Shimmering Cities Rising from Desert Sands
It’s hard to believe that the ostentatious cities of Dubai and Abu Dhabi were little more than backwaters on the Arabian Peninsula as little as 50 years ago. These humble places were sustained by centuries-old pearl-fishing and boat-building and dotted with goats, sheep, and date trees. Pearl divers took to the waters in handmade dhows, small wooden boats that still bob along the coast today.
Then oil was discovered in the mid-20th century – and the region’s extreme makeover began, financed by huge fortunes that grew quickly. With newfound wealth under their sands, the once-disparate regions of Dubai and Abu Dhabi joined together with Ajman, Fujairah, Ras al-Khaimah, Sharjah, and Umm al-Quwain to form the United Arab Emirates. They named Abu Dhabi their capital. And the Arabian Peninsula has never been the same.
Dubai: an Intoxicating Blend of Modern and Ancient
You have to see Dubai to believe it. In this city of extremes, the world’s tallest building scrapes the sky, the world’s largest shopping mall spreads 1,200 shops at its feet, and a manmade island chain off its coast resembles a palm tree. In one afternoon in this desert city, you can see sharks at a huge aquarium, and step out of the heat to skate on an Olympic-sized ice rink or take to the snowy slopes at “Ski Dubai.” Many call it the most contradictory and diverse city on earth. Only 17% of Dubai’s people are true Emiratis and, amidst all this excess, the state religion is Islam, renowned for its tenets of modesty and reverence above all material possessions.
In your small group, you can contrast the futuristic metropolis with the traditional market of Old Dubai, where narrow lanes lead past shops and stalls brimming with aromatic spices, precious metals and stones and other treasures. Here, you can browse the world famous gold souk, a maze of covered streets and alleyways lined with gold. Speaking of old Dubai, you can get a glimpse of history in the Dubai Museum, located in the Al Fahidi Fort, the oldest standing building in the city. It’s a remarkable foray into the days before the oil boom. Delve into Emirati culture and tradition with a local during a special discussion. And embark an authentic abra, or water taxi, for a scenic ride along Dubai Creek, passing traditional low-slung dwellings and svelte minarets pointing skyward.
From Old World to new communities, you’ll venture onto the Palm Jumeirah archipelago. This island chain juts into the gulf, a spectacular sight for two reasons: it is entirely manmade, and it is laid out in the shape of a palm tree. The “trunk” of the tree serves as a causeway and eight fronds fan out on either side. Once they were completed, the islands doubled the length of Dubai’s coastline. Burj Al Arab also complements the oceanside setting of Dubai. This magnificent 7-star hotel – built in the shape of a dhow’s billowing sail – overlooks the gulf from an artificial island. Its 575-foot atrium lobby is the tallest in the world. Rooms start at around $1,700 per night … needless to say, it’s not a property that we at Discovery Tours have been able to secure for our travelers! Visitors are welcome to stroll into the lobby and take in its grand magnificence.
Of all Dubai’s magnificent sights, the most impressive is the 2,723-foot Burj Khalifa. Record after record was broken with its completion: tallest building, fastest elevator (40 mph), the most floors (160), highest outdoor observation deck (124th floor), highest restaurant (122nd floor), tallest structure to offer residential space, and more. At its feet, the Dubai Mall is the largest in the world. There are 1,200 storefront and they lured 54 million shoppers in 2011 – more than the entire city of New York! It features designer label stores, high-end boutiques, cinema, an Olympic-size ice rink, and a theme park. You’ll have time to explore this massive complex on your own if you wish.
Abu Dhabi: The UAE’s Thrilling Capital
Abu Dhabi, the capital of the UAE, is a beautiful city of culture in its own right and a glorious desert metropolis down the coast from Dubai. Behind its glimmering façade lies a shining cultural beacon reminiscent of Islam’s golden age – the opulent, white-marble Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque boasts 82 domes, each topped with 24-carat gold, 1,000 columns, and a 40,000-capacity courtyard. Contrast this ten-year old building with Abu Dhabi’s oldest stone structure, Al-Husn Palace, the “white fort” originally built in 1761 … to the resplendent Zayed House, home of Sheikh Zayed, “Father of the Nation” … and to the second most expensive hotel ever built, the Emirate Palace (it cost $3 billion to construct over three years).
For a taste of local traditions, we’ve arranged a cruise through the city on a two-level dhow boat, giving you a unique perspective on this captivating city. More traditions live on at the Heritage Village, a fascinating open-air museum that depicts life before the oil boom, when women wove textiles, embroidered, and painted henna. You’ll look to the future at Manarat Al Saadiyat, an exhibition center profiling ongoing and projected developments in the city. And see the future at work at Masdar, the world’s first carbon-neutral, zero-waste city.
Witness the Giants of the UAE in a Small Group
The United Arab Emirates pulses with cultural and architectural treasures you have to see to believe. Dubai and Abu Dhabi only tell part of the story of this economic powerhouse. A visit here offers a mesmerizing blend of cosmopolitan flair and traditional Arab ways, all polished with a futuristic sheen. Between snacks of lamb kebabs and hummus in the tiny shawarma diners of the Deira district, or perhaps after relaxing in a shisha boutique with a bubbling water pipe, you’ll find lots to experience here.
Click here to view our new small group tour of Dubai!