Skyscrapers, spices and snow: The wonders of Dubai
Dubai is open to vaccinated South Africans. With tourist season around the corner, this is what visitors to the desert city can expect
It’s when my ears popped as we rose above the 90th floor that the reality sank in: the Burj Khalifa is really high.
Claiming the title of the tallest building in the world, it was officially opened in 2010 and rises to a height of 828m over 163 floors.
Apart from the bragging rights, it’s the views from the top of the observation decks that draw visitors into snaking queues for a chance to board the lift for the minute-long ride to the observation decks on the 124th and 125th floors.
From this vantage point, the city of Dubai explodes into towering shapes, gradually giving way to stretches of sand or halting abruptly before tumbling into the Persian Gulf.
In 2019, Dubai welcomed more than 16-million tourists. For 2020, they’d set their sights on a goal of 20 million, pinning their hopes on Expo 2020 Dubai — the first world expo to be hosted in the combined Middle East, Africa and South Asia region.
The goal of the expo is to highlight examples of innovation and collaboration from around the world through a changing programme of daily live events. For the first time in world expo history, every one of the 191 participating countries has its own pavilion, allowing visitors to enjoy immersive cultural experiences and discover what makes each country unique.
Delayed by a year due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the expo officially opened on October 1 this year, and will be running until March 31 2022. This time round, the city hopes to attract up to 25 million virtual and in-person visitors.
THE OLD DUBAI
Dubai is well known for its ambition — a place of soaring skyscrapers, man-made islands and incredible innovations — but a visit to the historical neighbourhood of Al Fahidi paints a picture of an older, different Dubai.
According to our local guide, Asad Malik, this was a busy neighbourhood until the 1980s and offers a good representation of what Dubai looked like roughly 40 years ago.
Buildings were constructed using natural elements mostly found in the desert and feature wind towers — a traditional architectural style used to cool buildings given the soaring temperatures of the desert.
Today a heritage site, around 50 of the traditional buildings have been restored, preserved and turned into museums, art galleries and Arabian tea houses where you can drink cups of cardamom-spiced Arabic coffee and devour plates of falafel, kibbeh and hummus as fluffy as clouds.
From here, it’s a short walk to Dubai Creek, where traditional abras (wooden water taxis) ferry passengers to Deira, the gateway to the popular souks (marketplaces) of Dubai.
Days can be spent discovering perfume souks, textile souks, carpet souks and even mattress souks. If you search, you’re bound to discover a market for every need.
In the spice souk, narrow alleys are lined with buckets filled with rose petals, saffron, frankincense, turmeric root and many wonderful delights, known and unknown. The smoke of burning menthol crystals waft in and out of shops where dozens of tea varieties beckon to be scooped up and weighed.
Shop windows are filled with a kaleidoscope of colours glowing from handcrafted lamps and displays grow ever brighter as you make your way towards the shop windows of the gold souk.
This is probably the best spot to buy gifts or souvenirs but don’t be rushed: take your time browsing and remember to negotiate.
The best time to visit Dubai is from November to April, the United Arab Emirates’ winter months. During this time, the weather is hot but bearable, with average temperatures of around 25ºC and the city’s tourist attractions, which are closed during the hotter months, open up. Between June and August is the hottest time of year, when the mercury can reach as high as 42ºC.
Dubai also boasts the world’s largest natural flower garden, the Dubai Miracle Garden, where between November and May each year, more than 150-million flowers and plants are transformed into larger-than-life sculptures.
Dancing ladies with billowing skirts twirl around a Disney-inspired castle. Flowering heart-shaped arches lead to a land of teacups, swans, majestic horses and cartoon-like elephants.
The garden holds three Guinness World Records, including the record for: the world’s largest topiary structure, an 18m-high Mickey Mouse; the world’s largest vertical garden; and the world’s largest floral sculpture — an Emirates Airbus A380.
When temperatures soar, or a visit to the North Pole for Christmas seems unlikely, there’s always Ski Dubai. Open all year round in the Mall of Emirates, it’s a 22,500m² indoor winter wonderland in the heart of the desert where new snow is made using snow guns every day and temperatures are kept at an average of -4°C.
Inside the snow park, you can ski the five runs (lessons are offered for beginners), snowboard, ride to the top of the ski slope in a chair lift, experience a variety of rides or discover the joy of building a snowman for the first time. Assuming you haven’t packed your ski gear for a visit to Dubai, equipment and clothing is included in the price of admission.
A popular addition to any visitor’s itinerary is a speedboat tour of the city’s impressive landmarks. Starting out in the Dubai marina, our hour-long trip whisked us past the high-rise buildings, making a U-turn at the iconic Atlantis — the Palm on Jumeirah Island, a man-made island in the shape of a palm tree.
At night these buildings take on their most beautiful form when they light up and dazzle along streets lined with flashy sports cars, and people dressed to the nines heading out for dinner in the many world-class restaurants and a night out on the town.
WHERE THE MAGIC HAPPENS
While there’s much to be said about the energy coursing through the city, I think the true magic of Dubai lies in where it was birthed: the desert.
Arabian Adventures offers half-day desert safaris, with the option of either morning or evening trips.
Setting out around three hours before sunset, we made our way out of the city to the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve, where operators are limited and part of the fee you pay for the excursions, starting at R1,241 per person, contributes to conservation projects.
As we arrived at the reserve, the tyres of our 4x4 were slightly deflated for maximum traction in the loose sand before the most thrilling part commenced: dune-bashing. Nervous giggles started spilling from the group, and I soon learnt that holding the hand rails, though optional, was highly advisable.
During the more quiet parts of the drive you may spot sand gazelles and — if you’re lucky — the endangered Arabian oryx, the national animal of the UAE. It is estimated that only 1,220 wild oryx roam the Arabian Peninsula, with up to 7,000 in semi-captivity.
What makes the night desert safaris uniquely special is the opportunity to experience the sunset from the top of the dunes before making your way to a middle-of-nowhere dining experience where you can take a camel ride or make yourself comfortable.
Tables are set up around a boma and stage where flame throwers and dancers offer evening entertainment between platters of food and morsels of meat cooked on an open fire.
Dubai is a city of spectacle and extremes. In a rather ironic twist of fate, nowhere is this more evident than the desert. As the sun sets and the day’s heat plummets to cooler temperatures, the biggest spectacle is the lighting of the embers in the night sky and the unfurling silence between the dunes. As nature would have it, the most impressive moments are those that unfold without any effort at all.
PLAN YOUR TRIP
After suspending its flights to and from SA earlier this year, Emirates once again resumed operations in August when the UAE opened up to travellers from all countries, provided they are fully vaccinated with one of the World Health Organisation-approved Covid-19 vaccines, which includes the Johnson&Johnson and Pfizer vaccines being distributed in SA.
Visitors to Dubai will need to have two negative PCR tests conducted before take-off from SA. The first must be done by an authorised facility no more than 48 hours before your scheduled arrival time in Dubai. On arrival, you will need to present a QR code issued by the testing facility. A standard cost for this test is R850.
In addition, you must take another test at the airport within six hours of your departure for Dubai. At OR Tambo International, travellers can have these tests done at NEXT Pathology for R1,600. At Cape Town International and Durban King Shaka International, these can be done at Navomixhealth for R1,400. Prices are exclusive to Emirates passengers.
Upon arrival at Dubai International Airport, passengers travelling from certain countries, including SA, will be required to take another PCR test.
Exemptions for PCR tests are made for children under the age of 12 and travellers with moderate to severe disabilities.
When re-entering SA, travellers need to present a negative Covid-19 PCR test issued within 72 hours from the time of departure in the country of origin and download the Covid-19 Alert SA mobile app.
For detailed information on PCR test requirements for entering Dubai, visit emirates.com.
South Africans travelling to or transiting through Dubai will need to obtain a visa. Depending on your travel requirements, you can apply for a two- or four-day transit visa or a 30- or 90-day tourist visa.
Emirates passengers can apply for their UAE visa directly on the Emirates website. Alternatively, visa applications can be made via VFS Global.
• Oberholzer was a guest of Emirates.
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