“I have been living in Dubai for the past 11 years now. I came here from Chennai in 2006,” the driver told me shyly. I had just landed at the Dubai International Airport and was being driven to my hotel in Downtown Dubai. Asked if he liked Dubai better than Chennai, he smiled and nodded. “There’s more work here… But I do go back home every year.” Over the next couple of days, I would see and meet several others like him who have come from countries as far and varied as India, Pakistan, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, etc, and made this Emirati city their workplace and home. Dubai, in fact, could well be a microcosm of nationalities. It’s much easier, for instance, to spot a man wearing shorts and a woman in a dress than to come across a kandora-wearing man or an abaya-wearing woman—the Emirati national dress, a white ankle-length cloak for men and a long black gown for women. It’s not surprising then that Dubai was named the most cosmopolitan city in the world in the 2015 World Migration Report. It was also ranked highest across the Middle East and Africa for quality of living, as per Mercer’s 2016 Quality of Living Survey.
The cosmopolitan nature of the city is reflected in its gastronomical offerings as well. While there are ample places where you can partake of authentic Emirati cuisine (Seven Sands at Jumeirah Beach Residence, for instance), there are also restaurants like Thiptara (which offers delectable Thai fare), Ronda Locatelli (an Italian restaurant by Michelin-star chef Giorgio Locatelli) and Cocoa Kitchen (a cocoa-centric restaurant), which offer world cuisine. The city’s hotels aren’t far behind either. Take, for instance, Rove Downtown, where I stayed. The hotel is a millennial’s delight, with Instagram-ready interiors and a relaxed fun vibe. Located right across the road from the city’s most happening neighbourhood, Rove Downtown is a short stroll to the iconic Burj Khalifa.
But the best way perhaps to truly gauge the cosmopolitan nature of Dubai, also called the ‘city of gold’, is to visit its humongous malls—a major draw for tourists—which are teeming with people of all races, religions and appearances. Take, for instance, The Dubai Mall. The largest mall in the world by area and with over 1,200 shops and boutiques, it’s a shopper’s paradise. But what’s interesting is that it isn’t just a retail destination. Housed within its walls is the Dubai Aquarium and Underwater Zoo.
Located at the centre of the mall, the Dubai Aquarium is one of the world’s largest indoor aquariums. With a viewing panel at 32.8 m wide and 8.3 m high, it has more than 33,000 living animals, representing more than 85 aquatic species.
As you walk through the 270-degree acrylic tunnel, you encounter some of the most fascinating underwater animals on the planet like the bonnethead and hammerhead sharks, several cephalopod species such as octopus, squid and cuttlefish, sea dragons, etc. Then there’s the Underwater Zoo, which takes visitors through various aquatic environments.
The journey consists of three ecological zones—Rainforest, Coastline and UAE Night Creatures—where a variety of aquatic animals can be seen like crocodiles, piranhas, giant spider crabs, otters, water rats, sea jellies, etc. The UAE Night Creatures section is especially interesting, as it showcases Arabian wildlife: fruit bats, giant camel spiders, scorpions, hedgehogs, veiled chameleons, iguanas, frog-eye geckos, ornate spiny-tailed lizards, cheesman’s gerbil, etc. You could also opt for the glass-bottom boat ride here, which takes you over the surface of the aquarium. Through the glass bottom of your boat, you can watch aquatic life swim by under you. A surreal experience.
The next day, I decided to head to the new district of City Walk in the Jumeirah neighbourhood. Spanning 13,000 sq feet, with European-style streets, it is lined with numerous designer stores and restaurants. But perhaps the most interesting attraction here is the Green Planet. Essentially a bio-dome, Green Planet is home to more than 3,000 plants and animals. The lifeline of this indoor rainforest? A 25-m-tall manmade life-sustaining tree. As you enter the bio-dome, you are first taken to the flooded rainforest section, where you can take a look at the aquatic life that lives in the Amazon river.
From there, you go to the top, or the canopy level, from where you walk down the winding paths of this ‘forest’, encountering on your way down wildlife such as the toucan, monkeys, sloths, porcupines, lizards, macaws, etc. A manmade wonder.
Next on the agenda was a visit to the Al Fahidi Historical district, one of the oldest heritage sites in the city. My stop here was Dubai’s first-ever dedicated Coffee Museum, which celebrates the world’s love for the beverage. On exhibit here are some of the world’s oldest coffee mills, presses and grinders. A one-stop destination for any coffee lover, this place provides an educational experience of how coffee was made in the past and now. You can also learn about the different styles of roasting and brewing that are followed around the world.
Craving for a cup of hot coffee after this immersive experience, I found myself trudging to the Mall of the Emirates, another luxury shopping destination with around 630 international brands. A piping hot cup of joe later, I found myself at Ski Dubai, housed within the mall. The Middle East’s first indoor ski resort and snow park, this is where you can hit the slopes with gay abandon. Opened in November 2005, it has attractions like ski runs, tube slides, toboggan runs, zip line and even a café. The 85-m-high snow mountain here has five slopes with varying steepness, so you can choose your difficulty level. Even those who are not pros at skiing can have a blast here.
Another must-visit destination while in Dubai is Atlantis, the Palm, which is where I headed next morning. Atlantis was the first resort to open its doors on the manmade island, The Palm, in 2008. One of its main attractions is the Sea Lion Point, the only sea lion habitat in the region. Its residents are South African fur seals found along the south and south-west coast of southern Africa. The one I met was called Rufus and was an absolute darling.
While at Atlantis, one must also visit The Lost Chambers Aquarium. Visited by over 3,000 guests every week, there are 21 exhibits here, including clownfish, jellyfish, regal tang, albino alligators, sea horses, piranha, sea cucumber, sharks, rays, etc. The Lost Chambers is modelled on the legendary lost city of Atlantis with dark tunnels weaving through the aquarium. An enchanting journey.
No trip to Dubai is complete without a visit to the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa. On the last day of my stay, I headed to the monument to get a bird’s-eye view of the city I had been painting red over the last couple of days. ‘At the Top’, an experience which takes visitors to the 124th and 125th levels of the 160-storey tower, was the perfect way for me to say goodbye to dazzling Dubai.