Johnny's Journeys: The United Arab Emirates
Adventures in the United Arab Emirates
Written By Johnny Fugitt
Dubai is Dubai. To the Western traveler, it’s the most accessible and familiar location in the Middle East. It offers Vegas-level opulence and something for everyone, but it can be a challenge to see beneath the luxury veneer and find an authentic Middle Eastern experience. Even as someone who seeks to journey off the beaten path, appreciates simple conversations with locals and relishes a good restaurant not found in a guidebook, Dubai is a place I think best enjoyed simply as a playground. There are a few older parts of town, but the traditional Middle Eastern experience can be more easily found, and better enjoyed, elsewhere. When you go to Dubai, if you simply enjoy it for what it is, you’ll have a great time.
On previous visits I hit many of the ‘must-see’ tourist spots like the Burj Khalifa (world’s tallest building), insane shopping malls (indoor ski slope, luxury shops galore) and the beachfront areas. This time I was focused on three things: one do, one see and one stay.
Do. Friends and I initially picked different dates for this trip, but it was suggested we push forward our visit to compete in a Spartan Race. This was my first go at the mud-soaked obstacle course challenge, but peer-pressure isn’t always a bad thing – I had a great time. The race was in Hatta, a surprisingly mountainous area two hours east of Dubai.
Dubai is a study in extremes and this includes sports. You’ve probably seen those stomach-twirling videos of people doing crazy stunts on the tops of skyscrapers. Dubai. Off-roading over sand dunes. Dubai. Skydiving, zip-lines and hydroflights – found all over the world, but also Dubai. But, of course, the zip line must be the world’s longest. And the world’s fastest roller coaster is found at the Ferrari World theme park in…Abu Dhabi. But that’s just a couple hours from Dubai.
See. The primary reason I joined on this trip was to visit the Louvre in Abu Dhabi. The name and connection with the world’s most celebrated museum gives this one-year-old wonder instant credibility; pieces from the likes of Gauguin and Ai Weiwei do not disappoint. It’s a world-class museum, without a doubt, but so different from Paris I almost wish it wasn’t called the Louvre.
The museum’s focus is world history, global art and universalism. The Louvre Abu Dhabi escorts guests through centuries of human civilization across continents, with a focus on the Middle East rather than the European tour-de-force found in Paris. And that’s the reason the name doesn’t quite fit.
Imagine, if you will, Grant Achatz of Alinea buying Ben Poremba’s Elaia and not changing a thing other than the name, calling it Alinea St. Louis. One could visit the restaurant and enjoy a remarkable meal (as many have over the last few years), but it wouldn’t be the same experience as Alinea in Chicago. I wouldn’t want someone to visit the Botanical Heights restaurant believing they had experienced Alinea, just as I wouldn’t want a Chicagoan to skip Alinea St. Louis because they already visited the original restaurant bearing that name in Chicago. Despite a shared name, the restaurants would be completely different; each worth exploring and celebrating independently. It would be a shame to think of one only in relation to the other. That’s how I feel about the Louvre Abu Dhabi, but with Picasso instead of Poremba.
Stay. What is the most iconic hotel in the world? The Ritz in Paris, The Peninsula in Hong Kong and the Waldorf-Astoria in New York should all be considered, but many would have trouble picking these out of a lineup. The Beverly Hills Hotel and Burj al Arab are certainly more distinctive. The most recognized might be Atlantis. We immediately connect the pink-façade and distinctive arch to the beaches of the Bahamas, but there’s a second Atlantis sharing the same famous features in Dubai. To most of the world – those from at least Singapore to Stockholm – Atlantis is associated with the man-made palm tree isle of the UAE.
This was my first stay with Atlantis and, to be honest, I didn’t know exactly what to expect. The lineup of cars outside offered the same parade of Bugattis and Bentleys found at many of the high-end hotspots in Dubai. It was easy to spot luxury shops, sleek bars and beautiful couples in elegant eveningwear. None of that surprised me. I was struck, however, by the number of kids.
I came to think of Atlantis as the Disney for families with older kids. It’s the ultimate destination for families with kids once the reach a certain age. Dolphin interactions and The Lost Chambers Aquarium offer kids the same sense of wonder Cinderella may have provided a few years prior. Tubing and windsurfing fill the teenage desire for an adrenaline rush. I distinctly remember the feeling of independence when I could roam a waterpark without parental supervision and Atlantis’s Aquaventure would have been the ultimate, especially the slide slashing through the shark tank.
Because many of these activities may be undertaken independently by kids of certain ages (and childcare is available for younger tikes), parents are free to visit the spa, find a quiet section of the beach, leisurely sip and nibble through afternoon tea or simply take a nap. That sounds like vacation to me and you can’t do any of that at Disney with kids of five and two.
The underwater theme is whimsical, but not cartoonish. It fits the underwater restaurant next to the aquarium where a jacket is the norm, but also at the waterpark stimulating a young imagination. Atlantis is an immense production, but it’s done remarkably well. From galas to honeymoons, a night out on the town to a family vacation, Atlantis offers something for every occasion.
I’m a culture shock junkie. I like to go beyond my comfort zone, get a bit lost, and find food, experiences and lifestyles far from my own. Because of this, I typically prefer traditional areas or smaller towns. On previous visits to Dubai, the city just felt too comfortable, too familiar, too modern and I didn’t get the same culture shock high. With a different mindset this time, I set out to just appreciate the UAE for what it is to the tourist – a 21st century playground. With that mindset, I had a wonderful time.
Mosque in Abu Dhabi was taken by me.