Culture / Travel

36 Hours in Dubai — Record-Setting Skyscrapers, a Miracle Garden and the Heat of a City on Fire

Lessons From a Trip Around the World

BY // 01.06.20

Editor’s Note:  Jane Howze recently flew around the world in 11 days with stops in Singapore, the Maldives and Dubai. This is third part in three-part series, detailing her time in Dubai and lessons learned .

After spending two days savoring the exquisite sophistication and order of Singapore, followed by five days of total Zen and pampering in the Maldives, we flew to Malé, Maldives in route to Dubai on the third and final stop of our trip around the world.

Malé (population 143,000) is the Maldives Island’s capital city and sits on an island. It’s a small airport, gateway to the Maldives Islands, sits on its own small island adjacent to the city. Our Emirates 777 seemed out of place at an airport so tiny that it had no jet way.

It’s not easy to lug a carryon suitcase up a staircase to a 777. Our four and a half hour flight to Dubai was a breeze, and Emirates flawlessly displayed why it is one of the world’s best airlines. Upon arriving in Dubai (or anywhere else where Emirates flies), business class travelers are whisked from the airport to their hotel by a one of Emirates’ fleet of Mercedes and BMW limos.

Dubai’s best hotels are resorts on the coast for vacationers, or downtown hotels designed more for business travelers. Dubai’s busiest tourist season is between November and May when the temperatures are delightful — with days in the low 80s (Fahrenheit).

In summer months with daytime temperatures averaging 105 degrees, Dubai would not be on anyone’s vacation list, eye-popping beaches or not. Since we had just come from the best beaches in the world, we opted for downtown.

We chose the Armani Hotel, located on the fifth through the 13th floors of the Burj Khalifa, which at 1,918 feet and 163 stories is currently the world’s tallest building, and symbolizes what Dubai is about — unlimited money, imagination and dizzying skyscrapers. Our room was typical Armani — neutral colors, Italian sleek, modern and fashionable — looking out on The Dubai Fountain, a choreographed system of dancing water features set on the 29 acre man-made Burj Khalifa Lake.

Dubai 101

If one has not been to Dubai it is hard to imagine a city that was little more than a desert 30 years ago, but now boasts of growing population of 2.1 million (smaller than Houston and bigger than Phoenix) and a futuristic skyline with more skyscrapers than any city other than New York and Hong Kong. And with no shortage of investment capital, Dubai offers everything the imagination could conjure: the world’s tallest building, second largest mall and largest flower garden.

The list is endless. Money is everything in Dubai and it’s also no object.

Today, construction remains in full swing as Dubai prepares to host the World Expo in 2020. Projects under construction include the Dubai Creek Tower, set to be the tallest tower in the world, and Dubai Square which will be the largest mall in the world. Dubai’s public transportation, the Dubai Metro, is a rapid transit rail network that runs underground in the city center and elevated overhead elsewhere. Dubai Metro is like everything in Dubai, sleek and modern with no expense spared, and like everything else is growing, with two lines completed and a third under construction.

The Miracle Garden

Every year from November to May, Dubai’s Miracle Garden, an 18-acre profusion of 150 million flowers, colors and scents, springs to life in the middle of Dubai, about 15 minutes from the city center.  An explosion of flowers; a path of gazebos in the shape of hearts; a rotating Sleeping Beauty decorated in flowers. A village of quaint houses covered in flowers, and irrigated with desalinized water from the sea (as is Dubai in general). We had visited the Garden three years ago and could hardly wait to return.

Garden in partnership with Disney
Dubai’s Miracle Garden is now a partnership with Disney.

On our prior visit we traveled through a bleak desert to the Miracle Garden, which had just opened in 2013. This year, the Garden was surrounded by apartments, office buildings and a hospital complex. The relatively undiscovered Miracle Garden we visited three years ago is now a glitzier version, reinvented with Disney characters, numerous souvenir shops, every American food chain imaginable and a flower-decorated Emirates 380 Airbus replica.

At 80 feet high and nearly 300 feet long, the 380 is the largest flower installation in the world, with five million flowers consisting primarily of petunias and accessorized with geraniums, marigolds, snap dragons, coleus, viola and gaillardia. It is so large that it is almost impossible to photograph the entire plane with an iPhone.

The Miracle Garden now has a theme park feel rather than a garden vibe. Notwithstanding that, it is jaw-droppingly spectacular and should be on every Dubai visitor’s short list, although the early November heat (92 degrees) reminded us that winter is the best time to visit Dubai.

The Gold and Spice Souks

The Gold and Spice Souks (souk is Arabic for marketplace) are a time travel back to old Dubai. A 10 minute cab trip and a three minute boat ride, and you’re 100 years back in time — narrow cobbled streets, friendly but persistent shopkeepers and tourists mixing with Emiratis shopping for spices and jewelry. In the intense heat, most visitors gravitated to the shops with the best air conditioning.

I don’t know if the prices were better than elsewhere in the world, but the sheer volume of gold and jewelry in one place took my breath away.

The Burj Khalifa

The world’s tallest building (for now) is more than that. It’s a symbol of Dubai’s quest to be the biggest and best. It houses a hotel, residences, offices, a sky lounge and restaurant, corporate suites, an observation deck, and a multi-floor residence for the royal family. It is the centerpiece of the latest in mixed use urban planning and design.

View of Dubai from the world’s tallest building
View of Dubai from the world’s tallest building

Although I’m both claustrophobic and afraid of heights, I could not pass up the opportunity to see the world from the highest vantage point. Because our hotel was in the Burj, itself, our concierge led us through an underground tunnel to the elevator used by the residents of the building, avoiding the crowd of paying visitors.

We took the quick two minute ride to the restaurant and bar on the 102nd floor, which was smooth and quiet, only the hint of motion to rattle my nerves. Sunset at the Burj is eclipsed by the view itself. A vista of hundreds of modern skyscrapers, a darkly lit room of well-heeled tourists and businessmen (not so many women) created an exotic, exciting and compelling resonance.

The Burj was the place to be on a Thursday night.

Trip Truths

On my last trip around the world, I wrote about positioning the trip so that it ended after its high point. For example, after New Year’s watching fireworks over the Sydney Australia Opera house, it would have been better to jet home the next day with memories of a great New Year’s Eve than stick around three more days.

For this trip I did not follow my own advice. After five days of over the top pampering, peace and quiet in the beautiful Maldives Islands, we found Dubai’s buzz, crowds, heat and traffic a little jarring, although this will not be our last trip to this magical city.

As if to underscore that it was time to go home, Emirates’ limo to the airport, because of road construction, was scheduled to pick us up at 5:30 am for our 10 am flight, and the hotel’s concierge phoned us at 4:30 am to let us know our driver had arrived.  Ah, every bucket list trip has legs that aren’t worth standing on.

Jane Howze is managing director of The Alexander Group, a national executive search firm headquartered in Houston with offices in New York, San Francisco and San Diego.

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