It’s 1am and 42 degrees celsius in Dubai. I’ve just landed and as I hand my passport over to the white-robed official at passport control, I expect him to be stoic and somewhat cold. He greets me warmly with a friendly “hello” and I’m a little confused. This is not the greeting I remember from my last (brief) visit to Dubai. I collect my bags and meet up with Ebrahim from Arabian Adventures, who creates a mobile hotspot on his iPhone so that I can check my emails.
I step out of the airport into a wave of thick, hot air. My clothes immediately stick to my body and I take a deep breath of humid air, which catches in my lungs. It’s a relief to step into our tour bus a few minutes later. It’s mid-summer in the Unites Arab Emirates and the holy month of Ramadan.
I’m visiting Dubai with Dubai Tourism South Africa to learn more about why this is a great time of year to visit. Because even though the summer heat is oppressive, you’re unlikely to spend more than a few minutes at a time outside of air conditioned areas. And for non-Muslim travellers, the holy month of Ramadan means reduced room rates, quieter attractions and the opportunity to learn about the Muslim faith and Emirati culture.
We wind through the streets lined with fairy light entwined palm trees and festive banners declaring Ramadan Kareem (blessed or generous Ramadan). Out of the car window I stare up at the twinkling lights of the Burj Khalifa – the tallest tower in the world. So tall that I can barely see the top of it. Just after 2am we arrive to check in at the Al Manzil Downtown Hotel and are presented with cold towels and the ubiquitous lemon mint drink.
Our hotel is located in the heart of Downtown Dubai and has been built in traditional Arabic style, to resemble the old town. My room is spacious and modern and overlooks the swimming pool. It’s late but there are three small buns resembling donuts next to my bed and I can’t resist biting into one. It’s sweet and light and filled with a creamy custard. My first bite of Dubai, and it’s delicious. (I later find out that it’s an Arabic fusion dessert called a Bomboloni)
Our first day starts relaxed, with lunch at the 3in1 Restaurant at the Vida Downtown. Even though during the month of Ramadan, Muslims fast from sunrise until sunset and eating is not allowed in public, visitors can still eat at most hotels and restaurants – especially in the Downtown area where dining areas are discreetly tucked away behind dividers.
Our lunch is a traditional Arabic mezze of salads, flat breads and hummus, followed by a selection of fish, chicken and lamb. We’re eating inside since it’s summer, but outside daybeds await invitingly next to the blue swimming pool. I’ll learn soon enough that every meal is served with dessert. Most often a combination of cheese cakes, Western desserts and Arabic desserts like stuffed dates.
After lunch we board a red City Sightseeing bus. Over the next two hours, we cruise the city in the upper, air conditioned deck and learn about the history of Dubai. This fascinates me. Imagine having the luxury of learning from the mistakes of every country and city in the world when planning yours. Dubai has literally risen from the dust in the last 50 years. With the benefit of hindsight, the city is connected by a 12 lane highway, with room for traffic growth in the future – just one of Dubai’s life hacks.
Later, we’re standing in an elevator that is jumping into the sky at 11 meters per second. My ears pop as the doors open to At.mosphere on the 122nd floor of the Burj Khalifa. My stomach goes ice cold and does a flip as I step up to floor to ceiling glass and look down over Dubai. The view is magnificent and spreads from Downtown all the way into the desert. We are 422 metres into the sky, just two floors from the top of the highest building in the world. My body is bristling with excitement.
We sit down to a high tea of tiny cakes and sandwiches. My elbow brushes the glass and I peer to my right, where the sun is setting over the Arabian sea. Delicious bites of macaroon, rare beef-filled mini croissants, tiny tuna sandwiches and sweet Arabian treats are paired with views that make my eyes water.
After freshening up in our hotel rooms, we head to The Address Hotel for cocktails on the 63rd floor at Neos. I’m dressed up in heels and dark lipstick and after taking a series of lifts, we walk through a parking lot lined with Maseratis and Lamborghinis. The lift doors open at Neos and I feel like I’m walking onto a movie set. The bar is beautiful, with elaborate lights hanging from the ceiling and every type of luxury alcohol you could dream of asking for.
The city by night is a whole other experience and we watch the fountain display from the balcony as a hot desert wind whips through our hair. Alcohol is served in bars during Ramadan after 8pm and I try the signature Level 63; a delicious blend of vodka, red grapes, lime, lime leaves, lemongrass and elderflower syrup. Please note, if you are going to be drinking in Dubai, especially during Ramadan when it will be easier to find drunkenly tourists (this is due to people participating in fasting) then you will have to do so in your own privacy, as laws over here can become quite strict. As an example read into the punishment for drunk driving and you’ll quickly realize you’ll be needing to be respectful during your time in Dubai.
At 11pm, it’s time for a Ramadan tradition; Suhour. This is the post-Iftar meal eaten in the early morning hours before fasting for the day begins. In Dubai, it is common for people to stay awake through the night, breaking their fast at sunset with dates and water before consuming a large meal. Then they will often smoke shisha and eat small portions for the rest of the night before morning prayers. In Dubai, work hours are shorter during Ramadan, so Muslim people will go home early to sleep or rest before the call to prayer and Iftar at sunset.
We walk into the Emaar Downtown Iftar tent and I can’t believe my eyes. It is beautiful. Set up specifically for Ramadan, the tent looks like an elaborate wedding venue, with a feast laid out down the centre of the tent. All around me, people are dressed in beautiful traditional wear, eating or smoking shisha. I try to keep my portions small, but it all looks delicious and I end up with a plate piled high with hummus, flatbread, butter chicken, rice jewelled with sultanas and a variety of pickled vegetables. I know there are places elsewhere, perhaps where you might not expect it, like Corinth, where certain restaurants are considering opening up areas where their customers can try hookah for themselves along with their other various delicacies. You can learn more online about what restaurants like this are doing to give their customers more unique experiences.
After our late dinner, it’s finally time for bed. I’ve seen and done and eaten so much that it feels like I’ve been here for a week.
*My visit to Dubai was sponsored by Visit Dubai South Africa. The trip was an initiative to learn more about Dubai and visiting during the holy month of Ramadan. I was in destination for three days. This is the telling of my first day.