My heart is still pounding. Ride of a lifetime. And completely unexpected.
The Dubai desert safari – the routine tourist excursion – blew me right out of the sand. Bevan severely understated the safari, and I love this about him. Throwing his hat in the ring for a sixth time (poor guy) taking a visitor, he stated firmly that he was retiring his safari tripping after taking me. His understandably lacklustre mention of the day's trip and his eye-rolling did nothing much in the way of building anticipation. But he did that on purpose to surprise the hell out of me.
Oh my. What a day. The greatest. Our driver from Arabian Nights Tours picked us up along with another pair and we set out to the desert. I couldn’t believe how fast he was driving on the highway, so reckless with four passengers in the car, but it all made sense later on: He was trained to drive like a maniac.
Many cars in the UAE beep when the driver reaches 120. Our car would beep continually, and many times the driver just went faster. He stopped to let air out of each tire. Huh?? Less air in the tires allows the truck, a Toyota Land Cruiser, better traction in the sand. Still unsure what was unfolding, we joined other tourists by their trucks on the edge of the desert. I could see tire tracks crisscrossing in the sand.
And suddenly, we were off. I had no idea what was going on. We hit the sand and things got wild. He let ‘er rip and suddenly began one of the craziest rides of my life. Up and over and around and down, we climbed massive sand dunes of all heights and angles and flew down, sometimes looking directly at the ground through the windshield when the dune was steep. Every once in a while we would see one of the other trucks launching off a sand dune. Sometimes they got close. I was sort of screaming. Like in a good way.
The unpredictability was both exhilarating and frightening. On a roller coaster, say, you are locked in on a track and knew which way you would be turning, and you have safety expectations. Our truck was flying up and down and around with only the driver to control it, skidding on the sand, spinning its wheels, balancing on one wheel, hydroplaning, levitating, feeling about ready to tip over. And who’s to say it wouldn’t.
There were white SUVs flying all over the place at top speed, each driver masterfully commanding the dunes and somehow dutifully staying out of the way of the others. The truck would tip and buckle and jolt. At times sand would hit the window hard and make me yelp, other times if we were balancing on two wheels it would spray loudly on the windows like water a car wash. I was still sort of screaming, but in a good way. We bounced along on this unexpected ride of a lifetime.
By the time we stopped my shorts had jolted right up my butt.
We hit the highway and drove to another set of huge sand dunes. Along the way the driver gestured at one of the SUVs pulled over, where a tourist was tossing her cookies. “Don’t be like this, OK,” the driver mused.
After part two of an exhilarating ride, the trucks all stopped for a breather and a photo op. My feet sunk into the soft desert sand as I leapt out of the truck. It didn’t feel at all like beach sand, and when I say sunk I mean up-to-my-ankles sunk. I was mesmerized. I kicked my flip flops off and the brown, suede-like sand swallowed up my toes. Gone. I sunk in deeper. Surveying the dunes, standing atop one of the peaks, feeling the breeze on my face with the sun setting and the sky colours changing, my heart still beating from a mother of a ride … WOW.
I looked at Bevan – you dawg! I had no clue it would be this great. He smiled big and buried my flip flops. Score another one for the tour guide.
The night was far from over. The tour package had an entire evening planned. They brought us all to a clearing in the desert with different stations set around a stage and tables with cushions on the ground. There were camel rides, sand boarding, henna, Arabic coffee, dinner and show. Fun.
I jump on a camel. “Hold on tightly,” the leader says. Suddenly I am propelled back as the camel gets up from its perch. The ol’ girl brings me around and I almost take a header in the sand as it sits back down with a giant thud. I then get my finger decorated in henna, watch a pretty wild show of traditional Arabic spinning and belly dancing, eat a plate of Arabic food, get the henna all over my sweatshirt and call it a night. An unforgettable one at that.
TIP: Sorry about this spoiler, but you must go on a desert safari. I would recommend Arabian Nights Tours as I have only good things to say. Wear flip flops so you can play around in the sand barefoot and not sand-up your shoes. Bring warm clothes for the desert at night. Prepare to get a wedgie in the car! Not for the faint-of-stomach.
See that pizza? I had to sign a waiver to take the remains from the restaurant. Barasti Beach Bar, easily one of the best meals I had in Dubai and the prettiest place to go for drinks – DRINKS! – was top notch. On yet another perfect day in Dubai, where their winter is our perfect summer's day, I went to a popular expat hangout, a cool spot that overlooks the water and some classy-looking yachts, a lazy drinks-friendly lunch spot and sports hangout by day, a rollicking hotspot nightspot by sundown. It's all outside, half on the beach, with music and live sports on the big screen.
The drinks menu was exciting, and it wasn't just because I was feeling the lack of alcohol there. I had a Cu Cu Fizz (mint puree, cucumber and vodka) and a Foggy Sea (vodka and coconut cream). Yum! This Asian Chicken Fruity salad was such a highlight. It looks as good as it tasted. I have no idea what those translucent things are but they were crunchy and sweet and mysterious.
TIP: Make your way to Barasti, day or night, actually day and night. You must have the seafood pizza and this salad.
To get to the popular Arabic markets (called souks), a water “taxi,” called an abra, is in store, as the charming saltwater Dubai Creek separates the newer part of the city from the older part, called Deira.
We went for a 90-minute cruise through the harbour, historically a trading port, passing under bridges and checking out the buildings from the other side. What a beautiful, sunny and perfect day. The old-fashioned Arabic boats, called dhows, have a lot of character.
The markets are busy and dizzying. Little narrow streets wind in different directions, all lined with STUFF. It’s a maze. You can’t not get lost. My eyes are big. Shopping mixed with local culture – oh happy day. There is the Dubai Gold Souk, with shop windows dripping with gold jewelry. You can even buy gold bars.
Then there is the spice market. It’s aromatic and colourful, and you will find exotic spices like frankincense and saffron mixed in with your peppers and tea. You will also find sheesha and cardamom, bark, turmeric and tons of cloves.
And now the shopping bazaar. You best have a lot of patience, but not the kind you need to shop: Like any market, you are approached by countless local sellers vying for your attention, peddling their shoes, watches, local crafts and textiles. What they really wanted was to take you to see their knockoff purses. A few times I gave in and followed the men up some stairs into hidden rooms (it sounds dodgy I know), where the smell of leather was rich in the air and all kinds of travellers were behind these unassuming doors haggling over prices for all the latest Louis Vuittons and Guccis. Go up another set of stairs and there are the higher-quality knockoffs, the smell of leather twice as thick. They take a lighter to the purses to demonstrate the quality. They still cost hundreds of dollars. It takes a lot of haggling just to get out the door empty-handed. Their persistence doesn’t pay off – Bevan loves to watch me suffer. How many purses did I have shoved in my face. If they would just let me look with my own eyes and hands for two minutes, I could have some peaceful contemplation. Bevan just sat back and enjoyed my exasperation. OK I need to get out of here. Some will then follow us around to inquire if we perhaps changed our mind. I needed air. But those purses sure were lookers.
Bevan and I had a weird moment where we noticed a bunch of tourists gathered ’round. They were ogling a tall man, like really, really tall, seemingly on display. His handlers stood nearby and people were taking photos with him for money. He was strangely out of place, and he wasn’t saying anything. The whole situation was so weird, watching this man being paraded around for money. He was so tall. Over eight feet, we guessed.
TIP: Take a 90-minute cruise down the Dubai Creek. It is a nice and relaxing way to check out Dubai from another angle. Some amazing buildings can be found not totally visible from the street side.
On one hand you have desert, on the other you have snow. Right inside the Mall of the Emirates is a full-on ski hill. Just when I thought I had seen it all.
I wasn't about to pay 150 dirhams to go inside the Ski Dubai snow park, as I have more than enough cold and snow at home. I watched through the window as families slid about in their rented snowsuits, tobogganing, on the chair lift, sliding down the slopes, taking ski and snowboarding lessons. There were even penguins. Like live penguins.
And this wouldn't be Dubai without a world's first – there's an indoor subzero zipline.
The sheer magnitude of the buildings in Dubai and neighbouring Abu Dhabi is just mind-blowing. You’ve seen the photos but to actually be encompassed by these beautiful structures is something else. There was always an exciting tower to stare at. Each was unique, like nothing I had ever seen before. The liberties taken in design ... The creative roofs. Just mesmerizing.
The city is divided neatly into pockets – Dubai Internet City, which has all the technology companies, the .coms, tech startups and global names such as Facebook and LinkedIn. There is Dubai Media City, home to such companies as CNN, Forbes, Reuters and Sony. And there is Knowledge Village, the area for personal development, training and schools. These areas are called “free zones”, where companies are 100% foreign-owned and not taxed. Companies outside of the free zone must have 50 per cent local ownership. It is beyond me how the city was able to organize all of its businesses into categorized areas.
There is an "old" section of the city, where the markets are – old ... the UAE only established its roots 42 years ago.
Bevan has now lived in Dubai for more than five years. He said amongst the shiny buildings, the glitz and glam, the fancy Lamborghinis and McClarens, the 5-star, 7-star hotels, there was one thing Dubai lacked – old character. There was no deep history, there was nowhere to walk where people had walked hundreds of years before. The bars were mostly upscale, attached to expensive hotels. There weren’t really any dressed-down, old-school pubs, no Horseshoe Taverns, no Imperial Pub, no Dominion on Queen. He missed those types of spots. I get that.
TIP: Torontonians, we can still boast: even though the twisty building is seriously cool, our CN Tower is way taller.
Friends are a beautiful thing, and there is something so wonderful about bonding with people when you are so far from home. I think those who have travelled know that feeling. It's just different. Perhaps it's due to the fact that travelling brings out a whole other side of you – you are forced to take care of yourself and be real with yourself, and in turn, a stronger person emerges, with a few more layers to his or her character. People respond to this genuine version of you by being genuine back.
This is Bevan, my close friend for 10 years running, and Gigi, my new friend next door. I am taking a moment to say that I love being in your company and thank you for being so wonderful. Such a special place in my heart you both have.
Gigi is from Beirut and Gigi is just beautiful, inside and out. She speaks with an accent that is a charming fusion of Lebanese and French. I feel blessed to have met her. An important shoutout: Gigi gave my website strength and spark, and for that I am grateful. Her talent is stunning. It was a meeting that was meant to be – she needed a writer, I needed a web expert.
TIP: Believe in serendipity!
Still can’t slip one by me! I seem to be gingerly awakening when the mosque summons the neighbourhood to prayer, instead of being startled. Bevan says everyone sleeps through it after a while.
TIP: Embrace the 4:30 hour, come on, you can do it (so says the perpetual night owl).
With mosques every hundred feet, suffice to say I see many every day. But why not go visit the third largest mosque in the world, by square footage. Why not walk on the largest carpet in the world, and see some of the largest chandeliers ever made, withh Swarovski crystal. I’m in.
Classic line of the day from Bevan after I get dressed to go. “You can’t wear that to a mosque.” Oh. Right.
On the way there is lots of sand. I get so excited seeing the desert. Bevan finds this funny, but to a Toronto girl, the desert is a rare spectacle. He's laughing as I am hanging out the car window angling to photograph the sand. Bevan told me the city planta trees along the highway about two deep to give it ambiance, but then it’s all just sand. And more sand.
We drive out to Abu Dhabi, the capital of UAE. I’m excited to enter yet another emirate. Then I catch glimpses of the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque. Constructed entirely of a stunning white marble, this massive mosque is a true masterpiece. It cost $500 million to build and can hold 40,000 people praying at one time. It’s a beauty.
Tourists are everywhere and it is a sea of black, in sharp contrast to the entirely white structure. Every woman has to don an abaya and I’m reminded to cover my head as I walk inside. We have to leave our shoes and the marble floor is freezing beneath my feet.
The chandeliers in Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque are spectacular. I have never seen a chandelier of this magnitude, and there were seven of them. They are 24-carat gold-plated, with millions of Swarovski crystals, the largest one weighing 12 tons. We are told the chandeliers are the third largest in the world – the second largest inside a mosque.
And then there's the carpet. Yes, it’s just a carpet. But the story behind constructing the biggest carpet in the world is very cool. Coles Notes: It weighs 47 tons. It took two years to make, with 1,200 Iranian women working 24 hours a day in two work shifts. It’s 6,000 square metres. It’s very nice. It was made in nine pieces, flown to Abu Dhabi in two airplanes, and then sewn together.
TIP: Speak to the man at the counter inside the mosque – he knows all the cool facts. Men, take a trip to the washroom. It's a good one.
Bevan and I set out for a road trip to see another emirate called Fujairah and also to see the oldest mosque in the world. Fujairah's coastline is on the Gulf of Oman so we are heading to the farthest point of the UAE. Bevan certainly is doing his part in showing me his adopted country! It is the only emirate that is totally mountainous, so the drive is a sight. It's interesting how one part of the country is all sand, another, all mountains. We stop at a Persian carpet market along the way in the countryside (the real thing!).
The Al Bidiyah Archaeological Mosque, above, is built of stone and mudbrick and is considered an unusual design for the region. It dates back to 1446 AD.
TIP: Ladies, cover up here even though it is not a functioning mosque.
I was pumped for the Dubai Mall – the largest mall in the world. The sheer enormity of it was awesome – four floors, 502,000 square metres of shopping space and more than 1,200 stores (and 14,000 parking spots). I was a happy girl. This is definitely solo time – I would not do that to any guy, no matter how many "man chairs" there were. I aimed big.
Big-time shoppers whose bags grow beyond their carrying abilities can hire a bellboy-type gent to cart around their bags on a trolley behind them and wait outside the stores. This would not be me, but how posh.
Wandering around the lavish space for hours, there was just so much to see. I came upon a giant aquarium with 10 million litres of water, of course one as per Dubai of the largest suspended aquariums in the world, measuring 51 metres in length and 11 metres in height. The acrylic panel in front of the tank won a Guinness World Record for the longest panel in the world, and you can check out its 140 aquatic species from three levels of the mall. Another largest in the world:
its collection of sand tiger sharks.
Everything and everyone was at the Dubai Mall – there was even a Tim Hortons! Read this article about how expats are populating the Tim Hortons shops in Dubai. I remember when spotting the first Timmy’s in the States was a big surprise. The article says 120 Tim Hortons are planned for the Middle East.
I also happened upon an Olympic-size ice rink, and oh, the tallest building in the world, right outside. The Burj Khalifa was a sparkly spectacle, and I did feel some regrets for our CN Tower in Toronto, which had held the record for the tallest tower, or free-standing structure, for 34 years, and is now dwarfed by this giant. The Burj Khalifa stands at 829.8 metres (the CN Tower at 553.33 metres).
Highlight of the day was to walk out of the mall to feel some sun and find the Burj Khalifa right there, and just the most beautiful expanse of buildings. There was the Dubai Fountain show to Arabic music, designed by the creators of the fountains at the Bellagio in Las Vegas, shooting water jets as high as 150 metres, which is equivalent to a 50-storey building. And then the stunning outdoor face of Dubai Mall (above) with picturesque cafes to sit in and stare and people-watch. I sat there in the sun for a really long time.
In my shopping-break serenity I noticed a billboard advertisement wall with Twilight actor Robert Pattinson in front of the Burj Khalifa. I tweeted the image. Next thing I know, my tweet takes off like wildfire, and every @Robossesed super-fan (@robforever, @slaveforrob, etc.) is retweeting and favouriting my image. I got 200 mentions. The power of Pattinson (and social media)!
Later on that day, I came out of a store and there was a guy wearing a Robert Pattinson T-shirt. I did a double-take. How odd … it’s not every day you see a dude in a Robert Pattinson shirt, nor is it every day in Dubai do you see Robert Pattinson. I guess they like him in Moldova, where this guy was from. I decide to reignite the Patty fan club and tweet this pic too. The Twitter frenzy takes off again.
I spent nine hours at Dubai Mall, and don’t think I saw half of it. Check out some more pics!
TIP: Even though you are captivated by the mall, take the time to go outside – Dubai is so thrilling, you never know what you will find. If you want to tackle the entire mall, best to set aside two days.
Published journalist, world traveller, big thinker, fun haver