Dubai: Hong Kong Wannabe

Ten years ago or so, Shaikh Mohammed Al-Maktoum of Dubai stated publicly that he wanted Dubai to become the "new Hong Kong." This was no idle boast. This tiny emirate on the Arabian Gulf coast is fast becoming just that. It has glitz, glamour, and extraordinary panache.


Dubai: Hong Kong Wannabe

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by Overlander on October 30, 2005

Dubai is a bit of a commercial miracle. My wife and I first saw the city in 1987 while on our way to Nepal. It had one "real" high-rise, the World Trade Center, which was far out on the eastern edge of town in the desert. Now, it’s just one of a few dozen skyscrapers on Shaikh Zayed Road. In 1987 there was very little entertainment; now there’s always something going on, from the extraordinary Dubai Shopping Festival in the spring to world-class tennis, Formula One races, and jet-boat competitions. Big name entertainers show up, e.g., Jon Bon Jovi; multinationals schedule conferences there; and the list goes on.

If you’re a first time visitor, you should try to book a hotel on The Creek, the deep, navigable estuary along which Dubai grew up. Get up early the first day, walk out, and stroll past dhows which still ply the waters between Dubai, Iran, Pakistan, and India. There’s lots of activity: loading and unloading all sorts of freight from teak logs and bulk spices from South Asia to TVs and other consumer electronics bound for the Iranian market. If you’re lucky, it will be misty and foggy, which lends the scene a surreal and mysterious quality that is quite unmatched in my experience.

Also, you mustn’t forget the old suq (market) next to the incomparable Gold Suq, where you’ll find millions of dollars/euros/pounds/dirhams worth of the REAL stuff: minimum 18k, more likely 22k. (The sale of less pure varieties is illegal.) To Western eyes, more used to 14k or even 9 or 10k, the deeper color of the purer metal looks fake; it most assuredly is not. Best of all, though, are the prices: gold jewelry is sold by weight at the going spot price per ounce/gram with only about 10% mark-up and no additional surcharge for workmanship. Hence, a pair of gold bangles that would cost + in the US will only set you back or so.

As for more conventional tourist sites, the Dubai Museum, which is also located along The Creek, is very well done. There are wonderful dioramas depicting life in the early days of the region not to mention first-rate explanations of the history of the town itself. Some of the photographs on display taken in the late 19th and early 20th centuries are absolutely riveting, displaying a world long dead.

${QuickSuggestions} Dubai has a well-developed Web presence, so you can find an enormous amount of information online. Another good source is Emirates Airlines, Dubai’s superb air-carrier, and one which I recommend unreservedly. During the Dubai Shopping Festival, they always offer very competitive fares coupled with discounted hotels.

Where security is concerned, Dubai is "safe as houses," as the British say. You don’t have to worry about bombs or people taking pot-shots at you. It’s an extraordinarily diverse and cosmopolitan city where everyone seems to get along. No worries at all.

Finally, shopping: Dubai is easily as good as Hong Kong or Singapore for shopping. You can get absolutely anything there, including the very latest consumer electronics at super prices.

Note: 220/240v is usual.

${BestWay} Driving can be dangerous if you choose to rent a car because drivers are aggressive and the roads are world-class, so speed is the real killer. Within Dubai, I’d recommend sticking to taxis or the bus lines. Dubai has many, many one-way streets, so getting from Point A to Point B can be problematic at best if you don’t know your way around.

Taxis: There are no rattle-traps left on the roads. The meters work; they have GPS systems, so speed can be monitored; drivers generally know where they’re going. Some are so state-of-the-art that they have little TV screens that show short travelogues and list schedules of events for you to watch as you drive along. As for costs, they’re quite reasonable: a 20 minute ride will set you back around , which is far cheaper than in North America.

Flying: Dubai is a major air hub with at least 60 different airlines serving the city. You can get a nonstop out of there to all six continents. Not only can you get a nonstop from Dubai to Los Angeles, Sydney, Cape Town, Beijing, and London, but Emirates has been running daily nonstops to Sao Paulo as well.


The Fairmont Dubai

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by Overlander on October 31, 2005

I'll state it flat out and upfront: The Fairmont is the best hotel my wife and I have ever been privileged to stay in, bar none.

Service:
Absolutely superb, from registration all the way to check-out. The desk clerks and the concierge were on top of things all the time, always smiling, willing to take the time to explain things, e.g., directions, and always available to help in any way possible. Five-star hotel staff, in our experience, fall into two categories: the patronizing and the obsequious. Each is equally odious, but neither was evident here.

Facilities:
Two swimming pools, one of which is always in the shade, something very important in the oven that is Dubai in spring and summer.

Business Center, including secretarial services and conference rooms with "smart walls."

Exercise facilities with every conceivable apparatus

Plus: Saunas, steam rooms, Jacuzzis, and a dedicated aerobics area.

Rooms: Our double was massive, roughly 16x22, not including the bathroom. There was a chaise longue in front of a floor-to-ceiling window, a king-size bed, and a 29-inch TV with an attached computer and a DSL line (free!) allowing unlimited web surfing. Then there was the minibar (expensive!), not to mention really incredible amenities, like mints on the pillows at night, Japanese-style slippers, lush terrycloth robes, and the biggest bath towels we’ve ever encountered.

As for food, the hotel has no fewer than 12 food outlets. I’d recommend having breakfast on the main floor in the atrium. This is an experience in itself (check restaurant listing for details).

Since the restaurants in the hotel tend to be a bit pricey, if you want to cut down, just go straight out the door, turn right, and walk for about 10 minutes on the same side of the street. (Under no circumstances should you jaywalk here, because Shaikh Zayed Road is a bit of a race track.) You’ll find a number of small restaurants serving the usual kebabs, shwarmas and falafels. There are lots of others within a 10-minute cab ride, too.

To save money on the rates, make sure you check out Expedia or AsiaTravel.com. Both often have discounted offers at The Fairmont. In fact, check its own website, too, because they do offer lower-priced packages sometimes. At the end of the day, I guess, I may seem to be pushing The Fairmont, something I don’t often do. It’s just that this hotel is almost a good enough reason to come to Dubai in the first place!

The Fairmont Hotel Dubai
Sheikh Zayed Road
Dubai, United Arab Emirates
(971) 4-332-5555

Le Meridien Dubai

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by Overlander on November 2, 2005

It's hard to go wrong in any 4- or 5-star hotel in Dubai. Typically, the service was excellent from check-in to check-out. Since I was in transit between the US and Oman, I was only in the hotel for about 8 hours, and I arrived quite exhausted. And even though KLM was picking up the tab, I was not treated any differently from what I would have been had I been paying for it myself.

The hotel offers all the usual amenities and then some: spas, exercise rooms, swimming pools, and no fewer than 15 restaurants, which are spread between the Le Meridien Airport and the adjacent Meridien Village.

As for room service, it was downright swift: It was 12 minutes max between the time I called in my order for breakfast and its arrival.

Web address: http://www.lemeridien.com/united_arab_emirates/dubai/hotel_ae1328.shtml

Le Meridien Dubai
Airport Road
Dubai, United Arab Emirates
+97 142 824 040

Fatafeet

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by Overlander on November 11, 2005

Fatafeet, which means "crumbs" in Arabic, is probably the most attractive creek-side restaurant in Dubai. The location couldn't be better: Situated on the Bur Dubai side of the creek more or less opposite the space-age Etisalat Building (UAE's telecom headquarters), you can watch abras and dhows cruising up and down the waterway amid the shimmering reflections of the lights from the buildings as well--quite stunning.

The food is very good for what it is: the menu consists mainly of typically Arab kebabs, dips, and mezzes or appetizers. Homous here is absolutely wonderful, with just the right amount of garlic and lime juice but no overwhelming taste of tahina. The kibbee and felafel are crusty but not hard. As for the meat, it's all excellent. Chicken of any sort here is highly recommended.

If you're into water pipes, this is the place to come. The shisha menu is seemingly endless with a zillion different flavors, and you see local people, both male and female, puffing happily away through the evening. It's definitely a place to see and be seen without the exorbitant price tag that a similarly popular watering hole would exact in Europe or the US.

To get there, just hop into a taxi and tell them the name. Everybody knows it, so you'll have no trouble. Otherwise, plan to stop here at the end of an evening stroll along the creek, which is one of Dubai's principal pleasures anyway.

You won't find this open during the day. Wait until dusk, and then it'll stay open until after midnight.

Fatafeet
Bur Dubai
Dubai, United Arab Emirates
+971 4 397 9222

Shaikh Saeed Al-Maktoum House

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by Overlander on November 2, 2005

Built originally in 1896, the house served both as a residence for the ruling shaikh and his family and as a fort protecting the entry to the Creek. As was typical of the period, the structure was built of blocks of coral covered with lime and plaster. The house encloses a courtyard with four wind towers, which funnel the slightest breeze downward into the living quarters to keep it as cool as possible. Consisting of dozens of rooms, many of which have are furnished with period pieces, it housed five Maktoum families in both single and two-storey apartments.

The present government of Dubai has spent an enormous amount of money restoring the house. Before the restoration, it lay virtually in total ruin. It now houses a first-rate museum which traces the history of the house, the Al-Maktoum family, and Dubai itself, back to its early days as a sleepy outpost on the Arabian Gulf eeking a modest income from pearl diving and fishing. Life in those days was very, very tough, and represents a far cry from the hedonistic glitz of Dubai's current incarnation.

Sheikhs Saeed House
Shindagha
Dubai, United Arab Emirates
+971 4 3937139

Shopping in the Old Covered Suq

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by Overlander on November 6, 2005

There's little left of the old traditional covered suqs any more. The closest you can come is a relatively small mini-suq that is located along the Creek not far from the Dubai Museum on the Bur Dubai side of the waterway. Here, depending on the time of day, you'll find the usual crowded stalls with goods piled helter-skelter around. Although you may not find much of any real interest -- most of the goods are pretty cheap and meant for locals generally -- you will find plenty of atmosphere. And it certainly is a respite from the usual glitz and glamour of Dubai's amazing malls with their inflated, international prices.

In terms of goods that ARE available here, it's mostly fabrics, incense, and (cheap) shoes, as I recall.

Why fabrics? The reason is most people do not buy clothing off the rack, but buy fabrics and take them, together with favorite garments, to a local tailor to have new items stitched up. The little hole-in-the-wall tailors found in every Gulf city are remarkably good. Indeed, many of my shirts have been made in just that way. If you have some time -- three or four days -- you could easily do the same. Just ask someone in your hotel for the name of a good local tailor. They'll know! As for price? About $7-9 for a shirt... Not much more for a woman's dress.

Shopping in the Old Covered Suq
Parallel to the Creek
Dubai, United Arab Emirates

A Stroll along the Creek

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by Overlander on November 6, 2005

More than any other feature, the Creek epitomizes Dubai in the minds of Gulf residents. This is where the emirate originated. This once shallow estuary gave Dubai fishermen, pearl divers, and merchants a base of operations; traders and smugglers from here plied the waters of the Gulf and the Arabian Sea, some venturing as far as the coast of East Africa. And however sophisticated, glitzy, and high-tech Dubai becomes, the booms and small trading vessels still tie up here. Walking along the splendid corniche that has been built along its shores, you’re as apt to hear conversation in Malayalam, Tamil, Singhala, or Farsi as in Arabic. Vessels come in loaded with teak logs, rice, and spices from the Indian Subcontinent, and leave again with (often gray-market) consumer electronics, tobacco products, and who-knows-what-else.

Even today, there is still a lot of smuggling that goes on, mostly cigarettes and consumer electronics headed for Iran, which still imposes fairly hefty duties on such goods. Some say there are weapons that come in and out this way, too, though proof of that is hard to come by, of course. In any event, the men who man these small teak vessels have many a story to relate, no doubt.

But there is much more to attract the visitor than the sight of all these boats. Hotels, restaurants, and cafes line the Corniche, especially on the Deira Dubai side of the waterway. The museums are here, the tourist boats are here, and so are the funny little water taxis, known locally as abras. For a princely 50 fils (or half a dirham) you can cross from Deira to Bur Dubai on vessels that look pretty flimsy, but which rarely have accidents. There are no railings, just a gunwale a few inches high; there aren’t even any cushions. However, this is the cheapest and most pleasant way of crossing the Creek. Indeed, you can, if you like, engage one of the vessels to take you on your own little cruise up and down the Creek for just a few dollars, certainly the cheapest way to enjoy one of the world’s more exotic port cities at night. And night, indeed, is the time to come, especially if you’re there between March and mid-October when the temperature and humidity levels can be truly brutal. The lights and the stars reflecting off the Creek are a sight to behold. Don’t miss stopping for at least a coffee and maybe a shisha (water pipe) along the way. My favorite spot, on the Bur Dubai bank of the Creek, more or less opposite Etisalat’s (Dubai’s telcom company) ultra-modern offices is Fatafeet, Arabic for “crumbs”, where you’ll get some of the best humous and kebabs in town at a price anyone can afford.

Dubai Creek

Dubai, United Arab Emirates

Ibn Batuta Mall

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by Overlander on December 2, 2005

Ibn Batuta Mall, named for a legendary 14th-century Arab traveler, is (I think) the latest of a whole string of spectacular shopping malls that have sprung up all over Dubai. This kilometer-long complex encloses a series of "courts," each themed to reflect major destinations visited by the old traveler over the course of 29 eventful years. There is not a little Vegas in the overall concept and design; indeed, I suspect the local financier who first conceived of the place must have spent a whole lot of time on the Strip and especially at the Venetian. (See photos below)

The shops in the mall tend to be high-end: Gucci, Versace, Swarowski, and Patek Phillippe are all represented, though there are a few "anchor" department stores such as BHS (British Home Stores) that offer goods sought by the hoi-polloi. That said, to my mind it's more of a sight-seeing than a shopping experience.

In many ways, the best thing about the place is that it's a mecca for people-watching: you see people from absolutely everywhere and every economic class wandering about. Those with money, shop; those without, gawk at the opulence of the surroundings. All in all, it's a nifty place to visit if you've come to see the Burj Al-Arab and the beach.

As for those courts, they are decorated in Chinese, Indian, Persian, Tunisian, Egyptian and Andalucian styles. They've gone to the extent of commissioning an exact replica of the famous lion fountain from Spain's Alhambra Palace, not to mention a 10-meter elephant clock complete with howdah and mahout as well as a full-sized Chinese junk!
Ibn Battuta Mall
Jumairah Beach Road
Dubai, United Arab Emirates

The Dubai Museum

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by Overlander on December 19, 2005

The Dubai Museum is arguably the best museum of cultural history in the entire Gulf region. Although it lacks the archaeological treasures of the Bahrain Museum in Manama, it more than makes up for that failing with its array of splendidly conceived and executed dioramas depicting the street life of pre-petrodollar Dubai. There is also a superb collection of early rifles, pistols, and daggers (khanjars).

Located along the Creek on the Bur Dubai side, it is housed in the old Al-Fahidi Fort, thought to be the oldest building in the Emirate of Dubai. At one time or another, the structure has been used as a military post, the residence of the local ruler, a jail, an ammunition dump, and now, in its latest reincarnation, as a museum. Utilizing what construction materials were to hand, it was built of chunks of coral and shells, held together by lime. Roughly 40 by 50 meters, it has two stories, with rooms surrounding a central courtyard with wind towers for ventilation on the corners.

Entering through the small door in the gigantic solid teak gate, you see the large courtyard with various old boats, a model barastee (reed) house, a couple of cannons, and an extraordinary wooden water tank. Go through the rooms of the main building first, then go down the stairs beneath the building, where you'll find the dioramas, which are, in many ways, the most impressive part of the whole experience.
Dubai Museum
Al Fahidi Fort
Dubai, United Arab Emirates
+971 4 353 1862

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