The insider advice on this page is from one of Wendy’s Trusted Travel Experts for the United Arab Emirates: Justin Parkinson of Linara Travel.
Justin’s frequent trips to the Indian Ocean over the past 14 years make him uniquely qualified to match you with the specific island, resort, and overwater bungalow—even with the specific dive instructor or massage therapist—that best suit your needs. This is especially crucial in the Maldives, where you’re likely to spend all of your time at a single, private-island resort, and there are new properties opening every few months. In the Seychelles, Justin can help you rent a car to go exploring and point you to the best beaches and hiking trails. Given how many people fly to the Indian Ocean via Dubai, he has become an expert on the United Arab Emirates too (see Dubai and Abu Dhabi) and can help you save money there so that you can splurge in the islands. When he’s not exploring these exotic locales, you’ll find Justin at home in either Australia or L.A.
Covid safety intel
When your flight lands at the airport, Justin can arrange for you to be met at the gate and taken by buggy straight to the fast-track line at immigration, which is shorter than the regular lines and reduces the time you have to spend near others inside the airport. The private, English-speaking guides and drivers whom he hires undergo temperature checks and wear masks. Hotels have put at least six feet of distance between seating in restaurants and at pools; in the desert, you can find standalone suites with private pools. Many hotels are more flexible with their cancellation and refund policies than they have been in the past.
Where to Stay and Eat
Biggest bang-for-your-buck hotel
The Raffles Dubai has large rooms (generously sized even in the least expensive category) that cost less than $300 for a good chunk of the year, leaving room in your budget to splurge elsewhere. Its location is convenient to both the airport and downtown Dubai. Justin can sometimes procure upgrades or better views, too.
Hotel worth the splurge
The Burj Al Arab made a big splash when it opened, but the stunning pool area that they added recently hasn’t drawn as much attention. This addition—they even brought in sand to make it feel like the beach—has turned the property into more of a resort where you can spend several days, rather than just a city hotel. Service here has also gone from very formal to really friendly and approachable. The Panoramic Suites (one step up from entry level) are all two stories with floor-to-ceiling windows, and located in the corners of the hotel. Justin’s is the only company in North America that has a direct contract with Jumeriah Resorts, which owns the Burj Al Arab; this relationship means that his travelers often get the best views within a category of rooms, and upgrades when available.
The Desert Palm Resort is in a residential area, unlike most Dubai hotels. For those wanting to be away from the action, this property set amidst polo fields provides a relaxing escape. Watching a polo match and visiting the horse stables makes for a delightfully varied Dubai experience.
Restaurant the locals love
Bu Qtair serves tasty, freshly caught fish and prawns to diners seated outside on plastic chairs. It’s a rustic, casual, hole-in-the-wall, inexpensive place—a welcome contrast to Dubai’s usual glitz and glamour.
Meal worth the splurge
Atmosphere Grill is on the 122nd floor of Burj Khalifa, 2,717 feet off the ground. The food is very good, and the views…well, it doesn’t get any better than this! Go for lunch and get a window table—though you’ll have to spend at least 500 dirham per person, or about $137.
What to See and Do
For a feeling of how life was not so long ago in the Emirates—before oil brought in all that money—spend a night or two out in the desert. Justin can arrange for a private tented camp and a traditional performance, or (if you can’t live without air-conditioning) there are several desert resorts that have a more authentic feel than the rest. You can take camel and horse rides by day, learning about the plants and wildlife that grow in the desert. The deserts of Abu Dhabi are only about two hours from Dubai but far prettier, with much larger dunes and orange-hued sand.
Many stopover travelers see only a superficial version of Dubai’s famous architecture and shopping. What Justin arranges goes into much more depth: Imagine not just gazing up at some of the world’s most famous modern skyscrapers, but actually touring inside areas not normally accessible to the public, or visiting local designers’ boutiques (not the major malls that more tourists visit) with a fashion insider.
Located in Al Fahidi Fort, the oldest building in Dubai, the Dubai Museum provides a quick overview of the emirate’s history and development—for less than $1. It’s a nice stop when visiting sites in the Dubai creek area, such as the traditional Al Bastakiya neighborhood and the gold and spice souks.
How to spend a Friday
Most cultural sites are closed on Fridays, so you can do as the expats do (expats make up the overwhelming majority of the population) and enjoy a long, leisurely Champagne brunch; one of the best is at Traiteur Restaurant. Or spend a few hours wandering through the Dubai Mall and Dubai Fountains, then head out to the desert, where you can go “dune bashing” in a 4×4. (Many such experiences end up feeling very canned and touristy, but Justin can arrange for a private outing.) You can end the day with a barbecue dinner atop a dune. Justin plans the whole thing, complete with carpets and torches. It’s incredibly romantic!
January through March is cooler—which in this part of the world means temperatures in the high 70s and low 80s. Designers descend upon the city for the Shopping Festival, typically in January, and the Dubai World Cup (the legendary horse race known with the $10-million prize) usually occurs at the end of March.
June to September: It is very hot. The average high temperature is over 100 degrees.
You’ll find a more conservative atmosphere during Ramadan; the dates vary with the Islamic calendar, but it will fall during the late spring and early summer for the next several years.
While the dress code in Dubai is more relaxed than in other parts of the Middle East, many locals are uncomfortable with women wearing shorts or tank tops when entering public areas—including shopping malls. (They’re fine for the beach, though.)
Departing from the helipad suspended at the top of the sail-shaped Burj Al Arab hotel, take a luxury helicopter to the private palace of a prominent sheikh. Enjoy a behind-the-scenes tour that shows what life is like for a sheikh in the region. If you want to know more, you’ll just have to visit—the sheikh has sworn us to secrecy!
Al Nassma’s camel-milk chocolate, made in Dubai. It’s a great conversation starter with friends back at home. You can visit their farm shop on Al Ain Road for the largest selection, or buy it at the Majlis Dubai—the first camel-milk café—located in the Dubai Mall and at the Jumeirah Mosque.
Some restaurants already charge an extra 10 percent for service (it will be listed on the bill in English). If they don’t, tip 10 percent.
Sunscreen, of course, and for women, a scarf: You can use it to cover up when visiting a mosque, or as an extra layer in the often chilly malls.
Ignore the hawkers inside the Dubai airport offering you a taxi ride. Head to the taxi line outside; the cream-colored cars here are safe and inexpensive (though do have cash on hand, as they don’t all take credit cards). The black “VIP” taxis cost twice as much, and the pink-topped taxis—driven by women—are an option for female passengers.
All of Justin’s travelers are greeted at the gate and expedited through customs and immigration; what’s normally an hour-long process takes just 15 to 20 minutes.