Discover everything from camels to contemporary wonders and a very kid-centric way to explore this modern city full of superlatives.
“First,” says my driver, “we need to deflate the tires so it’s easier to drive over the sand.” I peer over the endless dunes of the Arabian Desert. Less air in the tires, you say? I have some serious doubts about arriving to the dinner oasis where the belly dancers, camels and falcons I’ve been looking forward to since I arrived in the Emirate of Dubai are waiting, but my Arabian Adventures driver assures me that he is the VERY best guide for the desert adventure. Then he pulls up a photo of a shirtless Zac Efron standing in front of a sand dune, their arms around each other, mega smiles matching the mega dunes behind them. “He was here last month, and we had a great time!” Who am I to argue with the man who drove Zac? So off we go, flattened tires on our Jeep and all, and set off in a caravan of cars to reach our desert safari.
The ride truly was an adventure in itself, “bashing” up and down the dunes as whole Jeep of visitors screamed, adrenaline pumping as we reached the top of the sand dune and then screeched down. Momentarily holding my breath while we stalled on top, safely knowing I was on the biggest dune, with the best driver, in the most over-the-top location in the world.
Picture Perfect Photo Ops
Dubai is a modern wonderland. Everywhere you look there’s something to catch your children’s imagination, starting with a landmark gold picture frame (the world’s largest, because being the “est,” biggest, tallest, largest, is one of the hallmarks in this modern Mecca). The arch soars 150 meters into the Dubai skyline – it’s a photo op extraordinaire. Ride to the top for city views and a glass floor that appears opaque until you stand on it and it seems like you’re dropping right out of the sky.
Views from Above
For the ultimate viewpoint, head to the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world. Soar up to 148th floor for unparalleled views over the city. The Burj is attached to the Dubai Mall, the biggest shopping center in the world, which in turn houses the Dubai Aquarium, which is billed as the the largest suspended aquarium in the world, and Underwater Zoo. Outside, don’t miss the dancing fountains set to music, the biggest of its kind anywhere (because, Dubai).
Hotels Where You Can Live Like Royalty
For a truly storybook vacation that feels like you’ve made a fantastical journey to a unique new land, base yourself at the Madinat Jumeirah. If you have an Arabian fairytale in mind when you’re visiting Dubai, this is your destination, with turreted buildings that look, and feel, like palaces connected by palm-lined waterways that you traverse by traditional abra boats. There are three separate properties that comprise the resort, all sitting on the golden sand that faces the Arabian Sea.
The Mina A’Salaam offers amazing views of the sail-shaped Burj Al Arab that lights up like a fireworks display every evening. The decadent Al Qusr features a three restaurant brunch buffet you have to see to believe every Friday (note that the work week in Dubai is Sunday to Thursday, and Friday is the day to indulge in brunch and family outings). Once you check in, it’s hard to tear yourself away to see the rest of Dubai. There are magnificent pools, 50 restaurants, a small kids club, and for kids, the award-winning Wild Wadi Waterpark, which is complimentary with your stay.
It takes a little effort to uncover the older section of Dubai, but it’s worth the effort to get a taste of the true culture of the area, and kids will enjoy all the unique aspects of a visit.
Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum became Emir 2006. And his Zabeel Palace is a lapidary spot that marks the transition from high-rise to the more historic parts of the city. You cannot visit the opulent, Buckingham-like palace, but you can roll up the picturesque drive to the gardens to visit the peacocks that get fed at 3:30 everyday.
Then head to Old Dubai to visit the Dubai Museum, located in a centuries old fort. The cool interactive displays, real sand on the floor, and dark corridors are ideal for any kid who loves Magic Treehouse books or stories about time travel. After your museum visit, head to the canal for a boat ride in a traditional wooden abra on your way to visit shopping souks for souvenirs (younger kids prefer the vibrant colors and outdoor setting as opposed to mega malls).
Theme Parks Galore
If your family includes fans of vacations that center on theme parks and rides, Dubai will delight your whole group with its numerous opportunities for big fun. Keeping things in the “bigger is better” category, Dubai Parks & Resorts comprises three separate theme parks, and a water park, connected by a dining and entertainment center (a little bit like the way Disneyland is laid out).
There’s a LEGOLAND full of rides to entertain 2 to 12 years old that also features the building legend’s only indoor “miniworld” where you’ll find towering replicas of the Burj Al Arab and Burj Khalifa (complete with dancing fountains), the Mosque, and many other wonders from the Middle East. For movie-themed tie ins, and bigger thrill rides, head to Motiongate for coasters and 4D action with theming from everything from DreamWorks (Madagascar, KungFu Panda, How to Train Your Dragon, Smurfs); Lionsgate (Hunger Games); and Columbia Pictures (Green Hornet and Ghostbusters). Finally, for a trip to India without additional airfare, Bollywood offers up lots of live entertainment, spicy curry and fun rides.
Beaches with Thrills
For more watery fun, head to the chic beach at La Mer, where the kid-size playgrounds, waterslides and myriad ice cream stops make a fabulous, and fashionable, day enjoying the sea and sun. Note: It’s fine to wear bathing suits at the beach, even bikinis, since Dubai is more liberal than you might expect. Just cover up when you head back out into the city.
The Ultimate Waterpark
If you want more big waterpark action, head to the manmade Palm Island (the largest manmade island in the world, natch) and Atlantis and its mega-Aquaventure for slip-sliding thrills and a fabulous aquarium with 65,000 marine animals, including dolphins, sharks and seals.
Flights that Are Part of the Adventure
Emirates Airline rolls out the red carpet treatment for kids in every class of service, with special meals, travel gifts, stuffed animals and hundreds of channels of entertainment. Check out the scoop on flying in business class on Emirates with your fam.
By Melissa Klurman