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Dubai, UAE: All that glitters is gold
by Prakash Bang, Editor in Chief
Some 500 metric tons of gold changes hand every year in this desert city. But it’s not only the gold that shines. Man-made wonders ranging from sprawling malls, sky-scrapers, designer hotels to creative real estate add up to lend some sparkle. That a barren desert land can be so cleverly developed and marketed speaks a ton about the foresight of the city’s forefathers. It’s easy to get lost in this wonderful city. I did so with the 4 days that I had on hand.
I landed in Dubai on a hot Friday afternoon. The temperature was 42 degrees Celsius. I was lucky because it could have been more. Thank God, everything out there is air conditioned. Even the bus stops. A little walk on the street would make me sweat like a pig. Friday is a weekly holiday. The drive from the airport to the hotel was just about 20 minutes. On a working day, especially during the rush hour it could take an hour.
I was booked at Hotel Astoria. The hotel is pretty centrally located in Bur Dubai. Broadly speaking Dubai is divided by the creek. Deira and Bur. The airport is in Deira. To get a UAE Visa, most of the nationalities would need a local sponsor. But that’s not an issue at all. The hotel usually would become your sponsor. They would charge about US$100 for a tourist Visa. More often than not, airport transfers are included in the fees. It’s the local’s responsibility to ensure that you leave the country as stipulated. Those flying Emirates Airlines can avail of the Visa services offered by the airlines.
Alternatively, you can avail the services of local tour operators. My business associate Abatera Tours, a Destination Management Company, did a good job with my visa, hotel booking, transfers and local sightseeing.
By the time I reached the hotel it was 3 PM. I had the rest of the day with me. Despite the heat, I decided to walk the neighbourhood. There are many restaurants in the area, offering a variety of cuisine at value prices. In fact, I was surprised that I was just paying almost similar prices to what I would pay back in India. For lunch, I had some South Indian snacks at Emirates, a nice little vegetarian restaurant a couple of minutes away from Astoria.
Just at the corner is the Al Fahidi Street – a very popular shopping destination. Hundreds of shops, selling products of sorts, from electronics to garments, from footwear to jewelry, from toys to fancy gadgetry, you will find them all. It’s a highly competitive market so I believe prices would be just. However, be sure to do a bit of bargaining. The best way is to zero on a product and ask for the same in shops around. A little hunt will save you around 15%. I did so with a camera lens that I was interested in.
A 15-minute walk (felt like an hour), took me to Bur Dubai Station. It wasn’t a train station. It was a ferry terminal. The small boats called Abra are highly popular for local transportation especially for creek crossing. Over 2000 crossings are done every single day. Each Abra carries about 20 passengers. The rate is fixed. 1 Dirham. The Dirham, UAE’s currency, is pegged to the US dollar. You would get AED (also known as Dhs) 3.67 for 1US$. I hopped on one of the boats. There was no such thing as a safety drill or gear. Just pay cash to the driver, or should I say to the skipper of the boat and sail on.
In about 10 minutes I was on the other side of the creek. My destination was Old Souk Station. A 10 minute walk took me to Gold Souk – rows and columns of streets with shops on either side selling jewelry made from gold and precious stones. It was all razzle and dazzle. Being Friday, a few shops were closed. When in Dubai, a visit to this glittering presentation is a must. I walked back, crossing the spice market, took the Abra back to Bur Dubai.
I noticed scores of cargo vessels, called Dhows, anchored on the Deira banks. These vessels carry goods, to and fro from various countries especially India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Looking at the conditions of most of the Dhows, one would wonder about their capabilities. However, I was told that these vessels are pretty efficient and highly competitive.
That evening, I had dinner at Curry House located in the lobby of Hotel Astoria. The restaurant was over decorated with pots and pans and colourful linen quite befitting the Arabian taste. I found it a bit overdone though. The food was good. If you are in the mood to raise your spirits, you could easily spend a couple of hours in the various bars. However, the local laws would not allow the sale of liquor on streets. Only hotels can offer spirits in designated enclosures. You will find them plenty.
The next morning we had scheduled a business meeting in Jebel Ali, ranked to be world’s number one deep water dock. It’s free trade zone, about 30 kms away from downtown Dubai, wherein any manufacturing facility or business can be set up by foreigners and avail tax and other benefits. Dubai metro reaches up to Jebel Ali station. Unless you have somebody to pick you up and drop you back to the station, it’s a good idea to hire a cab from Dubai itself. Cabs run by meter and are very efficient. One way fare would be upwards of Dhs 70 depending upon which zone of Jebel Ali you would want to go. There are 7 zones with miles and miles of space between the first and the last. By the time we reached back to our hotel it was 3PM.
That evening we had opted for a dinner cruise on one of the Dhows. The boats negotiate the creek. The sailing begins from 7:30 PM onwards and lasts for 2 hours. The trip includes free flow of soft drinks and juices (alcohol is chargeable) and dinner. Scores of ships await customers. Depending upon the season and the tourist inflow, you would pay Dhs 130 to Dhs 180 for the evening. The cost includes pick-up and drop from your hotel. The name of my boat was Al Faris. They did a good job with the sailing, the food and the music. I think the cruise can be good fun if you have good company. Else, it can get a bit boring after a while.
We had business till lunch the next morning. Post that we had time on hand to explore a Dessert Safari. This is one trip which I would certainly recommend to all visitors. A typical trip would cost around Dhs 150 and includes a pick-up & drop, some 30 minutes of dune bashing, visit to a dessert camp to witness belly dancing and dinner. There’s an option to ride a camel and driving a dessert scooter.
That afternoon we were in safe hands of Ali Khan the driver of our Land Cruiser. He worked for Lama Tours - one of the largest inbound tour operators in Dubai. Thanks to good offices of Abatera Tours, we had the vehicle entirely at our disposal. Generally speaking there would be 6 passengers to a car. The front seat is sold at a premium or is reserved for ‘people with contacts’.
We left our hotel at 4PM and drove towards Oman. As soon as we left the outskirts, dessert became visible. The sand changed colours from beige to a darker shade as we moved further away. About 80 kms from Dubai is the Al Habab Dessert - our destination to do some dune bashing. Before entering the sand, Ali Khan made sure to deflate the tyre pressure by half. That’s the trick to ensure the vehicle negotiates the ups and downs of smooth sand.
For the next 30 minutes or so, I was reminded of my crossing of the Drake Passage during my Antarctica voyage! Our Land Cruiser took us on a roller coaster experience. On many occasion we reached angles in excess of 70 degrees. My business colleague who was on the back seat actually felt sick. We had to take a break to catch some fresh air. Ali Khan reminded me that this ‘sick feeling’ is quite normal and there’s nothing to get worried about. All said and done, it was great fun though. Unfortunately for me, it was hazy thus depriving me of the golden light to shoot the sand dunes.
By 7:30 we reached a camp. Since it was a little late for us, we missed the chance to enjoy a camel ride. After gushing down a couple of soft drinks, we were ready for the belly dancing show. At stroke of 8, Natasha the belly dancer began her performance. The gyrations and the movements of her body were amazing. She danced to Arabian music for the next 30 minutes; truly captivating the audience. After enjoying an excellent BBQ dinner we were ready to head for the city but not before inflating the tyres to the desired degree. Air compressors are a part of every dessert camp. It was around 10 when we reached the hotel. The night was still young, inviting us for a few rounds of cheer. We spent a little time at Sur Sangam situated in the hotel’s premises.
Today was our last day in Dubai. We had a meeting scheduled with Abatera Tours located in the commercial area of Al Barsha on the main Sheikh Zayeed Road – Dubai’s most up market business district – home to some of the world’s tallest skyscrapers and swanky buildings. The area competes well with Manhattan neighbourhood of New York City or with other CBDs of the world if I may.
Abatera’s limousine picked us up from the hotel. The vehicle would be at our disposal for the day. Post meeting, we had lunch at Caesars – a chain of restaurants and confectioneries across UAE. We were at their Barsha outlet. Nicely decorated, their chef did a good job with the food. The restaurant has my recommendation. By the time we were done with our food it was 2PM. We had about 4 hours on hand to explore more of Dubai. The time on hand would only allow us a drive through Palms, and short visits to Atlantis, Burj Al Arab, Burz Khalifa and the Dubai Mall.
Palm Jumeirah is a man-made island that has captured the world’s imagination with its magnificent scale and ingenuity. The grandeur of the island was obvious as soon as we drove into it. Plush residential towers line up the ‘trunk’ and the ‘leaves’. On one of the palm leaves, stands Atlantis. A landmark hotel that’s a destination in itself. This luxury resort will dazzle you with its architecture and the various themes that have been built within – notably the Dolphin Bay, Aquaventure, The Lost Chambers and The Ambassador Lagoon not to forget their pristine white beaches, spas, restaurants and boutiques.
I had time to explore just the Ambassador Lagoon. There’s an entry fee of Dhs 25 per head. Nestled between Royal Towers and The Avenues, the Ambassador Lagoon replicates the world synonymous to Atlantis. The super large aquarium, if I can call it one, exhibits ruins and artifacts from the ancient Atlantis and over 65,000 aquatic animals indigenous to the Arabian Gulf.
A 20-minutes drive from Atlantis stands another Dubai icon – Burj Al Arab. Rising from the Arabian Gulf on an island 280 meters from the shores of the renowned Jumeirah beach and designed to resemble the graceful sails of an Arabian dhow, Burj Al Arab soars to a height of 321 metres, dominating Dubai’s coastline.
The hotel’s architecturally innovative exterior and lavish interior come together to create the breathtaking masterpiece. I had the opportunity to inspect one of their basic suites – 1830 sq.ft. big dressed up in royalty. Just so you know their Presidential suite is 8396 sq.ft. At the time of writing, the suites were priced at Dhs 10,000 and went all the way up to Dhs 70,000 a night. Taxes extra. Breakfast and transfers not included!
To reach Burz Khalifa, we drove on the famous Jumeirah road that runs for miles parallel to the coast. The road is home to Dubai’s finest homes, boutique stores, international schools and medical care centres. And on this road is Jumeirah Mosque – a popular attraction. Tourists are allowed in, save for special prayer days. In 20 minutes we were at our last destination of the day.
Burz Khalifa is the newest Dubai icon. Seen from around and for miles, this building holds a series of superlatives to its credit. Here goes: Tallest building in the world; Tallest free-standing structure in the world; Highest number of stories in the world; Highest occupied floor in the world; Highest outdoor observation deck in the world; Elevator with the longest travel distance in the world; Tallest service elevator in the world and so on.
A fee of Dhs 100 allows you to visit the observation deck situated on the 124th floor. The view was as expected – awesome. However, like I mentioned before, the haze deprived me of clear view. The building also has a hotel from Armani and is home to the world’s elite.
The base of Burz Khalifa is the Dubai Mall. Like all large malls, it has everything one can ask for. The attraction of course is the musical fountain, designed by the team that created the fountains of Bellagio, Las Vegas. The fountain show commence every hour beginning 6PM. When I was there, the fountains were dancing to the tunes of captivating Arabian music. The show is free. Don’t miss it.
We were done by 6:30. We rushed back to the hotel, picked our bags and dashed off to the airport. Home was calling.
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