After we finished our tour of the Burj Khalifa, we did a little more shopping in Dubai Mall and then had dinner at Mario Batali’s Eataly. After dinner, we went to see the Dubai Fountain which is located in a man-made lake adjacent to Dubai Mall and the Burj Khalifa. The Dubai Fountain is the world’s largest choreographed fountain. It is similar to the one at the Bellagio in Las Vegas, as it was designed by the same company. The fountains light up and “dance” to music. I was shocked by the number of people waiting outside for the show to start, especially since it happens every 30 minutes in the evening. It was definitely an impressive show, one worthy of its larger-than-life neighbors.
We had purchased tickets for the Burj Khalifa for 3PM on Tuesday in advance. This was one of the attractions that I was the most excited to visit. The Burj Khalifa currently holds many records, such as the tallest building in the world, the tallest free-standing structure in the world, and the world’s longest travel distance elevators.
Ironically, the observation deck, which is not at the top of the building, is called “At the Top.” It’s located on the 124th floor (452 meters up), out of 163 floors (829 meters). Even though this is the tallest structure ever built as well as the tallest current structure, the observation deck is actually the second tallest in the world, behind the Canton Tower in China. So, we managed to be At the Top without actually being at the top of anything at all!
The line for the elevators was a bit long, but not terrible and seemed to move along at a decent pace. I was really impressed with the elevators. They are incredibly fast at 10 meters per second. Not only that, but the ride was so smooth that, by the time I even noticed we were moving, we were several floors up already.
The view from the observation deck was unreal. We were so high up in the air that the entire city almost looked like a scale model! My only complaint is that the only amenity on the observation deck was a small souvenir shop. It would have been nice to have a cafe or restaurant there.
There is an aquarium inside Dubai Mall that features what is supposed to be the largest viewing panel in the world. It’s full of lots of different creatures, including more sharks and stingrays than I have ever seen in one place. There is a tunnel of sorts that allows you to walk through and underneath the aquarium which was pretty cool. We bought the admission tickets that include a glass-bottom boat ride over the aquarium. This turned out to be kind of a silly activity in which the guide used a series of ropes to pull our boat around the surface of the aquarium. We also got to see more penguins. Unfortunately we didn’t get to meet them like the ones at Ski Dubai.
Tuesday, January 21st was our last day in Dubai. The only thing we had scheduled that day was a visit to the Burj Khalifa in the afternoon. Since there was still so much we hadn’t seen at the Dubai Mall, and the entrance to the Burj Khalifa is actually attached to the bottom of Dubai Mall, we figured we would just spend the day there.
We had breakfast at a cafe in the mall that features camel milk in its espresso drinks. They also sell boxes of camel milk chocolates. I had a caramel camel milk latte. It tasted. . .different, not horrible, but different. I probably won’t ever order one again, but I was glad I tried it. When in Rome. . .
Late in the afternoon on Monday (January 20th), we took a taxi out to the Burj Al Arab, the world’s only seven star hotel. This is the building on the beach that is in the shape of a sail. There is a security check point in front of the hotel, and they won’t let you through unless you are either a guest staying at the hotel or have a reservation to do something at the hotel, like a spa appointment. We had made reservations in advance for afternoon tea service at the Skyview Bar, located on the top floor. This was something I was really looking forward to, as I love tea and have always wanted to see the Burj Al Arab.
We wandered around the lobby area for a while and took some photos then proceeded to the elevator up to the Skyview Bar. The back of the elevator was a floor-to-ceiling window which looked out onto the Arabian Gulf. Even though we were early, we were seated almost immediately. The waiter explained the tea service to us – seven courses including a flute of champagne and unlimited tea and coffee. The tea menu was the most extensive I had ever seen. It had every variety you could imagine, and then some!
The first course was a pastry with berries and cream. Next was a small beef carving with sauce and breadcrumbs. Then small sandwiches followed by a bunch of small desserts and scones. Next was sorbet, followed by petit fours. I think I had about seven different types of tea!
After tea, we went to Madinat Jumeirah, a nearby shopping center. It had a mixture of retail shops and souq-like stores and kiosks as well as restaurants, cafés, and a theater. The building appears to be new but its architecture is of a traditional style. There are canals that run through Madinat Jumeirah. You can even take a Venetian-style boat ride, but the boats had stopped running by the time we had arrived.
On Monday morning (January 20th), we went to Dubai Mall and did a bit of shopping. This was the mall whose basement we ran through on Friday night to get a taxi to the Mall of the Emirates. Today we would actually get to experience more than the basement! Dubai Mall is absolutely enormous. There are over 1,200 stores, an aquarium, and an ice skating rink, among other things.
I felt incredibly overwhelmed by the number of stores, almost to the point where I actually didn’t want to shop! I would say that I am more of a goal-oriented shopper, not a browser, which is probably why I felt so overwhelmed. Some of the highlights of the mall for me were the Fashion Avenue, which features luxury shops like Chanel and Hermes, and the Level Shoe District, which is a 96,000 square foot space that “takes shoppers on a journey of beautiful shoes.” We had coffee at the Armani Cafe in Fashion Avenue and did a bit more browsing before heading back to the hotel to change for our tea reservations at the Burj Al Arab.
We left the hotel around 4 pm on Sunday for our “dune desert safari.” I honestly don’t know why the travel company referred to it as a safari, but I’ll just roll with it. It was about a 40 minute drive out to the desert in Sharjah, the third largest Emirate in the UAE behind Dubai and Abu Dhabi. For some reason, we were picked up late in an SUV with two couples from another hotel instead of with the travelers from our hotel that had been on our other group activities. We would later find out that there were many SUVs all bound for the same campsite in the desert, and we ended up seeing the other travelers from our group there. Neither of the couples in our SUV seemed to speak much English, so it was a rather quiet car ride. One couple was from Korea. The other couple was from Argentina. The Argentinian couple claimed to speak French, but when Laura tried to engage them in conversation, they didn’t respond. I think they just didn’t want to talk to anyone else!
Once we got onto the sand in the desert, the driver deflated the tires while we took some photos. It was quite windy and starting to get chilly. I was glad I brought my jacket along. One of the other travelers had mocked me back at the hotel for “bringing a jacket to the desert,” but I had the last laugh on that one! Laura did a log roll down a sand dune, and I think she is still cleaning the sand out of her pockets! Then we all got back into the SUV, and somehow I ended up in the front seat. There were many other tourists out at the same time as us. I would say at least 20 other cars worth. We did some dune bashing for about 30 minutes, which was a lot of fun. Then we were driven to a campsite back in the desert of Dubai.
The first thing we did was ride the camels. It was sort of like a pony ride, but with camels, so I didn’t have to put my runaway camel knowledge from The Worst Case Survival Handbook to test! Next we looked at the souvenir shop and got henna tattoos. After that, we ate dinner and watched performances by a whirling dervish and a belly dancer. The driver had explained to us that the campsite has to be in Dubai rather than in Sharjah because Sharjah has stricter laws and doesn’t allow alcohol or belly dancing. After dinner wrapped up, we were driven back to the hotel.
On Sunday morning, January 19th, we went to Jumeirah Mosque, which is the only mosque in Dubai that allows non-Muslims to enter through a program called Open Doors, Open Minds with the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding (SMCCU). We had read online beforehand to dress modestly, meaning to wear clothing that covers our knees and shoulders. We had also brought our own hijabs, which we used to cover ourselves before the start of the tour. Those who were not wearing appropriate clothing were given clothing and/or scarves to wear.
The session leader’s name was Latifa. She is a volunteer with the SMCCU and, judging from her accent, I would guess an ex-pat from England. First she took us to an outdoor washing area where she told us how Muslims perform the ablution, a cleansing ritual to prepare oneself for worship. Next we took our shoes off and went inside. Latifa explained the 5 pillars of Islam to us. One of the most interesting parts was when she asked another volunteer to show us an example of a daily prayer. Latifa explained the different parts of the prayer and some of the common movements that go with it. At the end, there was some time for questions, and all questions were encouraged and tolerated, no matter how blunt. Another interesting section was during the Q&A regarding the different types of dress Muslims wear. Latifa explained the different types and what is cultural versus what is religious.
After the end of the session, we took some more photos and then had lunch at a nearby cafe called Lime Tree that is known for its carrot cake. We were reminded how small of a world it is when we saw a guy wearing a number 12 Seahawks jersey at the cafe, presumably gearing up for the conference championship against the 49ers later that day. Go Seahawks! After lunch, we walked around Jumeirah Beach for a bit and then got a taxi back to the hotel to prepare for our “Dune Desert Safari.”
We left for Abu Dhabi in the morning on January 18th. First we went to the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque which we were not expecting to do and therefore were not wearing appropriate clothes. Luckily the tour guides brought along abayas and hijabs for us to wear. The dress code here was probably the strictest out of all the places we went. I saw a couple of people get turned back because they were not properly covered.
According to our tour guide, the mosque in Abu Dhabi is the 7th largest one in the world and can hold 40,000 people. It is absolutely enormous, making it difficult to imagine how it isn’t the largest mosque in the world! We took photos outside, and then took our shoes off and went inside. It was just as beautiful inside as outside. There was gold and Swarovski crystals everywhere, not to mention the world’s largest carpet. Apparently it cost over half a billion dollars to construct.
Next we went to Emirates Palace, a fancy hotel where the king often holds official meetings, and looked around inside. We drove by the palace where there is a tank at the gate with a machine gun ready to shoot. Next we went to the heritage village which had examples of the old style houses and even a sandy area with camel rides. We took pictures of the Arabian Gulf nearby, then had lunch and went back to Dubai in the late afternoon.
We booked a dinner cruise along the Dubai Creek. The boat was very elegant and had live piano music. We enjoyed a 4 course dinner. This was the first nice meal I had since arriving in Dubai. It was nice to be able to see the city all lit up at night from the water. The only downside was that the creek is relatively short, so we saw the same buildings quite a few times being that it was a 3 hour cruise. At one point, we were able to see fireworks from the boat, which happen every night as part of the Dubai Shopping Festival.
After our drop off at Dubai Mall, we ran through the basement of the mall to the taxi stand, Amazing Race style. We had to hurry to the Mall of the Emirates to make our reservation for the Penguin Encounter. We ended up with the craziest taxi driver I have ever experienced. This guy makes Italian drivers look cautious! He almost ran over a pedestrian, sped away from a security officer who saw him almost run over the pedestrian, burned rubber slamming on his brakes to avoid rear-ending another taxi, and then made his tires squeal driving around that taxi while cutting off another!
One of the big, over-the-top tourist attractions in Dubai is the indoor ski slope at the Mall of the Emirates. We wanted to experience this, but I don’t know how to ski and certainly didn’t want to break a leg trying! Luckily Ski Dubai offers something even more exciting – the Penguin Encounter, where you can meet and hug a real, live penguin!
After checking into the Penguin Encounter, we waited in an extremely slow moving line to pick up our rental boots/clothes, and then changed into them. First we watched a couple of short videos about the rules regarding the Penguin Encounter and information about the program. We walked through a snow cave to an aquarium where penguins were swimming around. We saw some of them hop up a walkway into the aquarium. They were absolutely adorable! We were led to a seating area and met one of the penguin trainers. He brought out a couple of Gentoo penguins (small penguins like the kind that were in the movie Mr. Popper’s Penguins with Jim Carey). One of the penguins is named Lucifer. I can’t remember the name of the other Gentoo penguin we met though. He told us about their species and how they are trained. He showed us how they can do different things on command. Then each group sat on a bench and he had the penguins sit by us and we had our pictures taken. Next we went to a different area where the trainer brought out a king penguin named Jumeirah, which means beautiful in Arabic and is also the name of a neighborhood in Dubai. He told us about their species and how they are trained. Then we were all able to get up close with the penguin and have our pictures taken. We got to pet, hug, and kiss the penguin! I went to lean in for one of the pictures, and at that exact moment, Jumeirah whipped his head around and hit me in the mouth with his beak! It was pretty funny. Now I can say I’ve been beak-slapped by a penguin.
After changing back into our regular clothes, we had dinner at Cafe St Moritz near Ski Dubai then looked around the mall. The mall is normally open until midnight on Friday, but due to the Dubai Shopping Festival (DSF), it was open until 2 AM when we were there. We didn’t stay that late though and ended up getting a taxi back to the hotel around midnight. Some of the special things relating to DSF are extended shopping hours, lots of sales, prizes such as cash and luxury automobiles like Bentleys and Lamborghinis, and fireworks.