An easy direct flight away, Dubai is a fab fam-friendly holiday spot with just an extra bit of sparkle. This mama shares her top tips!
Having called Singapore for 14 years now, I’ve had my fair share of rants wishing that this brilliant little island had seasons, or something a little more varied than sun, humidity, rain, humidity and… oh yes, more humidity. Honestly, Singapore would be the perfect country if we could just trade in some of its balmy weather for a touch of cold a couple months a year.
And that is exactly what Dubai can be if you time your visit perfectly and go between November and March to take advantage of the Middle Eastern ‘winter’. Go during summer, and your beautiful sunny days will come with a whopping 50-degree price tag. But whenever you go, it’ll be worth it because this Las Vegas of the Middle East, the city of superlatives where everything has to be bigger and better, has a lot more to offer than just amazing food, desert safaris, troves of gold, beaches and swimming with dolphins. A 7-hour direct hop from Singapore, Dubai makes for the perfect beach break if you have a week or so to spare (mid-term holidays anyone)?
Popularly lauded as the most international cosmopolitan emirate in the entire United Arab Emirates (there are seven of them, if you’re counting), Dubai is a shopping haven (visiting the gold and spice souks is a must), offers a vibrant nightlife, has infinite glamorous dining options, avant-garde architecture, exotic desert safaris – and so much more.
Often rumoured to be a city modelled on Singapore’s blueprint (we have Sentosa, they have The Palm; we have S.E.A Aquarium, they have The Lost Empire; we have Little India, they have Old Dubai; we have Snow City, they have Ski Dubai; we have Clarke Quay, they have JBR – you get the picture). From mypoint of view, Dubai offers you everything that Singapore can, but with a heady dose of the Middle Eastern opulence and grandeur that makes everything feel that little bit more exotic and luxurious.
My first visit to Dubai was earlier this year over the Chinese New Year break with the family at large, and admittedly, I totally fell in love with its sexy lifestyle. Yes, my fleeting experience was very superficial – hardly the real life – but it was an amazing week. Weather aside, perhaps it also had something to do with the fact that we were adamant to not get stuck in the touristy rut and ticking off the cookie cutter tourist must-do’s. Dubai is a great waypoint for mixing a beach holiday with a touch of culture for the kids, so trust me when I say that there is just so much to see and explore, you’ll have a hard time fitting everything in.
Here’s my family-friendly guide to navigating your way around Dubai.
The moment you step foot in Dubai, you’ll be forgiven for thinking that you’ve stepped into an uber-clean India. (By the way: the unofficial Emirati language here is a form of Hindi, given that most blue-collar workers are from India and Pakistan). Honestly, with its global melting pot make up, the local Arab population feels likes the minority. If this is your first foray into the region, dress properly and courteously. Although a very cosmopolitan city, respect the local culture and keep shoulders and above the knees covered when in public. Forget cappuccino and instead sip traditional Arabic coffee with a splash of camel milk, which is admittedly somewhat of an acquired taste. If you’d rather swig tea than java, I highly recommend a cup of local Moroccan mint tea – certainly nothing new, but very traditional.
If you’re staying in the new Dubai area (The Palm or neighbouring expat areas), then a visit to ‘old Dubai’ is a must. Once there, start off with a walk around Dubai Museum for a glimpse of yesterday’s nomadic Bedouin lifestyle and Dubai’s transformation into today’s modern city. After that, venture into the gold and spice souks (markets) for wholesale stocks of jewellery, spices, dried fruits and fake luxury watches, handbags, etc.
The Deira Gold Souk has everything from normal everyday bling to wedding body-armour options. While there, feast your eyes on the world’s largest ring, the 21-carat Najmat Taiba (or Star of Taiba) ring, which weighs approximately 64kgs and is studded with 5.1 kgs of precious stones – at a small cost of just over $3 million in case you were wondering.
While we’re on the topic of shopping, if you’re thinking of completely bypassing the malls – please don’t. Even though you’ll find most of the brands you’re used to here, they’re lovely to visit and very well decorated, giving our own shopping centres a bit of a run for their money. At the very least, step into Dubai Mall and Mall of the Emirates, the latter of which houses Ski Dubai, the closest replica of an indoor Swiss ski resort I have seen yet. With 22,500 square meters of ski area, treat yourself to spiralling snow slopes, ski lifts, snowboarding, tobogganing, sledges and even a Giant Ball.
Dubai Mall, on the other hand, is home to neighbouring Burj Khalifa, Dubai’s second-most iconic destination. Standing 830m tall, the tower currently dominates the city’s skyscraper-laden skyline and is home to the Armani Hotel. With a total of 160 floors and boasting elevator speeds of 600m/min, the lifts take you all the way up to the observation decks on the 124th and 125th floors (At The Top) at absolute blitz speed.
For a small premium, opt to go to the highest possible point at level 148 (At The Top Sky), and take in a mesmerizing sunset. Advanced bookings to go up the tower are highly recommended! When we turned up for our slot one afternoon, I was amazed to see that they were taking bookings for 24 hours later already, so this is not one place you can expect to cover on a whim. Time your visit so that you’re in time to see the brilliant Dubai Fountain (it lies at the foot of Burj Khalifa, so you have no excuse to miss it) and witness a spectacular choreography of jets, music and water fountains every evening.
Dubai’s most iconic destination you ask? The distinctive sail-shaped silhouette that is Burj Al Arab Jumeirah. But this suite-only hotel requires either hotel or restaurant reservations (there are nin signature restaurants, incidentally) to gain entry through the heavily-guarded entrance gates. Once inside however, you’ll immediately understand why the plush grandeur and opulence of the hotel rate it the most luxurious property in the world!
While in the area, pop into what is known as Souk Madinat Jumeirah for a spot of shopping and popular restaurants. This souk combines the traditional Middle Eastern shopping culture of stands, barrows and stalls with a mix of new boutique brands, home accessory stores, souvenir gift shops, luxury fashion and jewellery. Or just relax over a cup of coffee at one of the many cafés here, as you soak in gorgeous views of the Arabian architecture, waterways and the Burj. They even offer stage performances at the famous Madinat Theatre, and tours of the water canals, so there’s more than enough right here to keep you occupied for the entire day.
Likewise, you could also spend a lovely day at The Beach at JBR, the outdoor complex of endless shops, chic cafés and restaurants situated right on Jumeirah beach, along with play areas for kids, an enormous outdoor cinema, running tracks and outdoor gym equipment. It’s the popular Friday morning brunch hangout for expats (Friday and Saturday is the weekend here), and boasts several al fresco cafés and restaurants overlooking the blue sea.
On the slight chance you have a die-hard Real Madrid football fan, the strip also has a Real Madrid Café (carpeted with Astro turf no less) and brimming with Christiano Ronaldo-signed photos and memorabilia, along with a photo booth to get your own passport size photos with him. Yes, you can also buy hordes of football gear and boots here, too. One of my son’s is perhaps Ronaldo’s biggest fan, and this was the highlight of the entire trip for him. I’m thrilled he’s happy but so much for a touch of culture!
Finally, drive down to visit Atlantis, The Palm, the famous ocean-themed luxury resort and home to several popular attractions such as Dolphin Bay, Sea Lion Point and the Lost Chambers Aquarium. We didn’t bother with the first two stops because I’ve seen so many photos of wet-suit clad people kissing the dolphins and the sea lions, I feel like I’ve done it myself a million times. Plus the long snaking queues quickly sealed the deal in my favour too. We did, however, choose to visit into the Aquarium, which feels pretty similar to the one we have here in Sentosa. One difference though? They have throw down cushions and mattresses so you can just sit down and leisurely watch the incredible sights in front of you, completely unhurried. It’s amazing how therapeutic the experience of watching different fish swim by can be, never mind if it’s a shark or a manta. Plus they also have an extremely rare albino alligator from Florida – he’s only 3 years old, but it’s hard to not let your nerves get the better of you watching him!
As you can see, I could go on and on forever about what else to do, and perhaps completely bore you to bits, but hopefully you get the gist of what I’m getting that. Go with an open mind, respect the local culture, expect the unexpected and you’ll come back with big smiles and even more happy memories. And of course you should always check out Sassy Mama Dubai for the latest news on what’s hot in the desert for mamas and kids. Bon voyage!