Queen of the desert: Daniella Moyles in Dubai
Dubai wasn't top of her must-see destinations, but Daniella Moyles discovered that the city is an exciting wave of contradictions... from daytime parties to indoor ski resorts.
There are these ads you might have seen, I can't remember the company behind them, which in advertising terms may be a disaster, but they pop up on YouTube videos a lot with the tagline "travel yourself interesting".
One of these ads claimed that you can play polo in Dubai, on a camel. And as it turns out, you can. It's creatively called camel polo and it was on my list of things to see as I sat in departures anticipating my first trip to the United Arab Emirates.
I was fairly certain I knew what to expect - a built-up patch of desert reminiscent of Las Vegas, a place that felt artificial. I'd done some research and it didn't seem I was going off the beaten track on this one - a popular year-round destination, great weather in winter, but unbearable during the summer, impressive architecture, yada, yada, yada. I was all set for a beach holiday with a side order of camel polo, until I arrived and discovered that Dubai is far more complicated than that.
Before this trip, Dubai was not in my top 10 must-see destinations. While I'll admit I'm always keen to tick another country off my world map, I'm yet to witness a tea ceremony with a geisha in Kyoto, or save for a spot on safari in Kenya, or sit with monks in Nepal, so funds spent on a sun holiday - nice and all as they are - are funds badly spent in my book. But this trip was different. One of my best school friends, Ruth, was heading back to her home in Perth. After four years, a career and a permanent residency in Oz, she was returning there from a short break in Ireland, to spend at least years five and six Down Under.
Just the suggestion of escorting her half way was enough to twist my travel rubber arm . . . totally justifiable, a selfless act of kindness even! I concluded this was much too far for her to travel alone, despite the fact she'd made the journey many times before, and I suppose the small issue of not seeing her again for two years sealed the deal and bumped Dubai to the top of the destination list.
Dubai - bumped to the top of the destination list
We flew direct with Emirates, because it was only marginally more expensive than the flight options with up to 12-hour layovers. It was very nice, they gave us hot towels before take-off and there were illuminated stars on the roof to help you sleep better. I couldn't sleep, I never can. I played solitaire for almost the whole seven hours, only breaking every now and then to watch the directional cameras positioned on the nose and the belly of the plane for a while. Before it got dark you could see little towns, roads, fields and mountains, you could also watch the pilots' view, which was mostly pretty boring.
We landed at Dubai International Airport just after midnight and got our first very pleasantly priced cab to the Holiday Inn Express in Internet City. We had spent days looking for a place to stay for seven nights, it proved difficult to find. Not for lack of availability, but because accommodation in Dubai is expensive and deceiving, there are lots of hidden fees - a municipality fee, a service charge, a tourist tax. None of which appear on your quoted price. We were about to give up the search for a reasonable, centrally located hotel and book something less pricey on the periphery of the city, when a friend of Ruth's suggested checking out this little gem.
No site had suggested it and a pretty extensive search had not uncovered this perfect three-star just six minutes from Jumeirah Beach and close to the marina. Glamorous it was not, but clean and comfortable with courteous staff and a five-star buffet breakfast is OK by me.
Daniella stretches out on Jumeirah beach
Having not seen sunshine for a while we decided to spend our first morning on the beach. It was a nice perk that the backdrop happened to be one of the most iconic buildings on the planet, the Burj Al Arab, otherwise known as "the world's only seven-star hotel". A few hours spent relaxing, watching helicopters land on its penthouse helicopter pad and getting asked for photos - I mention this only because it happened at such regular intervals throughout the morning and I'm not sure why!
We (as in women) seem to be a fascinating species over there. Confused at first, we thought these men were asking us to take pictures of them, then we thought they we asking us to be in pictures with them, then we realised they simply wanted pictures of us? We politely declined each time. Although I witnessed a few snaps taken on the sly, most were very lovely when we said no thanks. And while bikinis and swimsuits are totally acceptable at the beach I would suggest dressing somewhat modestly anywhere else if you don't fancy any unwanted attention or bother (which was rare, but did happen).
Fuelled up on vitamin D, we walked to the Madinat Jumeirah to explore the souks - this is an amazing sprawling market and gardens designed to resemble a traditional Arabian town. It's also home to a turtle sanctuary, where injured turtles are cared for until they're ready to go back out to sea. There are lots of local crafts and clothing for sale as well as many indoor and outdoor cafe options.
We browsed stalls showcasing handmade Persian carpets and beautiful antiques, through mazes of rainbow-bright lanterns and intricate woodworks until we found a courtyard selling Turkish coffee, baba ghanouj (a delicious aubergine dip served with bread) and shisha (a hookah pipe). Not too hot, not too cold, oriental music played over the speakers and we didn't move until after sunset.
Clash of cultures... camels under the Dubai skyline
That evening we had dinner in The Dubai Mall. I wish hyperbole hadn't become such an accepted part of the English language, so that when I say these malls are enormous you could grasp that I really, really mean it! We got lost trying to find our way to watch the famous fountains and ended up at the aquarium, which is more of an underwater zoo. Sharks of all sizes, stingrays, catfish and so many other types of marine life swim over your head and all around you as you pass through what is essentially an oxygenated slice in the ocean floor.
Eventually we managed to find the fountains we'd come looking for and with that I began to understand that nothing is done by halves in Dubai. We ended day one watching the world's largest choreographed water display dance below the Burj Khalifa, the world's tallest building, shooting jets up to 150m in the air.
The saffron brunch at The Atlantis on The Palm hotel is definitely an experience you don't want to miss. It only happens on Fridays and it gets booked out some days in advance. Alcohol is expensive and restricted in Dubai, it is a criminal offence to be drunk in public and there are no off-licences. The only place to purchase alcohol is in bars or restaurants, so one of the most exciting daytime solutions to this is The Atlantis brunch.
Festivities kick off at 12:30pm and wrap up with a party bus to a nightclub at 4pm. Yes, a nightclub, at 4pm. Everyone gets dressed up, a DJ provides the not-so-background music and there is the most exquisite and extensive buffet available including some particularly potent cocktails and shots. Needless to say the short cruise we had planned for that evening fell by the wayside and instead we spent the night at Barasti Beach Bar in Dubai's Marina District, shadowed by skyscrapers, eating barbecued chicken cooked on an outdoor fire and listening to the Arabian Sea lap the shore.
Daniella at the Dubai Mall aquarium
We'd planned a desert safari for the following day. We chose to do a night-time one - there was absolutely no way we were willing or able to partake in anything earlier. After being collected from our hotel we were driven two hours outside of the city, which is when you get a real picture of how desolate the landscape in this region really is. Beyond those bright lights there is nothing but miles and miles of desert in every direction. Not even a shrub or weed to be seen.
We went dune bashing, which is exactly what it sounds like - driving a Jeep with a roll bar up, over and into sand dunes at high speed. It was the most fun; I really loved it! But poor Ruth was still too delicate and screamed to be let out for the whole thing. After that was sandboarding which is like snowboarding but . . . you get it. Then we casually rode a camel back to what can only be described as a large and well-decorated desert shed for some food and entertainment. There were henna artists, traditional belly dancers and a delicious three-course meal eaten while we sat on cushions and rugs around a low table.
The following morning it was hot and we were up early queuing in the woman's queue at the bus station. After every man had been served we were allowed to lean over the dividing wire to order two tickets to Abu Dhabi. The journey took about an hour and a half. There was one main objective: to visit the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque. Approaching this building is pretty spectacular - it is a pristine porcelain white set against clear, bright blue skies, with its gold accents barely visible until you get closer. Grand gates mark the entrance to a long driveway shored by manicured gardens. Women are not allowed to enter without wearing a traditional robe, known as an abaya. They can be picked up outside the mosque.
Once inside, I was completely in awe of the grounds and the interior. Pictures are allowed but monitored and any that are deemed disrespectful will be deleted by security. We tried to capture the workmanship, the patterns and detail that went into every inch of floor, ceiling, window and decorative piece but it still has to be seen to be believed. I spent the bus journey home Instagramming the place and going on and on and on about it to Ruth who just wanted to get a nap in.
The quiet, tourist-free beach at Al Mamzer is rarely high on visitors' lists of things to see and do, but it's worth it. It's also a good starting point to explore the gold and spice markets of neighbouring Deira. These are a must-see to take in the real sights and sounds of the city. This is where locals live, shop, eat and socialise. This is real Dubai. The spice souks were my favourite - colourful and aromatic, full of people with interesting faces and stories. We worked our way slowly back into central Dubai stopping at the famous shopping district Al Karama for a snoop around. Our next stop was Ski Dubai at the Mall of the Emirates, a large indoor ski resort found inside another one of these enormous malls, with five slopes varying in steepness, a snow play park, a toboggan run and real penguins.
We didn't actually get involved; we just watched from the warmth of the mall through the floor-to-ceiling glass windows. Then it was back to the Burj Khalifa, the observatory deck is 124 storeys high, the highest in the world. We couldn't leave Dubai without taking in those views - 360 degrees of city, desert and ocean, you're looking down on skyscrapers and trying to touch airplanes. They also tell you lots of interesting facts about the construction and the building itself, such as it took 22 million man hours to complete or that 18 unique scents are combined to create the trademark Burj Khalifa smell.
On our way down to the exit we met a guy carrying groceries, he was a resident. Imagine living in the Burj Khalifa, amazing.
Next on our to-do list was the marina boat cruise we had missed a few days earlier thanks to that Atlantis party bus. For less than a tenner we sailed around the marina waterfront, The Palm and Jumeirah Beach taking in the full scale of Dubai's skyline. The boat had no seats, only beanbags and colourful lanterns lit up as the sun went down. The hum of the boat is very relaxing; I would have fallen asleep were it not for the incredible sights in every direction. When we docked back on the marina we were advised by the skipper to take in the views of The Palm from the Sky Bar at the top of the Marriott Hotel.
I love local advice, so we headed straight there to be greeted with some very nice news. As it turns out Mondays at the Sky Bar are "ladies night" which means free cocktails and nibbles with a live band into the early hours. Oh, and that aerial view of one of the man-made islands was alright too I suppose.
Waking the next morning, still feeling the night before, the end of our trip had arrived and I was yet to watch any camel polo! Dubai is a thriving pocket of extreme wealth; a worthwhile holiday destination, a place rich in culture. Dubai is many things. But to me, as we part ways, it's a lifelong memory with a friend I'll miss every day until she comes home again.
Daniella Moyles flying solo: My most recent adventure What’s it really like inside the world’s most luxurious hotel? Desert Song: Singing the praise of a developing Dubai Dubai: A city of dizzying heights, sun, sand and shopping