Folk had warned me that I would not like Dubai, that it’s all concrete and no culture. To hell with culture, for one of my holidays I just wanted fun and adventure, a bit of sun and sand and hanging about the sky. To a large degree Dubai is mainly about fun, but there is plenty of culture to be had too. It’s in the centre of the Arab world with Islam and ancient Bedouin villages. There are traditional dhow boats and abra water taxis, old souks and oriental food. They have not lost their culture to the modernism that abounds. The United Arab Emirates appears to me to be a well and wisely run country where there is the one leader, but there is also a system of partial democracy in operated. The Sheik had seen enough of problems in countries around him and was determined to let his people have a say in how the country should be run. He knew that the oil would run out and turned to tourism. I wanted to see it all for myself and have a great deal of fun in the sun as the nights were closing in at home.
I booked the trip myself with the aid of Gohop.ie, which makes it simple to calculate the total cost and co-ordinate the flight and hotel bookings in one step. Most of the travel brochures direct you to the very expensive iconic hotels in Dubai, but you can keep to budget easily with Gohop. I chose the direct flight with Emirates even though it was a little bit more expensive but by no means ott. The choice of hotels was almost too much, and I wanted one within hot weather walking distance of the sea. I had one tab opened with Gohop, another with Tripadvisor to avoid the thumbs down hotels, and the third with Google Maps to determine the location. It took me over an hour to pin down the Marina Byblos, but my provisional flight booking was held open during my search. This is the beauty of Gohop.
The Marina Byblos is a four star hotel about 15 minutes slow walking from the beach and right beside the Marina, which like the whole of Dubai, is a work in progress. I was delighted to be allocated a room overlooking the marina itself, as despite the name many buildings surround the establishment. In spite of the good reviews there were plenty of not so good ones. I must say I was totally delighted with the place and found my bedroom well equipped, spacious and delightfully decorated with aquamarine colours. In finish it was more 5 star than 4 star. There was complimentary water even though the stuff in the tap is perfectly safe, tea and coffee and bath robe and slippers and a convenient washing line which is all too often missing. The TV screen was large and with a good choice of channels and the bed was super comfy. Breakfast was ok rather than great. I couldn’t really take to the veal rashers, but there was enough choice to keep most people reasonably satisfied, and you could partake from 6 am to 11 am every day - that’s what I call choice. There was a rooftop pool, not very big but adequate and not crowded. Most guests are Russian and this cohort are not in the habit of hogging the loungers and they know how to conduct themselves with decorum.. Not that I spent very much time up there, but it was a nice place to have a pre-dinner swim in the dark. There was a good choice of eateries and night places in the hotel. There was a Russian nightclub and restaurant, but I reckoned I might perhaps be out of my depth there, so I gave my business to the Korean eatery and bar, and got some absolutely delightful food and drink for €20 during happy hour. I also visited the English bar which served me the most the most delicious pork roast I have ever enjoyed in a restaurant. The 2 pork cuts were like thin t-bones char grilled and the potatoes were like I have never tasted before so crispy and fluffy were they. This was served with a gigantic Yorkshire pudding, roast root vegetables and a lovely side of chunky apple sauce with clove. Gravy was served in a mini jug. My late Aunt Kay would have approved of this as she hated anything drenched in sauce of any kind!
But I still haven’t mentioned my flight with Emirates, which takes about 7 and a half hours. I am always impatient on flights across, and was much more relaxed on my return which was mainly in daylight. One thing I appreciated very much was the entertainment system, which included a camera view out from the front of the plane as well as true air speed etc. As an ex amateur pilot I enjoyed calculating approximate v1 and rotate speed etc. and viewing the accuracy of the descent of the 777 aircraft on the glide slope into Dubai using the papi lights. We were very slightly too high then got fractionally low, which told me the plane was being landed by hand rather than using the automatic system. Landings are always lovely on the 777. There was a 3 pin plug on the economy seat at your convenience, and incidentally 3 pin Irish and British are what’s used in UAE. The ICE screen seemed better than BA or Air France, and the food was definitely that bit better. Seat space was alas, similar. We passed very close by Baghdad whilst reading the news that a car bomb had just gone off there, and flew right over Basra on way to the Gulf. Wow, I thought, if we had an engine failure now?
There was a long queue at immigration, but things went very smoothly for my transfer to the hotel, which was a 30 minute high speed motorway drive away. I used Orient tours as my individual transfer method through the Isango booking service. The rep from Orient seemed to recognise me immediately and it was simplicity itself all the way to my hotel, and as I had pre-paid there was no chance of being totally ripped off. As a matter of interest taxis in Dubai are affordable and I was never ripped off during my stay.
On my first day I had a lazy late breakfast as I had arrived in at the early hours. I made my way to the beach by the newly constructed “The Walk” promenade, but it was quite frustrating to find that the only access I could find was via the Sheraton Hotel at the cost of €20. This pretty much doubled at the weekend. Still, it was a most exquisite beach of white sand and clear blue warm water and, as a lone swimmer, I could leave my items quite safely. Whilst I was swimming I noticed small aircraft taking off from a runway which projected into the sea quite nearby, and I wished I could join the passengers which availed of this facility to make a parachute jump. When I say this, I mean I wished I had the choice and courage to do this, because as things stand my eyesight is not sufficient to do this without glasses. Several ladies in Islamic black dress swam in the sea, covered from head to toe. This evening I took a rather exciting jeep trip into the sand dunes of the desert. Two people had warned me about how terrifying this particular ride is, and one lady said she was dreadfully ill and the driver would not stop. I prepared myself for this with a couple of Kwells as I am not the best traveller at the best of times, and that did the trick. The jeep itself was an excellent vehicle with super thick soft seats, with plenty of cushion to grab on to. Just before going off road the convoy of drivers let some air out of the tyres. I knew things were about to commence when we accelerated rapidly towards a huge sand dune, bounced up over the top and half sideways over the other side. This went on relentlessly for about fifteen minutes as I grabbed the thick cushion of the seat for support. Wisely I had not eaten since breakfast. The convoy came to a halt all in a row at the top of the biggest sand dune of them all and we took photos of each other and watched the sun set over the golden desert. Hoods were opened to allow cooling of the engines, before making the final sinking descent towards the camp where we ate a delicious barbecue dinner.
For my second day I had booked my first ever sea plane flight with Seawings, which has its base in the resort of Jebel Ali, some miles down the coast. I took a taxi to get there and just as I was getting out I managed to drop my wallet on the ground. The only id in it was my VHI health insurance card, and folk tracked me down by searching the resort for an “Irish looking female”. There was not a note missing from it. During our briefing all 9 of us, passengers, were advised that one among us should sit up front next to the pilot. With my flying experience I was determined that I should take this seat, and I quietly slipped up to the front of the Cessna Grand Caravan Floatplane. The Australian pilot stepped in after me and asked me what I had flown. He said “well this is just like a big Cessna 172”. Gently and slowly we took to the air and flew up over Palm Jumeirah, Burj al Arab, “The World”, and on by The Creek, distantly parallel to Dubai Airport’s runway where I had a bird’s eye view of the jets taking off. I envied this pilot his plum job, flying a nice single turbo engined aircraft without the worries of carb ice, and with the water to land on in the unlikely case of engine failure. I could see just how relaxed he was as he handed this nice stable aircraft in perfect weather conditions. We descended ever so gradually over the newly developing Palm Jebel Ali as we made our approach to land back on the water. I was a bit surprised to see wind surfers either side of our landing run, it looked just a bit too close for my liking, but at least we could have easily aborted the landing if needs be. The initial touch down was squishy, but this developed into quite a battering sensation as the water slowed us down. It had been a wonderful flight, a tame experience for an old airhead like myself! In order to get back to my hotel I had to rely on the resort’s luxurious limousine, which cost about the same as a taxi in Dublin.
Next morning was a very early risin‘, as it was the day of my first ever hot air balloon trip. I had set my arm to before 3 am as my pick-up time was 4 am. I was taken in a minibus about 50 miles into the desert. The lady sitting next to me was from Cork, and had taken a break from her work in Saudi Arabia during the holiday time of Eid, and I had a good chat with her. The minibus stopped to pick up our affable German pilot, Mike. We drove at speed through the fog of a temperature inversion. I was more afraid of the proximity of all the vehicles than the imminent balloon ride, though all vehicles displayed hazard warning lights. We arrived to a plain close to a Bedouin village where two balloons were being gradually inflated by the ground team. The second and chief pilot of the outfit, handsome Hungarian Peter, was awaiting us. The light was dim. The pilots applied the burners and the baskets turned upright as the balloons lifted from the ground. We were all urged to climb into the tethered baskets, which was a fair feat in itself, 20 of us in each. Peter took off first in his balloon. Then we were un-tethered and rose from the ground effortlessly. There was absolutely no sensation of ascent, just an appearance of things getting smaller below. It was surreal, like watching a movie screen rather than feeling part of it. That is, except when Peter applied the burner, that was like being set alight, so hot was the sensation. I was very glad to be at the edge of the rectangular basket. My friend from Cork was closer to the burner and hated when it was lit. We ascended to 4000 ft and watched the sun rise. Then we began our slow descent over the glowing desert dunes. Peter was in constant radio contact with our Mike and warned him about power lines and military areas. Our ride was to last about an hour, we had no control over direction, yet we had to land close to a road in a safe area. That was quite a lot to ask. The winds varied from zero up high to quite strong close to the ground, the opposite of what normally happens in other places. As we got lower we could see the footsteps of gazelles in the sand, and some greenery. Mike said that these were melons, and someone asked if they were edible. “Unless you are a local, you will spend three weeks on the toilet if you do!” he warned. We were asked to practise landing position. You have to face away from the direction in which the basket is travelling, bend the knees and pull hard on the loop of rope beneath the rim of the basket. I began photographing furiously as we got lower. A pack of camels ran scared. Mike shouted “adopt landing position!”. Then a sharp jerk, followed by the basket tipping backwards as we dragged along the ground. The basket went upright again and came to a halt, but you could feel the balloon trying to tug in the breeze. Myself and the Cork lady were asked to climb out (a very difficult task) before the basket was risen slightly and “walked” into a better position by the ground team. The remainder then disembarked. On the return journey in the minibus Mike had a good chat with us about balloon flying and said that UAE is very strict about aviation safety and that you have to take a separate exam to fly there. He warned us against being tempted to take balloon rides in Turkey as the safety standards are not good, materials used are sub-standard and maintenance poor. This is reflected in the cheap price. He advised that a lot of balloon pilots in Africa turn to drink as there is nothing for them to do after the dawn flight. Balloon flights are not feasible in the heat of the day as thunderstorms occur and the balloon will not rise well in the heat of the ambient air. Balloon pilots do not enjoy the swimming pools and facilities that the tourists do in Africa, but the life style and pay in UAE are very good, and they get back home to their countries of origin in the summer. I arrived back at the hotel at 9.30 am, in time for breakfast!
On day four, I kept to the theme of high places by visiting the tallest building in the world, the Burj Khalifa tower. It was also an opportunity to use the wonderful modern metro train which uses identically designed stations. The Jumeirah Lakes Towers Station was a 10 minute walk from my hotel, and I quickly sussed out how to use the system. I said to myself “well now, the Burj Khalifa is located…yes at Mall of the Emirates, so there I got off and walked in air conditioned comfort into the salubrious shopping centre. I kept looking out for the appropriate signs, only to discover that the Burj Khalifa is situated in the Dubai Mall, a few miles further. For speed I got a taxi, as I had an allotted time slot for the visit. I had to queue for the best part of an hour before reaching the famous fastest lift in the world. I was astonished that there was almost no sensation of ascent in the lift, except for a bit of ear popping. It is engineered to have a gradual acceleration and deceleration, and the only way you can detect the speed is the floor counter display. There’s no time limit at the top, but there is only so much time you actually want to spend up there. However I managed to spend the next six hours wandering around the extensive and amazing Dubai Mall. Apart from enjoying some very tasty food in two of the very many restaurants, I spent not a dirham in the shops. There was so much walking between the outlets that I spent very little time in any one shop, except for the vast bookshop which was about double the size of Penneys in Dundrum. I watched people ice-skating on the Olympic sized rink and looked on as a diver fed the fish in the aquarium. The whole Mall is so vast that it dwarfs Dundrum, and even Blanchardstown. Everywhere I went I noticed that Islamic ladies were taking photographs of one another in front of iconic landmarks whilst covered from head to toe in black dress.
From one Burj to another. The following day I was booked on a half day tour of the traditional places in old Dubai followed by lunch in the Burj al Arab Hotel, one of the most opulent in the world. This day proved to be a little jinxed from the start. After the pick-up in the minibus we were left waiting in hot sun in a car park for an hour before the main coach arrived to start the tour. Some people began to feel unwell. When the microphone refused to work, the Polish guide said “what is the third bad thing that will happen?..today I feel we arte a little jinxed!” He advised me that I was the only one on the coach who opted for the lunch and I was marginally taken aback at the thoughts of dining alone in this poshest of places. We drove to the interesting Dubai Museum in the old Bastakiya are of town, followed by a cross-creek ride on an old abra boat to the spice and gold souks. I resisted the temptation to purchase anything glittery as I gazed at the largest gold ring in the world. Dubai, it seems, is full of world superlatives! The final stop on the tour was at the Burj al Arab Hotel. I was told to wait on the bus as everybody else went out to take a photo of this iconic building in the shape of a billowing sail. They were not going to be allowed inside, unlike myself who had an appointment for lunch there! The guide called me forth to walk to security with him. It was verified that we had an appointment inside. I accompanied him up the moving stairs past the aquarium and hordes of excited young Chinese visitors taking photos of each other in the lobby. We arrived at the reception of the Al Ilwan Arabian buffet restaurant where I was to enjoy my lunch. The young lady in charge said that she had a booking for four, “not just one”, a phrase she used repeatedly. I felt totally conspicuous and awkward. The guide urged me to take a seat on the mezzanine outside and I watched on for fifteen or more minuets as they argued. He stated that this situation had happened previously, but she would not budge from her position. Eventually I was invited in to dine, apologised to in a fashion, but time had eaten into my the lunch hour. The buffet was on its way to closing. It cost me €6 for a small bottle of Pellegrino fizzy water, but I had expected this. My stomach was in such knots that I couldn’t really appreciate the food and I started to wolf items down such that I quickly became overfull. There was lots of choice and very glitzy décor. I really couldn’t make a proper judgement on the food as I was prejudiced by events. I was offered coffee at a price, but I declined as there just wasn’t time to enjoy it. My “revenge” was to write my opinion on the comment card and on my Tripadvisor report. The manager replied back on the latter that I had not indeed been treated as a valued customer and that the person involved was being sent for retraining. I do hope she wasn’t given the boot, and maybe she was in an impossible situation herself and made a scapegoat; I just don’t know.
My final day was a an nice relaxing trip to the wealthy modern capital of Abu Dhabi. We had a particularly lovely and gentle guide from Sri Lanka. Our first stop was at the magnificent Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque. It was compulsory for all the ladies to dress in traditional black robes inside the bus before proceeding to the Mosque. One of the gentlemen had to wear a white robe as he had shorts slightly above the knee. The ladies might get excited! Our guide, being a Muslim, explained about the Islam phone app which points the direction to Mecca and reminds you to pray at the correct times during the day. The Mosque, a rather new building, is absolutely astonishing and worth the hassle of the robes and the gauntlet of humourless security guards that greets you as you enter. Our guide did have a sense of humour and shared a laugh as the ladies giggled in their newly donned Islamic dress. Our next stop in Abu Dhabi was the Sheikh Zayed Centre, a museum with gifts bestowed by foreign countries to the Sheikh, such as the Mercedes Maybach, various animal skins and other dubious goodies. We enjoyed a cup of Arabic coffee. Then it was to the Heritage Village, where I saw a cross camel threaten to bite anyone posing for a picture in front of him, but he never carried out his threat. I petted a lovely small native cow as well as a friendly local Garfield faced grey kitten. There was a small museum, craft buildings and a beautiful white beach with traditional Arab boats lying on the powdery sand. After lunch at the Marina Mall we drove along the beautiful modern Corniche road between the sleek city centre and another white beach before returning to Dubai.
I had so much fun in the sun that I was sorry to be going home the next day, but it was a holiday to remember with hardly a cloud in the sky.