Dubai: Seeking an Authentic Experience
by Maria Popova
Photography by Maria Popova
The Arabian night covered the city with a velvet blanket of smoke. A flower of civilization cultivated in the midst of the Persian Gulf; an oasis where Muslim tradition and Sharia laws coexist with vibrant nightlife, tourism and entertainment.
Intoxicated by the aroma of omnipresent clouds of tobacco, I blended with the reality of shimmering colors and iridescent sheen of silk. Previously, I visited this city as a curious newcomer and as an infatuated returnee. This time, I was an inch closer to, yet still miles away from my goal: unveiling the mystery of this uncompromisingly contrasting, extravagant and misrepresented city. What I have discovered was its perpetual duality.
A Middle Eastern climate with a soft beach season during fall and winter is one of the key reasons Dubai attracts visitors from all across the world. In particular, Jumeirah Beach Residence beach is beloved among the tourists, and not without reason. JBR offers exceptional urban facilities that far exceed the basic shower/lounger requirements a reasonable traveler would have. A cinema theatre, the beach waterpark, a splash park, a tennis club, multiple sitting areas convenient for social gatherings, street artists, fashionable lounges right at the beach, unlimited selection of different cafes, restaurants and a wide variety of stores are just a few steps away from the sea.
Kite Beach, which is also well equipped, tends to be less crowded compared to JBR, where people greedily soaking up the Middle Eastern rays occupy every square meter. It is an increasingly popular place among water sports and fitness lovers, occasionally holding beach yoga sessions. It offers kite surfing, soap football, beach tennis, beach volleyball and kayaking, as well as a picturesque view of the symbol of modern Dubai, the sail-shaped “world’s most luxurious hotel,” Burj Al Arab.
These gorgeous beaches are ultimate resort spots for thousands of tourists. But even though it’s portrayed on every souvenir cup and postcard, the beach is not at the heart of an authentic Dubai experience.
In their overwhelming majority, Dubai residents avoid going to the beach. This activity simply does not fit the specific lifestyle of the locals, who prefer appreciating the view with a hookah pipe in their hands from a balcony of a well air-conditioned room.
Rare exceptions are those residents who moved from Europe or other parts of Asia. Their eyes will never fall on the crowded trendy beaches, but rather private and abandoned ones, such as The Secret Beach, and the one uninhabited stretch of snow-white sand right next to the zoo.
A city of opulent wealth and luxury, Dubai does not withstand an elegant pause before throwing its fortunes in the faces of the visitors. This is demonstrated by Dubai’s grandiose architecture masterpieces, such as 160-story Burj Khalifa, the mysterious Atlantis the Palm with its famous aquarium and other attractions for any taste and age. The Dubai Fountain is a mesmerizing spectacle that is situated on the 30-acre Burj Lake; Palm Islands is a luxurious, artificial island that is home to the most exuberant houses and five-star hotels.
However, some argue that the main “luxury” and cultural inheritance Dubai possesses is neither the architecture, nor the abundance of precious stones. It is the food.
"The best thing about Dubai is food,” says Abdullah Al Samarai, a 21-year-old student at the American University of Dubai majoring in International Studies.
Al Samarai, who has been living in Dubai for over 18 years, is one of the most patriotic residents I know. Our guide insisted on taking us to places that represent Dubai’s essence and Dubai in a nutshell.
“There are dishes that you can eat anywhere in the world, but Dubai does them better than anywhere else,” he said.
Ravi’s, for example, is an Indian place similar to many underground award-winning Chinese restaurants in New York City; this place has little in common with some of the touristy luxurious Dubai restaurants. While the decor is more than humble, the place offers a wide variety of proper Indian dishes. Large quantities, pleasant prices and outstanding butter chicken certainly ensure stable and loyal clientele from all over the world.
Although travelers may be less familiar with Iraqi cuisine, Bestoon Samad is a place that cannot leave a single person indifferent. If only because of large amounts of delicious complimentary food that comes with a meal—soft, large and warm bread that melts in your mouth, creamy lentil soup with a little lemon, fresh vegetable salads, a vegetable plate and traditional sweet Iraqi karak teas in unlimited amounts. Otherwise, the place offers a wide variety of Arabic dishes including their outstanding Shawarma, meats and chicken liver with a bit of a corky touch.
Finally, among the three favorites proudly introduced by our guide Abdullah there is Cozy Cabana, a place that represents a successful combination of the best things about Dubai. The cafe offers a wide selection of western, Indian and Arabic cuisines, and an impressive list of desserts—the staff always recommends a plate with ice cream coated with Eastern cotton candy with a touch of pistachio.) Notably, the menu is not limited. The regular customers get an unofficial privilege of ordering dishes that are not on the menus.
Exceptionally attentive staff demonstrated another important cultural side of Dubai—exceptional, incomparable service omnipresent starting from the best hotels in the world and ending with little inexpensive cafes, such as Cozy Cabana.
“If I would ask him for something they don’t have, they would go and get it for me,” said Al Samarai.“They always do these things for the regulars. They even pay for my parking sometimes.”
If you determined that space-like facilities of JBR are still worth all the crowdedness, do not forget to stop by Awani Levant Cuisine, a nice yet slightly pricy spot with a stunning sea line view. The absolute must-haves at the restaurant are their fruit cocktails, in particular an avocado honey mix that can easily replace a meal.
Le Petite Maison, an exquisite and elegant spot suitable for a romantic date or a special occasion treat, is on the very top of this increasing price list. While the small portions are an infamous characteristic of a French restaurant, the unearthly quality of the food justifies the expense. Snails in a garlic sauce will certainly stay in my palate memory forever.
The Home Bakery is yet another rather pricy place inhabited with locals and frequented by the Sheikh. While the Kinder and Ferraro cakes covering the shelves are bound to accelerate your heartbeat, I have to admit I was disappointed when a quite expensive milkshake I ordered was served in a plastic Starbucks grande-like cup. Yet, this place does deserve a spot on this list due to a curious encounter that occurred there.
“There is a waiting list, so we technically cannot sit. But when they found out there is a lady with us they gave us a table immediately.” said Al Samarai, summarizing up both service in Dubai and a general respect towards women.
Although for a long time Dubai has been one of the world’s shopping capitals, the situation is rapidly changing now. Even during Dubai sales season, prices do not drop enough to motivate a trip for the sole purpose of a shopping feast like it used to in the earlier years. However, the selection of goods presented might be significantly more impressive compared to the same brands elsewhere in the world.
Gold Souk; however, may be the most interesting part of Dubai shopping and cultural experience. There, you can get gold and precious stones for fair prices.
“Always remember to bargain,” said Al Samarai. “And remember to check the latest gold price before you go.”
At the souk you can also easily find imitations of designer brand jewelry only for its material net cost.
While entertainment options in Dubai deserve a separate article, one universal experience for both the locals and the visitors is savoring Dubai’s breathtaking views. A lounge, such as the At.Mosphere Lounge is a better alternative to a simple observation deck.
Located just a few floors lower than the deck at Burj Khalifa, At.Mosphere allows you to get drinks for the money you would have paid at the deck, plus promises an evening with a real atmosphere.
It is important to keep in mind that in order to enjoy experiences generously offered in Dubai, one needs to be cautious of some things:
Do not come to Dubai June through September, unless you want to resemble a grilled chicken within the first half-hour of your stay. The temperature reaches up to 120° Fahrenheit every day, and all the activities that involve going outside or moving from an air-conditioned place have to be eliminated for everyone’s sake.
Be conscious of the religious holidays, such as Ramadan that takes place during the ninth month of the Islamic calendar (it started on June 6 in 2016.)
According to VisitDubai.com,“Ramadan asks that non-Muslims pay respect to those fasting. Eating, drinking or smoking in public are to be avoided. Most restaurants remain open, serving behind screens until sundown and businesses work less hours, to accommodate more family time and time for prayer.”
Even if your stay does not overlap with Ramadan, be very conscious about what you pack. While Dubai is a modern and international city, it's very important to be aware of local norms and traditions. Exclude any short skirts, décolleté and make an effort to cover your shoulders. While it is primarily a matter of respect, you want to avoid getting called out or even fined by the police. Remember that large malls and souks usually have the policy of “a respectable outfit.”
The same thing goes for any display of public affection, which can be problematic and illegal. It is also technically illegal for unmarried couples to stay together.
It is important to be cautious and not put yourself in an unavoidable problematic situation. To ensure a pleasant experience, make sure to read up on Dubai laws and regulations, as well as on your specific visa procedure before you go.
It is crucial to treat these legal nuances with respect. It is a different country with a different set of laws and mindset. Remember, a few respectable adjustments are a meager price to pay for gorgeous, adventurous, colorful, exclusive and memorable Dubai experience.