Dubai

March 7-12, 2009

Getting to Dubai

On March 7 we left Amman and flew to Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

Our flight was with Emirates Air, and we were pretty excited about that fact — we heard from various people that it’s one of the best airlines in the world.  And yeah it was really good.  Decent amount of legroom, a TV for every seat, etc.  The food was good and they even brought out a menu ahead of the food service.  The seats had adjustable lumbar support but it didn’t work very well for me.  Anyhow, it’s the best flight of the trip so far and one of the best we’ve taken.

Emirates Air flight attendants wear these fancy outfits:

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We were still kind of worried about actually getting into Dubai.  Just recently there was news about Israeli tennis player Shahar Peer who was denied entry to Dubai for a tennis tournament; the official statement was that Dubai officials were concerned about her security, but more likely it was a political act related to the recent war in Gaza.  When Pnina and I entered Jordan, we jumped through several hoops to make sure our US passports had no trace of our stay in Israel.  But even after all our efforts there were still two clues: 1. our place of birth (Israel) is displayed in the US passport, and 2. more subtle, there’s the exit-from-Sinai stamp from which you can deduce that we entered Eilat.  But in the end there was nothing to worry about.  The Dubai immigration guy spent no more than 20 seconds looking over our passports before stamping them and wishing us a nice stay.  Whew!

The Dubai airport is even more amazing than Emirates Air’s planes.  We arrived in Terminal 3 which opened only recently (in Oct 2008).  Normally we try to get our bags and get out of the airport as quickly as possible, but this airport is basically an attraction in itself, so we spent some time roaming around before heading out.

Inside the Dubai Airport:

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Outside the airport:

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Outside the terminal, the guy who runs the taxi stand directed us to a taxi driven by a woman!  That was surprising.  We learned that there’s a separate set of taxis driven by women and reserved for women and families.  We later saw other examples of the special treatment women get in Dubai, e.g. on busses the first few rows are reserved for women, and men are not even allowed to stand there.  On the other hand, there were quite a few Arab women dressed in black burkas from head to toe, with even their faces and hands covered.  When these women go to a restaurant, they mostly watch their husbands eat.

Before heading to Dubai we consulted our Dubai Lonely Planet City Guide and the internet to try to figure out where to stay.  We knew Dubai would be expensive, but still we were surprised to learn that even the Dubai youth hostel costs about $70 per night!  We found a better deal for a proper hotel just looking on Expedia – the Dream Palace Hotel for $61/night.  We also read on some forums that it’s best to wait until you arrive and get some suggestions from the taxi driver, so we put off making a reservation.  As it turns out our driver didn’t have much to recommend, so we asked her to just take us to the Dream Palace.  So we took five minutes to go online and make the reservation right there on the spot, and luckily the $61 rate was still available.  Yeah!  We later discovered that there are other cheaper places to stay in Dubai, places that for some reason are not advertised on Lonely Planet nor online.  But the Dream Palace was such a cushy place that we just couldn’t leave it.  It was definitely the nicest hotel since that one 5-star place we got for free in Nairobi.

The Dream Palace – our hotel in Dubai:

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There were only two issues with the Dream Palace.  First off it was under construction, so most mornings we woke up to the sound of hammering in the neighboring rooms.  Second, our room had a nifty remote control on the bed stand, with buttons to control the lights and AC.  But on our first night it just didn’t work; we had to suck up our pride and call reception to ask “how do we turn off the lights?”  🙂  Reception sent up a bellboy, and he “rebooted” the remote, after which things were good.

About Dubai

The city of Dubai started around the year 1800 when Maktoum bin Butti founded a new sheikhdom around Dubai Creek – a body of water that lets out to the Persian gulf.  The Maktoum family still rules the Dubai emirate today.

In the late 1800’s Britain looked to extend its dominance in the region and protect its assets in India.  It signed truce agreements with local rulers whereby the British agreed to provide security if the ruler agreed not to deal with any other major powers.  The kingdoms around Dubai all signed such deals, and together they came to be known as “the Trucial States”.

The Maktoums looked to establish Dubai as the most important trading port of the area.  In 1894 they started giving tax exemption to foreign traders and the free port of Dubai was born.  It still exists today — Dubai has the 7th largest port in the world.

In the early 1900’s there was a big pearl industry in Dubai.  A few hundred pearling boats sent poorly-paid workers on several dives a day.  The workers had little more than a nose-plug, gloves, a pick, and a rope.  The pearl industry collapsed around 1930, both because of the great depression and because the Japanese discovered a way to artificially culture pearls.  The traders in Dubai then changed their focus from pearls to gold.  Gold is still a big industry in Dubai – there’s a famous gold souq (market) in the old Deira neighborhood.

The UAE was established in 1971 when the Maktoums of Dubai joined with the other Trucial States to form the new country.

Oil was discovered in the area just a few years before independence: in 1966.  It’s had a huge impact on the local economy.  Of the seven emirates, Abu Dhabi is the biggest and richest – it has the most oil.  But while Abu Dhabi’s economy is still largely based on oil, Dubai’s oil is running out.  Luckily, the Maktoums were clever enough to use their oil money to invest in new industries.  As a result, today oil accounts for just 6% of Dubai’s economy.

In the last 20 years Dubai has been home to some of the most audacious projects: huge man-made islands (the palms and the world), the new tallest building in the world (burj dubai), the world’s only “7-star” hotel (burj al arab), indoor skiing in the desert, and so on.

But sometimes it’s a little hard to tell which of these projects is done and which is still under construction.  For example, at our hotel we got this free map of Dubai:

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It turns out that of the three palm islands pictured above, only one (Jumeirah) is “land-complete”, and even that one still has a lot of building-construction under way.  The Jebel Ali palm (on the left) is not yet land-complete, and the Deira palm (on the right) is not even started.  Also, there’s a set of islands further into the sea that together look like a map of the world; like the Jebel Ali Palm, they too are undergoing land-construction now.  The Dubailand theme park is not yet open to the public, the big Burj Dubai building is not finished, and the first monorail lines won’t be open for several months still.  Pnina and I agree that it would be interesting to come back to Dubai in maybe five to ten years, when all these mega-projects are done.

All the buzz around these projects has attracted people from all over the world to live in Dubai and try to tap into the money.  Of the 3.6 million people who live in Dubai today, only 24% are Emirati.  There are so many Filipinos, Indians, and Pakistanis that it’s sometimes hard to believe that you’re in the UAE.  These foreigners take up most of the bottom-of-the-ladder jobs: construction workers, maids, drivers, etc.  They don’t make a lot of money, but still more than they make back home.

In the summer, Dubai gets really really hot: 40 to 50 degrees Celsius.  Whenever we spoke to recent immigrants we asked them whether they like to live in Dubai, to which they would invariably make some comment about how rough the summers are.  To deal with the heat, everything is air-conditioned: homes, shops, even bus stops:

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We heard that more people get sick in the summer because they keep going from cool indoor spaces to insanely hot outdoor spaces.  I guess that’s similar to (or perhaps opposite of) the way I would generally get sick in Michigan in the winter because I kept going from warm indoor spaces to the freezing outdoors.

Luckily Pnina and I came during the cooler winter season, so outside it was only slightly hot during the day and by evening it was occasionally long-sleeve weather.  Of course, this is also the busy season for tourism, so prices are higher than they would be in the summer.  The winter months are when Dubai plays host to a bunch of big sporting events, including the horse race with the biggest prize money of them all: The Dubai World Cup (which we just missed).

Cultural Places

The old part of Dubai is based around Dubai Creek.  On the creek you find dozens of cargo boats, a few fancy wooden dinner boats (dhows), and various water-taxi boats going back and forth.

Pnina near the water taxi station on the east side of Dubai Creek:

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Pnina near one of the dhows at Dubai Creek:

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Buildings on the west side of Dubai Creek, beautifully lit at dusk:

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On the west side of the creek there’s an old neighborhood called Bastakia.  It was first inhabited by some Persian traders.  Today it mostly contains small museums and galleries.  It’s a good place to see old Dubai architecture.  These buildings have “wind towers” – structures used to direct wind coming from any direction downward into the house, a kind of primitive air-conditioning system.

Strolling through the Bastakia neighborhood.  Notice the wind tower at the end of this alley:

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A courtyard in a traditional Bastakia home, now turned into a small museum:

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The museum included coins used in the region over the centuries, which included this surprise – a coin with Hebrew writing!

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Sign for the men’s restroom:

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Our favorite art piece from the galleries we saw in Bastakia:

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Close to Bastakia is the Dubai Museum.  It does a decent job of capturing all the history mentioned above.  The one thing that stood out for us is a short video that shows falconers – people who train falcons to hunt as a kind of sport.

Trained falcons from the video at the Dubai Museum:

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Markets

Shopping is a big thing in Dubai.  We assume that this is partly due to Dubai’s history as a major port town.  Another likely reason is that in the summer it’s too hot to be outside, so people spend a lot of time in malls.

First off, there are the souqs (markets).  Most of them are located in the old Deira neighborhood.  They are fun places to wander around.  The spice souq was the only place where there was hassle from the store owners – they jumped at us as soon as we entered, which caused us to flee without snapping a single picture.  The gold souq was actually kind of upscale – instead of stands it was all stores with fancy displays and guards on duty.  There was an interesting mix of traditional Arabian jewelry (some of it really huge/blingy) and modern western stuff.  Also, it wasn’t all gold – there were gems, pearls, watches, and other stuff.

Bracelets at the Gold Souq:

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The produce and fish markets are totally different – local people actually shop here and you can get good prices without much haggling.

The fish market:

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The produce market (next door):

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There are a few new markets designed to resemble these old souqs.  For example, in the Jameirah beach neighborhood there’s a hotel block that contains a mall called Madinat Jumeirah.  By the way, this was our favorite hotel in Dubai.

The Madinat Jumeirah mall:

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Malls

And then there are the malls.  Dubai has lots of malls everywhere.  Just to illustrate the point, next door to our hotel was Reef Mall, and no more than 300 meters away was Ghureir Mall.  But these pale in comparison to the big malls.

The first big mall we visited was Mall of the Emirates.  The big attraction at this mall is Ski Dubai, where you can ski indoors even when it’s blazing hot outside.  I heard about this indoor ski arena from a Warren Miller film a few years ago, and I had to try it for myself.  Pnina decided to pass because she’s not really that into skiing and she was kind of tired the day we reached the Mall of the Emirates.  So while I skied, she went off to check out the mall and to relax with a book.

The 2-hour ski pass cost about $50 and included rentals: boots, skis, poles, ski pants, ski jacket, and socks.  The only things I had to bring were a hat and gloves.  This leads to an interesting reverse situation: in most ski resorts you can recognize the resort’s staff because they’re the ones who wear matching jackets, but in Ski Dubai its the visitors who all wear matching jackets.

You pass through the equipment room, head up an escalator, then go through revolving doors into the cold room.  It’s a little weird here.  Up above is ceiling, painted blue to resemble sky.  In the back there are windows where mall-goers can watch you ski.  Up ahead is the ski lift.  And down below is snow.  it feels like real snow – perhaps a little bit packed but not so bad (I’ve had much worse on outdoor ski slopes).  There’s never any wind or percipitation to worry about and there’s music everywhere.  As you might expect the slope is not very long.  It took me anywhere from 30-50 seconds to go top-to-bottom, depending on whether I was skiing normally or trying to videotape my descent.  With a slope as short as that, two hours is more than enough (even one hour was plenty).  Still, it was a good time, especially since Pnina and I completely missed the ski season back in Washington by starting our trip in October.

Inside the Mall of the Emirates:

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Ski Dubai, in the Mall of the Emirates:

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Shahaf getting ready to head down the short L-shaped slope for the umpteenth time:

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Not long before my 2 hours were up I noticed that they had an area set up where you can do a ski jump onto a big inflatable bubble.  To do this you had to pay extra.  Since I didn’t have much time left in my two hours (and, truth betold, since I was kind of chicken), I decided to skip it.  But I did get some nice footage of other people’s jumps:

(Video footage to come)

The other big mall we entered is called Dubai Mall, located next door to the giant Burj Dubai building.  It’s much newer and not really complete.  Inside you see a lot of panels advertising stores-to-come.  There’s a slick interactive display that helps guide you around this giant mall.  We used it to get directions to the cinema, but when we got there we discovered that it’s not yet built – another instance where the maps are ahead of actual construction.  Anyhow, Dubai Mall has two unusual attractions.  The first is an indoor ice skating arena.  The other (more impressive) is a truly giant aquarium, perhaps the biggest in the world.  The aquarium is there for anyone to see free of charge; for a small fee you can also walk through a clear tunnel in the middle of the aquarium.

Walking to the Dubai Mall.  It’s possible we didn’t choose the best path – we had to walk on the edge of this flyover:

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The main entrance to Dubai Mall:

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People looking at the enormous aquarium:

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The indoor ski arena at the mall:

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A beautiful art-piece, a silver man in front of a waterfall:

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One of the best looking store displays:

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Palm Jumeirah and Atlantis Hotel

Palm Jumeirah is the first major man-made island in Dubai.  It get its name because it’s shaped like a palm tree and it’s located in the Jumeirah neighborhood.  Because it was the first to be built, it’s also the most-complete.  The actual land of the island is done, many (not all) of the buildings have been built, and some residents have already moved in.

Pnina and I decided to visit the Palm Jumeirah.  We wanted to see what it’s like to be on a man-made island, and we wanted to check out the new Atlantis Hotel located at the top of the ring that surrounds the palm tree.

The island turned out to be much bigger than we anticipated.  At times it was hard to see/believe that we are on an island at all.  It took us maybe 90 minutes to do the whole walk, bottom-to-top, and it was pretty hot.

At the base of the palm there are a bunch of large luxury apartment buildings.  Each one by itself would look great, but with all these identical buildings one after another it kind of starts to feel like inner city projects.

Shahaf walking up the “trunk” of the Palm Jumeirah, between rows of luxury apartments:

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Beyond the “trunk” of the tree you start seeing smaller (more expensive) homes, and as you might expect there are even pricier homes on the “fronds” (branches) of the tree where there’s private beach access.

The ring that surrounds the palm probably serves as a wave-breaker, but it’s also another location for buildings.  At the top of the ring there’s a fancy new hotel called Atlantis.  Today there’s only one way to get from the tree to the ring, which is to go through an underwater tunnel (eventually there will be monorail access too, but the monorail is not complete yet).  After walking for well over an hour Pnina and I reached the entrance to the tunnel only to discover that pedestrians are not allowed in it!  Crap, what to do?  We really wanted to visit the Atlantis Hotel and we didn’t want to hike all the way back just to track down a taxi.  We decided to ignore the no-pedestrians signs at the entrance and just head in.  At first things were great – the tunnel was well ventilated and had the most comfortable sidewalks on the island.  But after perhaps 100 meters a booming big-brother-like voice came on the PA system to remind us that walking is not allowed and command us to turn around.  We abided, and we found ourselves once again at the entrance to the tunnel.  What now?  We stuck out our thumbs to hitch-hike (first time on the trip!).  A few cars passed us by, and then a bus pulled over to pick us up.  This wasn’t a public bus.  It was one of the busses that carries construction workers to the building sites on the island.  Each construction company sets up its own bus service.  When the bus is full it looks like prisoner transport – all the passengers wear matching overalls – but this bus was nearly empty.  The driver was really nice – he dropped  us off right at the entrance to the Atlantis and even refused to take our money.  Cool!

Walking to The Atlantis Hotel – a very very long walk:

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This is about as far as we got into the tunnel before the booming voice of god told us to turn around:

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I heard about the Atlantis before coming to Dubai – a hotel built largely under the sea, where you can stay in a room with a view of undersea life.  Well, it turns out that isn’t quite right.  The Atlantis hotel is not built under the sea at all, though it does have an aquatic theme.  It has several nice aquariums, not quite as huge as that monster aquarium in the Dubai Mall, but still very impressive.  The hotel opened just recently in November 2008.  Apparently they had a very big opening celebration.  They spent $20 million on an island-wide fireworks display, and they chartered a whole plane to carry celebrities from Hollywood for attendance, including Charlize Theron and Wesley Snipes.  They had Kylie Minogue perform.  Now the hotel is open for business and it seemed to be fairly busy.  It looks and feels a lot like Las Vegas minus the gambling (even more so than the rest of Dubai).  But whereas in Vegas it’s common for hotels to allow non-guests to roam freely through most of the common areas (especially the casino part), here in Atlantis it’s a different story.  Atlantis tries to protect hotel residents from all those pesky hobo non-residents (like us).  Non-guests have their own entrance and only have access to a relatively small section of the hotel with a few shops and aquariums.  Since Pnina and I arrived at the Atlantis by the “prisoner transport service”, rather than by taxi or tour bus, we ended up entering through the regular resident entrance.  This meant that we saw a little more than we should have, like the beautiful Chihule glass structure in the main lobby – very nice.

The Atlantis Hotel:

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Huge metal doors at the entrance:

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The Chihule glass piece in the main lobby:

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One of many small fountains:

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Atlantis’ big aquarium (not quite as big as the Dubai Mall aquarium, but still very nice):

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By the way, check out the incredible opening celebration for the Atlantis Hotel:

Since our walk through the island was so long and complicated, by the time we reached the Atlantis and had a quick look around it was 3:30 PM.  We were starving, so we decided to eat in one of the hotel’s restaurants.  We didn’t do a lot of shopping around – we just entered the one called Kaleidoscope, the “Arab and international buffet” restaurant.  It was kind of a splurge even by Vegas-buffet standards: $40 each, not including drinks.  The staff warned us that the buffet closes at 4 PM, so before we started to eat we made a few trips to the buffet to pack several plates full of food.  Then we sat down and proceeded to pig out.  It was our only meal of the day and it was a good one – we got our money’s worth 🙂  In the past I’ve been disappointed by the low quality of food in Vegas buffets, but here it was surprisingly good.

Pnina and our many plates packed with delicious food:

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After the meal we took a stroll around the ring to start walking off the calories.  We had a decent view of the Burj al Arab hotel to the north, and later of a nice sunset.  To get off the ring we once again had to hitch-hike.  This time we got a lift from an Indian guy, Sammie, and his Sri-Lankan cousin, Sylvie.  Sammie’s been working in real estate in Dubai for years, while Sylvia just moved to Abu Dhabi recently to work as a nannie for an English expat family.  Pretty much everyone we met in Dubai was really nice to us.

Us watching the sun go down from the outer ring of the Jumeirah Palm:

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Burj al Arab

Burj al Arab is the world’s only “7-star” hotel.  I’m not sure where the 7-star rating came from; the hotel is actually officially rated as “5-star deluxe”, but people refer to it as a 7-star hotel and it definitely sounds better.

The hotel, built in 1999, is already an icon for Dubai.  It’s located on its own tiny island just off-shore from the beach in the Jumeirah neighborhood, connected to land by a short bridge.  It’s shaped like a sail and looks modern – steel and glass.  Among other luxuries, each room comes with its own butler.  We heard that the atrium is big enough to contain the Eifel tower.  We had to check this out for ourselves.

Problem – the only way to get into the hotel is to either stay there or to have a reservation in one of the bars or restaurants (and we thought the Atlantis was strict!).  Staying there is way out of our price range ($1300+ per night).  Visiting the bar is cheaper, yes, but still there’s a minimum $70 bar-tab per person.  The next option is to go for one of the lunch buffets at about $107 per person.  And dinner, of course, is even more expensive.

These prices are a little nuts, but we rationalized it – we figured that visiting this hotel in Dubai is kind of like visiting the Serengeti in Tanzania.  If we were willing to pay $100 each to see the Serengeti, why not pay $100 each here to see the hotel?  I’m not sure the logic holds water, but it was enough to convince us to go (me especially).  Since we’re not big on drinks, we decided to go for the lunch buffet.  By the way, it’s interesting to note that our cheapest meal in Dubai was 12 Dirhams while our most expensive at the Burj al Arab (after drinks and service) was 1000 Dirhams, which is an 83-to-1 ratio.  Crazy.

One more thing – the Burj al Arab has a dress code.  To go inside you need to have at least business-casual clothes.  Normally this isn’t a huge deal, but Pnina and I didn’t bring any fancy clothes along for our trip.  So, besides shelling out for lunch itself, we also had to get some new clothes.  This part was really fun.  We went to a big supermarket called Carrefour and hunted down the cheapest clothes we could find that would pass as “fancy”.  We ended up spending about $40 for everything: two pairs of shoes, one dress, one pair of trousers, and one button-down shirt.  Not bad, eh?  🙂

We reached the Burj al Arab around 10 AM, two hours ahead of our lunch reservation.  We wanted to have enough time to see the hotel before sitting down to eat.  Also, we heard that from 11 to noon it’s possible for visitors like us to see two of the more posh restaurants: Al Muntaha, the skyview restaurant on the 27th floor, and Al Mahara, the seafood restaurant down below.

When we reached the bridge to the Burj al Arab, one of the security people came to ask us for our reservation number.  We gave it to him and he disappeared into his booth to verify it.  We stood there waiting, watching all the other tourists who were hoping to get inside.  Then the security guy came back saying that we’re cleared and let us through.  We walked past all these tourists, and yeah, we felt like rock stars.  🙂  We had an option to be driven over the bridge on a golden golf buggy, but we opted to walk.

Crossing the small bridge to the Burj al Arab hotel:

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Reflections on columns at the circular driveway:

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A couple of Rolls-Royce cars parked at the entrance.  There was also one Bentley, one Maybach, and several run-of-the-mill BMW 7-series:

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The front lobby – getting our first glimpse of the colorful decor:

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Looking up through the atrium.  It’s big but can you really fit the Eifel tower in here?

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After maybe 40 minutes we finished seeing what there was to see.  It wasn’t 11 yet so we couldn’t head up to the Skyview restaurant.  Instead we hovered around a store called Les Exclusives, a store that sells high-end jewelry and watches.  The store’s salesman came around to help us and we started chatting.  He told us about the watches on display – many of them cost as much as $700,000!  His store has a regular flow of super-rich people, some of whom pick up time-pieces like this without batting an eye.  Amazing.  The salesman’s name was Emin and he was from Azerbaijan.  He said he came to Dubai nine years ago, following his parents’ footsteps, but he really misses home.  Before we took off, he offered us some espresso.  We didn’t want to accept because obviously we’re not serious customers, but he insisted.  What a cool guy.

Shahaf and Emin at the watch store in the Burj al Arab:

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Some of the fancy watches on display (each was $500,000+):

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At eleven, the elevators finally allowed us to climb up to the 27th floor.  The Skyview bar turned out to be very 80’s and kind of tacky in our opinion.  Also, that morning visibility was poor, likely a mix of smog and sand blowing from the desert.  We had a somewhat fuzzy view of the Palm Jumeirah and a really fuzzy view of the Burj Dubai building.  How disappointing.  I guess you need to consult the weather forecast before making lunch reservations.  We headed back down and went to the seafood restaurant.  Another disappointment – they didn’t let us walk through the restaurant; we could only see the entry area.  There was a nice acquarium with tables positioned around it.  I bet it’s strange to be feasting on fish while fish look at you through glass.

The 80’s styled Skyview restaurant:

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A lobby near the downstairs seafood restaurant:

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A silvery tunnel leading to the seafood restaurant, where you can eat fish while you watch fish swim by in the aquarium:

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Shortly after noon we headed to our buffet.  We found a lone guy sitting at another table so we invited him to join us.  His name was Mauricio and he’s from Costa Rica.  He owns several gyms back home, and he’s grown the business to the point that he can now travel pretty much anytime.  He just finished a week in India, and when he heard that we’re heading there next he wanted to make sure we know what we’re getting into 🙂  Anyhow, lunch was nice.  The food was very good (maybe not $100-good, but good).  And this time we didn’t have to rush to collect all our food up-front – we could really take our time pigging out.  This was probably a disturbing site for Mauricio who is a health nut.

Pnina and Mauricio:

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Our buffet spread:

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Some interesting deserts:

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Seaplane Flight over Dubai

I really wanted to get a decent view of the islands from above.  I was hoping to get it from the Skyview restaurant at the Burj al Arab, but that view turned out to be a dud.  It was a hazy day and anyhow even on the 27th floor you’re only so high.

Another option we started to consider is to take a flight over the city.  There are a few companies that offer helicopter flights over the city, and when we looked through some online forums we found a recommendation for one called Areo Gulf.  The trouble is that Aero Gulf doesn’t like to be in the business of filling seats, so the only option when you go with them is to charter a whole helicopter for the flight.  This is expensive-but-OK if you happen to have enough people to fill all the seats, but otherwise it’s just really expensive.  Specifically, it’s 3200 Dirhams ($871) for a 30-minute flight on a 4-seater chopper.  Since Pnina and I didn’t have a couple of acquaintances standing by to slap down $200 each for a flight, we couldn’t take this option.

Then we heard about a company called Blue Banana.  They book various adventure tours, including a 30-minute flight over Dubai in a sea-plane.  The sea-plane flights are actually done by another company called Sea Wings.  The plane holds up to 9 passengers and you don’t need to charter the whole thing – you can just buy a ticket and join the group.  It turns out to be a little more expensive than the helicopter at full capacity, but it’s definitely cheaper than the helicopter at half capacity.  Specifically, it’s 895 Dirhams ($244) per person.  Again, kind of a splurge, but we decided to just do it (mostly it was me – Pnina was pretty tired of shelling out prices like this).

The plane takes off from the marina at the Jebel Ali Golf Club, not far from the huge Dubai port, a good hour’s bus ride southwest of the city.  We arrived at the Sea Wings office more than 2 hours early, so we spent a bunch of time in their “lounge” – a 2nd floor terrace with views over the water.  There was wi-fi and ambient music, and the “flight attendant” came by regularly with orange juice, so it was a decent way to spend a couple of hours.

Pnina relaxing in the Sea Wings lounge:

2009-03-11_12-26-13 Canon

When we bought our tickets, the Moldovian sales-lady told us that she’s been up on the plane a few times and she actually recommends sitting in the last row.  Why?  Because the back row is a bench so it’s easier to look through both windows (left and right).  Also, in the last row your view is not obstructed by the wings as much.  Seats were not assigned, it was first-come-first-served, but we figured we were shoe-ins to get our choice of seats because we were there so early.  When it was close to 5 PM we packed our stuff and headed the short distance from the lounge to the plane, floating at the dock, and that’s when we discovered that 3 other people were already onboard and two of them grabbed the prized seats!  Grrrrrr!!!  Man, I was pretty pissed off!  But what could I do?  Apparently the official line-up didn’t take place in the lounge and they figured that out, so they won.

Anyhow, despite the chair issue, the flight was really great.  The take-off and landing were surprisingly smooth.  We had a nice fly-by of all the interesting locations: the new Jebel Ali Palm island, the Jebel Ali port, the older Jumeirah Palm island, the Burj al Arab hotel, the World islands, and the Burj Dubai building.  It was interesting to see all the construction going on around the city.  So many skyscrapers!  So many cranes!  The Burj Dubai building is not yet complete but it has already reached its maximum height of 818 meters, which is higher than our flying altitude!  So when we passed by we had to look both down and up to see the full building.  It felt like we were on one of those planes from King Kong.

Photo of the take-off (not our’s, this was the previous flight):

2009-03-11_13-22-51 NIKON D80

Inside our little sea-plane:

2009-03-11_15-07-56 NIKON D80

The Jebel Ali Palm – they are still creating the actual island:

2009-03-11_15-13-46 Canon

The eastern edge of the Jumeirah Palm – you  can see all the beach-front homes and some construction on the surrounding ring:

2009-03-11_15-19-08 NIKON D80

Construction of some islands from The World:

2009-03-11_15-21-37 NIKON D80

The enormous Burj Dubai building nearing completion (it will be the new tallest building in the world):

2009-03-11_15-24-52 NIKON D80

Modern skyscrapers hugging Sheik Zaeed boulevard:

2009-03-11_15-25-12 NIKON D80

You can see how tall Burj Dubai is compared to the other buildings:

2009-03-11_15-26-02 NIKON D80

The Burj al Arab and the wave-shaped Jumeirah Beach Resort:

2009-03-11_15-29-45 Canon

2009-03-11_15-30-11 Canon

The Atlantis Hotel at the top of the Jumeirah Palm; you can see the not-yet-complete monorail that would have made our trip so much easier:

2009-03-11_15-30-38 NIKON D80

Full view of the Jumeirah Palm:

2009-03-11_15-30-45 NIKON D80

2009-03-11_15-32-07 NIKON D80

Back from the flight (way too soon):

2009-03-11_15-45-27 Canon

Censorship

Dubai was the first place where we encountered internet censorship.  It wasn’t a huge deal – we did a Google search for some Nikon information and one of the results was a page from Flickr groups.  But when we clicked to see the page we got the following.  I can’t imagine any content in this particular page that would offend the Dubai authorities, so they must have chosen to block all Flickr groups pages.  At any rate, if there must be censorship, I guess I’d prefer for it to be open (later, in China, we found a more subtle way of blocking access).

dubai - site is blocked

Bonus Picture

Did you know iTunes now sells wigs?

2009-03-07_19-19-36 Canon

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