It's funny; when I booked flights for the four of us to visit Dubai together, I worried that eight days would be too long. In the end, we needed one more day!
First, let's get the misconceptions out of the way. I had my private fears that, given the feelings towards Americans, perhaps this wasn't a great time to visit the Middle East. I found nothing in Dubai to justify my fears. The crime rate is super low and Arab culture puts a tremendous focus on the family, so we found Dubai to be incredibly family-friendly. Sure, I wouldn't visit Syria or Iran right now, but it's silly to lump every Muslim country into the same basket, especially the United Arab Emirates, which has proven itself to be a staunch American ally.
Dubai is the "New York City" of the Arab world. People come from all over the world to make it in New York, which gives it that glamorous, exciting vibe. And people come from all over the Arab and Asian world come to make it in Dubai, which gives the city a kind of up-and-coming, dynamic appeal of the Melting Pot of the Middle East, where currently, over 80% of the population are expatriates. I met young, ambitious Muslims from Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, India, China and the Philippines who had come seeking a better life for their families.
In fact, one of our Dubai friends described some of the unpleasant treatment he received in the USA since 9-11, simply because he "looks Middle-Eastern." It gave me pause: here I was worrying about "what they think of us," while in fact, they worry plenty about "what we think of them." In the end, this trip really broadened my family's horizon's because it helped us get over some of our pre-conceived notions.
Here's some of the fun we had:
If you want to buy a local cell phone while you're there, any Emarat gas station sells them for about 20 bucks with decent air time included, and they worked great for us. We also found that hiring a driver was well worth the money because we didn't have to worry about GPS, local laws or parking. Our driver was from the Pashtu tribe of Pakistan, and turned out to be a foodie who couldn't wait to introduce his favorite restaurants to us.
We had some of the best Pakistani food of our lives at some tiny, hole-in-the-wall restaurants in Old Dubai. The chicken Peshawari had a myriad of spices that came together for delicate balance in my mouth. The tikka masala sauces were a big favorite with our kids. We sampled camel's milk and a selection of several different kinds of dates at the Festival City Mall.
The famous Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world, was well worth the entrance fee, especially after seeing the latest "Mission Impossible" flick, which features the building. The nearby Dubai Mall was also great fun. We loved the Underwater Zoo, although we felt the glass-bottomed boat tour was not worth the money. And we saw a fascinating fashion show on the Dubai Mall catwalk, that was all "abayas," the black full-body dresses that some Muslim women wear.
The famous Burj Al-Arab, often touted as the world's only 7-star hotel, was underwhelming. If you're into an entire interior being done only in red and gold, this is the place for you. We preferred viewing the beautiful exterior from the glass elevator of the nearby Jumeirah Beach Hotel by day, and we had stunning nighttime views from the Beachcombers' restaurant for dinner. The Beachcomber has a buffet featuring a different Asian country's food every night, the band is superb and they have a great playroom for kids ages 2-14. How did they manage to create a restaurant that is both romantic for Mom and Dad while fun for the kids, too?
The Aquaventure Water Park at the Palms Atlantis Hotel is not to be missed. Our kids spent the entire day with a Pakistani family's kids of the same age, while we four parents felt very smug at the great cultural exchange our kids were enjoying. The Dubai Museum is also a must-see.
So as not to offend our hosts, my wife had to taste the shark served up to her at the Emirates Palace Hotel, but the real highlight of Abu Dhabi for us was Ferrari World, because my kids love amusement parks. Ferrari World boasts the world's fastest roller coaster, but this was bragging rights only, because the incredible launch speed was then followed by a dull series of wussy-loops and hills. The real, un-sung hero of Ferrari World were the Scuderia simulator cars that dropped you into the cockpit with the authentic look-and-feel of a Ferrari, racing against seven other competitors on a virtual race track. The attention to aesthetic and realism was jaw-dropping, and "Chana" from Sri Lanka was the most interesting, friendly ride manager we ever met.
We unfortunately didn't have time to visit the Heritage Village and the Cultural & Heritage authority, which came highly recommended to me. If you've been, let me know what you thought!
We do not recommend the Dolphinarium in Dubai, which struck as a poor imitation of Sea World. It was a crowded, unpleasant scrum to get to our seats, even though we had booked tickets in advance. The ambiance was dingy and morale was not good among the staff, although the animals seemed well-trained and cared-for. But the Modesh World (part of the "Dubai Summer Surprises" series) was a lovely, air-conditioned indoor fair with moms in burqas and their children playing on the bumper-cars with my kids, as well as camel rides and a series of inflated cylinders and giant balls that kids could enter inside and roll along in until they were exhausted with giggles of delight.
I really regret not renting a 4-by-4 to take a day trip to Oman. I'm told the mountain views, the old forts and the coastline are stunning and Omanis are a very friendly, laid-back people who still exhibit the famous Arab hospitality to strangers. Oh well, there's always next time, because our family had such a blast in Dubai that I'm sure we'll return!