Tuesday, 24 October 2017

Dubai with children - safe yet glamorous or dull and overpriced?

Dubai’s the winter destination of choice for families desperate for a glimpse of sunlight to warm their weary bodies and minds. It’s safe, warm and convenient but does this actually translate into boring, artificial and sterile? We took our very young children there in early November to see what we thought. 

‘It’s not the first place on my bucket list’, admitted my husband. ‘But then watching Mr Tumble never used to be my TV programme of choice either.’ Life changes when you become parents, and somewhat lacking in sleep and gaining in dark circles under the eyes, we just wanted a holiday break that was straightforward and gave us a bit of sunshine. Our expectations were low. We thought Dubai would be, whisper it, a little classless and brash, but we needed some respite, and fast. So, like nearly 15 million other tourists, we chose Dubai.

Dubai’s fortunes have grown quickly, and exponentially. In 1966 oil was discovered, which set the path for rapid commercial growth. 12 lane roads sit adjacent to sky-high mega buildings. Billboard adverts litter the sidewalks. Impossibly glamorous Arabian and ex pat women exchange credit cards for glossy carrier bags filled with expensive goods. Everywhere shouts materialism. Dubai is obsessed with style and product and is not ashamed to shout about it from the rooftop. Building construction has been somewhat uncontrollable. Dubai does not do small. It has the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa, and the world’s largest shopping mall, naturally.

We took a taxi (cheap compared to how much other things cost in Dubai) from the Palm, where we were based, to downtown Dubai to visit the Burj Khalifa and Dubai Mall. Every day from 6pm until 11pm a fountain display (world’s largest of course) can be seen in front of the Khalifa. Our children were enthralled by this five minute display. They also loved just absorbing the sights in the Mall. Like the U.K, but bigger, and better. Shinier. Cleaner. Friendlier. Noses pressed flat on the glass wall entrance of the Aquarium watching the sand tiger sharks and stingrays (also, one of the largest in the world and housed in the Mall). For older children, there’s plenty more to keep them entertained. An Olympic-size ice rink, a 22-screen cinema. Theme parks, waterparks, Legoland, Kidzania.

Yet, Dubai is not all fashion and themeparks. If you are feeling active Kite Beach is a great spot for both children and adults. Skating, trampolines, playgrounds and unsurprisingly kite surfing are on offer here. There’s also the option to escape the glitz and glamour and head out into the desert to rough it under the stars in the Hajar mountains, ride camels and sandboard down orange-gold dunes.

Satisfied we had seen the main tourist attraction, we retreated to our resort for the rest of our holiday, and made the most of the weather, the surroundings and the outstanding service. Dubai knows how to do resorts. Our resort was Asian in style and architecture, with a sublime spa and a choice of accommodation from cosy whitewashed poolside cabins to 2-bedroom suites with spectacular views of the Dubai skyline.

We had a range of quality restaurants with different world cuisines from Mediterranean to Chinese to choose from, though we stuck to the all-you-can eat buffet. The kids could choose what they wanted, they could get up and down numerous times without impatient sighs coming from other tables, and best of all, there was a kid’s club on site. It meant my husband and I could relax and look forward to eating great food without rushing or worrying that our children were causing havoc. That alone was worth paying for. Service was brilliant, with waiters refreshing our drinks regularly, and clearing up endless piles of mess made by children.

Young children are easily amused, and so lazy days were spent by the huge lagoon-shaped poolside (shallow with sand brought in and palm trees to create shade) or in the kid’s club. My children adored the staff and activities here. The staff were amazing with children and genuinely seemed enthusiastic about their jobs. Under 4s have to be accompanied by an adult but once they reach four you can leave them with staff for a few hours, which I would definitely be happy to do, given the quality of care given. Come sunset, we would all meander a few metres to the beach, order a cocktail and watch the red liquid sun set under the calm waters of the Arabian gulf.

Dubai is one massive theme park/shopping mall with a sprinkling of beach. It’s materialistic, upfront and artificial and there is no escaping this. Yet, this is also what makes it a rather fascinating place to visit as there is nowhere else like it. We were surprisingly charmed by Dubai's unabashed need to do everything on a large scale and we had a fantastic time because of the level of care we received and the genuine friendliness we felt from people we met. In fact the biggest thing really about Dubai is its heart. If you embrace the country for what it is you can expect a warm welcome from your Dubai hosts.

When to go
November to March is considered the best time to go as the weather is warm but not uncomfortably so.

Where to stay
Take your pick from budget to luxury. We stayed on The Palm at the child-friendly Anantara Resort, from £225pn.

Essential details
Flight time from London airports takes between 7-8 hours, which just about manageable for young children, particularly if they have the treat of on flight entertainment.
Dubai is 4 hours ahead of GMT, which means some jet lag is inevitable but not excessive.
Currency is the Dirham. Rates are 4.82AED to 1GBP (November 2017). A pint of beer typically costs 40AED.

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