Dubai had been a dream destination of mine since before traveling became a major part of my life. While I don’t love everything that goes on in that part of the world, I can say that I was honestly surprised by how accessible, inviting, diverse, safe, Westernized and easy to navigate the country was. This wasn’t always a good thing, however. It seemed as if there are more generic chain restaurants per capita in Dubai than any place I’ve ever been to. Perhaps the craziest thing I learned about the country is that roughly 80% of the population is made up of expat workers, mostly from SE Asia. As a result, people are generally friendly and there to better their own lives through work. It felt safe the entire trip, from walking around off-the-beaten-path areas of Dubai in the middle of the night to wandering around in the middle of nowhere desert towns.
My friend and I found cheap flights to Sri Lanka on Emirates, which allows you to plan extended layovers in Dubai. We opted for 4 nights in UAE en route to Colombo, rented a car and hit the road in a country that took America’s car-centric vision and decided they could improve upon it (who wants to walk or bike in the desert, after all?) — great roads and parking everywhere! Here’s what we managed to see in our time in the United Arab Emirates:
Dubai (First stop, 2 nights)
Based on everything I’ve read recently, the Dubai economy isn’t in fantastic shape but you’d never know it from driving around the city of over 3 million people. My hometown of Chicago is one of America’s most booming cities with more tower cranes than nearly anywhere else in the country, but compared to the endless sites of developments going up around Dubai it’s almost comically quiet back home. Whether or not there will be people to fill those developments or money to spend in all the new malls is another question which touches on one of the most glaring aspects of Dubai: it just doesn’t feel cohesive. It’s a sprawling, car-centric showcase of what crazy shit people can think up and get built; each development attempting to top the previous one but leaving gaps in between that may never be filled. Should the dream of Dubai succeed and the city is still thriving in another hundred years, it’s hard to not think it will be one of the world’s truly great cities, but as of today you have to wonder if this path is sustainable.
When you take a step back and simply enjoy the sights, Dubai is one of the most remarkable places I’ve been. The Burj Khalifa (world’s tallest skyscraper) when standing beneath it just doesn’t quite look real, especially at night when the entire thing is lit up. The Palm Jumeirah is awe-inspiring when you’re actually there driving on a road lined with endless towers, all of which was part of the ocean not that long ago. The twisting Cayan Tower, one of my favorite skyscrapers, sits almost nonchalantly amidst a cluster of brand new buildings surrounding the harbor at the Dubai Marina district, across the bay from, of course, the world’s tallest ferris wheel at nearly 700ft…what?! whyyy??? It’s all a bit overwhelming, esp when you pause to think of all the other things this money could’ve been spent on. But that would sort of defeat the entire purpose of Dubai, which is seemingly to create the world’s biggest and brightest human trap in the middle of arid desert.
Abu Dhabi (Second stop)
About 90 minutes west sits the bland older sibling to Dubai: Abu Dhabi. Endless wide streets filled with cars, sandy mansions, cheesy-looking modern skyscrapers and almost no reason to visit were it not for the world’s fastest roller coaster (at Ferrari World), a modern world class museum (Louvre’s middle east offshoot), possibly the prettiest and one of the largest mosques in the world (Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque) and the government palace complex.
We spent a good deal of time at the Louvre and I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed it. The exhibits were top notch and filled with tons of historic artifacts, plus the architecture is incredible. It really took the sting out of skipping a ride on the world’s fastest roller coaster (I’m a coaster nut) as we only had enough time for one or the other and went the highbrow route. A stop at the gorgeous Grand Mosque is also required if you’re in town as it’s one of the few obligatory tourist stop destinations you’ve likely seen countless photos of that turns out to be much more impressive in person (evidence below!).
Liwa (Third stop, 1 night)
Liwa is a desert oasis town in southern UAE with not much going on aside from some rural residents, farming and outdoor, sand-based activities. It seems most people come here to ride dune buggies, ATVs or camels but we opted to get up before dawn and drive out to one of the world’s tallest sand dunes (Moreeb Dune) and climb up to the top on foot. There’s something special about driving into the desert before dawn, on a pitch dark road, knowing you’re entirely surrounded by massive sand mountains but unable to see them until the sun begins to crest and gives you a peek at the incredibly foreign landscape. The climb itself was excruciatingly steep and physically challenging but the views of endless sand dunes of the Empty Quarter and into nearby Saudi Arabia more than made it worth the trouble. While most people come down here for sporting events, I’m super glad nothing was going on while we were there and we basically had the entire desert to ourselves.
We spent the night at Liwa Hotel, which is a bit hard to describe but one of my all-time favorite hotel experiences. The place looked to be run entirely by Indian men and was eerily quiet as not many guests were staying here at the time. It also feels grand but maybe 30 years past it’s prime in the most perfect way, has a giant resort-style swimming pool with random bird residents that wander over to see what’s going on, plus they kept the small bar open late for us, serving us wildly overpriced Pilsners until we’d had our fill while not a single other guest even popped a head in. If I were ever to return to UAE, a night here would be back on my agenda for sure.
Saudi Border/Empty Quarter Drive (Fourth stop)
Our plan after leaving Liwa was to drive south until we hit the Saudi Border, then take a highway east and eventually north up along the Oman border to Al Ain. On a map, the route looks easy if not a bit sketchy as there are no towns along the way and it’s a long distance through nothing but desert. We consulted multiple people and online trip reports and it seemed doable…until I noticed we’d missed our turn (there was no road!) and appeared to be in Saudi Arabia according to the GPS. Oops?!? The road we’d missed was actually an unpaved route our rental car couldn’t handle and the one paved option a few miles back was gated and a guard from central Africa told us we needed a permit to use the road. Not wanting to try our luck with a bribe or accidentally tread back into Saudi territory, we decided to play it safe, backtrack a bit and take the similar route we did on our way down. While bummed we’d have to miss Al Ain and the mysterious border highway because of this, we did end up getting lunch at a gorgeous oasis resort in the absolute middle of nowhere called Qasr Al Sarab Desert Resort, where legit rich folk go to get away from literally everything save the occasional wandering US tourists trying to catch a glimpse of Saudi Arabia but failing (us!). Also of note while on the topic of driving aimlessly in the desert, it was remarkable to me that our American T-mobile iPhones had good signal nearly the entire journey through the country, no matter how remote (atop the sand dune even? yup!).
Gulf of Oman Coast (Fifth stop, 1 night)
We drove to the complete opposite side of the country (roughly 4.5hrs) and booked a cheap stay at another resort, this time one for normal people. Situated on the Gulf of Oman coast, this region is popular for vacationers as the beaches are nice and offer beautiful views where you can post up and watch 20% of the world’s oil float by as it rounds the Straight of Hormuz on its way out to sea via massive tankers. A few quality hours at the pool and a few more grossly overpriced beers and we were on our way to the main reason we wanted to visit this portion of the country.
Jebel Jais (Sixth stop)
We wandered around the boarder town of Dibba Al Hisn while in search of coffees and debated trying to walk across the border into Oman to get our passports stamped but decided against that and headed north into the mountainous peninsula shared with Oman. The Ras Al Khaimah emirate contains more outdoorsy options and has the highest point in UAE, Jebel Jais mountain. This is a popular destination we learned as we slowly wound our way up the 6,200ft high peak in a long line of cars all heading up to enjoy the weekend afternoon. What impressed me most was how well built the road was. Three lanes (one for passing) the entire way up in sometimes unforgiving terrain, whoever engineered and paid for this road deserves some props. Once you arrive at the top, you’re greeted with epic views and what turned out to be our final jaw-drop of the trip: the world’s longest zip line! While we didn’t get to experience the zip line ourselves, simply watching (and listening to it—it’s loud and echos throughout the valley) was wild and definitely another reason to make a return trip.
Coastal Cities (Final stop)
After we had our fill of mountain views we drove back down ahead of the crowds, which seemed to be lingering very late into the day atop the mountain, and had a great Indian dinner in an empty restaurant in the city of Ras Al-Khaimah. This city, and the others between here and Sharjah, were interesting because they felt much more normal in contrast to Dubai. We didn’t have proper time to explore them much but if I were to return to UAE this would be a region I would like to get better aquatinted with. It was somehow simultaneously mundane and charming, if that makes any sense. It might’ve helped that there were sparking lights up all over the place for the holiday season. There’s also supposedly a haunted town that was deserted when a ruling clan in charge of pearl farming lost their territory after the decline of pearl value.
That was our four days in UAE! We headed back to Dubai International Airport for our overnight flight to Sri Lanka having made it through all seven emirates and seeing a good portion of the country with only a few regrets. As I mentioned up front, I was pleasantly surprised by how accommodating the country is for visitors and how well maintained the infrastructure is throughout the country. While the UAE wasn’t my favorite destination overall, it greatly exceeded my expectations and has so much potential to become something truly special beyond the Vegas-style look-how-crazy-our-attractions-are destination that Dubai is largely known for today.