A Travellerspoint blog

To the Infinity Pool and Beyond: Wrapping things up in Dubai

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It was almost six by the time I was able to drag the kids away from the beach. The only activity I could think of that was still open and could be completed before dinner was the 3D World Selfie Museum. Apparently this kind of place has been springing up all over the world in response to people's endless need to satisfy their social media followers. There's even one in my hometown of Miami but the first I ever heard of it was when I researched Dubai. The basic concept is a series of trompe l'oeil paintings that allow visitors to create a lifelike illusion by posing in front of them. Of course it's more about creating a laugh than actually tricking the viewer into thinking the illusion is real.

Our visit was expensive and amusing, for a time. After about an hour the novelty had worn off although we had only made our way through a fraction of the two hundred odd paintings. The museum would certainly be an embarrassment of riches to someone whose highest priority was filling up their social media feed.

The museum was on the service portion of Sheikh Zayed Road. We walked a couple of blocks north to check out the neighborhood but the only interesting place was a luxury vehicle dealership. I'm not even a car guy but it was hard not to drool over such a bountiful assortment of sleek and colorful machines. It was a reminder that for those with limitless wealth, Dubai can provide any number of ways to employ it.

My brother Michael, a recent Dubai transplant, had chosen an Iraqi restaurant named Bestoon as our dinner rendezvous point in Deira. One of the many advantages of Dubai is that it provides the opportunity to sample a wide range of Asian cuisines that aren’t commonly found in the West. We arrived a few minutes early so we checked out the small mall next door to the restaurant. They had a freshly opened food hall of their own called Flayva which boasted offering from Indonesia and Uzbekistan among the more typical cuisines.

Bestoon was a good restaurant with a selection of grilled meats with typical Iraqi seasoning. The biggest hit was the robust and filling Iraqi flatbread khubz tannour.

Thursday was our last full day in Dubai. Once again we took advantage of the inexpensive taxis to start things off all the way at the southern edge of the city. We had spotted the skyscrapers of Dubai Marina from our visits to the Burj Al Arab and the Palm Jumeirah and decided we would explore it if we had the time. The marina is an artificial waterway carved out of the Persian Gulf coastline and lined with massive residential towers. After breakfast at a waterfront restaurant we admired the yachts that were moored in the marina and tried to guess how expensive they were. After living in Miami for decades I know that boats always cost at least double what one would think. This was the most impressive collection I could remember seeing since Monaco.

Once we were able to tear ourselves away from the yachts I realized we were right at the foot of the Cayan Tower, another distinctive architectural feature of Dubai. The ninety degree twist challenges our most basic assumptions about the form a skyscraper should take to be functional and durable. When the tower was completed just a decade ago it stood alone on an empty plot at the north end of the marina, but since then it has been surrounded by newer behemoths of completely disparate appearance. I wondered how the Cayan's developers felt about their magnificent creation being reduced to a detail of a rapidly changing skyline. Do even Dubai's movers and shakers sometimes wonder if their city is becoming overcrowded with skyscrapers?

Despite the intimidating profusion of supertall condominiums, or perhaps because of it, the marina was undeniably beautiful. A large wooden tour boat plied the greenish waters as we walked along the wide promenade that abutted the shoreline. We soon realized that the northern end of the marina was by far the most picturesque and decided against taking the two mile walk along the length of the waterway.

When we had visited the Dubai Mall two days earlier we had passed by a kids’ activity area called Kidzania that looked kind of interesting. I had looked up the reviews and they seemed very positive, even accounting for the usual sprinkling of fakes. We summoned Ralph and Drake to meet us at the mall and found our own taxi to take us there from the marina. We arrived just as Kidzania was opening at eleven and my nephews arrived shortly afterward. It cost the equivalent of sixty dollars for each kid which seemed a little steep, but at this point I was hardly counting.

The first KidZania opened in Mexico City twenty five years ago and there are branches scattered all over the world, but I had never heard of it until we stumbled across it in Dubai. The concept is that kids can learn about a large variety of different jobs and professions that keep the world functioning and moving forward while having fun at the same time. They have to complete an accomplishment in each station and are paid in the local make-believe currency which they can spend in the gift shop. The facility was much larger than I expected with dozens of work environments spread out over two levels.

The kids stuck together for a few activities but soon drifted apart as they disagreed about which jobs they wanted to try first. I gave up trying to keep track of them all and did my own exploration of the premises. It didn't take me along to find the KidZania emergency room where I would have been happy to practice my skills if adults were allowed to participate.

I had expected to spend a few hours in KidZania, have a late lunch at an interesting Vietnamese restaurant nearby, and then go to the Green Planet ecological museum until it closed. The kids, on the other hand, wouldn't entertain any thoughts of leaving even after three hours. I figured that I should be grateful that they were having fun and making better use of the steep ticket prices. Ultimately we stayed for almost seven hours which made the cost of admission seem quite reasonable.

I missed my Vietnamese meal but with the degree to which I'd been violating my diet on this trip that was probably all for the best. The kids were able to work lunch into their KidZania activities by participating in the Domino's workstation where they prepared and cooked their own pizzas. The results looked about as appetizing as the typical Domino's slop but the kids wolfed them down as if they were gourmet delicacies.

Once we were finally able to extract the children from KidZania, not long before it closed, we made a quick stop at our hotel before heading to my brother's villa in Mirdif for a barbecue. As we waited for a taxi to pass by, a man in an unmarked car pulled up and offered to drive us. Some quick bargaining brought the price down to the market rate. On the way to Mirdif our driver Ariful learned we had to go to Abu Dhabi in the morning and agreed to take us there for less than the price of a metered taxi.

My brother moved to Dubai from Shanghai less than a year ago and chose to live in Mirdif because of its proximity to the international school where he enrolled his sons. It's a rather sleepy suburb just inland from the airport, somewhat far from the action of downtown. It was interesting to see the inside of a typical middle class home in Dubai. It was a utilitarian apartment not unlike a typical condo development in the United States or Europe. Mike grilled tomahawk steaks and squash in the alley outside the villa while the kids argued about video games. One of Mike's business associates joined us as well so we got some interesting inside info on local customs and politics over dinner.

The next morning we waited outside the hotel for Ariful but he wasn't there at the appointed time of nine. I messaged him on WhatsApp and he responded that he was stuck in traffic and would be fifteen minutes late. He wasn't there after twenty minutes and I messaged him again. This time he answered that he was right outside the house but couldn't see us. The house? It turned out he had gone to Mirdif thinking that he had been taking us back to our own place the previous night. It was another twenty minutes before he was able to get back to the Edge, so we were an hour late getting started on the road to Abu Dhabi. Ironically it turned out that Ariful lived around the corner from the Edge so he had wasted an hour of time and gas by misunderstanding where we wanted to be picked up. For our final trip south on Sheikh Zayed Road I made a long video including all the incredible buildings along the main artery until we switched over to a different highway to avoid traffic.

Abu Dhabi is the capital of the UAE but it has been largely outshined by Dubai's rapid rise as an international hub of business, architecture, and tourism. We had only given ourselves a few hours to see some of the city's highlights before catching our flight to Muscat. Ariful dropped us off at Qasr al Watan, an attraction so new it wasn't even mentioned in my guidebook. Construction of this presidential palace was completed in 2017 but it wasn't opened to the public until 2019. We bought our tickets and then had to pass through a rigorous security process similar to getting on an airplane. A shuttle bus took us through the vast grounds to an enormous plaza at the front entrance of the palace. The white granite facade was ornate and immaculate, clearly designed to dazzle visitors before they even had a chance to enter the building.

The interior of the palace was likewise opulent and stunning. Every inch of wall and ceiling space was covered in intricate patterns of gold, white, and blue. The vast interior spaces incorporated elements of traditional Arab design including pointed arches and Muqarnas vaulting. The largest and most impressive room was the central Great Hall which supported the immense main dome. On the periphery were special rooms to display a large collection of diplomatic gifts and to host ceremonies with foreign dignitaries. People were lining up to be photographed inside a hollow sculpture which was composed of golden latticework in the design of Arabic calligraphy. It was reminiscent of the exterior of the Museum of the Future and I found out later that both were the work of one artist. The name of the sculpture was "The Power of Words" and the writing was unsurprisingly a quotation from Sheikh Zayed, the leader who unified the Emirates into a single nation in 1971. The full text of the quote reads "“Wealth is not money or oil; wealth lies in people and it is worthless if not dedicated to serve the people.” To me it seemed ironic for these words to be rendered in a golden sculpture within a multibillion dollar palace, but no one could deny that the citizens of the UAE have also benefited tremendously from the wealth of the nation.

Back at the ticket office we found a driver who agreed to take us to the fish market for fifty dirhams, almost all the remaining local money we had. He was also willing to stop at the Emirates Palace, which many people mistake for the presidential palace but is actually a lavish hotel. From the outside it was easy to see why a casual observer might mistake the hotel for a palace with its wide terraced staircase with a central waterfall. In the opposite direction there was a large cluster of sleek new skyscrapers indicating that Abu Dhabi wasn't amount to take Dubai's claims of architectural superiority lying down. If Dubai and Abu Dhabi continue to try and one-up each other with supertall buildings I can't imagine where the process might end.

Emirates Palace had a quite impressive interior as well but couldn't really compete with Qasr al Watan, or the Burj Al Arab for that matter. A week in Dubai had desensitized me somewhat to displays of extravagance. This was another multistory domed atrium gleaming in a variety of shades of gold.

I was worried that the fish market would be closed on a Friday in Ramadan but fortunately most of the stalls were open and laden with fish and other seafood. We didn't see anything exotic or unfamiliar although there were some decent-sized parrot fish. There didn't seem to be any locals shopping in the market although a group of professional buyers did come in at one point. There were several restaurants on the periphery of the markets and we let the online reviews make our choice for us. We had a very good seafood meal that probably would have been even better if we had taken them up on their offer to prepare any fish we chose from the market. By this point I was starting to get a little preoccupied with our rapidly approaching flight departure time and we decided it would be best to stick with the menu.

Abu Dhabi's most famous sight is the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, the largest in the country and the resting place of Sheikh Zayed. The mosque was closed for the entire day because of the holiday but we had considered stopping by anyway in case we could still walk around the exterior. After lunch it was clear we were out of time so we took a taxi directly to the airport. I wasn't too disappointed because we've already decided we'll go back to Dubai in a couple of years and this time we'll be sure to spend a couple of full days in Abu Dhabi. There were no decent flights to Muscat from Dubai International but the Etihad flight from Abu Dhabi was remarkably cheap at three hundred dollars for the five of us. Amazingly enough that was far from the cheapest flight, as a discount carrier called Wiz flew to Muscat from the nearby city of Sharjah for just seventeen dollars a person. I couldn't imagine how this would be feasible unless the planes were made out of cardboard and I decided to stick with Etihad, although my brother elected to fly with Wiz. We had an uneventful departure and I was lucky enough to have a window seat unobstructed by the wing. As we left Abu Dhabi we flew over several interesting structures including one enormous low-profile building with a brick-red roof and a design suggesting an outpost on a distant planet. I missed the yellow shield logo on the far side of the building and it wasn't until I studied the photo on my desktop that I realized I was looking at the Ferrari World theme park. Apparently the shape of the building is inspired by the chassis of the Ferrari GT.

Except for a few hours at the end of our trip, this represented the conclusion of our stay in United Arab Emirates. Just a few months previously I had felt no urgency to visit Dubai and was willing to wait however long it took for the right opportunity to present itself. Now that we had taken advantage of this chance to experience the city I was enormously grateful that circumstances had pushed us in this direction. Dubai had proven to be much more than the expensive shopping playground I had imagined. The architecture, the activities, the food, and the melting pot environment had made this one of the more rewarding weeks of travel in recent memory. I can't say that I would rank Dubai in my top ten cities of the world, mainly because of its lack of history and local culture, but it's not far out of the top ten and might eventually crack it if subsequent visits prove to be as fascinating and enjoyable as the first.

Posted by zzlangerhans 01:45 Archived in United Arab Emirates Tagged road_trip family dubai_marina abu_dhabi family_travel travel_blog tony_friedman family_travel_blog kidzania 3d_world_selfie_museum

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