Dubai has a reputation as a bit of a playground for millionaires – something that I have almost certainly contributed to with my previous dispatches from the emirate. Although, as reputations go, it’s not an entirely unfair one: one of the first things I spotted on landing last month was a poster at baggage reclaim offering a free apartment with the purchase of a villa.
With my spending money at a premium on my latest, relatively unplanned trip, I had visions of spending a week watching Netflix, ordering in the AED15 (roughly £3) chicken fried rice from the cafe downstairs that I really love. But, as my UAE-resident sister says, your time in Dubai is really only as expensive as you want it to be – as long as you have a sibling still willing to offer you a sofa, anyway.
I never did get that chicken fried rice this time, but I am adding five (more) ridiculous things to my ever-expanding list of only-in-Dubai experiences – most of which won’t break the bank.
WATCH THE WORLD’S LARGEST CHOREOGRAPHED FOUNTAIN DANCE TO ADELE
World records are Dubai’s forte, so of course the city boasts the world’s largest choreographed fountain system. At 75 metres long, and capable of shooting water jets up to 500 feet in the air, the Dubai Fountain on Burj Khalifa Lake hosts choreographed light and water shows on the hour and half-hour every evening, accompanied by one of a selection of Arabic, classical and world music and international pop hits. If you haven’t heard Adele’s “Skyfall” punctuated by the roaring thunder of water jets, you haven’t heard it at all.
While you can pay to access a viewing platform or go out into the lake on a boat to watch the show, the view is just as good from one of the many restaurants in the Souk al Bahar that are dotted around the lake – although it’s worth noting that most of these restaurants aren’t licensed.
But the Dubai Fountain isn’t the only light show in town. IMAGINE at Dubai Festival City Mall is also a record-breaker: it incorporates the world’s largest water screen projection and largest permanent projection mapping into an hourly water, pyrotechnic, laser and light show. And it’s… surreal. The current hourly shows feature ghostly star dancers, giant fish and little boys turning into robots, projected into the water and up the side of a nearby building. It kind of has to be seen to be believed.
SWIM IN THE SHADOW OF THE WORLD’S TALLEST BUILDING
With no shortage of luxury hotels, you’re spoiled for choice if you fancy a change of scene for your day by the pool. And few “pool days” are more spectacular than the Burj Club at Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest man-made structure and home to the world’s first Armani Hotel.
No, this isn’t an Armani swimming pool, and the “rooftop” pool is actually located on top of one of the “wings” to the side that give the building its stability. But the Burj Club is still a pretty luxe experience, with soft towels and fresh fruit on arrival and cold drinking water topped up throughout the day (a rarity, I’m told, at these pool days, as the hotels are quick to charge you for the water you’ll need after lying in the sun all day).
GO DUNE-BASHING IN THE DESERT
My sister took exception to the idea of me labelling this next one “ridiculous” and it’s true: the Arabian Nights desert safari tour should be filed under “awesome”. The rich, unspoiled, red-golden sands of Sharjah are only a half-hour’s drive away from the futuristic skyscrapers of downtown Dubai, but you might as well be on a different planet.
After a quick photo pit-stop among the sand dunes, we were urged to buckle up – as our driver joined a fleet of similar Land Rovers for some serious off-road action. I’ve never been on a roller coaster (I’ve always had the fear), but it’s the only possible point of comparison I can think of for the white-knuckle thrills of dune bashing. It was impossible not to squeal as we plunged down dunes, shot sand clouds up into the air and flipped practically horizontal along the side of the dunes.
We then stopped to watch, and for another photo opportunity, as the sun set over the desert, before being driven to the tour operator’s Bedouin-style camp for a dinner of barbecued meat, fish and falafel, and some after-dinner entertainment. This portion of the evening was quite weird, as those who had gone to ride camels or have their arms painted with henna were ordered back into their seats before each show began. We saw belly dancing, a fire show and Tanoura dancing, which is a form of Egyptian folk dance performed by a man in a large, weighted skirt. The fact that it also lights up may also be traditional, or may just be Dubai being Dubai.
They gave us each a souvenir DVD of the performances afterwards, so I can show you if you’re curious.
TREAT YOURSELF TO A GOLD SCRUB
The Sofitel Dubai Downtown has the distinction of being the nicest-smelling building I have ever visited. You know what else smelled lovely? The angelica and gold full-body scrub I had in the hotel’s So Spa. I didn’t ask if it contained real gold, but let’s face it – it probably did.
Along with a crystal sand scrub, this was one of two scrub treatment options available to us during the spa/pool day my sister’s fiancé had booked for us as part of his birthday gift to her (I knew it was a good idea to tell him I was coming!). It was also the one designed for more sensitive skin. I had learned a few days previously, when I had my First Wax of Spring (yeah, we’ll talk about that some other time) that my skin had become a little dry and in desperate need of exfoliation over the winter, so it seemed like the obvious choice.
The Dubai spa experience features all the attention to detail that you would expect, from fluffy bathrobes and towels in your locker to bottled water (and crushed ice in the steam room in which to chill it), and a deliciously soothing ginger tea after your treatment. There were also details that I didn’t expect, including disposable knickers (ideal if, like me, you’d worn your swimming costume instead of a bikini for your treatment. Yes, “full body” includes a little boob).
Bonus Why Is Dubai experience: we got a little lost on the drive home and ended up in the oh-so-luxurious Zabeel Park Gate estate. I’d show you pictures of the peacocks that were wandering by the luxury villas, but there were signs everywhere warning us against photographs.
PUT THE CITY IN A FRAME
Opened on 1st January 2018, the Dubai Frame is, according to its own website, the “world’s best new attraction”. It’s also a 150-metre tall photo frame coated in gold leaf, the design of which was inspired by the Dubai Expo 2020 logo, and cost AED160 million (£32m) to build.
The three of us spent the first few days of my visit joking about the Dubai Frame. And then, on my last evening, we visited – and promptly shut the hell up.
The idea behind the Dubai Frame is that, from the top, looking out one side gives you a view of “old” Dubai – the sandstone buildings of Deira, Al Karama and Harare – while the other boasts a fantastic view of the modern landmarks: the Burj Khalifa, Emirates Towers and downtown. You can also walk across a shifting glass walkway 48 storeys in the air – if you dare. An exhibition on the first floor, before you climb to the observation deck, brings the point home as it takes you through Dubai’s transformation from fishing village to metropolis; and you exit into a projection of the city as it could be in 50 years time.
At only AED50 (£10) for an adult, the Dubai Frame is excellent value compared to similar attractions in the city – and if you time it right to watch the sunset over the city, I expect the results would be spectacular (MC was tempted to wait but I, flashing back to us spending an hour waiting at the Top of the Rock for that perfect shot, politely declined). A gift shop in the basement offered keyrings, notebooks and t-shirts printed with the outline of the frame, which seemed inexplicably popular with Emirati visitors – but no Dubai Frame photo frame, which struck me as a missed opportunity.
My Dubai bucket list is growing increasingly short, but since it looks as though I could be bringing some good friends along on my next trip – and seeing the place fresh through their eyes – I’m not worried. Saving for my dream afternoon tea in the Burj Al Arab starts now…