It isn’t an exaggeration to say that the glittering metropolis of Dubai will stop you dead in your tracks. From the zany architecture to its mesmerising vision for the future, it will draw you in. But this glitzy city isn’t just a playground for the grown-ups, writes Amanda Cassidy.
Dubai is big on bling. It is all supercars and flashy handbags. It is all about the biggest, the best and the most expensive. That's why first-time travellers might be a little surprised about how big on traditions this Middle Eastern city is too.
As well as being a playground for the rich and famous, it is a surprisingly family-friendly destination. From underwater aquariums to making penguin pals, a mind-boggling museum to an indoor jungle, you'll find everything and more to make this the family adventure you won’t forget. Here's what we learnt along the way.
The locals are few and far between
Our first encounter with locals is at the airport when we arrive – the men wear beautifully pressed white clothing called kandura. The women’s long, traditionally black robes are called abaya. It takes a while to sink in that there are not many local Emiratis around at all. It surprised us to learn that only 11% of Dubai’s population is Emirati.
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It is total kid heaven
There is so much for the children to do which is why Dubai has now rivalled Orlando for families looking for that theme park experience, with a twist. The flight is also only 7 hours from Dublin which is why it is growing increasingly popular for those with little ones who want to experience the theme parks while also getting a nice hit of winter sun. IMG Worlds of Adventure is probably the biggest hit. It holds the title for the largest indoor theme park anywhere in the world and covers a million square feet.
Legoland opened just three years ago and it has already earned its place as the best thing to do in the UAE with family. Within Legoland, there are six themed lands with educational activities, mini places to fly and even a submarine adventure zone. (Let’s be honest, this is just as much fun for parents as it is with kids). The waterpark scene is also off the charts. The Atlantis waterpark has everything you’d want in a waterpark. There are lazy rivers, kids’ pools and is also surrounded by other large attractions including an aquarium and meet-the-animal experiences.
The vision is staggering
"It is all about celebrating the future"
When we brought the children to Venice and Florence we spent time pointing out all the old buildings and explaining the history to them. But in Dubai, it is all about celebrating the future. It is worth remembering that 50 years ago, this was a tiny sandy fishing port and while the traditional dhow longboats and spice/gold souks are very much part of current life in Dubai, what has been achieved in terms of architecture and vision is pretty staggering.
Each building is extraordinarily elaborate, no two are the same. For the children, it was simply breathtaking. They couldn’t believe the height of the Burj Kalifa (world’s tallest building). We spent a brilliant few hours at the Dubai Mall and the highlight was the dancing fountains and the amazing lights everywhere – a celebration of colour. If you are looking for spine-tingling memories to make together as a family then this is a must-see.
We were all equally fascinated by the Dubai Eye (similar to the London Eye but bigger). Everywhere you look, there is something even more extraordinary to feast your eyes on. People either love or hate Dubai, but nobody can deny that it’s a true celebration of the future and an unapologetic vision for greatness that is quite inspiring.
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The rules are not as strict as you might think
Before we travelled to Dubai, we tried explaining to the children about Dubai’s conservative nature. They thought it was funny that mummy and daddy shouldn’t really hold hands in public. But it isn’t as strict as you might think. Occasionally, people do get caught out for activities that might be more acceptable at home, but on the whole, Dubai is pretty cosmopolitan. You can wear what you feel comfortable in and you’ll find ex-pats and tourists drinking in bars. It is just important to be aware of cultural sensitivities and remain respectful.
Ramadam is an eye-opener
We visited Dubai during Ramadam which has relaxed its religious rules in recent years here compared to other predominantly Muslim nations. It is usually held in the ninth month of the Islamic calendar and Muslims observe it all over the world as a period of fasting from sunrise to sunset. As a tourist, you can eat and drink at any time in your hotel but out in public, you shouldn’t eat or drink or chew gum in public during daylight hours. Breaking the fast is known as Iftar, it is the first meal after sunset and is a celebration with family and friends.
Choose your hotel wisely
We all like the fine things in life but Dubai raises the bar. This is especially true of hotel resorts which bring unadulterated luxury to a whole new level. When travelling with children you have to choose carefully. We were lucky enough to stay at the Anantara Dubai Palm hotel which is on the iconic palm tree-shaped Island about half an hour from downtown Dubai. For such a high-brow destination, this Thai-inspired beach resort was heavily child-focused. We’d heard that many of the hotels in Dubai are stunning but a little restricted when it came to younger children. Our three skipped to the kids’ club and got their hair braided while we enjoyed a Turkish hammam in the jaw-dropping spa. It also helped that the lagoon-style pool meant we could swim back to our room.
Our balcony led straight out onto the meandering pools. Dubai has so many hotels to choose from but from the children’s entertainment to the food and fabulous beach restaurant with magnificent sea views, we found the facilities and food at the Anantara among the best we have ever stayed. We also took a long-boat journey from the resort out to Dubai marina to check out the sights – this is well worth doing and the children still talk about it as being the highlight of their trip.
Taxis are plentiful and not very expensive. There is the metro which is very straightforward to use but getting to places from door to door with the children is much easier using taxis. We were a family of two adults and three children and there was never an issue with having to get separate taxis. It is worth noting that Dubai isn’t suitable for strollers. Perhaps in the malls, a buggy is a blessing but Dubai isn’t somewhere you will explore on foot. Not only is it very hot outside, most things in Dubai are miles apart. It isn’t a city that has been designed with pedestrians in mind as we learnt the hard way as we bravely took the metro to find a restaurant and ended up stranded on the side of the motorway.
Top tip: When we arrived at Dubai Mall, we asked at reception for the use of a buggy. About 50 seconds later, a large golf cart turned up with a driver. To avoid embarrassment, we all clamored in and he whizzed us through the shiny mall to the aquarium. It was the perfect example of lost in translation but it worked out wonderfully in the end.
The stunning smells
Everywhere you go in Dubai smells strong and musky. From the malls to the hotels and even the little streets around the old town smell like a fragrant mix of lemon, spice and jasmine. In fact, it is oud, one of the most popular perfumes in the Middle East. It is the oil distilled from the resin-saturated agarwood. It is also hugely expensive because of its rarity. By some estimates, fewer than 2% of wild agar trees produce it and the best oud comes from the oldest trees which are even more scarce.
The food is pricey
The restaurants are expensive and alcohol is eye-wateringly expensive (a standard bottle of wine is about €50) but there is plenty of choice of fabulous restaurants, and even the fussiest of eaters will enjoy the food here. We ate many of our meals in our hotel which offered a huge array for breakfast (Crescendo's buffet spoilt us with three egg stations, crepes made on-demand, the most stunning fruit displays) and the inhouse restaurants Mekong, The Beach House and Bushman’s catered well for children with dedicated menus that included mac and cheese, chicken skewers, bolognese and of course, burgers. We still talk about the prawn, roasted coconut, fresh lime and crispy onion starter that we tried in Mekong on the first evening. Prices are high but the standards are too. Half board is a good idea if you are travelling with children.
Weather is HOT
When I looked up the weather for May and realised it was going to be 36 degrees, I started to worry about how the children would do in the heat. But Dubai is so well equipped to deal with these high temperatures. Everywhere is air-conditioned and set up for life in the sun. In fact, a holiday in Italy one August a few years back stands out much more as being unforgettably sweltering mainly because there were no facilities to deal with the humidity. We learnt that you cannot go barefoot in Dubai around the pool or beach as it is simply too hot. In the Anantara Palm, the children’s pool is fully sheltered with a giant awning which means even during the hottest part of the day, the kids were keeping cool, splashing about while we read in the shade and played ping-pong (also covered). The lagoon pool is also well shaded with tropical trees and something that should be considered when you are going to such a hot climate with young children. This is especially important if you like to fly and flop as we do!
A family adventure
Overall, Dubai was a really wonderful place to holiday with children. There are endless things to do, waterparks, theme parks, fabulous resorts, exciting foods, and stunning buildings. It was different enough to our usual European holidays to really add a memorable twist to our visit. I’d highly recommend Dubai with children (don’t go June to September when it is simply too hot).
The long-haul flight is not bad at all. We went overnight (with Emirates) and the children slept for most of the flight. If you have a day flight there are so many games, cartoons and movies to keep everyone amused for the 7 hours. Choose your hotel carefully. We landed on our feet with the Anantara but make sure there is enough of a family-focus at the resort you choose as you don’t want to be shushing your excited kids by the pool on any holiday.
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