An Arabian Adventure: Dubai
Sunset over the sand dunes, camel riding and a private dinner under the stars make for an unforgettable desert safari...
Traveling to Dubai, one of the seven emirates of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), was a truly eye-opening experience. I wasn't quite sure what to expect, other than the fact that it would be HOT, in fact, a balmy 100 degrees Fahrenheit to be exact. What I quickly learned despite the heat, however, is that Dubai is a bustling, cosmopolitan city with pretty much everything to offer. This includes the most luxurious hotel in the world (Burj Al Arab Jumeirah), the tallest building (Burj Khalifa), the biggest mall (The Dubai Mall) and a fascinating mix of city life, beach life and desert life.
There is also an exponential amount of construction currently happening in Dubai with approximately 25% of the world crane’s being used in the region, busily preparing for the World Expo in 2020. The other fascinating fact is that a whopping 85% of the population (2.5M) are expats, with most people coming from India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Asia and the West. Additionally, almost 70% of the population is male, as most of the city's expats are men who have left their families behind in their home countries.
Once you've experienced the highlights of the city and had a day or two to rest on the beach, my absolute favorite experience in Dubai was the sunset desert safari. We were picked up at our hotel at 3pm and driven about 1 hour inland to the Royal desert, not far from the borders of neighboring Emirates, Abu Dhabi and Sharjah. We arrived in an area officially known as the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve, approximately 87 sq. miles or 225 sq. kilometers of land protected by the government in an effort to ensure the future of the region's original desert habitats and landscape.
Our desert safari started by car, a vintage Land Rover or modern Range Rover, depending on the tour package chosen. After a bit of eco-friendly driving through the sand dunes (vs. the ever controversial dune bashing), we continued into the desert to spot the local wildlife which included Arabian oryx and gazelles. From there, we ventured even farther for a falcon show, arriving at a beautiful spot set-up with a rug and scattered pillows on top of the sand. There we met both a falconer (the falcon handler) and the falcon, who demonstrated the incredible speed (240 mph!) at which she catches her prey. As a point of interest, the falcon itself is highly regarded in the UAE, considered a symbol of pride and unity, with historical significance being that it was long used by the Bedouin as a hunting aid in the desert.
Once the sun went down, we rode via camelback to our next and final location for a private dinner and the evening activities, arriving at another camp set-up with rugs, pillows, lanterns and hookah pipes, all comfortably arranged on the sand. We ate a traditional Arabic dinner under a separate tented area, taking a break between courses to smoke the hookah, watch a belly dancing performance and have henna tattoos drawn on our skin. By 9pm we packed it in, feeling mesmerized by the experience and overwhelmed by the beauty of the desert.
Although there are quite a few tour operators for a desert safari, we specifically used a company called Platinum Heritage which I thought was excellent (and, no, this is not a paid promotion!). That said, if this is something you're interested in doing, I would do a bit of research and speak to your hotel concierge before booking your excursion. IF you have the time, I've also heard that the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi is absolutely incredible and only an hour or so drive from Dubai city center. Personally, this is on my list for my next visit, whenever that may be!