Bindis & Burkas Part III: My First Time in Dubai 06/2011 / by natalja sundseth

**Note: I didn't have a very good camera on this trip, nor did I have an iPhone yet, so forgive the lack of quality in many of these images. The Dubai photos are by far the worst from this trip in 2011, so I threw in a few better quality photos from the two visits I've had since then. Aside from those few, you have been warned.**

The third and final installment of this vacation story picks up where I left off (as it should), with me and my dad on a fabulous flight from Colombo, Sri Lanka to Dubai, UAE.

It's possible that I love the in-flight map more than the in-flight entertainment..

It's possible that I love the in-flight map more than the in-flight entertainment..

In 2005, I caught a show on the Travel Channel about Dubai, specifically featuring the famously swanky hotel known as the Burj Al Arab, known to many as "the sailboat-shaped hotel." The show covered a few luxurious points of interest that were equally lush and exotic, unlike anything I had ever seen before. Let's ignore the fact that I was only 17 at the time, and had yet to fully experience the lush or exotic things the world has to offer, despite having been fairly well-traveled by that age. Once I learned of this wondrous sandbox in the playground of the world, I knew I would have to make it there one day. What I didn't know was that my father would be taking a job in the Middle East just a few years later, so my time would come sooner than planned. In 2011, I got my chance. There were four countries on the itinerary for this trip, but there was no doubt that Dubai was the long-awaited highlight. I knew that I would not be let down.

Sheikh Zayed Road, Taken in 2012 on my iPhone.

Sheikh Zayed Road, Taken in 2012 on my iPhone.

Unlike my first stop on the trip in Bahrain, Dubai is far more liberal when it comes to many customs, especially those of the hedonistic variation. Bahrain was by no means strict on the matter, but the slightly relaxed attitude of Dubai is one reason it has blossomed into a major tourist destination for westerners of all walks. Alcohol and gambling are a tad limited in availability but still able to be found, earning this city the informal title of "The Vegas of the Middle East." I wasn't interested in going to dress scantily (with or without my dad) but in 110 °F weather, it was great to freely wear shorts and tank tops. I wasn't interested in going to gamble, drink, or buy gold. I was drawn to the extravagant architecture, a culture I knew nothing about, and all the other lavish details that only an oil-rich nation could feature. To say the idea of Dubai was enchanting would be a dramatic understatement. My apologies for my excessive use of that phrase, but I'm not dropping it from my vernacular anytime soon.

Approaching the Business district of Sheikh Zayed road. 

Approaching the Business district of Sheikh Zayed road. 

I adore these four right next to each other, across the street from the Towers Rotana.

I adore these four right next to each other, across the street from the Towers Rotana.

Let's begin. Dad and I landed in Dubai a few hours before the sun went down, fully satiated from our grand experience on Sri Lankan Airlines in business class. We arrived at his favorite go-to place of stay, the Towers Rotana. It is located about a five minute walk from the Financial Centre Metro station, right in the mix of the eclectic skyscrapers that make up the main stretch of Sheikh Zayed Road. Known as one of the most dangerous stretches of traffic in the world, the endless hordes of Bugattis and Mclarens are a sight to see when a violent sandstorm isn't causing a 100-car pileup. The impeccably tidy metro rail system runs right down the median of this highway, making most popular destinations easily accessible by train. While this is certainly an efficient mode of transport, do keep in mind that the last trains finish by midnight or 1am, depending on the day. Aside from nightclubs, most establishments close up shop by that time, anyway.

Crossing Sheikh Zayed Road in the elevated overpass in the Financial District, on a future trip in 2012.

Crossing Sheikh Zayed Road in the elevated overpass in the Financial District, on a future trip in 2012.

A giant metrorail map located just inside the train stop at the Mall of the Emirates.

A giant metrorail map located just inside the train stop at the Mall of the Emirates.

Skyscrapers don't get much better than this. 

Skyscrapers don't get much better than this. 

Upon checking in to your room, the Towers Rotana offer their guests a small dessert tray with a tropical welcome mocktail. In my new tan from Sri Lanka and my layered chiffon dress, I took a seat in the window bed to gaze out at the desert and enjoy my orchid-adorned beverage. I felt like Princess Jasmine!

I really enjoyed the strategic timing on the orchids, we got to watch them bloom during our stay.

I really enjoyed the strategic timing on the orchids, we got to watch them bloom during our stay.

Princess Jasmine.

Princess Jasmine.

We got settled in and headed to the Club Rotana lounge for the complimentary appetizers and beer/wine. In the land of the elusive $11 Peroni, this feature comes in handy even more so than other cities. The appetizers are pretty good, too, ranging from puff pastries and samosas to sushi and sweets. An entire wall is composed of a floor-to-ceiling window overlooking the hazy coast of the Arabian Gulf, a perfect place to watch the sun go down. 

Watching the sun set into the hazy horizon of the Arabian Gulf, from the club lounge room at the Towers Rotana.

Watching the sun set into the hazy horizon of the Arabian Gulf, from the club lounge room at the Towers Rotana.

An old friend of mine from grade school, who I had not seen since high school, had just relocated to the UAE for work, and we made plans to go out touristing after I finished eating dinner with my Dad. He met me at my hotel and we made our way to The Dubai Mall and adjacent new wonder of the world, the Burj Khalifa. The Dubai Mall was lavish in every detail, leaving no corner undecorated. From the colossal aquarium in the middle of the ground floor to the Bellagio-style fountain and light show outside, this place is far superior to your average place of retail. It is an extra bonus that it is connected to the world's tallest structure.

The elegant facade of the Dubai Mall.

The elegant facade of the Dubai Mall.

Even the fountain show had some Arab flair.

Even the fountain show had some Arab flair.

The giant aquarium in the Dubai Mall. You can pay to walk through the tunnel, something I need to do next time.

The giant aquarium in the Dubai Mall. You can pay to walk through the tunnel, something I need to do next time.

Everything you need and more in this mall. Only in Dubai.

Everything you need and more in this mall. Only in Dubai.

This particular elevator only has two stops: Ground level or the 124th floor observation deck of the Burj Khalifa.

This particular elevator only has two stops: Ground level or the 124th floor observation deck of the Burj Khalifa.

My friend had not yet visited the 124th floor observation deck called "At The Top" and was eager to do so. We paid admission and took the awesome elevator ride straight to the top. The views were unbelievable, comparable only to that which can be seen from an airplane window. The deep blackness of where the sky meets the sea provided a perfect backdrop for all of the colorful twinkling lights in the city below. I could have spent hours up there just taking it all in, but we had a curfew and agenda to adhere to.

This city looks even more unique at night from way up high.

This city looks even more unique at night from way up high.

Looking up the side of the Burj Khalifa, from the bottom.

Looking up the side of the Burj Khalifa, from the bottom.

Looking down at the giant buildings, reduced to the size of ants, as the saying goes.

Looking down at the giant buildings, reduced to the size of ants, as the saying goes.

Friends since 1995-ish, on the 124th floor of the Burj Khalifa.

Friends since 1995-ish, on the 124th floor of the Burj Khalifa.

After descending back to ground level, we made our way down near the beach so I could get some photos of the Burj Al Arab hotel. We decided to go into the neighboring pyramid  of the Jumeirah Beach Hotel for a drink on their terrace. We walked through a grand palace of a lobby, past the giant orchid vases of the Palm Court, and into the elevator, up to yet another gorgeous view. We shared a few beers and some shisha while exchanging stories of our travels and catching up on the years that had passed since high school. We called it a night around 1am so that I could wake up in time to lay out and bake in the Arabian sun.

The Burj Al Arab.

The Burj Al Arab.

The Jumeirah Beach Hotel.

The Jumeirah Beach Hotel.

The Palm Court of the Jumeirah Beach Hotel.

The Palm Court of the Jumeirah Beach Hotel.

Reflected light in the harbor.

Reflected light in the harbor.

The following day involved an excursion with my father to The Mall of the Emirates, also conveniently located at its own metro rail stop. Being one of the world's largest malls, it is likely most famous for the indoor ski resort attraction, SkiDubai. The concept of hitting the slopes in the middle of one of the world's hottest deserts is nothing short of miraculous. We chose to eat lunch at a Lebanese restaurant called Karam Beirut, overlooking the winter wonderland. As I have mentioned before, I was a pescatarian during that time, so the flavors of Middle Eastern cuisine were my best friend. The food was so fresh and appetizing that we returned here to eat again a few years later. We took a short stroll around part of the mall and headed back towards the hotel to The Dubai Mall to window shop at the Gold Souk and marvel at things I can't afford. The afternoon was turning into evening, and it was time to pack up to fly out the next day.

The snowflake logo is an interesting choice for the middle of the Arabian Desert.

The snowflake logo is an interesting choice for the middle of the Arabian Desert.

The grandiose skylight of the Mall of the Emirates.

The grandiose skylight of the Mall of the Emirates.

The view of Ski Dubai from the window of Karam Beirut.

The view of Ski Dubai from the window of Karam Beirut.

Lunch at Karam Beirut with all my Middle Eastern favorites: lentil soup, fattoush, hummus, fresh veggies, potatoes, and pita.

Lunch at Karam Beirut with all my Middle Eastern favorites: lentil soup, fattoush, hummus, fresh veggies, potatoes, and pita.

This little kid was involved in a serious physical altercation with this giant stuffed koala.

This little kid was involved in a serious physical altercation with this giant stuffed koala.

A Cricket World Cup themed toy machine in an arcade.

A Cricket World Cup themed toy machine in an arcade.

The menu on a gold ATM.

The menu on a gold ATM.

There is an older gold souk located in another part of town that is much less fancy and bourgeois. 

There is an older gold souk located in another part of town that is much less fancy and bourgeois. 

Can't get enough of this architecture.

Can't get enough of this architecture.

I would not mind owning this soccer ball.

I would not mind owning this soccer ball.

Dubai was even better than I imagined, and I have since returned twice. It is every bit as luxurious as advertised, but it doesn't have to be an overly expensive vacation. I was treated with respect everywhere I went, not once did I feel uncomfortable. There is a lot of Western influence, but this city maintains firmly rooted in its culture. There are countless activities available both indoors and outdoors for all ages. My first time in the Middle East gave me a peek into a completely different culture that I had never before experienced. There is still much to see and I am quite excited to go back and see more.

A mosque seen from the train ride down Sheikh Zayed Road.

A mosque seen from the train ride down Sheikh Zayed Road.

Overlooking the Arabian Gulf coast from the club lounge room at the Towers Rotana.

Overlooking the Arabian Gulf coast from the club lounge room at the Towers Rotana.

Random intersection down across town near the old Gold Souk.

Random intersection down across town near the old Gold Souk.

Really cool windows down in the older, more traditional looking part of town.

Really cool windows down in the older, more traditional looking part of town.

Lovely shapes in these structures.

Lovely shapes in these structures.

Shops and restaurants down near the old Gold Souk.

Shops and restaurants down near the old Gold Souk.

Catching some rays on the pool terrace at the Towers Rotana.

Catching some rays on the pool terrace at the Towers Rotana.