To the Infinity Pool and Beyond: A Desert and a Garden

Community Highlights Africa & The Middle East To the Infinity Pool and Beyond: A Desert and a Garden

The desert safari is a classic tourist activity in Dubai but it is rarely as intrepid as it sounds. The massive Empty Quarter desert abuts the metropolis of Dubai and in fact much of the city was reclaimed from the desert. Most so-called desert safaris are the local equivalent of going camping in a suburban park and that was totally fine with us. Adventure and danger are not high priorities for us when we travel. The safaris generally include a short drive on 4x4 vehicles into the desert followed by some quasi-adventurous activities like dune boarding and camel riding. The evening culminates in dinner and some kind of cultural performance. When I researched the many options the most important variables seemed to be price and the intensity of the dune driving. Some outfits described the drive as dune bashing, which is a high adrenalin activity in which the vehicle can become airborne after cresting tall dunes and involved quite a bit of jolting. Cleo and I might have enjoyed it but it wouldn't have worked out well for anyone else. I settled on Arabian Adventures which offered the basic, watered down version of the desert safari which was quite reasonably priced with a Ramadan discount. For the five of us it made sense to reserve a private vehicle with our own driver. I chose the Millennium Hotel as a pick up spot because it was across the road from the Museum of the Future and I figured we might spend the afternoon there before our safari.

As it turned out we stayed at the Dubai Aquarium until the last minute and then had a mad rush through afternoon traffic to meet our driver at the hotel at four o’clock. We arrived with enough time to appreciate a great view of the Museum of the Future with a backdrop of the Jumeirah Emirates towers. We could see a group of people standing on the inner curve of the structure looking like ants and I felt a pang of regret that I had cut the museum out of our itinerary. It was no great tragedy as I already knew about enough other stuff we weren’t going to get to do to justify a second trip to Dubai.

Our driver Tarek was an expat from Uzbekistan currently living in Dubai with his wife and son. His English and his professionalism were excellent and we set off for the desert with confidence. Along the way we discussed all the things we had done or hadn't done thus far in Dubai and I mentioned that we had cut the camel races out of the itinerary. Tarek told me we would be passing the Al Marmoom race track and we could take a short detour to see the camels. We accepted the offer happily and shortly afterward we were inside the facility. We didn't see any races which take place in the early morning but we saw plenty of camels being groomed and exercised. One of the most fascinating aspects of camel racing is the advent of robot jockeys earlier this century to replace the small children that were traditionally utilized for this purpose. The robots are constructed to resemble miniature humans, ostensibly to placate the nervous animals, including typical jockey outfits. Another unusual feature of the facility was the world's first camel hospital.

We soon arrived at a rendezvous point where there were about thirty other similar vehicles and I realized that our desert safari was going to be far from intimate. While Tarek set to work deflating our tires for dune driving I noted with interest that there were a fair number of elderly people and some couples with toddlers. I wondered how well they understood that there was some rough driving ahead of them. Soon after we took off again we entered the Empty Quarter desert, known as Rub' al Khali in Arabic. This was a protected reserve for sand gazelles and oryx and we saw several of the animals grazing nonchalantly in the grassier areas.

The flotilla of Jeeps entered the dunes single file and followed a serpentine path over and between the sandy hillocks. From the front seat I could see what we were in for from the degree of jolting in the vehicles ahead of us. It was a rough drive but not as bad as what we had experienced in the Utah slot canyons three years previously. It seemed like the perfect amount of excitement without a surplus of discomfort so I was pleased with the choice of tour we had made.

We made a couple of stops to enjoy the atmosphere of the desert and take some photos. At the second stop there was a pavilion set up with refreshments. The Arabic rugs on the sand and the wooden poles supporting beige curtains might have led me to imagine myself as the protagonist of a Karl May novel, had it not been for the hundred odd fellow tourists guzzling juice and dates.

The main purpose of the second stop was to capture photos of the sunset on the desert. Fortunately there was a good amount of space in which the large group could disperse. I had been a little worried that the cloudy sky would deprive us of our promised sunset but there were several gaps that allowed rays of light to slip through. The cloud cover actually provided an interesting backdrop that accentuated the changing panorama of colors as the sun slowly slipped below the horizon.

It was another short drive to our dinner location at a large, semi-permanent campground close to some tall dunes. Before dinner was served we got to participate in the promised activities of camel riding and dune boarding. These went about as one might expect for a large package tour. We rode the camels for about five minutes as a guide led them with a halter. Getting on and off was the fun part. For the dune boarding we had to carry our boards to the top of the hill and then we had to sit on them to go down. They had bindings like snowboards but we weren't permitted to try the activity in the standing position. Most people came to a halt before they reached the bottom of the dune. One time carrying my own heavy board as well as Spenser's uphill in the soft sand was enough for me.

The dinner set-up also had elements of a traditional desert bivouac with seat cushions arranged in front of low, long tables. We ate generous portions of a buffet dinner while a large and raucous group of young Chinese professionals sang at their group of tables. The evening concluded with a somewhat cheesy fire show on the wooden stage in the center of the camp. Afterwards Tarek took us all the way back to Deira via a regular road, wisely bypassing the dunes in consideration of our full stomachs.

Five full days in Dubai had flashed by and I still had plenty of items left on our itinerary. On Wednesday morning we had breakfast at the hotel and then took our customary cab ride down Sheikh Zayed Road to the Miracle Garden on the southern side of the city. The two hundred and fifty million plants packed into eighteen acres comprise the largest flower garden in the world. Once inside there isn't much to do except walk along the paths and take pictures of the enormous topiary structures featuring horses and elephants.

Besides the oversized animal figures the most impressive displays were a floral clock larger than any we had seen in Switzerland and an A380 Airbus that had been entirely covered in flowers. The Emirates logo was proudly displayed using flowers of a different color. The organizers of these Dubai attractions are always looking for opportunities for cross-promotion.

The Miracle Garden was a cool thing to see but there wasn't much reason to hang out more than an hour. There was a massive butterfly garden next door but we'd had our fill of butterflies over two trips to Costa Rica the previous year. I checked my list and found that the Storm Coaster, an intense indoor roller coaster, was housed in the Dubai Hills Mall just a short taxi ride from the garden. The mall was decent enough but paled in comparison to the Dubai Mall we'd visited the previous day. There was no line for the Storm Coaster and I bought three-ride packages for Cleo and Ian, the family roller coaster aficionados. Spenser declined to ride so I took him upstairs to the arcade and let him waste some money on the typical pointless games. Once the other two were done with the coaster they came up and played a little until Mei Ling had finished exploring the mall on her own. The only game that was worth the time was the chamber with balls that fell from the ceiling and had to be stuffed into a slot before time ran out. I thought Cleo did quite well but she was crestfallen when the attendant told her the record was more than double her score. There was also an adventure park with the typical climbing and obstacle courses but I didn't want to spend the whole day in the mall so we decided to leave that for another visit to Dubai.

Our next stop was Mirzam Chocolate Makers, where I was hopeful that the kids would be able to participate in one of the tours that included a moulding workshop. We found out on arrival that the workshops had been suspended during Ramadan but we were still able to check out the showroom and watch some of the machinery being operated through the Plexiglas walls of the shop. We bought a couple of extremely expensive, beautifully-packaged chocolate bars with exotic flavors such as figs and cinnamon and consumed them immediately so they wouldn't melt in the midday heat.

Mirzam was on a rather quiet street and for the first time we didn't immediately spot a taxi to take us to our next destination. We walked across the street where there was a beautiful mosque with several taxis parked in the lot. These were all empty as presumably their drivers were inside praying. We spotted another taxi entering the lot and flagged him down. As he drove us north on Sheikh Zayed Road he told us that he had been about to take a break for his afternoon prayer but couldn't turn down the chance to make a little more money that day.

The taxi dropped us off at Orfali Bros where we had a late lunch reservation. While researching restaurants in Dubai I had discovered that one respected gastronomic society had anointed Orfali Bros as the single best restaurant in the entire region of the Middle East and North Africa. Their number two was Trèsind Studio where we had had an amazing dinner a few nights earlier. By the time I got around to finalizing reservations Orfali was already booked for our available evenings but I was able to find a mid-week lunch slot at two in the afternoon. It was a charming if somewhat cramped space with a central bar and tall ceilings. Thankfully the menu was à la carte instead of prix fixe and we ordered about eight or nine of the small plates. Some of the most interesting dishes were tiny constructions intended to be consumed as a single bite, not ideal for sharing among a group of five. Overall there were more hits than misses but I much preferred the meal we had had at Trèsind Studio. Perhaps we were somewhat constrained by having to order dishes that would appeal to the kids as well as ourselves.

Once we were finished I somewhat belatedly decided we should try and link up again with my nephews. I'd forgotten how long it took them to get from Mirdif into the central city and after ten minutes of waiting outside the restaurant I decided we couldn't stand there another half hour. We began walking east towards the Gulf figuring that the boys could adjust their destination once they got a little closer to us. We walked through an interesting upscale residential area that was filled with two-story white villas. I suspected that most of them were vacation rentals due to their proximity to the beach. Just as we reached the shore Ralph and Drake arrived at Orfali Bros in their Careem and we had to redirect them to our new coordinates. Finally they pulled up and we were all together again with the Persian Gulf on one side and the skyline of downtown Dubai on the other.

All I had wanted to do was give the kids their first close look at the Indian Ocean but I had forgotten how difficult it is to drag kids away from a beach. Instead of a quick rendezvous at the shoreline followed by another cab ride to another neat Dubai attraction like Green Planet, the kids spent the next two hours digging in the sand and getting generally wet and filthy. By the time they finally agreed to leave the only place on my list that was still open was the 3D World Selfie Museum. We cleaned as much of the sand off as we could and strolled back along the beach in search of yet another pair of taxis.

This featured blog entry was written by zzlangerhans from the blog Fledgling Explorers.
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By zzlangerhans

Posted Tue, Apr 30, 2024 | United Arab Emirates | Comments