• Nicola Chilton

My Dubai Love Story, and how it didn't quite start out as a love story

Recently Dubai Tourism invited me to share my personal Dubai Story through video. It's a long story to try and squeeze into two minutes, but hopefully it offers a snapshot of some of the things I love about living here, and the things that changed my preconceptions about what living in Dubai would be like. Dubai hadn't initially been my dream destination to live and work, but as I settled into my life here, I realised I'd made some unfair assumptions about the place. So here you have it, my Dubai Love Story through video, accompanied by a post that reveals a little more of the back story, with a few of my favourite places that have been instrumental in changing my mind thrown in for good measure.

Five and a half years ago, my company transferred me to Dubai. "Transferred" doesn't quite encompass all of the emotions I felt moving here. "Dragged kicking and screaming" would be a slight exaggeration, but in all honesty I wasn't exactly overjoyed at the prospect. I was moving from Bangkok, a place I adored for its chaos, its affordability, the excitement of zooming around the city on potentially dangerous motorbike taxis, the cheap street food, the sundowners by the river, the glittering temples, the dripping, sticky humidity, and the fact that it was a gateway to the rest of the country and to all of Southeast Asia. Before Bangkok, I lived in Hong Kong, a place that stole my heart, and prior to that I worked in Japan for most of my 20s where I lived pretty much an entirely Japanese lifestyle, working in Japanese offices, speaking Japanese all day, singing Japanese karaoke at night, eating Japanese food, and sleeping on a futon laid out on tatami mats. I'd also spent a year in southern Mexico as a student where I lived the kind of life that only a 20-year-old could live, putting myself in potentially dangerous situations (I was there to write about a recent guerrilla uprising for my university dissertation) and feeling confident in the knowledge that nothing could ever harm me. And for the most part, it didn't.


After all these places, Dubai just didn't seem quite so exciting. I'd visited twice for work, had seen offices and skyscrapers and hotels, and had my own preconceived ideas about what it would be like to live here.


So when I found myself moving to Dubai I wasn't exactly kicking my heels up in joy.

When I arrived, I was thrown straight into a big conference where I met the 150 or so people I would be working with across Europe, the Middle East and Africa, as well as the small team from the Dubai office, who would later become some of my closest friends. It was a whirlwind, and every day I was up early for morning briefings, went straight into full-day sessions, some of which I was presenting, before having a quick turnaround to get changed for evening drinks and dinners. It almost felt like a big welcome party had been organised for me.


But once the conference was over, it was time to accept the reality that I was actually going to be living here. Even though I've moved many times, I really, really don't enjoy the process. The logistics of arriving in a new place, doing all of the necessary paperwork and medical and biometric tests, finding somewhere to live, setting up a bank account/phone/internet/utilities, etc. These things for me are the stuff of nightmares.

Let's skip all the blah blah blah of house-hunting, and get to point where I found the most beautiful place I've ever lived in, and probably ever will. After living in apartments all of my adult life, I wanted to be at ground level, with some outdoor space no matter how small, natural light, pet-friendly, and with greenery that would somehow make me think I wasn't actually living in Dubai (yes, I was in denial). And after a few days of driving around looking at places that just weren't right, my real estate agent took me to one place that was far too expensive for me, but that was filled with light, had a garden with two tall palm trees, clouds of pink bougainvillea, and my favourite of all, fragrant frangipani trees. I was hooked. I did a quick mental calculation and realised that if I significantly cut expenses in practically every other area of my life I could just about make it work, and said I wanted it. The landlord told me it was only available for two years, and I said "that's fine as I'm only staying two years anyway". Which is the same thing I've said everywhere else I've lived and which inevitably always ends up being untrue.


The first night I slept in my new home, I woke to the sound of birdsong. Birdsong! In Dubai! There was the chirping of sparrows accompanied by the squawking, cackling and whistling of mynah birds, the tuneful tweeting of bulbuls and the cooing of collared doves. In subsequent days my garden would be visited by hoopoes with their orange and black mohicans, bright green rose-ringed parakeets and tiny metallic purple sunbirds. I'd found nature where I least expected it.

And then I started exploring my new home in earnest. On my first visit some years back I'd been to Bastakiya by the Creek, now called Al Fahidi, Dubai's heritage area with buildings dating back more than100 years topped by traditional wind towers, and the lovely XVA Gallery and Café where I browsed the art, ate sweet potato fries with zaatar, drank mint lemonade, and soaked up the ambience in this beautiful space that had once been a family home. Back then it had provided me with a tiny glimpse into the fact that there may be more to Dubai than I'd imagined, and now I was determined to find it.


I would go to Bastakiya at all times of day, eventually becoming an early morning regular at the Arabian Tea House, a delight of a place (you can read more about it in another blog post about great small restaurants in Dubai) in a shady courtyard with a large tree in the middle, with white wicker furniture, the scent of frankincense, and the most generous breakfasts of anywhere in the city. Go with friends and share the huge breakfast trays piled high with falafel, balaleet, foul medames and bread hot from the tandoor, or go alone, as I often do, for a pot of karak tea, a plate of the crispiest halloumi I've ever tasted, and an hour or so reading a book in this most relaxing of places.

Then it's time for a wander to snap some photos of the heritage buildings and the little abra boats that cross from one side of the Creek to the other for the bargain price of AED1. We'll buy jasmine garlands from the Indian flower sellers, stop for an ice cream at Mazmi Café, run the gauntlet of the pashmina vendors in the souq who always try and drape something on you and who always call me Shakira, and come out into the street with wonderful mid-century architecture and fabric shops. The Creek is where the city was born, the waterway providing safe anchorage for the boats that would come to trade pearls, and today it's still a centre of energy.

But it's not just the Creek that provides valuable waterside space to Dubai. On my first weekend here, I decided to go for a walk. I took a taxi to Madinat Jumeirah, walked around the faux-old souq, took the obligatory photo of the Burj Al Arab, and walked to the beach. And I just kept going. I'd had no idea how close to the centre of the city the beaches were, nor how much of a beach scene there was here. People were surfing, buying ice creams, sun-bathing, playing racquet ball, swimming, splashing in the shallows, and having an all round great time. And the beaches went on for kilometres and kilometres.


I'm not quite sure how I'd missed out on the fact that Dubai was a major beach destination since that seems to be the main reason that many people come here, but I must have walked 10km that day, all the way from Madinat to Jumeirah 2, discovering little neighbourhood cafés, coffee shops and shwarma places. I only stopped my epic trek of Jumeirah Beach that day to call an Uber when I realised I was going to be late for dinner. Since then, so many new places have popped up and there's a great café culture here now, one of my favourites being Kulture House, a café and concept store with tile mosaics, ferns and quirky art. Its the café featured in my video.

After discovering the seaside delights, I dove straight into Dubai's beach scene on weekends, heading to Kite Beach for sunny afternoons with friends, or to Secret Beach (no longer a secret) in Al Sufouh to swim in the clearest, bluest waters in the city. And then, with the creation of the Dubai Water Canal, a new beach appeared just a couple of minutes from my home, the only east-facing beach in the city (and the one in the opening of the video), meaning that you can see the sun rise behind the Burj Khalifa every morning. I try to go there each day at 6am for a walk and an occasional swim. It clears the head, opens the mind, and lets me think. There's nothing like the promise that a sunrise delivers with all of the opportunities it presents for the day ahead. Which sounds like some dreadful inspirational quote on Instagram, but I genuinely mean it.

Dubai has also taught me to wake surf, something that fills me with boundless, untamed excitement and energy. It also introduced me to the joys of desert driving, and I've spent a few hours in the classroom of the Emirates Driving Institute learning about differential gears and tyre pressure before taking a Landcruiser out into the dunes, discovering how not to get stuck in the sands and suffer a terrible demise. The deserts out here are spectacular - on my first visit I flew over them in a hot air balloon, being faintly terrified about having an enormous chute of fire above my head, but at the same time being mesmerised by the shadows of camels on the ground below. There's something so peaceful about the desert - I know many people find them lonely places, but even after self-isolation and lockdown I longed to get back out into the dunes, even in 40-degree heat. After surgery one year when I was supposed to be somewhere far away but wasn't permitted to fly, I spent a birthday at the incredible Al Maha Desert Resort and Spa where you sleep in the most luxurious of tents surrounded by the sands while Arabian Oryxes roam freely and friendly little gazelles come to visit you in your pool.

Dubai is the most multicultural place I've ever lived. People from over 200 nationalities make this place their home, and each of those communities brings with it its own food, whether it's a small café or canteen or something much more lavish. My favourite Japanese izakaya Fujiya takes me right back to my days in Tokyo, and you can dine on shiso leaf tempura, grilled mentaiko, Wagyu shabu shabu and much more, all washed down with cold pints of Kirin. I've made friends in Dubai from Jordan, Egypt, Italy, Greece, Mexico, Japan, South Africa, Libya, India, the Philippines, Brazil, Syria, Serbia, France, Morocco, Lebanon, Canada, and the list goes on. It's exciting and inspiring and it opens your eyes in ways that not everywhere can.


So as you can see, there's much to love here, and this doesn't even begin to scratch the surface. Dubai is the gateway to the rest of the United Arab Emirates, a lot of which tends to be unfortunately overlooked by visitors. There's Sharjah with its incredible art foundation, Ajman with its thick mangroves, Umm Al Quwain with its quirky little museum and notorious arms smuggler Viktor Bout's abandoned plane, Ras Al Khaimah with its rugged mountains and tough hiking trails, Fujairah with its long, sandy coastline with turtles who allow you to swim with them for hours on end, and Abu Dhabi with its Empty Quarter, date palm oases, spectacular museums, and aquamarine waters. There's a lot to discover, and every day I wake up feeling excited that I still have so much to explore. It's more than enough to make you fall at least a little in love with Dubai.



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