Dubai & Abu Dhabi

Surprising UAE: Skiing Indoors, Penguin Hugging, a Louvre, Theme Parks, and the World’s Tallest Building


To get a sense of Dubai, all you need to know is that it has the tallest building in the world and is constructing an even taller one; and it has the world’s biggest mall yet is building an even bigger one. A city with a superlatives complex, Dubai is always striving for the biggest, tallest, best, and most expensive of everything. No one’s done it before? Great! Dubai will hire the world’s best engineers and spare no expense in getting it done. This approach can create palpable excitement but it can also leave you scratching your head sometimes.

Yes, you can go skiing in a mall. You can walk past Marks & Spencer and American Girl in the 700-store Mall of the Emirates on your way to Ski Dubai where you are handed skis, poles, ski boots, ski pants, a parka, fleece gloves, and even socks (you get to keep the socks and gloves), and directed to a chair lift where you can wave to families in T-shirts watching from the food court.

Penguins, Beaches, Water Parks and Amusement Parks

What brought me to Ski Dubai however was not the skiing, but the penguins. This is the only place on earth where the public is allowed to hug a penguin. Ski Dubai offers gentoo and king encounters that range from taking your turn to pet and hug one to donning a wetsuit and jumping into a tank with them.

What makes more sense in a desert country is beaches. Strips of sand with varying amenities dot the shoreline and since they are not on the open water, there are no waves. In the Dubai Marina District, I went to Jumeirah Beach Hotel (known as JBR), on a beach steps from restaurants and shops. Inflatables including big slides were a hit with kids and some also hopped up for a camel ride. Across the inlet is an enormous Ferris wheel that when finished will be the biggest in the world. La Mer is another destination area with a beach, water park, outdoor trampoline park, shops, and restaurants.

If you are traveling with kids, a day at a waterpark or amusement park are also great options. Not even a fraction of the hassle of Disney, amusement parks in Dubai don’t have lines to speak of. There’s Legoland and Legoland Water ParkMotiongate –with rides themed around the movies of studios DreamWorks, Columbia, and Lionsgate such as Kung Fu Panda, Ghostbusters, and Hunger Games, and there’s a Smurfs Village as well– Aquaventure at the Atlantis The Palm (which also has an underwater restaurant and underwater suites); and Jumeirah’s  Wild Wadi Waterpark. IMG Worlds of Adventure, the world’s largest indoor themed amusement park, has rides based on Marvel super heroes, Cartoon Network characters, and dinosaurs. Parents, if you are going to Dubai for business, take the family!

The World’s Tallest Building, Most Iconic Hotel, and Biggest Mall 

An elevator ride up the 160-story Burj Khalifa is a must to see where Dubai’s skyscrapers and cranes abruptly end and the seemingly endless dunes begin. Go at dusk and watch the sun set, then check out the dancing fountains and the Dubai Mall, the biggest mall in the world at 13 million square feet. I didn’t have kids with me so I opted to enjoy a quiet cocktail and dim sum at a table overlooking the fountains, 122 stories up at At.mosphere, the highest lounge in the world, accessed through the Armani Hotel. The mall is open late so I walked past Hermes,  Chanel, and Manolo Blahnik to the Dubai Aquarium. I boarded a small boat that travels across the top of the big tank, then walked through exhibits featuring alligators and penguins, and ended the evening with a treat from the food court. Groups of teenage boys in kanduras (caftans) and baseball hats, parents with toddlers, and visitors from all corners of the earth were hanging at the Dubai Mall on the Friday evening I was there, grabbing a bite, ice skating, catching a movie, watching the dancing fountains, dropping cash at the virtual reality arcade VR Park, and oh yes, shopping. Since you’ll be in the `hood, see what’s playing at the Dubai Opera.

Tied with the Dubai Mall for the best people watching, and a stellar stand out in the hotel department, the all-suite Burj Al Arab is a stunner (but not a first choice if you are traveling with kids). I can tell you all about the bar papered with 24-karat gold, the helipad, the restaurant with an aquarium and sea shell-shaped chairs, the $50 cocktails, the 24-karat gold iPad guest amenity, the two butlers on each floor 24/7, and the sand imported from Saudi Arabia and treated so it doesn’t stick to your feet, but you have to see it for yourself. If you are not a guest, to get past the guard booth and onto the island, you must have a reservation at the spa, one of the restaurants or bars, or have booked an air-conditioned cabana by the outdoor pools (one freshwater the other saltwater).

Near the Burj Al Arab, Wild Wadi Waterpark is free for guests; the Jumeirah Beach Hotel offers water sports; and the Madinat Jumeirah resort provides a pleasant way to spend a few hours, with gondola rides, a souk (an indoor stall-like mall), and 50 restaurants and bars, many with views of the Burj Al Arab. Guests at the Madinat Jumeirah’s three hotels have use of the beautiful beach, pools, and other guests-only spaces.

History, Culture, and Adventure

There is a small historic center in Dubai called Al Fahidi where you can explore 19th-century stone buildings dotted with art galleries, shops, and a mosque. If this is your first time in an Islamic country, book a tour given by the Sheik Mohammed Center for Cultural Understanding. You’ll learn about Muslim customs and dress, meet a Bedouin with a falcon, hear about the Muslim religion in a mosque, and have the opportunity to ask questions. You can also walk through the narrow passageways of Al Fahidi on your own, making sure to stop at the Alserkal Cultural Foundation to view the art on display and browse in the well-curated store.

A couple of blocks away, the Dubai Museum tells the story of how this city rose from sand in one generation. Then walk through the nearby textile souk to the abra (small, open motorized boats) launches and cross the Dubai Creek to the spice souk area for lunch.

If you can’t imagine going to a desert country and not seeing a sand dune, book a desert safari. As part of many desert safaris, tour operators offer experiences like camel rides, falcon interactions, henna tattoos, and dune bashing (driving over sand dunes, sometimes very enthusiastically); most serve a meal. To completely unplug, sleep under the stars in a desert camp. Arabian Nights is a popular and experienced operator; Platinum Safaris differentiates itself by using vintage 1950s Range Rovers and not dune bashing due to its effect on dune erosion.

The Dubai Design District is a good stop for about an hour. It’s a business district to itself, with engaging public art, art galleries, clothing stores, and cafes.

Adventure seekers in Dubai have plenty of options like hot air balloons, speed boats, helicopters, skydiving, a zipline, flyboarding, paramotors (like a go kart with a parachute), and dining at a table hoisted 164 feet in the air by a crane.

According to the World Bank, in 2018 the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has 9.5 million residents of which only 12 percent are Emiratis. The rest are workers from 200 different countries! So although the Emirati culture is conservative, the country is used to people wearing Western dress. It is okay to wear what you would at home in Dubai. The only time when it was necessary for me to cover my head and extremities was when I entered a mosque; the ones I visited provided coverings.

Under Construction

Expected to open in 2021, the Dubai Creek Tower observation tower, designed by Santiago Calatrava, will, at 4,265 feet, be the tallest building in the world. It will be in a complex with retail space, hotels, and apartments.

The Meydan One complex is expected to have the world’s biggest mall and longest indoor ski slope as well as the world’s largest dancing fountain.

The Museum of the Future will open Q4 2019 in a circular and hollow building that looks like a squished Cheerio.

At 689 feet, Ain Dubai will be the world’s largest Ferris wheel.

Day Trip

Called the Norway of the Middle East for its fjords, Oman’s Musandam Peninsula is spectacularly beautiful. Hugging the limestone cliffs on a winding road above the blue-green glassy Gulf of Hormuz, I felt like I should have been in a car commercial (sit on the left on the way there and on the right for the return). I rented a car, but the easier way is to join a group tour or arrange a private outing with Khasab Travel & Tours. A tour operator manages the border crossing and provides snacks and lunch on an oh-so-Instagrammable wooden dhow boat where you sit on cushions on a carpet. Motor past unbelievable scenery and race dolphins, and stop to jump off the boat to swim with schools of fish. There are five villages on the peninsula, reached only by boat. Boats leave from Khasab, Oman, which is approximately a very-well-worth-it three-hour drive from Dubai. Tipplers beware: Oman is a dry country: Alcohol is not allowed.

Abu Dhabi

The two most compelling reasons to go to Abu Dhabi are the Louvre, which opened in November 2017, and the impressive Sheik Zayed Mosque. Both can be seen on a day trip from Dubai (about 1.5 hours), but if time allows, book two or three nights in the emirates’ capital. Abu Dhabi was recently voted the safest city in the world!

The UAE was formed in 1971 by joining seven emirates into one country. I visited all seven and recommend Dubai, Sharjah for its museums, and Abu Dhabi. There are inexpensive buses that travel between Dubai and Abu Dhabi but it’s more convenient to hire a car and driver to not only take you between the cities but also around within Abu Dhabi.

There are kitschy food truck rest stops between the two main emirates call Last Exit. The one on the way from Dubai to Abu Dhabi has a Mad Max theme, complete with apocalyptically inspired tanks with scary sheet metal faces decorated with spears, rusted blades, heavy chains, and skulls. The Last Exit in the other direction has an Americana car theme (gas pump handles on doors and bathroom faucets) and celebrates sugar with waist-high macarons and donuts as seating.

The Louvre and the UAE’s Answer to the Taj Mahal

Jean Nouvel’s Louvre Abu Dhabi is an inspiring architectural achievement and a striking home for the museum’s encyclopedic collections. The Louvre presents everything from an ancient Egyptian sarcophagus to an Ai Weiwei glass chandelier sculpture, plus surprises like Whistler’s Mother and a Gilbert Stuart George Washington. There’s been much publicity around the purchase of Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi, which was unveiled in Abu Dhabi in September 2018, will be exhibited at the Museée Louvre in Paris through February 24, 2019, then transferred permanently to the Louvre Abu Dhabi.

The biggest surprise to me at the Louvre Abu Dhabi was the lifeguards. The museum is on an island and is built with several easy access points to the water. Although swimming is not allowed and has not been attempted thus far, the museum employs lifeguards just in case! If you are traveling with children, seek out the small but engaging children’s museum where kids’ drawings are digitally displayed. You can then come home with bragging rights that Susie’s art is on exhibit at the Louvre. Note that the Louvre is closed on Mondays.

A Spa Not to Miss

Spa lovers will want to board a motor boat headed to an island resort called Zaya Nurai whose spa, pool, and other facilities are available to non-guests who pre-book. If you are able, by all means, stay overnight. My Balinese massage was expertly given by a therapist from Bali, in my own spacious spa cottage with shower and tub. The back door was open to the soft breeze and the sound of blue water lapping on the rocks below. Ahhhhhhhhhh…No wonder Gwyneth Paltrow and French president Macron have reportedly visited.

The launching point for Zaya Nurai is on Saadiyat Island, about ten minutes from the Louvre. It is not immediately obvious. The Guggenheim is also contracted to build a Frank Gehry-designed museum on Saadiyat Island; and the island is home to a campus of New York University. Fun facts: NYU Abu Dhabi is the hardest college to get into in the world, and it’s free!

More Fun

Warner Bros. World Abu Dhabi opened in July 2018 with 29 rides in six worlds including Metropolis and Bedrock. Ferrari World has both the world’s fastest and the highest roller coasters as well as calmer attractions for children. Yas Waterworld will keep the family cool with 45 rides.

For a bird’s-eye view of the city, head to the observatory at the Ethiad Towers, buildings that will be familiar from The Fast and the Furious. You can circumnavigate the floor and pick a window table to relax with a drink or a sweet, included in the ticket price.

Have you always wanted to sip a cappuccino dusted with 24-karat gold? How about having a 24-karat gold facial? Head to the Emirates Palace Hotel, Abu Dhabi’s answer to the Burj Al Arab where access is by reservation only.

The Ritz-Carlton Abu Dhabi, a large resort directly across the street from the Sheik Mohammed Zayed Grand Mosque, is an ideal home base. The property has lovely guest rooms and villas, a massive pool, beach, kids’ club, and a selection of restaurants and bars. The international buffet breakfast is what dreams are made of for breakfast lovers like me.

 Sample Itineraries 


  Travel Tips


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