Family Activities for a Dubai Stopover
The downtown Dubai skyline, with Burj Khalifa at its center, seen from the east.
The Dubai Fountains sway, squirt, change colors, and dance to pop music.
A cozy suite at the Ritz Carlton DIFC where connecting rooms are guaranteed.

Dubai is flush with contemporary superlatives because it was built to be just that; a city state with one of the world’s largest airports, its tallest building, the world’s third largest shipping port, the most opulent luxury hotel. All are part of a master plan among seven, oil-rich United Arab Emirates to co-exist in blinding prosperity. Dubai boasts so many shop windows and LEDs, crystal chandeliers and gold fixtures, that there’s plenty of eye candy to occupy families with a day (or a week) to visit.

On a recent Emirates flight, we arranged a 20-hour stopover in the 22nd century oasis that welcomes more than 13 million international travelers each year. Check out the video, below.

Insider Guidance from the Locals

With only a day to play in the region’s most famous playground, we were not going to spend it on a beach. That made the Ritz-Carlton Dubai International Financial Centre (DIFC), just 15 minutes without traffic from the airport and a 5-minute taxi ride to the major sites, the perfect base.

After a refreshing plunge into the DIFC penthouse pool (where attendants passed around coffee frappes and chilled washcloths), we sought advice from the concierge, then headed out to make the most of our layover.

First among Superlatives

The number one attraction, Burj Khalifa, has towered 848 meters or 160 stories above an impressive skyline since January 4, 2010. The undulating steel and glass minaret designed by Adrian Smith, then of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (who also did the original One World Trade Center in New York), boasts several world records:  highest observatory, highest outdoor deck, one of the fastest elevators in the world, some of the most expensive office rents, crowds that rival Times Square and even bigger than that on New Year’s Eve. 

A visit to Burj Khalifa is not cheap, “but you don’t visit Dubai,” my husband adds, “to save money.” We paid the upcharge (from the US$34 general admission to US$136) for an AtTheTop Experience in order to access the 148th floor indoor and outdoor observation decks.

Timed entries are through the gift shop known as the Dubai Mall (world’s largest with 4,000 stores), where our group of about 50 was escorted through Security (“No spray paint, No alcohol!”) to special elevators.

AtTheTop of Burj Khalifa

After clearing our ears, we were whisked into a smaller elevator straight to 148, where a private lounge with drinks and snacks awaited.

The experience? Amazing. The views?  Startling. 

Like the Las Vegas Strip, Dubai’s futuristic neon jungle is shallow, heaps of bling surrounded by palm trees and miles of desert. From that astonishing height, even the outline of the manmade Palm Island and the 305-foot-tall towers of the pink Atlantis, The Palm resort (which we recognized from the ads) looked minuscule.

Was it worth the price to go to 148? We went down to 125 (the indoor observatory) and 124 (indoor and outdoor), to find out. These levels had more educational information, a few shops, fundamentally the same extraordinary experience. However, the VIP ‘fast track’ elevator pass, which saved us more than an hour, was worth the dirham.

Dubai After Dark

The sun had set. We could have taken a Dhow Dinner Cruise on traditional Arab fishing boats plying Dubai Creek. We avoided AquaAventure, but more than a million other tourists enjoy the waterpark annually.  We considered hopping on the Big Bus double-decker bus tour to see more of the unusual blend of Arab, international, elegant and boastful buildings.

Instead, we hiked through the Dubai Mall, past the Dubai Aquarium whose towering glass walls enclose thousands of fish and sharks. We strolled through the Souk, a bazaar of traditional shops and pushcarts selling intricate handcrafts from the region. We crossed the pedestrian bridge to Souk Bahar and took a terrace table at Abd el Wadh, an excellent Lebanese restaurant overlooking the famous Dubai Fountains.

Our son had arranged to meet two friends from the millennial diaspora, one working as a private tutor to a sheik’s family, the other a data analyst for a multinational Kuwaiti investment bank. We sat back, ate and listened to their stories, pausing every 20 minutes as Madonna or Michael Jackson, Katy Perry or Adele inspired the enormous fountains to light up, shoot in the air, and crash down as thousands of camera phones clicked.

One Last Drop of Dubai

It was way past our bedtime, but the three young men headed to the bar in Café Belge at the Ritz Carlton DIFC, known among expats for serving the best Old Fashioned drinks in town. The scene was everything hoped for, a jumble of expats, suits, beautiful women.


Your Own Dubai Vacation

Ritz Carlton actually has two properties in Dubai, the 341-room downtown DIFC and a resort on Jumeirah Beach facing the Arabian Sea. The hotel’s PR team invited us to sample one of the residential suites beloved by relocating families, but each of the 341 hotel rooms has every modern convenience (including those you don’t anticipate.) The Club Level, with its private lounge and non-stop snacks and beverages, is especially popular. If you avoid the busy Christmas – New Year’s holidays and regional festivals, there are good values.

Emirates offers a Dubai Stopover package that includes one or two attractions, a hotel, and airport transfers for a quick introduction to the region. Tomini Tours is a local operator who arranges excursions to race cars at Ferrari World, go Dune Bashing and camel riding, rent boats at the Marina, or be guided through the neighboring Emirates.

Daily during January, the Dubai Shopping Festival takes over. Dubai is not known as the “City of Gold” for nothing, and the sales at its thousands of stores attract shoppers from the around the world on packaged vacations.

His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President of the UAE and Prime Minister of Dubai, made tourism a priority. It worked. This year, the city is number four on the MasterCard Global Destination Cities index, behind London, Bangkok and Paris for international travelers. Dubai International Airport welcomed more than 70 million arrivals in 2014, and a second airport is rising from the sand.

Maybe when Dubai hosts the World Expo 2020 (October 20 through April 10, 2021), we’ll see you there.



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