Picture the scene, you’re riding along in a pristine taxi, the air conditioning is keeping the shimmering heat at bay, the driver is polite in his clean pressed uniform, you whiz by public trash cans painted with bright flowers and birds, you zip under the elevated subway lines, you stare ahead at the shimmering towers lining the horizon in the distance, and frankly you wouldn’t be the least bit surprised to see George Jetson puttering by in his speeder. Are you in Disney’s latest Tomorrowland ride or are you in a city that has known inhabitants for over 7,000 years but only built this these modern wonders in the last forty? Welcome to the wonders of Dubai.
My introduction to Dubai was a five-day crash course in mall-walking for the strong-willed and well-soled. My husband had arrived two days prior to me, and was there for three weeks on business, but because of the Islamic holiday of Eid al-Fitr, celebrating the end of Ramadan, there was a five-day holiday that my daughter and I could take advantage of. So we did.
I knew nothing about Dubai, but with a little internet trolling I learned that Dubai is one of five emirates (think of them like states), including Abu-Dhabi, that make up the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which was only formed in the early 1970s. UAE is about the size of South Carolina and is squeezed in between Saudi Arabia and Oman, just a stone’s throw across the Persian Gulf from Iran. Oil was discovered in the early 1960s, and has resulted in UAE having one of the highest per capita incomes in the world. Interestingly, like Kuwait, but even moreso, the local Emiratis only make up 10-15% of the total population, with the remaining being made up by foreign workers.
During this recent surge of progress, apparently some marketing guru decided to make up for UAE’s tiny stature with a pile of extremes and lots of “-est”s. Dubai is the richest city in Western Asia, with the tallest building in the world (the Burj Khalifa), and the second largest building in the world (according to floor space) in their international airport’s Terminal 3. It also houses the largest port in the Middle East, the first metro system in the Arabian peninsula, has built the largest artificial islands in the world (someone was thinking way beyond the box on that one), and has the largest mall in Middle East (aptly named, Dubai Mall).
Since we only had a few days, and I’d done no vacation-research prior to departing, we kept our expectations low and decided to make this a mall trip, and not stress about seeing actual sites, so my commentary will be limited to the purely commercial.
We first visited the Burjuman Mall, which was next to our hotel, where we met some friends for dinner. It was a nice mall, clean, nothing over the top or extreme, and the restaurants were good. The one minor issue came when I stopped by the information desk and asked how to get to the subway and was directed to the food court; no, sorry not sandwiches, the metro. Language blunders even in English. We also visited the Mall of the Emirates. This one is famous for having an indoor ski slope, which we admired through the three-story glass window, but opted not to partake in any snow activities ourselves at this time. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but I found it a little disappointing. Am I becoming so jaded that an indoor ski slope, replete with chair lift, impresses me non? Gosh, I hope not! Must have been an off day. The rest of the mall was nice; bigger than the Burjuman, with over 600 shops and multiple food courts, had a lovely center atrium which was impressive, but overall it was basically just a big mall; nothing really to write home about. (Well, I just negated that statement, didn’t I?)
The mall to impress, however, was the Dubai Mall, and we went back three days in a row just to wander and gape. It impresses on multiple levels starting with sheer size at over 12 million square feet, making it the current largest mall in the world by total area. It houses over 1,200 shops, several four-story waterfalls, a large ice rink, entire wings devoted to shoes or electronics or even kids clothes, if you’re so inclined to shop for junior at Dior, Burberry, Gucci, DKNY, Fendi or Armani. If that’s not enough, they also have a 22-screen movie theater, Sega Republic theme park (with nine rides and 250 games), the world’s largest musically-timed fountain, and the world’s largest acrylic panel holding back over 2.5 million gallons of water in the world’s second largest aquarium. That’s a whole lot of “est” under one roof.
If you’re not inclined to shop, you can still do some energetic mall walking (I clocked over 13,000 steps in just a few hours), see their art galleries, peruse photography exhibits, wander and discover the butterfly atrium with hundreds of thousands of paper butterflies hanging from the ceiling, or just grab a bite at one of the 150 restaurants available.
This was by far my favorite mall. It was light and airy and had great people-watching opportunities (my husband commented that it was definitely the most diverse group of people he’d ever seen gathered together). I loved the atriums with the butterflies or the waterfalls.
Overall, the mall had a museum-like quality, with expensive things you couldn’t buy (or couldn’t afford to buy) and people taking pictures at every corner. I watched in mild confusion as family groups gathered for a portrait under the Patchi window sign or in front of the Debenhams window as if it were Cinderella’s castle at Disney. Of course, I personally parked my daughter’s stroller under the thousands of paper butterflies fluttering above as I gaped like Alice at her bread-and-butterflies. And we found ourselves several times at the waterfalls, checking them out from all levels, feeling the mist in the air and watching happy families squeeze in tight for that souvenir picture, sans Mickey.
Equally as entertaining was the Dubai Fountain located outside behind the Mall, next to the Burj Khalifa (which made its film debut in “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol” with Tom Cruise hanging off the side). The musically choreographed fountain shows start at one p.m. daily, with a break from two to six, then returning from six to eleven at night. They have four different songs they rotate, including a Swahili hit and Andrea Bocelli’s “Time to Say Goodbye.” With musical crescendos, the 900 feet of snaking fountains burst 500 feet into the air. It’s actually quite fun to watch and we happened to find a restaurant with water-side seats so we were able to catch the show through several versions.
We did make one attempt on our last night to go beyond the malls and see these man-made islands called, “The Palm Islands.” For whatever reason (and the typical answer in Dubai seems to be, “Because we can…”), developers decided to do some land reclamation and create centers of residential, leisure and entertainment properties in the shape of a date palm. This is definitely impressive if seen from above, but as you’re bumping along in a taxi over the endless speed bumps you can’t really tell whether you’re on the trunk or in a frond. It took me a minute to even realize we were already on the “reclaimed land.” As we headed out to the top of the palm, we aimed for The Atlantis Resort, because there’s really nothing else to aim for. The cab dropped us off and we were immediately swathed in the highest humidity I’ve felt in a long time. My sunglasses steamed up and my shirt became sponge-like and we shuffled our way to the closest door leading to air conditioning we could find, which was the hotel itself. After a bit of confusion as to whether they’d let in a non-guest, we finally just pushed our way forward, using the stroller as a battering ram, and looked either pitiful enough, or rich enough (I’m assuming the former), and were permitted entry.
Once in, I was anticipating seeing some mouth-dropping lobby with towering statues of Hercules or at least a large starfish, but all we were permitted to see were some shops and a few restaurants; we needed a room key to go any further (how would you ever check in?). We finally braved the steaminess and went back outside to grab a cab and head back to our little, less restrictive hotel. Maybe someday we’ll get to see beyond the side door, but I have to say that I’m not necessarily clambering to stay at a waterside resort called Atlantis.
So, all in all, it was merely a peek into what Dubai has to offer the shopping traveler. I know there’s life beyond the malls as well, and maybe we’ll get another chance to check those out next time. And I do hope there’s a next time. But in the meantime, I will make do with memories of a city with piles of “est” on every corner and one whose motto is simply: Do Buy, Everyone Else Is.