Towards the end of last year, I started a series of blog posts about 50 Reasons to Visit the UAE in 2021, its 50th Year. Part One of the series focused on Architecture, Part Two on the Great Outdoors, Part Three on Urban Adventures, and Part Four on The Quirky. National Day and the Golden Jubilee fall on December 2, so it’s time for the last post in the series. And it’s a somewhat random selection of things I love with nothing specific connecting them, other than that they are all rather brilliant things to do. So, in no particular order, here are my reasons 41 to 50 for why you should visit this UAE this year. Or any year, for that matter.
41. Going up the Burj Khalifa
The Burj Khalifa made its way into Part One of this series for its extraordinary architecture, but this time we’re actually going to go inside. There are a few ways you can do this. The first time I went was at the invitation of my former boss who lived there and took me to the private residents’ lounge. The views are nothing short of stratospheric – you are in the world’s tallest building, after all, and are so high up it’s almost like looking out of an aeroplane window. You need to choose a clear day to make the most of it. Go on one of those hot, dusty summer days and you’ll be squinting through a sepia filter. But you could also aim for one of those days in early winter with clouds and fog, as I did recently. Living at ground level I’d always enviously eyed apartment-dwellers’ photos of skyscrapers bursting through the clouds, and was finally lucky enough to see it for myself. You can book the tour of the observation decks, or go to the At.mosphere restaurant and lounge where they do an early morning coffee hour, perfect for viewing the clouds before the heat burns them off. And if you want extra bling in your pics? Go for the Gold Cappuccino – but be warned, it will stick to your lips and give you - for one dazzling moment - golden grillz on your teeth.
42. A peek inside the Burj Al Arab
While we’re visiting Dubai’s architectural icons, let’s head to the Burj Al Arab which has just opened its doors and the gold-trimmed, silk-adorned, leopard print-covered Royal Suite to the public on the Inside Burj Al Arab tour. I wrote about it for CNN Travel and was able to have a sneak peek before it opened to the public. I loved researching the story and learning about how the architect came up with the design, how the building was constructed, and how the extraordinary interior design came about. But I also loved seeing the audacious Royal Suite first-hand and realising that, while it may be somewhat in-your-face in terms of colour, and yes, the sheer amount of leopard print in there, when you look at the craftsmanship, the detail of each hand-knotted carpet, and the hand-embroidered bees in the silk wall coverings, it’s nothing short of extraordinary. It’s worth booking a trip to the Spa as well so that you can see the dizzying views down into the lobby from the top of the atrium, the world’s tallest. The Burj reposted one of my photos on their Instagram feed and it got an incredible 47,844 likes… just a couple more than my original post..!
43. Diving deep at Deep Dive Dubai
Another superlative Dubai experience that I recently had the pleasure to write about, this time in Travel + Leisure Southeast Asia, Deep Dive Dubai is the world’s deepest diving pool, and at 60 metres it’s a cavernous hole dug into the desert, designed to resemble a dystopian sunken world. I am not a confident diver, even though I got certified a few years ago in Koh Tao. My approach to diving feels like my approach to parachuting when I was a student – I signed up, did the (fairly limited) training, and when it was time to go for it, felt completely unprepared. A little voice in my head was saying “what the hell are you doing?”. Fortunately, having thrown myself out of a plane solo (this was static-line parachuting – you’re on your own) and into the depths of the Gulf of Thailand, nothing untoward happened. But it doesn’t mean I felt like a pro.
The last time I went diving was a couple of years back in Sharm El Sheikh and I recall that little voice suddenly becoming a big voice saying “YOU SHOULDN’T BE DOWN HERE”. I forgot how to breathe, my mask kept filling with water, and I seem to vaguely recall seeing some fish, but nothing I couldn’t have seen in a much more comfortable way from the surface with a snorkel and mask. Anyway, if you read the T+L article you’ll see that my experience this time in Deep Dive Dubai was very different, and for that I’m grateful to my kind and patient instructor, and to the fact that there’s just so much cool stuff to do down there.
44. Learning to ride a camel
When I was very small, about five years old, I had horse-riding lessons, including one memorable occasion when some fighter jets did a very low fly-by, my horse bolted as I was standing beside it holding onto its reins, and I continued holding on as it ran round and round the training ring, dragging me behind it, the Owl and the Pussycat jumper that my Nan had knitted for me getting full of sawdust. Weirdly, that latter detail is something I remember more vividly than feeling any fear at the time. Someone stopped the horse, picked me up off the ground and, in true motivational quote spirit, I got straight back on.
My horse-riding career never really took off from there, and at some point I stopped having lessons. But a few months ago, having heard about a camel farm offering riding lessons on the outskirts of Dubai, I decided to go and have a look. I’ve always thought camels are majestic creatures with their long eyelashes, soft padded feet, and the way they ruminate while giving you a long, hard stare. Many of the camels at the Arabian Desert Camel Riding Centre are former racing camels, very gentle and patient, and also very fast when they put their minds to it. Depending on the camel (some have VERY bony hips) it can be quite comfortable up there, even though you’re sitting on nothing more than a folded blanket placed just behind the hump. I got to the stage where I was trotting, although the jerky movement made me feel as if my head might get jolted straight off my neck. I stopped going during the long, hot summer, but feel it might be time to give it another go. The sunrise in the dunes that we trekked out to one morning was absolutely magical, and I quite like the idea of getting up to a canter one day.
45. Discovering a flower farm in the mountains
Most of you probably live in places where you’re surrounded by flowers, trees and abundant nature, but here in the UAE, flowers are not a dirham-a-dozen. In fact, they’re often bank-breakingly expensive. So when I discovered the UAE Flower Farm earlier this year in the remote Hajar mountains I could hardly contain my excitement. I drove out there one weekday morning, following GPS which sent me down what looked like a dried-up river bed. I was doubting whether I was going the right way when up ahead I saw fields full of colour appearing out of the grey. And there it was. Not huge, but bursting with snapdragons, some of my favourite flowers that bring back memories of my grandpa’s garden. There were sunflowers, sweet-scented yarrow, buzzing bees and iridescent sunbirds flitting through the blossoms. And best of all, they handed me a pair of secateurs and let me loose. I cut a huge bunch of snapdragons which were wrapped up in newspaper for me to bring home at a fraction of the cost of the local florist or supermarket. Bloomin’ brilliant.
46. Breaking the bank at Al Maha
Let’s get this out of the way first. Al Maha is eye-wateringly expensive – if you can even find a room, that is. It’s often fully booked, its tents proving irresistibly popular in spite of the price. I went a few years back for my birthday. We’d actually planned on doing a road trip in California, but I ended up having surgery for something that was caught just in time before it could have turned very nasty. All’s well that ends well, except for the fact that I wasn’t allowed to get on a plane for six weeks, so out of the window went California. Which left the UAE, during Ramadan, in mid-May, when the temperatures were already soaring.
If there was ever going to be a time to spend a lot of money on sleeping in a tent less than an hour away from home, then this was it. Admittedly these are much more than tents – they’re luxury suites with canvas canopies on top. They all have private pools (which I wasn’t allowed to use – doctor’s orders). They have free-roaming Arabian oryxes – the hotel is located in the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve. You can go and have sundowners in the dunes, ride horses (again, out of the question for me at the time), or just sit on your lovely deck waiting for the little sand gazelles to pop by and say hello.
Was it worth it? Yes. Would I do it again? Yes. But not until I’ve saved up a bit and have another really special occasion. That pool was such a tease, and I am desperate to go back and soak in it until I turn into a prune.
47. A slippery slope at Ski Dubai
Ski Dubai is one of those places that are often featured in those articles you read about Dubai where it’s all bling-bling this, most expensive that, ride a camel here, and, the grand finale, YOU CAN EVEN SKI IN THE DESERT! Admittedly you can, if you consider Mall of the Emirates adjacent to Sheikh Zayed Road “the desert” (it was at one point of course, but I’m not sure the classification still stands today). But, ever in search of the quirky, I went. Not once, but three times.
The first time I went, in summer with temperatures pushing 45 degrees outside, I completely underestimated how cold it would be inside the snow park. I wore a t-shirt and jeans, over which I added the most unflattering rental skiwear that’s on offer, and continued to freeze for the next two hours. It’s -3 degrees Celsius inside, which of course it would be, as the whole place is filled with frozen water. The second time I went – a spontaneous trip – they gave me a helmet that made me look like a pea. The third time I’d got wise to this and took my own ski gear.
It feels quite ridiculous getting ski-suited and booted in the mall, but you do, and you pick up your skis, and you get on the lift and you go to the top and you ski down. It’s not a long piste, and many of the people inside are visiting purely for the novelty of seeing “snow”. There’s a little chalet halfway up where you can drink hot chocolate with whipped cream and a handful of M&Ms thrown on top that promptly sink and create a multi-coloured sludge at the bottom of your cup. And yes, it is a lot of fun, and helps you get a bit of practice in before you head off on a real ski trip.
48. The breakfast of champions at the Arabian Tea House
The Arabian Tea House is one of the loveliest places in Dubai for breakfast. I’ve written about it before in various articles and blog posts, but it continues to charm me. There are a couple of different branches, including one very close to my house at the Jumeirah Archaeological Site, but the original in the Al Fahidi Heritage District is still my favourite. It’s in an old former pearl trader’s house, and as you sit under the central tree sipping sweet milky karak tea and listening to the twittering birds, it feels like one of the city’s most delightful spots. Which it is. The food is good, too. I have a habit of going in the morning for the huge breakfast trays loaded with the best halloumi I’ve ever had, crisped to perfection on the surface, as well as falafel, foul, eggs, olives, cheese, and more. Huge flat breads come out steaming from the tandoor, and every now and then one of the staff walks by with an incense burner to scent the air. But go throughout the day and you can try other Emirati dishes, as well as Arabic salads, shwarma, machboos, and shrimp biryani. Desserts are good too – try the luqaimat dough balls, or the khabeesa, a sweet made from flour, oil and cardamom which, when described like that, sounds particularly unappetising, but I assure you it is delicious.
49. Discovering ancient history at Jebel Hafit Desert Park
One of the first places I went for a drive when I moved to the UAE was Al Ain, home to an oasis that dates back thousands of years and Abu Dhabi’s only mountain, Jebel Hafit. While it may not be momentous in height, it’s a lovely drive up there, the views over neighbouring Oman are worth peering at, and you can stop at the fairly retro Mercure hotel on the way down to have a sundowner. But there’s another reason to go if you’re interested in the largely unknown ancient history of the UAE. At the foot of the mountain are more than a hundred Bronze Age “beehive” tombs, named for their shape. I went for a story I was writing in Travel + Leisure about places in the country where you can dig deep into the past, and spent the night in one of the glamping tents at the Jebel Hafit Desert Park. The landscape is extraordinary, and waking up at dawn to almost complete silence, I felt like I had the whole place to myself. You can hike to the tombs (and you may well be the only person doing so), some of which have been restored and some which look like little more than piles of stones. The unexcavated ones may still contain bones and other artefacts – Mesopotamian ceramics found here indicate that this was a stop on ancient trade routes. It’s another brilliantly surprising place in the UAE, and yet another reason why Al Ain is one of my favourite places in the country.
50. Expo 2020 Dubai, the World’s Greatest Show
It wouldn’t really be a 2021 list if it didn’t feature Expo 2020 Dubai, so here you go. To be completely honest, I had mixed feelings about the event. Was it going to be a glorified Global Village (read about that in Part Four)? Was it going to feel like a big trade fair? Was it really going to be the “World’s Greatest Show”? Dear reader, I went. And it was brilliant. So I went again, and again. It’s a lot of fun, there is some extraordinary architecture, and I love going to the smaller pavilions where you meet people who are truly excited to be there. I took my parents, who also said it was “much better” than they’d expected. Coming from Yorkshire folk that is high praise indeed. The Tajikistan Pavilion welcomed us while they were still unpacking boxes, and even gave me the latest Bradt Guide to the country, which pretty much ensures that I will be booking a flight there before too long. The Afghanistan Pavilion, run by a gentleman unrelated to any government and who has exhibited at every single Expo since 1976, is joyful and sad at the same time. The Guatemala Pavilion is a riot of colour and indigenous textiles, and the Ambassador gave me his mobile number and invited me to go for coffee one day. The Kazakhstan Pavilion, with its extraordinary show combining a single human dancer and robotics, was a real highlight. Yes, the bigger pavilions have their attractions too (the UAE Pavilion is unexpectedly moving, Saudi is extraordinary, Pakistan like a kaleidoscope), but I feel that the real essence of a World Expo lies with the smaller nations. There’s also plenty of food, drink, music and entertainment, and I can’t wait to go back again.
So there you have it, 50 reasons to visit the UAE. I could have made it 100, but you'll have to wait until 2071 for that.