, including two of the busiest airports in the world, so that the country will prosper long after the oil is gone.
What they’ve done so far is truly incredible to see. Some examples:
• OVER-THE-TOP SHOPPING MALLS like Emirates Mall, with a full-blown snow skiing and toboggan mountain inside; and Dubai Mall — the world’s largest — with almost 2,500 truly lavish stores. It includes the world’s largest aquarium with divers and a submarine, and an ice-skating rink the size of a football field. An even larger mall is under construction nearby.
• FANTASTIC BUILDINGS, including Burj Khalifa — the world’s tallest, measuring 2,716.5 feet tall. At just over 160 stories (with an observation deck on the 125th floor), it dwarfs the other huge buildings below. Its base is framed by the world’s largest fountains display, which dances to music and lights at regular intervals. Another nearby building under construction will be even taller. Every building seems to be a work of art with a vast array of unique designs. We were told that 80 percent of the world’s operating cranes are being used right now in Dubai. Many of them are constructing a series of man-made islands off the coast; the most recognized built so far is the one in the shape of a palm tree.
• SHEIKH ZAYED GRAND MOSQUE — While there seem to be beautiful mosques on every block, this one in Abu Dhabi stands out as one of the largest in the world. It can hold up to 42,000 worshipers at one time, and inside is the world’s largest carpet. Everyone is welcome to visit inside and take photos including flash, but you must go through security first to ensure you are covered from your head to your wrists to your ankles. Be prepared to sweat profusely in the heat! You must remove your shoes, and I was glad I brought socks.
• THEME PARKS OF EXTRAORDINARY SIZE AND SCOPE are waiting for you. Many new ones are under construction, including what will be Disney’s largest park. About an hour drive from Dubai, we visited Ferrari World in Abu Dhabi with Formula One and Formula 3 racetracks, hotels, 22 rides, the world’s fastest roller coaster and more. You can also visit IMG Worlds of Adventure and Global Village, Dubai Sports City, Dubai Autodrome & Motor City, Dubai Aquarium and Underwater Zoo, Atlantis Aquaventure and more. Work is underway now to create World Expo 2020, sure to showcase Dubai in its efforts to vastly expand tourism.
• EXTRAORDINARY HOTELS — We loved our clean, well-designed apartment hotel with kitchen and washer/dryer in the center of town near restaurants, grocery stores and the ultra-modern metro that we could take to get everywhere. It was quite reasonable at about $100 per night and included a bountiful daily breakfast buffet of mostly Arabic and Indian foods that seemed to be more for dinner than breakfast. We would have loved even more to stay at hotels like the sailboat-shaped Burj Al Arab on the ocean, with suites that start at $3,000 per night and run to $19,000 per night. The plethora of hotels that catered to the very rich was mind-boggling.
Dubai is the “Las Vegas” of the Eastern hemisphere to a grand scale, with fabulous restaurants and nightlife and unending things to do. Alcohol is served in many restaurants and hotels, but penalties are severe if you are perceived intoxicated outside of those establishments. Security cameras are everywhere. Port Rashid boasts Dubai Cruise Terminal. Small dhow boats decorated in lights offer dinner cruises up and down Dubai Creek. Grand racetracks are a showplace for the fastest cars, prize camels and horses. Fabulous beaches along the Arabian Gulf are lined with public parks, extraordinary resorts, extravagant private homes and a remarkable number of plastic surgery centers. Busy markets are divided into sections for eye-popping gold ornaments and jewelry, textiles, spices and perfumes.
Sprawling on vast prime property throughout the kingdom are 35 palaces for members of the royal families. While they are the elite leaders of the nation’s 18 percent citizenship and 82 percent foreign workers, the president and crown prince often go out and about the country without security escorts. Two of our taxi drivers said they have had chance meetings with the king and that he did not hesitate to converse with them. They said he drives himself around and even does his own shopping when he feels like it.
The UAE government aims to build a stable Emirati family and native population, so encourages Emirati men to marry Emirati women. The UAE established a “marriage fund” that rewards Emirati citizens for marrying each other with grants equivalent to about $20,000 (70,000 dirham).
Non-citizens make their fortunes while they can, but upon reaching retirement age at 65, are often not granted visas to stay in the UAE and must leave.
Dubai was quite an eye-opening experience for my girlfriend and me. We had fun and appreciated learning about a special and unique place. But it also reconfirmed that there is absolutely no place more wonderful than home here in the United States.
Elaine Fitzgerald is the President and CEO of Beach Vacation Rentals in Pompano Beach.