Dubai, UAE - April 2012
All images ©Greig Houghton 2012
The last two months have been insane.
Apologies for the lack of content on my site during this period. Two weeks of the last two months included travelling between the UAE, Hong Kong, Sabah and Kuala Lumpur on holiday. The trip was everything we hoped for and more and generated some great photos which I hope to share with you on my site. What about the other six weeks I hear you say. An intense month of work leading up to the holiday, a trip to London the weekend after I returned from holiday combined with a heavy dose of cold which comes from being confined in an aluminium tin can for 6 flights in 15 days.
My wife has yearned to go to Hong Kong for many years, but especially since its failure to make it on to our honeymoon itinerary in 2010. The planned holiday for this year started as a week in the Med' which evolved to two weeks touring the south of France and possibly northern Italy and then the bug to go Hong Kong started on my wife.
For my birthday this year, my wife treated me to lunch at Restaurant 41 in The Residence private members club in Dublin. A 5-course tasting menu was the order of the day and did not leave us disappointed. An elegant dining room, well trained observent but friendly staff and faultless delicious portions of food at decent value. A restaurant I would definitely recommend. Why I am veering so largely off-topic? As it transpired, this day turned out to be a pivotal moment in the fate of our holiday for 2012.
The restaurant is only around the corner from Trailfinders travel agency and being in such a good mood after lunch I agreed to visit the shop to price up a visit to Hong Kong and get a few more ideas on some other destinations. As fate transpired, Emirates who recently opened up a route from Dublin to their Dubai hub, had a sale on their flights. With a great deal on flights, the trip turned almost instantly from just about possible to within our reach. The downside, the sale was due to finish any day.
We left trailfinders with some ideas and some reserved flights, but no deposit down. This had to be paid within the week. My wife immediately went to work on planning the remainder of the trip. After careful consideration we ended up booking return flights with Emirates through their website from Dublin to Hong Kong with a transfer in Dubai and then the return leg from Kuala Lumpur back through Dubai to Hong Kong.
Despite the hype and headline publicity surrounding Dubai in recent years, the Emirate did not feature on our list of must-see places in the world. However, as we had to transfer planes at Dubai for the Hong Kong leg, we could not resist the opportunity to schedule in a 3-day stop over. The other destination in our holiday was Sabah (Malaysian Borneo) for a week of rest and recovery in a beach resort. The connecting flights were booked through Air Asia which seems to be the Asian version of Ryanair. The flight times on the return leg allowed us about 10 hours in Kuala Lumpur which would be enough time for quick visit to the city we loved on our honeymoon in 2010.
The Dubai itinerary allowed us 3 nights in the city, but due to the time of our arrival and departure flights, worked out as only two full days for exploration of the city. Our first day was mainly filled with the Rise and Shine desert tour with Arabian Adventures. which we booked in advance through the website. An early pick-up was not ideal given our late arrival, but at least got us out of our beds and moving with the short duration of our stay.
We shared our 4x4 with one other set of passengers who turned out to be pilots ( 5 of us in total plus the driver) which we picked up at a hotel over the road from the Burj Khalifa. As it turned out, this would be our best view of the world's tallest building.
The desert tour commenced with a roller coaster ride over the desert sand dunes in the 4x4. There was enough in the off-road adventure to satisfy my adrenaline cravings while not too terrifying for my scaredy-cat wife who generally has a dislike of roller coasters or anything where she feels her life will end prematurely. I will never forget her face on the rollercoaster on top of the New York New York Hotel in Las Vegas - priceless!
Although the tour takes place in the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve, I was surprised to see as much wildlife as we encountered during our drive including oryx, gazelle and a desert monitor lizard.
The 4x4 tour wound it way through the dunes to a camel farm located within the Reserve. For the camel ride, I had preconceived images of trailing through the sund dunes to a bedouin tent located in the heart of the desert. These were quickly erased as it dawned on me that in fact it would be a 5 min ride around in a big circle with breakfast served in the compound at the camel farm. Nevertheless, despite the disappointed I enjoyed the camel ride and was definitely ready for my traditional breakfast. This was served under a canopy with traditional low tables and cushions. The breakfast consisted of fruit, a pancake, chickpeas and sweetened noodles. Not Michelin quality, but tasty none the less. The star of the show, especially for a caffeine addict, was the arabian coffee with sweetened dates to go along with it.
A late evening and early morning had taken its toll so we returned to the hotel to relax by the pool before heading back out in the late afternoon for dinner. One of the pilots in our 4x4 lived in Dubai so gave us a few dinner recommendations including her favourite restuarant for mezze and shawarma called Automatic.
Automatic is a no fuss restaurant chain serving straight up classic Lebanese food. The decor of the place is not particularly modern, the service efficient without being warming but what makes this place great is the quality of the food served. We pitched up early enough having skipped lunch after our late breakfast to find the place near enough empty. Normally when choosing restaurants on a whim with no prior research we stick to the tried and trusted adage of going to places which are busy with locals, so this immediately put me on the back foot. We decided this was simply down to the early time and to trust the recommendation.
This turned out to be a great decision as we feasted on shawarma, hummus, pitta breads, a mixed grill (kebabs, boneless BBQ chicken pieces and grilled lamb meat cubes) and fattoush salad - delicious and cheap which is always a bonus.
The restaurant was located down at Jumeriah Beach Centre, but after a short wander along the street with not much to see, we decided to head back up to the Deira Creek, where our hotel was based, to go visit the souks.
I always thought this would be the highlight of the trip and it wasn't far off, if not what I quite what I expected. Having seemed a bit like a ghost town (albeit with traffic everywhere) for most of the day, Dubai burst into life into the early evening in Deira with lots of local interesting people around. The spice souk, a narrow open air spice market, was a fragrant, busy and noisy market with approaches from left and right to enter their shops. Having not experienced this for a few years I was slightly intimidated at first but soon began to relax into the experience.
It was during the spice souk that we experienced the call to prayer for the first in Dubai. The haunting melodic prayers echoing out over the blue twilight skies in the streets and souks of Dubai is the quintessential middle eastern experience for me and will be my lasting memory of this Emirate.
What I began to realise about Dubai is the lack of street signs. Normally I am quite a reliable navigator on our foreign escapades, with the exception of a few notable cases, but in the tight warren of streets in Deira Creek I struggled to consistently head in the right direction. I was to later find out off a taxi driver that is not unusual and many local navigate via local landmarks rather than street names - much like the infamous irish directions back home.
The following morning we took a taxi over to Mall of the Emirates. The highlight of this was my wife's excitement in her visit to Carrefour, the French/ UAE equivalent of Tesco. She loved being able to peruse the vast array of spices, fruit, veg, dates and baclava without the intense pressure of shopkeepers that you get in the Souks. With the shopping basket filled, we grabbed a quick bite to eat before grabbing another taxi down to Souk Madinat Jumeirah.
This souk, part of the Madinat Jumeirah Arabian Resort, is really a shopping mall but is in the form of a modern reconstruction of a traditional Arabian souk complete with wind towers, lantern lit hallways and narrow waterways. Notwithstanding this, I enjoyed wandering through the mall which has impressive views of the Burj Al Arab hotel.
We continued our afternoon by walking down to the Jumeirah public beach which turned out to be longer than expected in the midday sun. The beach provided some more views of the Burj Al Arab and allowed us to dip our feet in the Persian Gulf, but grabbing yet another taxi back up to Deira Creek.
Dubai, despite it recent history for high density skyscrapers seems to me quite a spread out city. The city has recently constructed two metro lines which seem to link the airport, residential and commercial parts of the city. Great if you are a resident, but I found it to be of no use to tourists and instead we had to rely on taxis, which although cheap, we are the mercy of the Dubai road network and traffic.
With this is mind, we opted for a different mode of transport that evening - the Abras (water taxi). For 1 dirham, you can take the Abras for the short journey across the creek between Deira Creek and Bur Dubai.
To reach the Abra we stolled down along the Dhow Wharfs which in itself was a site to see. Small local boats with every inch of deck space loaded with all sorts of goods being frantically loaded and unloaded along the bustling wharf before heading out into the Persian Gulf on route to Iran, India or East Africa.
The journey across the creek was enjoyable with fantastic views up and down the creek with the last light of the days reflecting off the creek and modern buildings alike.
The Abras delivered us to directly to the Old Souk or the Textile Souk as it also known, which was the perfect starting point for our walking tour of Bur Dubai.
The narrow streets of the Souk providing occasional glimpses of Minarets towering above the modest city buildings in the older part of Dubai. Our Dubai experience was to end with taxi to the Heritage Village to sample some apple mint shisha while gazing over the Creek.
Overall, I am glad I visited Dubai, but I will not be rushing back with so many other places to visit in the world. I feel this city is best suited to those wanting a week or two on the beach with the occasional break to malls or adventure or water sports. Had I been here for longer I feel it would be worthwhile combing with the trip with Abu Dhabi (only 1 hour south of Dubai) and in particular the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque.
For us, many years overdue, it was onwards to Hong Kong.