There’s only one cure for wanderlust – adventure! The United Arab Emirates has got to be one of the most magical places I had ever traveled to, back in 2015, when my lovely Gustav and I packed our bags and headed on what was the first big adventure of our relationship. I thought I was prepared for what we were going to experience, but I could not have expected my perception of the world to change as much as it did, from the moment we stepped off the airplane into the land of the gold and luxury.
The United Arab Emirates consists of a federation of seven emirate states. Each one is governed by royal families, while the family of Abu Dhabi holds the hereditary right to hold the title of President. The country as a whole still runs on eastern traditional beliefs and morals, which is very different for our western cultural upbringing. You may not hold hands or be affectionate in public, and one must dress conservatively. In a land of pure opulence – from super sports cars filling the roads, vast desert sands that go on for days, women wrapped up in abayas & hijabs with only their eyes visible and being able to buy gold at ATMS, the United Arab Emirates is a country of beauty and wonder.
Gustav and I had planned this trip to go and visit his mom for months. Bags packed and plastic wrapped, we headed off to the airport (in a rush, as my darling boyfriend will tell you – I am always late!) We arrived at the exact moment we needed to – only to be informed there was an major issue. Nothing says overseas adventure like a six-hour delay in Cape Town International before we had even started.
Completely obsessed with food as I am, one of the first things I asked the local taxi driver was ‘what is your local food?’ Now, after making it my mission to find out – I now know that there is no ‘national cuisine’ as such for the country. The UAE is a mixing pot of taste and I was determined to experience everything while I was there. Arabian cuisine is inspired by neighboring countries traditions and the multicultural residency of the country.
I ate a variety of Lebanese and Mediterranean food plates and meze platters. I tasted camel milk chocolate, traditional Turkish delights and even had a cone of pitch-black charcoal ice-cream at the Sharjah Food Festival – which was daunting, although absolutely incredible! Walking through the malls and markets, shop keeps offer you slivers of sweet Middle Eastern treats as the smell of roasting walnuts and coffee fill the air. And of course, you have to treat yourself to the American snacks that we didn’t yet have in South Africa, such as Dunkin Donuts (which changed my life!), Starbucks and Caribou Coffee.
Coming from a culture where smoking in public is frowned upon, it is very weird (and wonderful) to be able to sit at a restaurant, choose your tobacco flavour and smoke your shisha pipe. The metre high hookah, or hubbly-bubby as most of us know it, is a bought to your table, with the fresh, hot coals being replaced every so often. The restaurant was full of diners puffing away while they eat. As a non-smoker myself, I did enjoy this fruity little rebellious moment.
Each emirate holds its own wonder, something special that will make you want to travel there again and again. After traveling for 24 hours on a very delayed and complicated flight pattern due to the sandstorm, all we felt like doing was relaxing into the local Arabian lifestyle. We arrived in Sharjah, into the welcoming arms of my ‘second’ mother, where she ushered us to her apartment to clean up and catch up. We spent the later part of day browsing through local open-air market areas which are known as souqs. We walked through the Souq Al Markazi, colloquially known as the Blue Souq, filled captivating shops, filled with every piece of jewellery and Persian rug imaginable, and ended our first evening off with a stroll along the winding corniche, watching water and light shows while sipping on some traditional flower tea. We evening took a ride on the Eye of the Emirates at Al Qasba, a 60 metre tall Ferris wheel, giving a 360 degree view of Sharjah city at night. Beautiful.
On a semi-spontaneous bus trip to Abu Dhabi, we jumped in a taxi and sped off to the Sheik Zayed Grand Mosque, one of the biggest mosques in the world. I have never been so mesmerized by a building. Gustav dressed in traditional white robe and I had to cover up in a black abaya. Joining a little tourist group, we were lead, barefoot, through the prayer rooms and alongside the huge reflective pools.
Some of the state cities are only a couple of kilometers apart – which makes inter emirate traveling easy and convenient. A quick drive to Ajman from our base camp in a taxi for dinner one evening ended with us going on a quest to find a ‘secret’ but famous whole-in-the-wall bottle store. Some of the emirates are ruled ‘sober’, such as Sharjah, making it very hard to find alcohol at a reasonable prices, but here – we found classic South African wines at R200 for a papsak.
The only thing we planned and booked in advance was this desert safari and overnight stay in the Sharjah Desert. With a fairly scary overland ‘4×4’ ride on 10 story high dunes to get the camp, a short camel ride, a traditional Arabian dance show, including a sultry bellydancer and a spinning Tanoura dancer and a private over-night stay on a deserted desert for just the two of us – I can truly say this was the most magical day of my journey.
We went on an adventure one afternoon to go and find the world’s longest wall of graffiti at Jumeriah Beach Park, and we ended up finding our way to a huge indoor souq and taking an abra boat taxi trip along the creek at the Madinat Jumeriah Resort, linked to the Dubai creek, at dusk, catching a glimpse of the Burj Al Arab lit up. The Dubai Creek is the only place in the world you will find these small water vessels. At R250 per person, this experience hour long is beautiful and relaxing but expensive.
When traveling abroad, it is so important to plan ahead, and budget for the things you really want to experience. Standing 124 floors up, At The Top at the Burj Khalifa is really a MUST do when visiting the country. The world’s tallest building offers a breathtaking view of the ever-growing Dubai city and the crystal pools of the Dubai Water Fountain below. Remember to book before hand, as each visit sells out days before.
The UAE is an adrenaline junkies paradise! Ferrari World on Yaz Island, just off the Abu Dhabi peninsula is the largest indoor theme park on earth, and home to the world fastest roller-coaster, the Formula Rossa. Now, as lovely as the park was – this roller-coaster is something else. Traveling at 240 km/h, you experience half the G-force that an astronaut feels on liftoff. You have to wear goggles while on the ride. Definitely not for the faint-hearted – I thought my heart was going to fly out of my chest.
If you looking for adventure, Dubai city itself has so much to offer. Aquaventure Waterpark, Atlantis at the top of the man-made Palm Island has everything a thrill-seeker could ask for. There’s the waterslides, river rafting and surreal warm water beaches, lined with palm trees, where the sands are filled with starfish and you sit with a view of the Marina over the misty bay. We did have to use a taxi, train and tram to reach there, but at R750 an all access ticket, it was an experience to remember.
And for those days where you just need to kick back and take in some fresh air – plan a walk around the Dubai Miracle Gardens in Dubailand. The world’s largest natural flower garden is breathtaking and was definitely a highlight.
You cannot go to Dubai without visiting some of the world’s biggest supermalls. Dubai Mall in downtown Dubai is huge and takes about 2 days to experience it all – nodes of hair perfumes waft through the air, walls of souvenirs line the walkway of a 3km walk from station to mall over high ways and they even have an aquarium inside the mall.
Over our week there, we shopped at all the vital places for market lovers – Souq Madinat Jumeriah, The Deira Gold Souq and the Blue Souq in Sharjah. You could spend every day shopping these markets and never get enough. You can’t take in all the glory, all the luxury or all of the playing on your senses. It is a bit overwhelming actually, but you do get used it the overpowering aromas of spices, the hustle and bustle of the people and shisha burning in a nearby café.
Some of my favourite buys from my trip were a few packs of sweet incense, a bright yellow belly-dancing skirt, and a fluffy camel toy. If anyone were to ask me to, I’d go back in a heartbeat.
Disclaimer: This article was written for ELLE Magazine South Africa in October 2015, although was not edited or published by the company. All rights are reserved. The Social Needia and Jenna Maree-Kipling.