Dubai and Abu Dhabi are cities of contrasts: both marvels of modern architecture set amid desolate desert dunes.
Both cities are located in the United Arab Emirates, but each offers a different travel experience.
TRAVEL TO DUBAI
When you fly to Dubai or observe the surroundings from the observation decks of Burj Khalifa or Burj Al Arab.
It’s easy to see that you’re in the middle of a desert: sand as far as the eye can see in three directions, the blue of the Persian Gulf (or Persian Gulf as they call it) in the other.
But looking up from below as we walked the streets admiring the majestic skyscrapers, smelling the flower gardens and admiring the greener grass of the parks and traffic spots.
It was easy to forget we were in the middle of the desert. It looked like any other modern city, only bigger and somehow better.
This is the result of the Emirates’ efforts to get bigger and better. Considering how little time these two cities have been developing, they may have pulled off a record-breaking job.
The tallest building in the world, the fastest elevator in the world, the tallest indoor ramp in the world, the largest shopping mall in the world, the thinnest tower in the world, the tallest restaurant, the tallest house, the tallest observation deck, the largest diamond in the ring and the longest automated metro line.
The list continues with the records broken by Dubai and Abu Dhabi.
But they have managed to preserve or in some cases recreate some of the emirate’s heritage and architecture.
This is especially evident along Dubai Creek, in Dubai’s Al Fahid district, and in the city’s historic centers and museums.
Perhaps these record-breaking efforts amid the remnants of old customs were all part of a plan to turn Dubai and Abu Dhabi into major tourist destinations.
Their tourism industry is relatively new and thriving. In fact, the nation as a whole is relatively new and thriving.
My first impression of the UAE was how diverse the population seemed based on who was with us in the long line to go through passport control.
The ring tones of yesteryear – flip phones and Nokia texts from the pre-smartphone era – seemed to reign supreme – despite the ‘no cell phones’ signs.
The people on these phones appeared to be from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Oman, Yemen, Persia and other countries in the region.
The most common item of clothing was the thawb, a long shirt that fell below the knees with trousers underneath.
There were very few Emirates in the crowd, although all passport handlers were locals.
We are often fans of public transport when we travel, but we realized that it would take the two of us public transport from the airport to our hotel in Bur Dubai.
It was much like an airport taxi and much easier. We then jumped in a Mercedes taxi and drove across the creek to Bur Dubai.
Arabic music passed out on the radio. Road signs and advertisements were first in Arabic, then in English.
Our next impression as we drove through the twilight of Dubai was how modern the towering skyscrapers were.
Even our humble hotel, City Seasons Towers Bur Dubai, showed off a trendy exterior, three mirrored glass towers pressed together with threaded openings at the top.
The mall next door and the subway across the street were practical and beautiful and gave a futuristic feel.
We heard the first call to prayer of our visit as we approached our hotel, the mosque in sight just around the corner. There was a mosque on almost every corner and the chanting reminded us where we were.
The architecture has a western feel, but there’s no doubt we were in the Middle East.
COFFEE in UAE
“The coffee is great,” Nataliya said as she sipped an Arabic blend. We sat in our hotel restaurant enjoying a breakfast of bean soup, curry, hummus and fried rice.
“What’s that herb?” I asked. Although this was our first foray into this corner of the world, I fondly remembered the Arabic coffee and tea mornings in college thanks to a good friend from Saudi Arabia.
The sweet, milky, strong Arabic tea and coffee had a certain taste, but I couldn’t remember it.
Our friend, Sadiq, also a friend from the university, with whom Nataliya and I studied when we were students in Russia, informed us.
“Cardamom,” he said. “He’s from India. Really good.”
“Cardamom?” Natalia repeated. “We don’t usually use it at home.”
“What are the others?” I asked.
Natalia guessed it. “Saffron?”
“Yes,” Sadiq smiled. “Cardamom, saffron… and a fresh vanilla pod. But you can find all three here in Dubai for much less than in America. I’ll take you to my spice man in the souq later. But first the tour.”
TRIP TO DUBAI: SKYSCRAPER MUSEUM
Our old friend Sadiq and our new friend Najeeb were kind enough to be our guides.
We wanted to show us both sides of the city, so we started our driving tour at the places most tourists want to see first – the Dubai Mall and Mall of the Emirates.
We will return to both for other reasons only (e.g. proximity to other destinations).
But on this tour we were more interested in the skyscraper museum and the architectural marvels around us.
Above all stands the Burj Khalifa – the tallest building in the world, and the Shanghai Tower (which we visited in 2014 when it was still under construction) was in second place.
Everything from the beautiful to the whimsical seems to be represented in vernacular architecture.
Along with the Burj Khalifa, another Dubai icon is the Burj Al Arab, which sits on its own man-made island off the Arabian coast.
From Jumeirah Beach or the Metro or any number of places in the city, the world’s “only seven-star hotel,” as it claims to be, seems to blow in the wind across the horizon.
The Jumeirah Hotel, near the Burj Al Arab, looks like a huge wave of steel and glass along the water.
Dubai Marina is the largest man-made marina in the world, primarily a canal city in the Persian Gulf. High above the Dubai Marina skyline, the Princess Tower is the tallest residential building in the world.
Infinity Tower, also in the marina, used to be the tallest building in the world with a 90-degree rotation—and the massive tower lacks a single structural pillar—until the rotating Shanghai Tower beat the Infinity Tower when it was completed in 2014.
Dubai’s bold architectural achievements don’t stop at the towers. There are the Palm Islands, artificial offshore islands shaped like giant palm trees in the bay.
Each palm tree is a fenced-in row of multimillion-dollar apartment buildings. At the end of an island of palm trees is Atlantis.
It is a luxury resort hotel with its own lagoon and several sunken suites with aquarium walls that open up to the lagoon’s diverse habitat of 65,000 marine animals.
“It would be very expensive to live here,” Sadiq said.
As we walked through the Atlantis area, a guard kicked us out. “You can’t be here,” he said. “This area is for paying guests only.”
But we were looking at a beautiful building with a huge Arab gate in the middle. It was visible on the horizon, even as we drove from the foot of Palm Isle towards the mainland.
Artificial islands are for sale or for sale and are intended as residential properties.
The world map (like the Palm Islands) can only be seen from above, so visiting the islands isn’t as impressive as from a plane, a helicopter, a satellite image… or the Burj Khalifa.