A week on Dubai’s The Palm

Our Emirates plane

The third of three big competition wins in as many years (after a 2018 Trek America Deep South Tour win and a 5* weekend in Cannes win in 2019), my 2020 prize – consisting of a week all inclusive basis at a hotel on The Palm in Dubai, return economy flights and private transfers – had been booked, cancelled and delayed a few times since I won it at the height of Covid restrictions. With Dubai remaining on the ‘red list’ for much of 2020 and 2021 and then heavy restrictions on testing and isolating once we could technically travel there, we were beginning to wonder if it would ever be the right time to go.

Extra space on the plane

In fact, it had been so long since I won the prize that the hotel it was in conjunction with, Sofitel Dubai The Palm, was under new management and the terms and conditions of when we could take the prize had changed from having just a few obvious blackout dates which coincided with school holidays to having only very limited low and off-peak dates allowed. But with a ‘take it or lose it’ ultimatum now that travel was starting up again, we plumped for a week in May, right on the cusp of Dubai becoming unbearably hot and outdoor bars and terraces beginning their summer shutdown.

Luckily, by the time we flew, most restrictions on travel had been lifted with no requirement for us to take any PCR tests as we were fully vaccinated and masks only having to be worn on the airplane and indoors once in Dubai.

The view at night from our hotel room

We’d been booked on an early flight from London Heathrow on the Saturday morning so had decided to stay in an airport hotel the night before. Using public transport to access the airport itself, we had chose to stay at the Premier Inn for Heathrow T2/3, just a short distance from the airport but not walkable with the under-the-runway tunnel for vehicles only and still a rather expensive taxi ride of you don’t want to grapple with luggage on the local buses. The airport does offer a Hopper Bus which transfers passengers between the airport and its main hotels but we found this didn’t run late enough into the evening or early enough the next morning to suit us.

We were up early on Saturday morning to meet our pre-booked taxi to take us back to the airport. Flying with Emirates from Terminal 3, we were relieved that despite media coverage of lengthy check in and security queues at UK airports, it didn’t take us any longer than usual to reach the departures lounge where we grabbed some breakfast before it was time to board.

Our flight wasn’t full so we were allocated 2 seats either end of the middle 4 giving us plenty of room to spread out on the 2 empty seats between us. As I’ve always found with Emirates, there was a great selection of TV shows and films to keep us occupied on the 7-hour flight and the food wasn’t bad for plane food!

Above, lunch at Maui Beach Bar, and below, a cocktail by the pool and a walk along the private beach

Arriving into Dubai on time despite a slightly delayed departure, we were met straight after clearing immigration by our transfer company, Arabian Adventures, pointing us in the right direction to meet our driver once we’d reached arrivals and given a welcome pack with information on tours and our pick up time for our transfer back to the airport at the end of our trip.

Quickly locating our driver, we were soon on our way to The Palm, memories of my last (and first) trip to Dubai flooding back as we passed some familiar landmarks along the way.

Pulling up at our hotel, our luggage was whisked away and we were shown to the reception area to check in before being escorted to our luxury seaview room. The room was bright and spacious with two large twin beds as we’d requested and a large balcony overlooking the pool. As it was already dark, and a ‘dusty’ Dubai day, we couldn’t see much beyond that but looked forward to checking out our view in daylight the next morning. Our luggage was brought to our room not long after we arrived there ourselves so after quickly freshening up, we headed out to dinner.

Above, view of Atlantis from The Pointe, and below, at The Pointe

Despite our prize being an all inclusive stay, this didn’t really exist in the hotel in the form I know it as for European package holidays at least. Rather than all inclusive, we were actually staying full board with an inclusive drinks package added on.

With a variety of bars and restaurants on site there were an awful lot of rules on what was and wasn’t included and with it being late and certain restaurants having to be pre-booked, we had been advised to make use the Manava Buffet restaurant that evening.

Down by the beach

This certainly turned out to be a good choice as we found plenty of dishes on offer to suit two rather fussy eaters! We were told as we entered that the night’s theme was simply ‘international’ and there was a real range of dishes available. We both left feeling full up.

Breakfast the next morning was also held in the Manava restaurant and was again pretty impressive with a range of hot dishes, continental options and both pancakes and waffles! From here, we headed straight out to the main pool area around the hotel’s lagoon pool and soon found sun loungers under the shade of an umbrella.

Above, and below, the view from our balcony

Most loungers had a table next to them with a button on to press for service when we wanted a drink or food. Having the inclusive drinks package, we were brought a laminated menu listing what was available to us. While this menu was limited, not being big drinkers, there was more than enough on it for what we wanted.

Above, and below, spending the evening by Dubai Marina

Our full board package including 3 meals a day, we decided to leave our sunloungers to sit and have dinner at Maui Beach Bar where we had a limit per person on what we could spend as part of our package or could pay the difference if we wanted something that cost a little more.

At Jumeirah Beach Residence’s The Walk

While there was plenty on offer on the menu, there was a lack of smaller snacky lunch time meals – my BLT sandwich came with a huge portion of fries and was as big as a main evening meal, way more than I needed after a big breakfast and before another meal to come later that day and later in the week, I found myself asking to order off the children’s menu instead – luckily the staff were happy to bring me the kids’ grilled cheese!

We spent the day relaxing by the pool and taking regular dips in the lagoon pool to cool off not returning to our room until early evening. We had booked dinner at the hotel’s World Eatery restaurant that night but upon arriving there for our reservation, were told it was closed with a later opening time that night! Disappointed, we returned to the Manava buffet restaurant instead. Once again enjoying the range of food on offer here we decided to stick to this restaurant for the remainder of our stay!

Peering into the Shark Lagoon at Atlantis Aquaventure

With the daytime temperatures being so high and having been to Dubai before, we had decided to spend most of our days on the hotel complex and use evenings for sightseeing. The Palm is not the easiest place to navigate with public transport being mainly non-existent so we used taxis to get around each night.

This evening, we had decided to stay on The Palm to visit The Pointe, a new shopping and entertainment complex which had only recently opened. The main draw for us was The Pointe’s Fountain Show, billed as the largest in the World and running every half hour from 6pm til late. With a show scheduled to start, we, along with all the other visitors that evening, made our way to the barrier overlooking the fountains expectantly only for nothing to happen! Deciding to wait half an hour and see if the next show was on, we went for a walk down to The Pointe’s beach area overlooking the famous Atlantis hotel across the water grabbing an ice cream along the way. As we made our way back for the next scheduled show, we heard a worker telling someone that they weren’t on that evening and again, despite crowds gathering at the barrier at the scheduled time, nothing happened. Disappointed, we got a taxi back to our hotel and went for drinks there before heading to bed.

An evening drink

The next day was another relaxing day, this time spent mainly on the hotel’s private beach and in the sea. That evening, after another trip to the buffet restaurant, we caught a taxi down to Dubai’s Marina Walk. The marina looks especially impressive at night with its towering buildings lit up and reflected in the waters and dhow boats transporting tourists on dinner cruises. From here, we walked to the Jumeirah Beach Residence area and The Walk, a lively beach side area lined with hotels, bars and restaurants before catching a taxi back exhausted by the heat of the night.

A ‘dusty day’ – the view of the marina in the distance disappearing after a sandstorm

We were up a bit earlier the next morning to grab breakfast before heading off-site for the day to visit Atlantis Aquaventure Waterpark. It was just a mile’s walk along The Palm’s Crescent from our hotel but with the heat an already stifling 30-something degrees at 9am and with taxi’s being relatively cheap, we decided to ride there instead.

Arriving at the park, we made our first mistake of the day. Although we’d be taking our towels, sun lotion and flip flops around the park with us, we’d hired a (rather expensive) small locker for the day to put our valuables in and had chose to put these things in a locker near the front entrance of the park. Not realising the size of the park, this meant we had a long trek back every time we needed to return to get something! (We later found out there were lockers a bit more central and that we could move our things to a different locker free of charge.)

Our second mistake was to jump straight on the first ‘ride’ that we saw – what we assumed was a lazy river – without studying the map or investigating the park further. Not only did the ‘lazy river’ turn out to be a rather vigorous and raging rapids ride for the most part, it also turned out to be the longest in the World of such a ride and, being unfamiliar with the park, we were soon lost along the course with no idea where we got on – or where we should get off – the ride! This caused lots of laughs as we lunged into rapids section after rapids section until eventually, what must have been a good 30-45 minutes later(!), one of the park’s lifeguards said to us “Oh, you’re riding again?” as we drifted past, signalling to us that we’d finally done a complete lap and getting off at the next exit to find where we’d left our flip flops, sun lotion and towels!

The lagoon pool outside the Sofitel Dubai The Palm hotel

Finally off the rapids ride, we found our way to the first of the three towers containing the park’s main waterslides. We started at the closest tower to the entrance, the Tower of Neptune, home to the infamous Leap of Faith ride but both decided to forego the body slide rides in favour of those we could sit on a double raft to ride down together.

After doing a couple of the lower level rides here, we moved on to the Poseidon Tower, home of some of the park’s family rides. Riders needed to be in groups to ride these which worked in our favour as we got to jump the queue when 2 more riders were needed to fill a boat on the Zoomerango slide and then again on the Aquaconda.

From here, we walked down to the final, and newest, tower, the Trident Tower where we waited in our longest queue of the day waiting 30 minutes to ride the new Odyssey of Terror group slide as well as riding what became our favourite ride, Shockwave.

Cooling off in the sea

With the sun beating down in the hottest part of the day, we found our feet burning as we walked from the ride exits back to pick up our flipflops left in the open storage areas back at the tower entrances. It was only when we walked back to our locker at the front of the park that we realised our third mistake -the aquasocks we had seen many visitors to the park wearing to protect their feet and which we’d assumed had to be purchased from the gift stores, were actually available for free from guest services!

Collecting our pair from a booth near the entrance, it was a relief to be able to walk between ride exits and entrances without worrying about the balls of our feet!

After lunch sat out on the Atlantis hotel beach, which was accessible from the waterpark, we spent the afternoon revisiting the three towers riding any slides we’d not yet been on and revisiting those we’d enjoyed the most before catching a taxi back to our hotel.

Drinks back at the hotel

Arriving back to our room later than we would have on a pool day and therefore being later for dinner, we decided to have an evening in going for drinks at a hotel bar instead of sightseeing in Dubai that evening.

With the stifling heat continuing for the rest of our stay, we abandoned our tentative plan to have a ride into Old Dubai one of the days and instead spent the rest of our week relaxing on the beach and around the pool on site. We did make it out to Madinat Souk Jumeirah one evening for a spot of souvenir shopping and a walk along the canal to see the famous 7* Burj Al Arab hotel and then back to The Pointe on our penultimate evening after we got confirmation that the fountain show was definitely going ahead that night!

Unfortunately, on our departure day, we had been booked on a morning flight, the early start meaning we lost the chance for one last breakfast buffet at the hotel’s Manava restaurant but the hotel staff were very accommodating making us up a takeaway breakfast of fruit, pastries and drinks for our journey.

It had been a very different type of holiday than I’m used to – lots of time to relax and unwind instead of dashing around sight-seeing – but I’d enjoyed every minute of it!

First time trip to Dubai

Dubai. I’d been through the airport (and what an airport!) on trips to Australia and New Zealand many a time and always said that one day I’d leave the airport and actually visit the city either as a stopover or as a holiday in itself. Despite this, each year, it never came up as a destination I ever seriously thought about going to, maybe because I do a lot of trips independently and it felt like the type of holiday to do with friends and almost definitely because of the cost – it always seemed a lot to spend on flights and a hotel for somewhere I’d only want to spend a few days. But when my friend and I were awarded some compensation for a heavily delayed flight, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to finally see beyond the airport’s passport control gates!

Our compensation money went a long way towards funding our 6-night stay. Deciding on practicality over opulence, we settled on a stay at the Barcelo Residence Dubai Marina, serviced apartments rather than a hotel, meaning we could save a bit of money making our own breakfast and lunch and even dinner if we wanted to. The stay and the flights with Royal Brunei Airlines came to under £600 each in total. As we’d be arriving very early in the morning and leaving very late at night, we could have had the option of saving some money by not including the first and last night of our stay but that would have meant having to hang around to check in at 2pm after arriving at 5am on our first day and having to stay out all day til midnight on our departure day. So instead we decided to bookend our 4 full nights with extra nights each side. This worked out well as it meant when we arrived just before 5 in the morning, our apartment was ready and we were able to have a few hours sleep before getting up at about 11am, feeling refreshed and ready to go; and on our flight home day we were able to leave our things in the apartment all day and go back to shower and freshen up before checking out just after midnight to get to the airport.

Although living nearer Birmingham, we flew from Heathrow as the flights were a lot cheaper from here. Despite regularly flying from Heathrow, I’d not been to Terminal 4 before and was surprised at how small it was compared to the other terminals with just a handful of shops and restaurants on the departure concourse. Flying with Royal Brunei Airlines was another first for me – again chosen purely because they were the cheapest flights on offer – but I was impressed with theHub flight, staff and in-flight service and wouldn’t hesitate in booking with them again. I would usually look into using public transport to travel between the destination airport and my accommodation but seeing as we arrived at 3.30am, and especially after a very long process waiting for shuttles to take us to passport control in the huge Dubai airport, we just wanted to get there so jumped in a taxi instead. Luckily our driver was familiar with our apartment block and we were soon there, checked in and in our room asleep!

Our 32nd floor serviced apartment was lovely – good sized, well-equipped kitchen, living area with a large TV, separate bedroom with a huge king-sized bed and a really nice bathroom but the best thing about it was the view of the marina and the beach! It was so nice to open our curtains each morning and look out to blue skies and that view and just as amazing to look out and see Dubai all lit up at night.

Walking by Dubai Marina

We had roughly planned how to spend each day in advance, deciding on buying a Turbo Pass tourist card which basically gave us access to the hop on/off sightseeing bus service for the entirety of our stay along with all the inclusions that usually come with it (boat trips, Atlantis aquarium…) and also included a trip up the Burj Khalifa observation deck and a desert safari so after a quick trip to the convenience store next to our apartment block to pick up some supplies, we took a stroll to the Marina Mall where we could redeem our Turbo Pass e-ticket.

The roof at the Marina Mall

We easily navigated our way to the Marina walk and found the Mall. We had been slightly worried about dress code inside the malls of Dubai and had both worn cut-offs that covered our knees and slipped on cardigans when we entered the mall but most tourists we passed inside were dress like they were heading to the beach in shorts and vest tops! The mall was huge and it took a while to find the Dubai Bus vendor but once we had located it, our e-ticket was quickly exchanged for our bus pass. The bus offered 3 different tour routes and we jumped on the Marina route bus which would take us to Dubai’s famous Palm Jumeirah and Atlantis hotel.

Atlantis, The Palm
Entering The Lost Chambers Aquarium

We hopped off at the Atlantis and were given wristbands for our included entry into The Lost Chambers Aquarium just inside the hotel. The hotel really reminded me of the themed hotels in Vegas with it’s attention to detail. We had a quick wander around the parts open to non-residents including a ‘street bazaar’ down one of the passageways before heading to the aquarium. While not being much different to visiting the local sealife centre, we had still had fun looking at all the colourful fish on display.

Looking out to sea from Atlantis Hotel

After leaving Atlantis, we jumped back on the bus and listened to the commentary for the rest of the route, hopping off again once we’d reached the marina again. The sun was just starting to go down so we returned to our apartment to freshen up before going to find somewhere for dinner.

The Walk

For dinner that – and most – evenings, we visited The Walk, a lively area sandwiched between Jumeirah Beach and the Jumeirah Beach Residence where lots of cafes and restaurants are situated. Over the course of the trip, we had good and relatively well-priced meals at restaurants in the area including Margherita Pizzeria and Mighty Quinn’s BBQ.

Full from dinner, we wandered around The Walk a bit more before fighting the jetlag to visit Hilton The Walk’s Skybar. We’d had this recommended as a nice rooftop bar by friends who had previously visited and had read that every Tuesday was ‘Ladies Night’ where there were free drinks for all ladies after 9pm! We had the rules explained to us by bar staff – coupons were provided for a few free drinks from a set list and there was also unlimited access to treats including a chocolate fountain with marshmallows and fruit to dip in!

On our second day, we decided to take the marina and lagoon boat tour included in our bus ticket. We made it to the Marina Mall ticket booth in what we thought was plenty of time to make the next boat only to be told we had a 10 minute walk to where the boat departed from! Deciding to make a dash for it, we hurried off and found the boat just in time. The boat was one of the traditional Dhow boats used in the evening for dinner cruises. During the day, the cruises don’t include the food or entertainment but instead cruised out from the marina to the ocean for views of Jumeirah Beach and the Palm. There was a sporadic commentary as we sailed in which we learnt that much of the area we were cruising through had not existed just 10 years earlier and was still just desert. The constant development and expansion of the country was something we saw a lot of during our stay. Construction work was going on in every direction – new skyscrapers, new hotels, new beaches and islands…!

Camels on the beach!

After lunch at a bar along The Walk, we spent a couple of hours on Jumeirah Beach. While sat relaxing, we were surprised as a couple of camels wandered along the shore and continued up the beach towards the Palm. Certainly not something you expect to see everyday!

With it being another hot and humid day, I decided to cool off with a dip in the crystal clear water only to discover it was warm and didn’t really help me to cool down at all!!

This evening, we had booked a place on a desert safari. We were picked up at our apartments and taken along with some fellow tourists out of the city to see the sand dunes of Dubai. Here, we drove around in a 4 by 4 jeep, up and down across the huge dunes. There were a few times I thought the car was going to flip over but it was great fun and I wished we had spent a bit longer on this part of the trip. Instead, we were then dropped at a ‘Bedouin camp’ in the desert where as soon as we exited the vehicle, we were pounced upon by people trying to sell us a variety of trinkets and experiences – a traditional headscarf was placed on my head before I even knew what was going on, someone else tried to place a falcon on our arm for a photo, others shouted at us to take a camel ride to the tallest dunes for yet another photo opportunity.

We politely turned down these offers and instead took the included activities – a free camel ride in which the poor, grumpy camel literally walked around in a circle (this was more than enough of a ride for my friend!), trying on traditional Arab robes and having a henna tattoo – before we were asked to take our seats for the buffet meal and traditional entertainment.

While for the most part, the food didn’t suit my very plain taste, I still found enough to eat to fill up on and the entertainers – a spinning dancer and a flame juggler – were fantastic. The night finished very abruptly not long after the meal service had finished and we all piled out of the camp to look for our driver to take us back to the city and our apartment.

On our way to the desert safari, we had had our first glimpse of the Burj Khalifa, Dubai’s tallest building and the tallest building in the World. We had booked a trip to the observation deck today so began our morning navigating our way there on public transport. Using the metro system turned out to be relatively easy but we we didn’t count on was the long walk from the station and through the huge Dubai Mall to find the entrance to the building!

Once we arrived it didn’t take too long queuing for the elevator to take us to the top. The views were stunning although I was a little disappointed that the observation deck was nowhere near the top of the building (although still higher up than any other observation deck in the world!)

We spent about an hour on the observations deck then managed to find our way back through the huge mall to the viewing area for the Dubai fountains show. Similar to the fountain show in from of the Bellagio in Las Vegas, these fountains ‘dance’ to the music. There are limited show during the day and then more regular shows in the evening. While we enjoyed watching the fountains dance, we both agreed it would be more magical at night and made a mental note to return one evening before leaving the city.

Burj al Arab

From Dubai Mall, we took another hop on/off bus tour, this time the Beach Tour route. This took us out of the built up downtown area towards Jumeirah Public Beach passing the famous sail-shaped Burj al Arab hotel along the way. We hopped off the bus at Souk Madinat, at shopping centre themed like a traditional Middle Eastern Bazaar. It was a great place for souvenir shopping and out the back there were canals where you could take boat rides and lots of cafes and restaurants to sit out at enjoying the views.

We spent about an hours at Souk Madinat before catching the next bus. The next stop was at the Mall of the Emirates, another huge shopping centre. We had half an hour to wait before our connecting bus back to the marina area departed so had a wander around but had to be very careful not to get lost!

That evening we had a night out at nearby club, Zero Gravity. Most of the venue is outside and the club opens during the day for pool parties too. The club attracts quite a few well known acts and DJs and that evening, Europop group The Vengaboys were playing. It was a really fun night out at a great venue!

The Vengaboys on stage at Zero Gravity

After the extra late night, we slept in late the next morning but once up and awake, we hopped on the metro to the Dubai Mall where the final sightseeing bus route, the downtown loop, departed from. This route took us through downtown past the Egyptian-themed WAFI mall (yes, yet another shopping centre – I’ve never known a city with so many!!) and up to Dubai Creek.

We hopped off the bus by the Creek in Bur Dubai and caught an Abra boat across to the Deira area on the other side. Abras are tradition wooden boats which act like water taxis ferrying locals back and forth across Dubai Creek for just 1 Dirham (approximately 20p in UK money!). It was certainly an interesting way to travel squashing onto the side of the raft-like boat and I was quite glad when we safely reached the other side!

Our sightseeing bus ticket included a cruise along Dubai Creek departing from the Deira area. We had hoped to have time to visit some of the local Souks or markets in the area but traffic had delayed the bus meaning by the time we had crossed the creek, we were just in time for the last departure of the day. Once again, the cruise was on a traditional Dhow boat and there was a bit of a commentary of what we were passing as we cruised back and forth along the Creek.

After our boat trip we caught the last sightseeing bus back to Dubai Mall and spent some time looking around and trying not to get lost! The mall is the largest shopping centre in the world and has a huge aquarium, fountains, an ice rink and many other attractions all under its roof. We ate dinner at the Rainforest Cafe where animatronic jungle animals screech and move all around as you eat before fighting our way through the Friday night crowds to watch the dancing fountains again.

As expected, watching the fountains at night, lit up and dancing to the traditional music, was much more atmospheric and special than it was watching during the day. We just about arrived early enough to find a good spot at the front with a great view but it is possible to book balcony seats at the overlooking restaurants to watch as you’re eating or even to watch from a boat!

Our walk back to the apartment from the metro station took us past the marina – the first time we had seen it lit up at night / so we spent some time wandering past the towering buildings and across the bridges watching the Dhow boats sail past before returning to our room.

It has been a busy week so we decided to have a bit more relaxed final day. We spent our time close to the area we were staying, walking a bit further along the marina walkways and venturing further along The Walk than we had before. After a light lunch at a cafe, we spent a lazy afternoon on the beach before returning to our apartment to pack up our things. After one last meal out on The Walk and one more wander past the bright lights of the marina, it was time to check out and get a taxi back to the airport.

I’d been pleasantly surprised by my visit to Dubai, having a great week exploring and I’d definitely like to return a few years down the line to see the latest developments in the ever changing and growing city!

Dubai Marina at night