As much as I love Indian summer in September and crisp sunny mornings in October, November is my least favourite time of the year – its cold, rainy and grey. It gets dark by 5pm. Christmas is not quite there yet. Nobody is getting drunk on mulled wine. Nobody is getting drunk at all actually, because people go on a diet before all the Christmas eating starts (seriously!). In short, if you live in Europe where there is no Halloween or Thanksgiving, you have nothing to do here in November except for getting the hell out of here. And I do – almost every year.
One option is of course to just go to the US, eat some turkey and start your xmas shopping. Another, and my preferred, is to go somewhere warm.
One of my favourite November escapes due to its climate and relative proximity (5-6hrs flight) is Dubai. I’ve been there many times and can highly recommend it to people who want to get some sunshine and enjoy 31°C warm sea (no kidding, its like in a bathtub) without being confined to a remote island or traveling too far. However, if you want to bask in white, powdery sand while drinking from a fresh coconut, getting a foot massage from a Thai yoga teacher and listening to parrots in the palm tree, Dubai is definitely not the right place for you (that place is Seychelles – see next post). It’s not that typical idyllic holiday destination – it’s a real city with its skyscrapers, traffic, construction sites, noise and everyday life. Also, it’s in a desert – so there is no nature except the sea. And finally, most of the city was just built during the past 30-40 (or as far as I could witness, 10) years – so there are no old cathedrals (or rather mosques) or any historically invaluable sites to visit. Well, unless you think that a mall is the “new” museum and window shopping is just like going to Musée d’Orsay (I’m not being sarcastic here – there are similarities like the process of looking at what’s shown to you, not being able to afford most of the stuff, fashion being “art” and me getting much more excited about a Valentino dress than the burial cloth of Tutankhamun).
That said, Dubai still offers the best mix of “amazing weather&beach when it sucks at home”, “name the food you want – they have it” and “all shops out there in one single mall for people who want to save time (but not money) on shopping”. The place is full of super new and modern, elegantly designed hotels, restaurants, bars, clubs and tons of other types of entertainment. Quality standards, architecture and design are great. Food and bars are beyond awesome – really new and shiny, across any cuisines and cultures you can come up with. Really authentic too since Emiratis don’t seem to work much and invite all kinds of people to come over and cook for them (among other things…this is the main reason why they are trying really hard to fill every piece of existing and non-existing land with hotels and create an alternative revenue to oil). So in a way Dubai is a combination of a beach break (some hotels do try and succeed at creating an idyllic retreat atmosphere with great smelling spas and hammocks by the water) and a type of Miami/NYC weekend with great food, window or real shopping and clubbing.
So here are some tips for your trip:
- Madinat Jumeirah (with Al Qasr and Mina a’Salam) is clearly the best hotel in Dubai. Essentially it’s something like 3 different hotels with different price&quality levels. They share the beach and the garden. The hotel is amazing – beautiful, right on the beach, with tons of great restaurants&bars, great spa, great service etc. The place is huge (and looking like a mix between Venice and a town from 1000&1nights) and at the same time intimate with little free-standing villas and pools hidden behind palm trees. Everything is connected by canals and you can go from place to place by boat. Here you actually forget all about what I said previously – that there is a large city around you etc. You can just stay in this hotel for a week without going anywhere if you don’t want to and have an amazing time. But like always in life, there is a huge “but” – the price. It’s really expensive – especially now after prices in Dubai tripled for some reason. So if you can’t afford to stay there, just go for dinner or check out the gardens and open-air bars
- Grosvenor House: my favourite hotel if you consider price, quality, design, spa, food, etc. It has some of the best restaurants&bars in Dubai (see below) and is in general a very cool place to be. It opened 2 years go, so everything is still top-notch. It’s not directly on the beach, but guests can use the beach of Royal Meridien, which is nearby
The Royal Meridien: I found this hotel by accident 5 years ago and since then haven’t seen a better one in terms of price/quality/location. The hotel is at the beach (although not right at the water – there is a stretch of sand between hotel umbrellas and the sea). The garden is beautiful and there are 1o or so really nice restaurants. Rooms are getting dusty though and there are also lots of kids around. So lately I’ve been staying in Grosvenor House and using the beach here. It’s still a better choice than the Ritz Carlton or any other hotel in the same bay
Don’t stay at Atlantis (basically a tourist attraction, tons of people, far away, you have to wait ages for a taxi, the beach is crap, overpriced), Jumeirah Beach hotel (huge and loud, crowds, getting really old…I dont know…just really not nice), Habtoor (hotel right next to the Royal Meridien – looks nice from the outside, but old and dusty, awful service) and Hilton (just awful).
- Al Maha: if you are up for a “different” experience, try this hotel in the desert. It’s not for me, but some friends say it’s magical :-)
Restaurants & bars
As I said, there are so many restaurants in Dubai (over 5,000 on Tripadvisor), that it’s impossible to try out all of them. Out of maybe 40 I’ve tried, my faves are these:
- Rhodes Mezzanine: at Grosvenor House, created by the famous chef Gary Rhodes, the place totally deserves its star. Food is amazing. I never thought that I would say that about English food, but the stuff is one of the best I’ve ever eaten. Design of the restaurant used to be so so (very girly), but they are currently renovating and opening in Jan 14 with a totally different style.
Rhodes Twenty 10: second restaurant by Gary Rhodes and theoretically a steak house (although you can eat foie gras, fish and anything else there as well). Not as good as Mezzanine by far, but also great food. The design of the restaurant and the bar are great
Buddha Bar: also at Grosvenor House. Great restaurant and also a great bar with an amazing decor and fresh seafood. Cool vibe. Get a table in the smoking area though – it’s much more fun even if you don’t smoke.
Siddharta Lounge: and another at Grosvenor House (there are like 15 restaurants, all of which are good. Also try out Toro Toro!). Food is average, but the open air bar is great. Come here for drinks after dinner
Al Qasr and Madinat: there are so many good restaurants here, all of them outside, from affordable Mexicans to really high-end places. Just go and try out what appeals to you more. The bar at the beach is also great
La Petite Maison: if you do venture out of your hotel and go sightseeing or if you are in Dubai on business and stay in the financial district, go to this place for brunch or dinner. It’s light, airy and very Mediterranean. Food is delicious
Ossiano: at Atlantis. The main highlight of this place is that you can eat Spanish tapas while staring into a huge aquarium full of sharks and other fish. The food is not bad either (I think the guy running this place is a 3 star chef)
Armani Ristorante: A restaurant in the Armani hotel at Burj Khalifa is worth a visit mainly due its interior design and location in the tallest building of the world (albeit on the first floor). Just the drive up to the front doors is worth it. The fountain show outside the tower is also a great entertainment during dinner. Food…well, I wouldn’t say it’s bad, it’s quite good actually, but I’ve been to better Italian restaurants where prices matched the quality and truffles actually smelled.
Dubai Mall and Burj Khalifa – there are tons of restaurants here with great views of the tower in all price ranges. Try out BiCe Mare for brunch or Asado for steak.
- Dubai Mall: for shopping, eating, watching sharks in a huge aquarium and just walking around. I think you can actually also ski here and probably do tons of other things. Re. shopping: it’s a huge myth that prices are better in Dubai (maybe compared to Moscow, but def. not to Europe or the US), but what is true is that you can find any shop you want. Shops that exist only in the US or only in London or Paris all find their way into this mall sooner or later. So if you want to save time and can’t go to NY or London, this is the place to be
Water Park at Atlantis Hotel: really cool with aquariums, roller coasters, a diving centre etc. Cool with kids and without
Desert safaris (in a car or on a quad) or skydiving at sunset (over a desert or next to the Royal Meridien hotel)
Spa: some hotels offer day spas for non-guests (Burj al Arab, Grosvenor House, etc) – some spas are reeeeeeally nice
For me, the best thing is just swimming and enjoying the dry, warm air – it’s the best kind and every time a come back I feel relaxed and strengthened for any kind of European winter.