Whether your visitors are here for three hours, three days or three weeks – here’s how to keep them occupied (without breaking the bank, or your relationship)…
Most people tend to use Dubai and the UAE as an excuse for a 24-hour, or 48 at a stretch, stopover to quickly zoom past the Burj Khalifa, have a peek at Atlantis and the Burj al Arab, pat a camel – and maybe try something with edible gold if they’re lucky. So when my family announced they were coming for an unholy 17 days – I was struck with horror. I could barely fill my entire weekend sometimes without resorting to long periods of time in front of Netflix – how on earth were they going to fill three blimmin’ weeks? I needn’t have been quite so nauseated at the thought of such an extended UAE stay, however, as somehow we managed to stay well entertained, without spending our life’s savings, while also keeping the family intact – which is no mean feat.
*Read more on the UAE here:– Dubai in 48 hours (and perhaps, a bottomless bank account)
– Dubai eateries worth splashing out on
– Dubai on a budget: where to eat
Here’s a rough idea of how you can too – if god forbid, your family don’t consult you for sufficient UAE holiday lengths and you need to keep them busy for a day, a week or more.
If they’re coming for:-
Two days: Take Days 13 and 1 and squish them into one, and do Day 8
One week: Days 1, 2, 4, 7, 10, 12 and 14
Two weeks: Forgo the beach day (squish that into another day), flag the movie days and souvenirs day. Sorted.
THREE WEEK-ISH ITINERARY:
Go out and explore Deira and Al Bastakiya. Take in the coffee museum, Make Art Cafe and space, and the souks via a one dirham abra ride – before inevitably getting sick of the hawkers (the next time someone likens me to Angelina Jolie, I might actually hurt them).
Then, stop by Aroos Damascus for a really very decent first experience of Lebanese fare for your family.
Spend a day at the Mall of the Emirates, easing yourself into the malls of the UAE before taking on Dubai Mall. Wander the halls, stopping by Cold Stone Creamery and Ski Dubai.
Head down to JBR for your first taste of the beach. However, unlike my hopeless family – don’t take one look at the furthermost tip of it, decide there are far too many people and give up upon arrival.
Make sure you wander down the promenade (dodging the armies of joggers) and get some Turkish ice cream. Head to Shake Shack for dinner (loaded fries, 50/50 and a crispy shallot burger. That is all).
IMG Worlds of Adventure – your first taste of a UAE themepark. Naturally, this is the largest indoor theme-park in the world, and while it sounds like that means there won’t be a lot to it – there’s where your wrong.
This place is huge – do yourself a favour and get there at 10am, as soon as the park opens, as the you’ll have a clear path onto all of the rides to try out by yourself. Regardless, if you’re there on a weekday you won’t see any semblance of a line anyway – you’ll have free rein to puke your guts out on the rollercoasters all day long.
Spoiler alert: Don’t underestimate the PowerPuff girls ride as an easy one to take your disabled sister and mother on. It will fling you vigorously from side to side, and upside down for long periods of a time, and it will be the only ride your Kiwi Bloke NZ father rushes off to vomit after.
Tip: Book your ticket online and you’ll get a free buffet lunch at Spice Valley, who do a decent spread. Realistically all spreads are decent when they’re free.
Do nothing and relax at the pool. It’s a goddamn holiday for goodness sake.
Do a brunch. But simultaneously, forget whatever you knew about brunches. The Dubai breakfast/ lunch affair is all about overindulgence (much like the city of itself): unlimited alcohol, unlimited food, and unlimited Instagram opportunities.
Basically, you roll up to one of the city’s lavish restaurants, often located in a 5-star hotel, dressed in your best weekend garb, pay a small fortune (between $120 and $300) and unleash yourselves on three or so hours of bingeing.
But this is no amateur hour; the buffet table will be laden with gourmet treats and the drinks bar stocked with top-shelf booze. This is Dubai, after all.
Hire a boat from Charter Click, or by heading down to Dubai Marina and haggling with the seamen down there.
As a general rule, you should be able to get a 32-foot boat for 90 minutes (which will get you from the marina, down around the Palm, over to the Burj al Arab, and back around the Palm and Atlantis with time for a decent swim) for Dh600.
When you’re done with that, grab some food from M&S Food Store and then head to Kite Beach for a picnic and a proper swim as the sun goes down.
This is where you hit peak Dubai, and won’t ever look back. If there’s one thing you should tick off your bucket list while you’re here, if not just because it’s actually a possibility to do so, go on and hire yourself a supercar. It’s probably going to be cheaper than you think. We locked in a Ferrari 458 Spyder for 24 hours, which generally will cost you about Dh2500 with a 250km limit. However, we negotiated an extra 200km for a couple of extra hundred dirhams. Between a few people, this actually only makes it a few hundred dollars for a whole day of driving around in something you probably can’t afford to replace the door handle on.
Top tip: Head straight for Jebel Jais (the country’s highest mountain) to test this puppy out. This is by far the most spectacular road in the whole of the UAE, aided by not just the stunning mountainous scenery, but also by the wide, double-lane and the seemingly non-existent speed limit. S allegedly got the Ferrariup to 208 km/hr here (though if you ask us, we’ll deny it) and the local law enforcers simply clapped and remarked on our ‘spectacular car’. Yes we told them it was ours.
I’m loathe to recommend the place we went through for this – as they were an hour late to drop the car off, overcharged us by a few dirhams accidentally and changed the colour of the Ferrari three times in the hours leading up to dropping it off – but all that frustration dissipated the moment we got behind the wheel. I’m not entirely sure if the lax attitudes of all involved were a reflection of the outfit or the general ‘we don’t care’ nature of people renting out their car-worth-more-than-my-house in the UAE, either.
On your way back into town, do yourself a favour and stop in on Laffah Cafeteria in Sharjah. Sure, the traffic will be an absolute b*tch to get there, but it’s worth every near scrape on the paint job. For Dh5 (NZ$2) a shawarma, it’s an excellent price and quantity – stuffed full of chips, garlic and mayo. Try the fries.
After returning the Ferrari and silently weeping into the dashboard of your Nissan Sunny for five minutes, it might be time for a down day after all this bucket list ticking and living like someone you most definitely are not.
Head for the movies for a spot of Platinum Class (Dh100 at The Roxy), where you can relax in your own leather armchair, with a blanket and table service and still pretend like someone you’re not. It’s also a great place to marvel at Chris Hemsworth’s body far away from all other human interaction, or laugh at Taika Waititi’s Korg in peace. Thor, innit.
Now, finally, you can venture down to Downtown Dubai and check out that little old structure that should probably be worth a mention or two – the Burj Khalifa. If it were up to me, I’d skip the pomp of Level 123’s viewing deck and instead head for At.Mosphere Lounge where at least you get a drink or some grub for the money you’re spending for the pleasure to look out those glossy windows. However, you need to bare in mind that there are minimum spends. Window tables will set you back at least Dh350 a head, and non-window seats Dh250 – while the actual At.Mosphere dining restaurant is a whole other kettle of fish. However, if you just want a seat at the bar, and the opportunity to explore the edge of the restaurant for a snap or two, there’s no minimum spend at all. This is our preferential mode of taking it all in, and better yet – sometimes you’ll get upgraded to a table anyway.
After you’re done taking in the middle of the earth’s atmosphere, you may as well take in the world‘s largest mall, which is right next door. However, don’t spend too long in it’s manic walkways because you will go insane. If it were us, we’d prioritise the dinosaur skeleton, the replica of Dubai Creek Tower, the water features and the aquarium – and Social House for a drink.
Last but not least, head outside to Burj Lake and get ready for the best part of Dubai. The water fountains are something I could wax lyrical about for hours on end – the one touristy aspect of Dubai I will never get sick of. No matter how many elbows to the face or selfie sticks to the eye, I will never get sick of Celine, Whitney and various regional artists warbling to me as fountains that dwarf the Bellagio in both size and impressiveness dance around in front of me. Never.
Have a spa day (using Groupon. That’s going to be your lifesaver here). My favourite spas in the city are as follows: Natureland Premium at The Rixos, Jumeirah Al Naseem and it’s lush relaxation room, and Nova Clinic’s Hollywood Facial.
Then, head to somewhere like Mint Leaf of London to really treat yourself for some fancy, and hearty, Indian fare. Just because you’re feeling glam – you can then pop into La Perle, Dubai’s newest theatrical offering. La Perle operates year-round, and was brought to you by Franco Dragone, the man behind many a Cirque du Soleil show, and plenty of other heart-stopping shows in various amazing locations.
We’re still trying to recover from the 5-motorbikes-flying-around-a-
Abu Dhabi day trip – you do literally only need several hours in the capital. Sure, it’s a beaut spot, but there’s really much to do after you’ve seen Sheikh Zayed Mosque.
If we had to rank the rest of the sights, it would probably go: stroll the Corniche and take a dip in the sea, check out Marina Mall and its surrounds, have a high tea at Emirates Palace, and then go to Bait el Khetyar for dinner. The latter is the most extraordinary Lebanese we’ve sampled in the whole country.
Do a safari – because as tacky as it might sound, and as lame as you’ll probably expect it to be – it’s actually a really great day out. We used Cooper Tours, who were an absolutely stellar act. We were picked up promptly from our apartment at 3.15pm, and driven out into the middle of the desert where we were left to our own devices for 30 minutes alongside a quad-biking track. But any worries of wayward adventures aside, as soon as we jumped back in the truck the second time – it was all on. Jamal our driver (you should absolutely request him. he’s knowledgeable, friendly and an absolute dab-hand behind the wheel of a 4WD) put a whole new spin on dune bashing, in fact there are probably no dunes left to bash now. Yes, I was the only person in the car screaming and making other inaudible noises.
Once you’ve left your stomach behind, somewhere along the red dunes, you’ll stop for a photo op and then (after more bashing of the dunes) be dropped off at the bedouin campsite. If you’re as lucky as us and Jamal came through for you again, this gem of a man will have saved you a front-row table as you took a ride around a tiny enclosure on a much-suffering camel (the only part of this whole experience that really did not live up to its hype). And for all the complaints on message boards and the like about these camps and the way it’s organised – I say, nonsense.
You’ll first go up for as much shawarma and little deep-fried things as you want (starter), before an epic Tanoura dancer and belly dancer show, followed by one hell of a barbeque spread (main). Interspersed in that, you can go have your hand tattooed by a friendly henna tattoo artist (who so lovingly took such extra care with my disabled sister, drawing a pattern 45 times the size of anyone else got, simply saying ‘I understand, because my small brother’s like that too’), smoke some shisha, or tuck in to the free Arabic tea, coffee and sweets cart.
It’s then you’ll be treated to a firedance show, before everything gets wrapped up at about 10pm and you’re driven home. No awful lines, no tacky hawkers (well, admittedly some), and basically – a whole lot of awesome.
If you’re lucky, this should cost you about Dh120 each from Groupon. But I really recommend Cooper Tourism – and ask for Jamal.
Top tip: Avoid the cheaper Dh75 affairs. You’re bussed out to the side of the road where you jump in a 4WD, ‘dune bash’ for approx ten minutes in the tiny dunes on the way to the campsite, and then have to wait in a godawful line at the end of the night for a 4WD to take you back to the road to catch a bus again. Do yourself a favour – spend the extra $20.
It’s been over a week, so obviously it’s time for another themepark – this time, one in water. Aquaventure is by far the best waterpark in the UAE (we say this, having actually only experienced it and Wild Wadi) and warrants a full day of sun, togs, and feeling queasy. Even better? If it’s your birthday or the week after it, you’ll get in for free. Must try rides: Aquazengo and the Leap of Faith.
Tip: You’re absolutely not allowed to take food and water in to the park AT ALL. Your bag will be searched upon entry. So that makeshift picnic of goodies from Waitrose you were planning on pulling out around lunchtime to avoid the eyewateringly high Jumeirah prices? Yeah, forget it. However, you can come and go from the park, so do yourself a favour and take a wander through Atlantis for a (slightly) cheaper lunch.
Because you’ve not done anywhere near enough theme parks yet, get yourself a friend with The Entertainer and do a 2-for-1 deal on Ferrari World. This one has the world‘s fastest rollercoaster, and the world‘s steepest rollercoaster incline (or something to that effect). It’s open until 8pm, which is novel for a theme park – and Yas Marina Circuit and Yas Mall are also nearby for a look around or bit of dinner. If you time your visit to Yas Island right, you can wander, jog or bike around Yas Marina Circuit too – it’s open to the public Sunday and Tuesday 6pm to 10pm.
Souvenirs day. Do yourself a favour and avoid the crazy hawkers at the Gold and Spice Souks and instead take a more laid-back wander around Souk Madinat Jumeirah for your Burj Khalifa keyrings and your sand jars. Failing all that, Mall of the Emirates has a souvenir store, and in fact, Carrefour has plenty of trinkets.
Wallow in sadness because as much as you anticipated having your family here, it was actually rather nice and you’re going to miss them. Don’t tell them that, though – high-five them at the airport and cry when they’re safely on the plane.
My sister is disabled – always has been, and always will be. It’s a hard thing going through life with someone who’s “different”, someone who is often treated unfairly by people who just don’t understand. But in saying that, you know all the frustration and heartache you go through as someone close to them pales in comparison to what they go through every minute of every day. But last night, one woman in the middle of the desert made Gemma so much more than just a girl with a disability. As everyone else lined up for their tiny little free henna tattoos, this Middle Eastern woman – dressed in abaya and eying us carefully, me naively thinking I might have to apologise for Gemma – spent ten times longer with Gemma than anyone else I’d seen, drawing huge patterns all over her arm. In broken English she just said, “I know, because my small brother’s like that too”. The look on Gemma’s face when she saw her arm was pure wonder and utter pride, and she walked around with her arm at right angles all night so as not to mess with the henna, despite all of us telling her it’s actually a semi-permanent stain ?. Perhaps, sometimes we all need a little woman in the desert – to make us feel more ‘special’ than just ‘different’