Tuesday, 14 April 2015

Dubai - Spring 2015

The Worlds Greatest
Sunday, 5 April

The UAE is one of the few countries to not have a national dish.  I am on the hunt for traditional Emirati food in one of the biggest international hubs in the world; Dubai.  It is a city built from desire over necessity.  If you had the infinite money hack for SimCity you would create Dubai.  You would construct the worlds tallest building; open the first 7 star hotel and build the largest shopping mall ever to exist.  Once you have built on all of your allotted space you would create extra land in the sea in shapes of elaborate patterns just because you can.  This is Dubai in a nutshell; a city of luxury, designed with the rich in mind.

Rules are everywhere of which many are grounded in Islamic traditions.  As a Westerner you can't help but feel a little anxious about what you can and cannot do!  I grew up hearing stories of hands being chopped off, people "disappearing" in the desert and westerners put in prison for mild public displays of affection.  It was always the country where gold shops were left unattended as people went for prayer because nobody ever stole in fear of losing a limb!  It certainly doesn't help your anxiety when you find yourself holding an ice cream in the women's only carriage on the metro where there is also a substantial fine advertised for eating.  A near miss to losing a hand!

It being Dubai, we decided that we had to go 5 star.  Us being mere teachers, we also decided to spend some of the holiday in a 2 star.  Perfectly central and a stones throw from a metro; Pride Hotel Apartments are a little unkempt but good value for what you get.  We are lucky enough to have friends that live here so we met up with them on our first evening down at the Marina at the top of the Hilton.  Alcohol is of course absent from most places but hotels and this in turn brings a ridiculous increase in price.  I am talking £8 for a standard bottle of Heineken!?  If you are going to spend that amount on a beer you might as well go all out and browse the cocktail menu!  Apart from taxis and petrol, everything here is expensive.  You just have to suck it up and accept that it is just going to be that kind of holiday!
I was wrong to think that I was leaving the haze in Beijing as we are 3 days in and I am yet to see a blue sky.  A day at the beach feels a little strange without a sparkling sea against the windows 95 desktop backdrop.  With the amount of construction work going on paired with the general desert climate the concoction is not great.  It is still a decent beach and on a clear day the views would be brilliant with the iconic Burj al Arab in the background.  Today, however... not so much.

We have just come back from possibly the most expensive meal I have eaten to date.  Maybe new years in Singapore was on par but I did not pay for that one or have any idea what the bill came too.  Tonight I also did not pay for as it was my Birthday treat from Becky but I did manage catch a glimpse of the cheque.  We had an evening at Indego by Vineet; a truly high end Indian restaurant.  I have always wondered how Indian food would do "a le carte" as it is all about the dipping, wiping and eating with your hands which doesn't quite sit side by side with quaint arrangements on a plate.  We went for the £120 taster menu with selected wines and thoroughly enjoyed the experience.  And I think that is what these kinds of places aim to offer; you pay for an experience more than just a meal.  Every dish looked stunning and tasted out of this world.  The portions look small but the number of courses made up for it and though part of me was looking forward to a potential kebab on the way home at the start, my stomach was perfectly filled by the end.  The selected wines paired beautifully (I think!?)  with each dish and they even achieved the unachievable by making an Indian dessert that did not taste like tooth decay and butter.  Would I go there again?  Of course not, I don't have anywhere near that kind of cash.  Would I recommend it for a special occasion? Definitely!  Though, it being Dubai, we did notice that it was clearly just another evening for the majority of the diners.  It attracts rich people... and people celebrating.  It makes me wonder where rich people go to celebrate?  

"You can even ask me how many wives my dad has"
Thursday, 8 April

On Monday we moved to our swankier 5* hotel apartment in the Pullman's Residences situated further North in Deira.  It was here where we could start to chip away at Dubai's shiny coating and see into its past and deep culture.  Just 15 minutes from the main strip it feels like you are in a completely different country!  A country where you don't need to save up to pay for a meal or sell a kidney when it's your round for drinks.  A place where every second man asks if you want a watch and every third man wants to sell you t-shirts.  We spent our afternoon window shopping through the Gold Souke and finding "The Creek" which, be warned, is not at the metro station named "The Creek".  You only need a few hours to do both as window shopping when every window looks pretty much the same doesn't take too long.  The creek is a nice place to nose around and maybe grab some local lunch but you wouldn't spend the day there.  We took a boat across the water to the markets for 1 Dirham before heading back to our hotel.

Struggling to find Emirati food in Dubai my new plan was to see if I could eat a different cuisine for every meal over the holiday.  If there was a place in the world to try this; it is probably here.  It started well with our first meal being Greek, followed by Lebanese, followed by Indian, followed by Indian, followed by Indian, and this is where the plan fell apart.  The lack of curry in China and the abundant variety of it here was just too much!  I learnt that traditional Emirati food is very similar to Indian food.  In fact, on Tuesday I learnt all about Emirati's and the beautifully rich culture of the UAE.  This is because we attended the "Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding" for a morning heritage tour followed by a traditional lunch (£30).  I think that every visitor of Dubai, ignorant of religion or not, should see this place.  It was truly fascinating and debunked sooo many myths about Islam.  With their motto being "Open door, open minds" our guide insisted that we could ask her whatever we wanted.  For a start, they never chopped hands off in Dubai!  My dad lied to me all those years ago.  And did you know that women covering their faces has nothing to do with religion and in fact developed because Mohammed's wives (yes, plural!) covered their faces in order to be anonymous in their day to day life.  They were married to an extremely important person and were highly regarded and so what they wore became fashionable!  The polygamy was also explained brilliantly and left us all nodding are heads in agreement; back in a time when men made money and women stayed at home it was a means to allow rich men to take care of more women during dire times!  It is an extremely rare practice nowadays and not allowed in many Muslim countries.  Again my dad lied to me all those years ago...  What really tickled me was the fact that there are laws in Dubai preventing women from covering their faces in certain work places.  In a Muslim country!  And England pussy foot around the idea when it became an issue in schools.  It was informative and I did not feel at all preached at.  I could write an entire essay on the things I learnt and that is without even mentioning the food.  The morning tour came with a sit down Arabic coffee with sweet sticky dates. The lunch talk came with an entire feast.  It is worth the money just for the meal!  Two massive trays of "Machbus"(the local equivalent to a Biryani) were the main dishes.  One chicken and one veal.  Machbus is quite probably the front runner for National Dish if the UAE were ever to choose one.  These were accompanied by two pots of lamb curry and two of vegetable curry.  All of it not too dissimilar to Indian food.  My favourite!  The dessert, gladly, was different; round balls of fried dough with date syrup.  This place genuinely makes the top spot on my list of things to do in Dubai.

What should be at the top of my list is one of Dubai's many "world's greatest" such as the tallest building, the largest mall or the most spectacular fountain show.  All three of which can be done in one go as the access to the viewing lounge of the Burj Khalifa is from inside the Dubai Mall and the fountains are just outside it.  We booked online which gives you the option of going to floor 124 for about £25 or to floor 148 for £60 (costs more for sunset timings!).  It is worth noting that neither are actually the top but both blow the second tallest building (Tokyo Skytree - 451m) well out of the water.  But why would you not go up to the record breaking floor!?  The worlds highest observation deck (555m) with close runner up being floor 124 of the Burj Khalifa.  It is great At the Top Sky and I recommend finding the view of the fountains below and waiting for the show.  Music plays through the speakers at the top and so you can enjoy the synchronized squirts from a different angle.  Once you get back to the bottom you can marvel at the building whilst waiting for another fountain performance! There are over 20 different tracks so it will take a long time for it to get boring and this time you can really get the sense of its enormity.  And then you have the awesome Dubai Mall to roam around afterwards which has its own aquarium in it.  Make a full evening of it!  Go shopping, have dinner at the food court and have desert at one of the ice cream parlours.  Unless you are super rich and can have dinner in the worlds highest restaurant followed by dancing in the worlds highest club.  We of course did not do that and ate at Fat Burger and took our ice cream to eat in front of the fountains.  Each to their own.

"The people of Dubai don't like The Flintstones..." 
Sunday, 12 April

... But the people in Abu Dhabi doooo! Haha.  Flying back to China now and we have done a fair amount since my last post.  Wednesday we visited the Dubai museum, which could quite easily be skipped from a busy itinerary, and ate at "Local House" which is around the corner from the Museum (and the Sheik Mohammed Cultural Centre!).  I picked this restaurant as it served camel meat and camel milk milkshakes which is probably the only thing I could have guessed is eaten in this part of the world.  I have no idea how popular it is in Dubai as this is the only restaurant I saw that served it.  It tastes like gamey beef and the milk is half way between goats milk and cows milk with the thickness of Jersey gold top.  Another obscure meat ticked off! The evening was spent at a cheese and wine night at the Westin with some expat friends.  Not a cheap night but combining Groupon vouchers with The Entertainer vouchers it was an absolute steal!  An enormous selection of wines, Ports and Champagnes on an all you can eat and drink deal.  Oh how I missed cheese!

Our hotel desk insisted that we must visit Abu Dhabi whilst we are here and informed us of all the ways to go about it.  A £6 bus was the chosen method and took about 2 hours.  I didn't plan it brilliantly as I could not get into the palace in my flip flops and then realised that the Sheikh Zayed Mosque probably would not let me in with my shorts.  Having bought some cheap trousers we arrived to find that you could hire some awesome traditional outfits there!  How annoying.  I almost hired them anyway even though I didn't need them!  It is a seriously impressive mosque and is worth popping to Abu Dhabi just to marvel at it.  Everything in there screams "we have oil" with its intricate mosaics, crystal chandeliers and record breaking carpet.  As for other things to do in Abu Dhabi; we didn't get a chance to go to Ferrari world or Yas Island Waterpark but they provide a decent reason to return one day.

The Expat brunch was born in Dubai and so it seemed only natural that one had to be done.  As brunch at the Burj al Arab required me to sell my girlfriend for a couple of nights she decided that we could just have brunch at our hotel.  Friday is the start of the weekend here and so Friday Brunch at Little Suzie's American Diner saw the best part of the day through.  There was braised beef(of course!) ribs, brisket, a burger joint, a hot dog stall, a pancake/waffle station, a milkshake hut and so much more.  All done properly too;  burgers were steamed for 10 seconds to give the bread that perfect squidginess; sweet potato fries were done to order so they remained crisp and milkshakes were delivered to you by a blond girl on roller skates!  That put us out for the day until the evening when we felt a little peckish but could not be bothered to go far.  We spent an hour online trying to find a nice shisha bar to go to and ended up spotting one from our balcony window called Gulf Airozina Cafe which fit our criteria perfectly.  Mint tea, peach flavoured shisha and Lebanese arayes which are minced lamb stuffed and grilled flat breads.  Outdoor in a perfect people watching spot.  

Simple steps to build an amazing water park:

1. Make a lazy river that takes you through the entire park
2. Make all rides end in the lazy river
3. Make "conveyor belts" that take people from the lazy river to the start of the rides
4. Build an awesome aquarium
5. Make rides go through aquarium tanks.

Welcome to Palm Island's Aquaventure Waterpark!  It may cost £60 for a combined park and aquarium ticket but it was completely worth it.  My only disappointment was that the one ride I really wanted to go on, the vertical drop "Poseidon's Revenge", was closed for maintenance.  Either way, we got to fly down the Aquaconda - the worlds largest water slide and spent a good 5 - 6 hours experiencing and re-experiencing everything the park had to offer.  Food, as expected, was extortionate at £7 for a potato twist and £10 for a snow cone!  Doesn't stop it from being a fantastic water park though.  The aquarium is also superb and unique in its theme and I definitely recommend doing them both saving the aquarium to wind down in the evening.

All week I have wanted to go to the Pakistani restaurant called Ravi's which I read about online.  Finally, on the last evening of our holiday, we found the time to go.  Just a few minutes off the Sheikh Zayed road there is a tonne of local restaurants!  The area looks great and it is a real shame that only on our final day we found it.  We sat outside of Ravi Restaurant and lapped up the buzzing atmosphere whilst mopping up delicious curries with fresh hot rotis and naans.  And the total price for the two of us...? £9!!  I could walk for 5 minutes and pay £50 for a less superior curry.  We are finishing on a high because it was such a great find but a slight low that we found it so late.  If I find myself in the land of "the world's greatests" again, I will be spending a lot more evenings on this side of Dubai. :o)

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