The Dubai Palm Islands must be seen to truly be understood. They also must be seen by a bird’s eye. See it above? Mind-blowing! The story and concept behind The Palm is another one of those wondrous tales of how sections of Dubai came to be. How are so many engineering feats possible in one city? We explored The Palm on my last day – I love how one of the most creative areas of the city was left to the end. Does the spectacle ever stop?
The Palm is a series of man-made islands in the shape of a palm tree. When officials decided to build more of the city, they built it out into the sea. Why not, right? Anything seems possible in Dubai. The Palm is visible from space by the naked eye. Everyone’s favourite Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield posted a photo of The Palm. Check it out here.
Construction of the Palm added kilometres of shoreline to the city. It has it all – more than 100 luxury hotels, flashy sports cars, fine dining, upscale shops. It’s enough to make your head spin. The grand hotel lobbies – check out The Palm Atlantis – become tourist destinations in themselves, packed with people window shopping, going to the aquarium, poking through expensive lunch menus, checking out the waterparks populated by dolphins, sea lions and happy children.
Not truly an island as it is connected to the mainland by a bridge, The Palm’s layout is really amazing – the hotels are lined around the circumference of the “palm tree”, the mansion villas are on the fronds, the apartments are on the trunk. All are along the beach. To build this city within a city, the Palm was constructed by sand dredged from the Persian Gulf and sprayed into the proper position. Rocks were used as a sort of dam. To really describe how it was made gets a little technical, but some fun facts can be seen here. Real palm trees are everywhere, grown in a nursery. It’s palm tree city, literally.
Speaking of feats of design, there is also The World, an artificial archipelago of 300 islands which was left incomplete after the financial crisis in 2008 caused construction to be halted. Apparently building will start up again soon.
TIP: Treat the hotels like you would any sort of sight-seeing, as they are virtually all individually a sight to be seen.
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.
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.
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.
Jetlagged and beyond jetlagged, seeing as I – as per usual – didn’t sleep at all on the flight here, I am wired and of course excited to be in Dubai. Can’t sleep. Did I miss one night or two nights, with the time difference? So confusing. What day is it? I should be exhausted. And I was. But I think I subconsciously knew I would be woken up at 4:30 a.m. for morning prayer.
And so I was.
Whew, that’s early. I might have just fallen asleep. Morning prayer, and then prayer five more times throughout the day, is loud. It’s emphatic and melodious and quite nice really, except it takes some getting used to, especially when it startles you awake. Earplugs will be a regular. Echoing on loud speakers across the city and from mosques in the entire UAE, you can hear it wherever you are. There is a mosque every 100 feet.
I wait until the Arabic singing has stopped, and close my eyes again. But then our local imam starts up again, summoning to the neighbourhood that prayer was starting. I learn that the first section of singing is to rouse everyone to come to prayer, and then the second part was like a last call of sorts. Just when you start to fall asleep again … I can hear the other mosques echoing in the distance, the different imams singing, the different voices, the varied melodies. It’s all quite cool. Loving it despite the tired.
TIP: Bring earplugs but embrace your environment.
As I stepped on to Middle Eastern ground for the first time in the wondrous Dubai airport, I already overstep. I guess I got way too close saying hello to the customs officer at the counter who was scanning my eyeballs. He motioned for me to get back. Way back. Apologizing, I quickly reeled in my hyper-happy demeanour. The loud speaker went off in a melodious Arabic prayer and I looked around, startled.
I texted my friend Bevan on the other side – whom I had travelled 12,000 kilometres to see after more than 10 years – to tell him I was through customs and someone was singing. “That’s the welcoming party I organized for you.” Ahh yes, there’s that dry wit. Some things never change.
TIP: Even though you are excited to reach your destination, never lose focus that you are on someone else's turf, and act according to the culture.
Published journalist, world traveller, big thinker, fun haver