We were in a restaurant when our youngest threw up all over me for the second time that morning.
It wasn’t the fish fouga (spiced fish with basmati) or aishu lahem (slow-cooked lamb atop a bed of lentils and saffron rice). These traditional Emirati-style dishes we lunched on at Seven Sands were lovely, even though they probably weren’t half as spectacular as the camel burger that was listed on the menu.
He has caught an insidious tummy bug from his little playmate back in Singapore, and carried it all the way across the Indian Ocean to United Arab Emirates, where the first symptoms began to manifest.
Just in time for our first day of vacation.
Our morning started beautifully enough though.
The entire family woke up grinning in our opulent suite at the Raffles Dubai. This place was a dream – apart from the fact that each room had a humungous balcony, a palatial marble toilet and sheets with more thread counts than Donald Trump’s hair, the staff here know you by name, there’s made-to-order waffles with berries and cream for breakfast, and a round-the-clock butler service, in case you’re a Texas billionaire named Jim who has no clue how to iron your shirt.
Even the room service here was phenomenal.
We ordered in one day, and I was fascinated by how much effort went into the presentation – the food didn’t arrive on a measly trolley but a proper round table with white, freshly pressed tablecloth and an inbuilt glass warmer underneath so it would be nice and warm when it arrived. Then, when the white gloved waiter began presenting the food with a flourish, by ceremoniously removing of the silver lid from each plate, I wanted to shout, “TAKE ALL MY MONEY ALREADY!”
I mean, damn, I know it’s just pasta and salad, but I felt ten times more sophisticated for ordering them.
But back to our problem: The problem only began when we had our morning stroll at Jumeirah Beach, where a string of multimillion-dollar waterfront condos built for expats square off against the cerulean sea.
It’s not my first time in Dubai – I’d been here before back in 2011 for a holiday with mom when the Jumeirah Beach Residences was a quarter of its size – and I’m pleasantly surprised to see how vibrant it had become.
We saw plenty of upmarket restaurants, play areas for children, shops selling teeny tiny bikinis and, most importantly, women donning these teeny tiny bikinis.
Do not let that fool you into thinking that Dubai is liberal – it is not. This is a country where cohabitation is a crime, homosexuality is subject to the death penalty and prostitution can be punished with lashes and even worse.
But I guess we all have to start somewhere.
While we were admiring the view, Ari began clutching his stomach and howling in pain. He vomited several times after that, in a span of a few hours. He was absolutely miserable, and there was a stream of puke running down my scarf and bag. We apologized profusely to revolted onlookers, some of who skirted around us like we had the bubonic plague.
Our evening was marginally better.
We went to Ski Dubai in the evening, without realizing how massive the place was and how it takes about an hour just to get our rental gears and two little squirmy children suited up. We trudged into this alternate universe, a manufactured snow mountain in the desert.
The most impressive feature of Ski Dubai are the slopes, and – as we traveled up on a ski lift and gazed in stupefaction at scores Emiratis in designer gear slide downhill with skilled arrogance around us – we were amazed and a little jealous.
The only thing we were cut out for were the toboggan and tube runs, and we slid down these giant inflatable donuts screaming like dorks. There is also a playground and were several free sleds for the little ones to travel on – the only thing missing here were some Huskies so the husband and I had to take turns doubling up as one.
Our 5-year-old did the Penguin Encounter with his dad. There they listened to – or at least pretended to – a guide as he gave them a short lecture about these lovable creatures. Of course, the real reason anyone signed up for this is so they could hug and smooch Pingu for a bunch of pictures – never mind if the poor, unfortunate penguin probably has herpes from previously making out with hundreds of visitors.
The next day, we checked out the souks in Dubai’s Old Quarter. Spice vendors from India wrongly called “Konichiwa!” out to us, gesturing to baskets containing colorful spices and – disturbingly enough – bright yellow blocks of sulphur before them (I Googled uses for the latter and came up with ‘explosives’ and ‘pesticides’, so I’m as stumped as you are).
At Dubai’s famous Gold Souk, thick, gaudy strands of gold that only someone like Mr. T could love winked suggestively at us from shop windows.
After being accosted by a random shopkeeper for the hundredth time, we finally gave in and bought the boys their first thobe and a genie lamp (unfortunately non-functioning, to complete the Arabian Nights theme).
Little did we realize that, instead of blending in, their brand new costumes had quite the opposite effect and now the locals were crowding around our two children and going “Masya’Allah!” while showering them with kisses.
We spent the afternoon squeezed onto a tiny abra with dozens of other passengers for a rollicking ride across the Dubai Creak, with the shrieks of seagulls as background music.
After hopping off the boat, we explored the less frenetic and more genteel Bastakiya Quarter, where vegan-loving hipsters and artists gather to share their love for Frida Kahlo paintings and hummus.
This is a neighborhood filled with beautifully restored heritage buildings that doubled up as charming cafes, modern art galleries and even a hotel.
We finally settled in for lunch in the breezy courtyard of XVA – which was all of these three rolled into one – and had a multicolored crepe made of beetroot and spinach that is as strange as it sounds.
In the evening, we went – along with the rest of UAE – to the Global Village, which is actually a massive outdoor shopping mall disguised as a fairground.
Think of an Arab-flavoured World Expo, whereby every country has a pavilion to showcase its own culture and products, from organ oil to scimitars to spiced chickpeas to oud fragrances strong enough to wake a hibernating bear.
There were also the usual fairground rides and performances of sword throwing and bedouin music by some performers who look suspiciously underage.
I would’ve loved to check out each pavilion but that would mean diving into a mass of sweaty holidaygoers which, to this introvert, was as appealing as diving into a hornet’s nest. But they even have a pavilion dedicated to the US, and I had to take a peek out of curiosity and guess what I saw?
Haha. America, the land of bad decisions.
We did trawl a proper shopping mall before we left. Dubai was full of these gleaming temples of consumerism after all, because nobody wants to be outside when summer sets in.
The Dubai Mall had dancing fountains, a glass aquarium spanning several floors as well as several legendary food joints, such as Eataly and the Rainforest Cafe.
If you don’t already know what the Rainforest Cafe is and you have kids, I suggest you Google it. Animatronic animals roared and hissed from the treetops and a tropical thunderstorm raged on as we tucked into our burgers and pasta in a jungle setting.
It was kitschy as hell but I’d never had so much fun munching on a mediocre salad than I did there.
Frankly however, I wasn’t very impressed. There was neither a scimitar nor mountains of nose-busting oud in sight. We were in Anywhereville, a perfectly sterile, climate-controlled wonderland that made you forget that you were in the land of crazy rich Arab sheikhs and camel burgers.
We might as well be in Singapore.
We spent our last day bidding farewell to this city and its spectacular coastline at La Mer, a newly – and smartly -developed stretch of sand. A waterski show was on, and we held our breaths as the stuntmen somersaulted and did backflips on water, and as women in thongs strolled casually past women in burkas.
It was lovely to see how far Dubai had come – from a little backwater village in the desert to a hip, fun-loving city, a Disneyfied Arabia, in as little as a decade – and where it was headed.
But best of all, Ari did not vomit even once.
Raffles Dubai An iconic all-suite hotel that’s outside of the city, but adjoining Wafi Mall for convenience. Opulent interior and expect to be spoiled, spoiled, spoiled throughout your stay. Great high-quality breakfast and a swimming pool and health club more than makes up for the absence of a beach in the vicinity. Club rooms are especially worth it for their club lounge access. $$$$
Rove City Centre Cheap and cheerful alternative that is perfect for short stays, with its own pool table and complimentary daily shuttles to Dubai Mall and La Mer. Breakfast is limited but good, and rooms are basic but comfortable. $$
- Distances are great in Dubai city and costs tend to add up quickly if you’re hiring a taxi. Rent your own car (fuel is cheap) or, better yet, get around by Dubai Metro, where children up to 5 years get to travel for free.
- Many attractions including the souks are closed on Friday. It’s a public holiday in the UAE, and many families spend it in one of the city’s many hotels having blowout brunches, with free-flowing alcohol and champagne.
- Beaches in Dubai are a wonderful way to while away a full day. If you’re not a beach bum, there are still plenty of on-site restaurants, markets, and playgrounds to keep a family or a couple occupied. Most beaches offer a changing stall for a fee.
- Dubai is also a land of theme parks. The most famous one, Dubai Parks and Resorts (where Motiongate, Bollywood Parks, Legoland and Legoland Waterpark) are roughly a half an hour away from the city centre. It is worth staying overnight in one of its hotels if you plan on visiting more than one park.
- If you’re heading to Ski Dubai, plan on spending at least half a day there, if not more. Thermal wear and boots are included in the ticket price but be sure to bring your own gear if you have any because of the subzero temperatures. Basic pass will usually suffice, but daredevils and animal lovers can upgrade their pass for a fee. Buying online will save you queuing time – and queues can get long here, especially for the rental gears!
- The best way to ascend the world’s tallest building is not by buying tickets like everyone else – but by dining in Atmosphere, which is the world’s tallest restaurant located on the 122nd floor of the Burj Khalifa. Breakfast is open to families with kids of all ages, but there is a minimum age of 6 years old for the lounge only for lunch (dinner is reserved for those ages 21 and up) and 7 years old for lunch and dinner the restaurant. Note that minimum spend is applicable but you’ll be getting a meal with a (free) view.
- Winter is the best time to visit Dubai, but summers – while scorching – is the perfect time for travelers to score that massive discount at the luxury hotel they’ve always dreamed of. The great thing about Dubai is that you can find plenty of indoor entertainment – from skiing to aquarium visits – during the day and head to the beaches like the rest of the city once the sun sets.