Thursday, 17 December 2015

Dubai - A Voyage Through Desert

When I started planning this trip, I kept telling myself, this is not a kind of trip that I would usually plan for myself. After all it didn't involve any volcanoes, mountain biking in a blizzard, climbing a mountain, sleeping on ice, exposing to -20 degrees and almost getting frost bites and silly things like that. However in the end I must say I had an amazing time in Dubai. 
Burj Khalifa
I usually visit Mumbai for about 3 to 4 weeks to spend Christmas and New Year with my parents. I thought lets treat them to a well deserved holiday this Christmas and eventually decided to go to Dubai. There were few factors which influenced our decision - it is really easy to get to from Mumbai, the flying time is only 2 hours, the weather in Dubai in December is pleasant, not too hot and almost no sand storms during winter which could ruin the whole holiday sometimes, moreover my parents wanted to visit Dubai, it seemed like it packed everything in it for a perfect family holiday, since my parents being Indian Passport holders they need visa to travel, however if you fly with Emirates the entire process is online making it even more easier. In the end we decided to fly just after Christmas giving ourselves couple of days before the NYE and decided to spend couple of days after New Year to go to the Dubai Shopping Festival (DSF). Again shopping festival is not really my thing but then this for a trip for them not me, in the end though I must admit the visit to DSF was worth it, it was very well organised, some really good shows, good display, music, exhibitions, fireworks etc. 

I would advice that if you are thinking of flying during peak season such as end of December, NYE, DSF, make sure you book you flights and accommodation as early as possible. Preferably months in advance if you want to stay in the most happening district and at reasonable price. Once flights and accommodation is sorted then rest of the trip shouldn't really be that expensive. The food is reasonable and really tasty, you get all different varieties, the excursions are not that expensive either. 

Once I finalised my flights and hotel bookings, I started planning my itinerary. A couple of my friends from near London decided to join me on this trip. I was supposed to fly from Mumbai with my parents as I was already in Mumbai visiting them and my friends were supposed to join me in Dubai. We were 5 of us in total and we really did have a good time. 
Five of us outside the Emirates Palace Hotel in Abu Dhabi
Day 1 - Mumbai to Dubai
We landed at the Dubai international airport and took a taxi to the hotel. Taxi is often the best way to travel in Dubai, they are quick, there are plenty of them, they are all on meter, and safe. Women travelers or family (consisting of at least one female) are usually seen boarding the pink taxis driven by female taxi drivers. So if you are a single woman travelling in Dubai and feel apprehensive to go in a normal taxi (although the normal taxis are absolutely safe) feel free to use the pink taxis. There are metros and buses but from my personal experience it makes sense to use a taxi if there a group of 3 or 4 people travelling together. Also remember that most places of interests such as Dubai mall, Burj Khalifa, Dubai Marina etc. are at least couple of KMs walk from nearest metro stop. Even most famous hotels in famous districts are not within close proximity to the metro stations, therefore it usually makes sense to use a taxi as opposed to public transport. Even in December during the day the heat could be intense and you don't really want to be walking in sun for long time and risk getting a sun stroke.

Districts in Dubai - I will talk briefly about the various districts in Dubai which will help you to choose a location in terms of  your accommodation.  Dubai which is one of seven emirates (Abu Dhabi, Ajman, Dubai, Fujairah, Ras Al-Khaimah, Sharjah, Umm Al-Quwain) is divided into several districts. Bearing in mind that these districts are well spread out, Dubai is not designed to be explored on foot, you need a car or some other means of transportation (taxi, metro) to explore the city. It doesn't really matter what district you stay in, you are most likely to explore all the well known  districts anyway therefore there is no real advantage of being in a particular district.  

Jumeirah — A diverse district whose residents are Europeans to the Filipinos to the Pakistanis; a mixed Little Europe, Karachi and Manila. Jumeirah is much favoured by Europeans due to the ease of access of the beach, Beautiful villas are seen here. Jumeirah Beach, Jumeirah Beach Residence's the Walk and Jumeirah Mosque are the top attractions.
Downtown Dubai — While Bur Dubai and Deira are traditionally considered "Downtown", the Downtown Dubai development is right in the center of the "New Dubai," between Dubai Marina on the south end and the border with the city of Sharjah to the north. It includes the Burj Khalifa (tallest building in the world), the Dubai Mall (world's biggest), Dubai Fountain, and lots of other skyscrapers and hotels.
Dubai Marina — is a mega-development that borders Jebel Ali (the world's largest man-made port). It is full of skyscrapers and hosts the "Jumeirah Beach Walk" with a number of restaurants, hotels and open-air market when the weather permits, and frequent shows. Dubai Marina houses one of the highest concentrations of Westerns in Dubai.
Bur Dubai — A historical district Bur Dubai is usual term for the area from Jumeirah to the creek, the creek separates Bur Dubai from Deira. Tourist attractions from abras to souks to floating restaurants to the famous creek are found here
Deira — Dubai's old Financial centre, today Deira is a bustling commercial-residential district with some old souks, including one specializing in spices.
Jebel Ali — Once isolated from the main bulk of Dubai back in the 70's, Jebel Ali is now a major residential and industrial hub encompassing the southern portions of the city. The main attraction popular with locals and tourists alike is the easily recognizable Ibn Battuta Mall, styled on the countries visited by the famous explorer. The mall is built adjacent to the Ibn Battuta Gate Hotel where the large archway can be seen from afar. Surrounding the mall is the Gardens apartments, an ethnically diverse district with a strong Indian community. 

We got to Dubai on the 29th of December 2014. Checked into our hotel for about 2PM. At about 3PM we took a taxi to the Dubai mall where we had booked couple of tickets already (Aquarium and to the top of Burj Khalifa). The mall is huge therefore make sure you tell the taxi driver to drop you near the entrance to the first activity you have booked.
The Dubai Aquarium

We had booked to go the the Aquarium first. This is the biggest aquarium in the world. Ultimate package ticket costs approximately £20 per person. This includes aquarium, underwater zoo, glass boat ride and feeding the fish. I would recommend you book the ultimate ticket. December being the peak season I found the whole thing bit chaotic, the officials were finding it difficult to control the crowd, the aquarium is huge and there are no clear directions to follow to go from one place to another, moreover it is spread across 3 floors where at times you have to walk through the main shopping mall stairs to go to the other rooms where they check your tickets again, therefore make sure you have your ticket on you at all times. There is a separate queue for glass boat ride and it only happens once every 30 minutes. The Aquarium was fantastic but a slightly better organisation and marking would have made it even better. Here is the link to book the ticket online http://www.thedubaiaquarium.com/en/Default.aspx 
Dubai Aquarium

Getting ready for the glass boat ride

The Burj Khalifa
I would recommend you to book your ticket in advance. Ideally to get to the top for about 5PM so you get there while there is still some daylight so you get clear views from top and come back after sunset so you also get the view after dark. The ticket costs around £20 per person. Here is the link - http://www.burjkhalifa.ae/en/ObservationDeck/TicketInformation.aspx Worst case there is an option to buy a fast track ticket on the spot at additional cost however it depends on the availability. My friends didn't pre-book their tickets but  were lucky to get the fast track ones on the spot. The entire experience right from when you get on the lift that takes to to the 124th floor to the observation deck in matter of few seconds is absolutely breathtaking. You get some stunning view from the top. Even if you have to queue a bit, it is totally worth the wait. 

Burj Khalifa - View from Top

Dubai Fountains -
These are similar to the Ballagio fountains in Vegas except a lot bigger. The free display starts near the mall at 1800 and carries on until midnight, the musical display takes place every 30 minutes with tunes alternating from traditional music to western to Bollywood. Goes without saying that it gets really crowded therefore it is best you get there as soon as a display finishes and then pick a best vantage point in the front if you are to take some good photos or videos. The crowd disappears after the show and it start getting busier again after about 20 minutes.  You can then spend rest of the evening at the shopping mall which also has lots of good options to eat.
Dubai Fountains



Dubai Fountains



Day 2 - The Gold Souk, the Spice Souk and Desert Safari

Post breakfast we took a taxi to the famous Gold Souk (Gold Market or Gold Baazaar). The souk is located in the heart of Dubai's commercial business district in Deira, in the locality of Al Dhagaya. The souk consists of over 300 retailers that trade almost exclusively in jewellery. By some estimates, approximately 10 tons of gold is present at any given time.
Dubai Gold Souk
Approximately 1KM from Gold Souk is the Spice Souk (Spice Market or Spice Baazaar). Stores in the Spice Souk sell a variety of fragrances and spices from frankincense and shisha to many herbs used in Arabic and South Asian food. In addition, several householdtextilesincenserugs and artifacts are also sold in the Spice Souk. A majority of the trading occurs through haggling
Not far from the Spice Souk is the Abra ferry terminal. We took the ferry from here to cross over to the other side. Abras are used to ferry people across the Dubai Creek. They travel between the water station at Shindagha Al Ghubaiba on the Bur Dubai side, and the water station at Al Sabkha on the Deira side. The abras depart every few minutes. The fare is 1 dirham, which is paid to the ferry driver.
Abra Dock
Once we got to the other side we decided to go to this unique spot where there is this only temple in Dubai and right next to it is the famous Dubai Mosque. Women are not allowed in any mosques in Dubai therefore me and my dad went to check it out. All three of us then went to the temple right next to it. The temple and the grand mosque are located near textile souk. My parents decided to buy some quality textile for a very good price from here. 
The Grand Mosque
Grand Mosque
We then walked to the Dubai Museum. It is located in the Al Fahidi Fort and is the oldest existing building in Dubai.  It includes local antiquities as well as artifacts from African and Asian countries that traded with Dubai. It also includes several dioramas showing life in the emirate before the advent of oil, in addition to artifacts from recent there are discoveries as old as 3000 BC.
Dubai Museum
Near Dubai Museum
From here we made our way back to the hotel, had our lunch and were ready for the pick up for the most anticipated desert safari.

The Desert Safari -
Cost approximately £33 per head. This includes 4X4 dune ride, camel ride, unlimited drinks, BBQ dinner, belly dancing and 2 more shows, Sheesha. Late finish.
This was the highlight of the tour. We had fantastic guide/driver. We drove out of the city into the desert, approximately an hour's drive. Before the dune bashing we took a few photos in the desert. 
Mum posing in the desert
The driver took some air off the tyres which is a common practice for driving on sand dunes. What followed was some really intense dune bashing. The whole experience was exhilarating and at times we all had heart in our mouth. Here are some of the photos - 
Dune Bashing in 4X4
Dune Bashing
Dune Bashing
We then arrived at this site where we could smell delicious BBQ and lots of desert activities that were going on such as Quad biking, camel ride etc.
Camel Ride

Paragliding in desert
Traditional Arabic tea and coffee
Henna Painting
The show Belly dancing and some other traditional Arabic dance and music shows started at around 7:30PM. The show was absolutely brilliant and the tasty BBQ meal made it even more special.

Belly Dancing

Day 3 - Abu Dhabi 
We started at around 9. A

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