The UAE is a perfect getaway for families, adventure seekers, individuals on business, shoppers, or beach lovers- there is something for everyone. With year-round sunshine, it’s a great destination for guaranteed beautiful weather. Thanks to Emirates and their many flights to Dubai a day, also Etihad airlines flying direct to Abu Dhabi, these destinations have become a very common layover for travelers continuing to Africa and other parts of Asia. But what travelers do not realize is that there is enough to do to make the UAE more than a layover but a truly memorable vacation destination.

Important Information:

Visa Requirements: American and Canadian travelers are not required to have a visa to enter the UAE
Currency: The Dirham (AED) which at the time I visited was 0.27 USD to 1 AED
Official Language: The official language is Arabic but most speak English as well
Country Code:  +971
High Season: October to April

ARRIVAL IN DUBAI:

Upon arrival at the Dubai International airport, I was met by a Marhaba representative and taken by golf cart to immigration. I was expedited through immigration and was helped collect my luggage. The Eastbound representative was waiting for me holding a sign and proceeded to introduce me to my driver for the transfer to my hotel. The process was quick, organized, and easy.

I arrived at the Westin in Al Habtoor City and I checked in. Al Habtoor City is a development that consists of three hotels (St. Regis, Westin and the W) and three high-rise residential towers. Still undergoing construction, Al Habtoor City is close enough to the airport and downtown Dubai, right off of Sheikh Zayed Road.

When I arrived at the Westin I was handed keys and was escorted to my room where my luggage was already waiting for me. The hotel was newly open and I am pretty sure I was the first person to stay in the room I was given. It was clear no one had used the coffee maker or the hair dryer before so I was in my glory. The view from my room- amazing! They are finishing building the Dubai Canal and once that is complete, the views will be even better than they are already are.

DAY TRIP TO ABU DHABI:

After a delicious breakfast at the Westin, I met my driver, a member of Eastbound (Yash) and my guide, and we were on our way. I was driven to the Jebel Ali Hotel located at the southern part of the city. On arrival, I was taken to the Marina, where a nine-seater Cessna and piolet were waiting. I boarded the seaplane and took off on the water in Dubai, which was one of the coolest, most unique experiences. The 30 minutes in the air traveling to Abu Dhabi was pretty magical. You can see a great view of Palm Islands from the air and an awesome aerial shot of Dubai. You land back on the water on the Yas Marina in Abu Dhabi- such a great option for top end travelers.

Yash and my guide were driven to Abu Dhabi and waiting for me when I exited the plane. From there we headed to Yas Island to see the Yas Viceroy, the only hotel in the world built on a Formula 1 race track. Top end clients can drive Maserati’s and Ferrari’s around the race track. I took some pictures and we were on our way to Ferrari World. Ferrari World Abu Dhabi is the first and only Ferrari-branded theme park. There you can ride the Formula Rossa, the world’s fastest roller coaster. The theme park looks like the outside of a GT. Inside you will find 20 different attractions that are all about Ferrari. You can see an exhibition of the cars and how they evolved over time. One can easily spend 4 to 5 hours at Ferrari World, but less time if the client wants the fast track VIP tickets, which are expensive but worth it. Next to Ferrari World there is also Yas Water World, with 43 rides this is another great option for visitors looking to escape the heat.

From there we went to the Abu Dhabi Heritage Village, which shows visitors a snapshot of life before oil wealth. Abu Dhabi Heritage Village, which is on a peninsula looking at downtown Abu Dhabi, has reconstructions of what a traditional Bedouin village looked like, including a depiction of a traditional home and souk. I liked starting the day here because it gave me an idea of what Abu Dhabi used to look like and how far it has come.

The walk around of the Abu Dhabi Heritage Village can be as quick or long as the traveler wants. After an eventful morning, I was ready for lunch so visited some hotels, which included a site visit and a meal at the Emirates Palace. The Emirates Palace is the sheik’s palace that was converted into a hotel and really showcases Arabic culture. Pulling up to the long driveway I was floored by the entrance, which has 114 domes that are 80 meters high. Walking into the hotel the staff could not have been friendlier. The general manager of the hotel took us to see the standard rooms and the suites. The suites are so impressive that many famous American actors and actresses stay there- since paparazzi are illegal in the UAE, and the suites are big enough to house the actors and their posse. The hotel also offers 1.3 KM of pristine beach, landscaped pools, and a private marina which overlooks the bay. Not to mention, you can indulge in their famous Palace Cappuccino which is sprinkled in real 24 Carat Gold flakes. I felt like royalty at the Emirates Palace!

Following the Emirates Palace, we got in the car and continued to the Zayed Center for Studies & Research. On the drive from one Abu Dhabi hot spot to the next I got to ask our guide some of the many questions I had. I asked about culture, tradition, the way women are treated, about the veils they wear, and about the Muslim faith. We talked about the 5 Pillars in Islam and even discussed the building of the islands and its negative effect on the environment. She was so knowledgeable and gave me truthful, unbiased answers, which I really appreciated.

The Zayed Center for Studies & Research shows you a glimpse into the life of the late Sheikh Zayed, who was known as the ‘Father of the Nation’. The museum is an homage to the man who played a crucial role in the building of the UAE. Here you can see a collection of artifacts and memorabilia of Sheikh Zayed which include: the president’s cherished vehicles, hunting rifles, and gifts he received from all over the world, including a stuffed lion and throw blankets made of cheetah. After some history into Sheikh Zayed, we were off to the Sheikh Zayed Mosque.

Visitors must have an appointment when visiting the mosque- something that Eastbound will arrange for clients. Female visitors must also be fully covered. My guide was nice enough to bring me one of her personal veils to wear during our tour. She wrapped me up to the point that only my face was showing. Entering the mosque, I was overtaken by its beauty. It is definitely worth a visit when in the UAE. The Sheik Zayed Mosque houses the largest carpet in the world and the largest chandelier made entirely of Swarovski crystals. The mosque is built out of materials from countries all over, in a way symbolically uniting people from all corners of the world to one building. The pictures do not do this structure justice and a trip to the UAE without a seeing the Sheik Zayed Mosque in my eyes would be a mistake.

HOTELS IN ABU DHABI:

Four Seasons Abu Dhabi: Great hotel for business travelers, families, and couples. They have a bright and large lobby, perfect for holding business meetings or lunches. The staff seemed friendly and attentive. In addition to the pool and great spa, there is also a kid’s club, amazing restaurants, and more. The rooms are decorated nicely, are clean, and spacious.
Jumeriah at Etihad Towers: a Luxurious hotel that is beautifully designed. The rooms are spacious, clean, and very modern. The view of the Arabian Gulf is stunning. Pamper yourself at the spa or enjoy a cocktail on the observation deck- you will not be disappointed!

Dubai:

After a great day in Abu Dhabi, we made the drive back to Dubai, which takes about an hour. Dubai is a very impressive city, without being intimidating or overwhelming, and I was happy to be back. That evening I went on a site visit of the Palace, an Address hotel. Situated next to the Burj Khalifa I was able to not only see an impressive view of the Burj but also watch the water show, which occurs every night. From 7pm to 11pm, the water show takes place every 30 minutes and lasts for about 5 minutes. The Palace has an Arabian style and the rooms are very spacious and clean. I had dinner at the Ewaan restaurant in the hotel which is an all-day dining restaurant that offers a blend of Arabic and Asian cuisines. It was a delicious meal.

The next day after breakfast, the same tour guide from the day before met me at the hotel and we proceeded on a tour of Dubai. We passed the Emirates Towers and the Dubai World Trade Centre. We visited the Jumeriah Mosque, the Palace of Sheikh Mohammad and the Rashid Palace. We also took a tour of the Al Fahidi Fort, where the Dubai Museum is housed. Later, we made our way to the creek. We took traditional boats, called Abra’s, across the creek to reach the souks. Dubai’s Spice and Gold souks are still a favorite among tourists and I could understand why. At any given time of the day, there are over 25 tons of gold displayed in the souk. It is any woman’s dream!

That evening I climbed into a 4×4 Land cruiser and ventured into the desert for some long-awaited dune bashing. This safari ride is a must do in Dubai. For travelers who want to skip the dune bashing part of the safari- that is always an option. As for me, I was thrown back and forth in our land cruiser driving over and into dunes begging the driver to go faster. We got to stop for a spectacular scene of the desert and photo opts before arriving at the Bedouin camp. We were greeted by a traditional Arabic welcoming of coffee and dates. At the Bedouin tent I admired the view while partaking in some Arabic classics: camel riding, smoking Shisha, henna tattoos, and belly dancing. It was a spectacular evening.

One thing that I love about Dubai is that it is a sexy, intriguing city that offers as much to do during the day as it does during the night. After the desert safari, my contacts at Eastbound took me to the Marina, which is absolutely stunning at night. We had a late dinner at Buddha Bar- a sushi restaurant with a top floor offering panoramic views, a live DJ, and amazing cocktails. What a contrast to the earlier part of the evening of Shisha smoking and camel riding. That is something I love about Dubai- you get a blend of Middle Eastern culture in an ultramodern city. It is still taboo to kiss in public but you can dine in a restaurant like Buddha Bar, that you would find in any progressive city. The evening ended back at Al Habtoor City, where I met friends at the W hotel at a karaoke club called the Blind Dragon. Talk about a well-rounded and eventful last full night in Dubai!

On my last day in Dubai, I woke up early and was driven to the Al Maha Desert Resort for a site visit. The Al Maha resort is so special, nestled deep in the desert about 45 minutes outside of Dubai, it is located in the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve. This exclusive desert resort has gazelles and Arabian oryx’s running around the property, you can go on nature walks, wildlife drives, camel treks and more. With 42 private suites, a restaurant offering a 3-course lunch, and 5-course dinner, plus their spa which houses a gym, large pool, and relaxation area- you will feel in an Arabian oasis tucked far away from the hustle and bustle of Dubai. This is a perfect add-on for a traveler wanting to turn a layover to the UAE into a proper vacation.

Reaching back to Dubai early morning, I was lucky enough to spend my afternoon at the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding (SMCCU) which I must say, was the highlight of the trip. Here you enjoy a cultural breakfast or lunch in the family home of the Sheikh Mohammed. This home called a Bastakiya, is a typical wind tower house located in one of the oldest Emirati neighborhoods, called Bur Dubai. During your meal, you experience the ambiance of a traditional Arabian setting while learning about the customs and cultures from a local Emirati. I ate lunch at the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding and tried some Arabian specialties like chicken and fish makhboos, lamb fareed, and Arabian tea and coffee while volunteer hosts share information on their culture and insights into family life, religion, and local customs. You are with a large group and after the Emirati speaks he opens the floor for questions. No one held back. If they had something on their mind they were encouraged to share. This was easily my favorite part of the trip because it was educational, social and I got to share laughs with strangers who became friends. Usually, travelers will visit the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding at the beginning of their trip but due to my hectic schedule this was my last stop while in Dubai.

The rest of my day was spent at the Eastbound offices in Al Habtoor City. Since my flight did not depart till 2:45am, I was able to meet friends and explore more of Dubai. We decided to walk the Dubai Mall which can be a day visit itself. There you can go ice skating, but if you want to check out Ski Dubai you must go to the Emirates Mall. Professional shoppers, brace yourselves, and your credit cards. You can shop till you drop in Dubai. After the mall, we decided to have drinks at Barasti Beach Bar. Located on the Jumeriah Beach, the Barasti Beach Bar is an outdoor bar with live music and a movie theatre sized screen playing ‘football’. Dubai continued to surprise me and I have to say, I am counting down the days until I can go back again.

HOTELS IN Dubai:

Armani Hotel: Located in the tallest building in the world, the Burj Khalifa, the Armani hotel was definitely a personal favorite. It does not have the Arabian feel like the Palace does, but it is so tastefully decorated and the views of the city are unbeatable. A lot of the suites overlook the water show and there is an entrance to the Dubai mall only available for guests. The pool, although small, was my favorite pool I saw during my time in Dubai. The spa isn’t half bad either.

St Regis: The newly opened St Regis is located in Al Habtoor City. It is located 7km from Jumeriah Beach and 12km from the Mall of Emirates. The plush rooms offer butler service and the finest of facilities. There are 8 bars and restaurants in the hotel. For St Regis fans- this property is worth a visit.

There is a lot more than meets the eye when traveling to the UAE. Dubai is a true tourist mecca while the UAE as a whole is quickly becoming a major destination for leisure and business travel. The UAE is a destination that is easily accessible and can satisfy a wide range of travelers wants and needs including culture, cuisine, art, fashion, sports and more, while offing top of the line accommodations and service. This is a must visit for the 5-star traveler looking for high-end luxury!

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