Forget any negative preconceptions you have; Dubai is a captivating, otherworldly place that will entrance your kids and give them an introduction into Arab culture, says Maggie Davis
As soon as we stepped off the plane into squeaky-clean airport and nipped to the loo (think chic five-star hotel) and glanced at the clock (Rolex, naturally), I knew Dubai would not disappoint. Travelling with two girls, then seven and five, and one noisy one-year-old boy, we were promptly beckoned to the front off the queue (families with young children get priority in Dubai). The impeccable Emirati passport control staff wearing exquisite white kandura (a long white cotton robe) and perfectly preened beards, waved us through passport control to our gigantic four wheel-drive Hummer. So not our style but such a novelty.
Whatever the rest of the world is doing, Dubai attempts to do it bigger and better and with bells on. This is the city where the police drive Lamborghinis, after all. Sure, there are things that put me on edge (the strange ethnic hierarchy; the crazy 10-lane roads; the lack of pavements in residential areas), but as tourists with kids in tow, the good outweighs the bad. The lack of drinking on the streets and zero tolerance to crime and litter make it feel like a safe destination for families and we felt happy walking around any time of day or night. There’s also an irresistible sense of optimism and ambition which is pretty contagious.
Generally, the winter months from October to the end of March are the best time to go. After that, the temperature soars to over 40C and it becomes almost impossible to leave an air-conditioned building (luckily, in the UAE air-conditioning is standard). Another draw is its diversity - expats from around the world come here to work outnumbering Emiratis six to one - which means customer service is on another level. If you stay in a hotel, you can expect tip-top customer service, a dreamy pool, multiple good restaurants and anything you could require for your family. However, break free from the resort to experience a little bit of real Dubai.
Here are our top five Dubai activities with kids in tow:
1. Kite Beach
This is a stunning man-made expanse of white sand against the aquamarine Arabian ocean and a favourite spot with kite surfers but also awesome for kids, thanks to the plethora of activities including a skate park, table tennis and trampolines as well as rows of food shacks. Importantly, there are clean places to change and shower. There’s also a 14km running track for anyone in the mood for a jog. We also found a quiet spot further down the coast at the public beach just before you get to the Burj Al Arab hotel and which was overlooked by a mosque which felt atmospheric when it came to prayer time. We had supper at sunset in authentic local and hugely popular restaurant Bu Qtair, which served delicious fish dishes, salads and fresh lentil soup which the children loved. A great spot to end the day.
2. The Dubai Mall including KidZania
Entering the vast, airy atrium of The Dubai Mall is pretty overwhelming, even for the shopping mall refusnik (and yes, I am one). With its monumental curved waterfall and vast aquarium which covers an entire wall, you can’t help but be impressed. For the Emirates, malls are a way of life and the air-conditioning is often a welcome relief from the searing heat outside, especially when you have children. There are also lots of almost hotel-standard clean toilets and changing rooms – I was still breast-feeding William and found many rooms with comfortable feeding chairs for exactly this purpose (Emiratis believe in breast-feeding infants for the first two years). By the time you’ve made your way to the enormous food hall with tempting global cuisine (we recommend the sushi bars), you’ll all be starving. No trip to Dubai with kids is complete without a trip to KidZania. Again, I was dubious but the girls were in heaven and we even managed to put William into the nursery for an hour and have a peaceful coffee in the parents room. Win! The staff here look after children with meticulous care.
The Dubai Mall; KidZania Dubai
3. Burj Khalifa
As the world's tallest building, the spiky structure that is the Burj Khalifa proudly domiantes to Duabi skyline. The building is the embodiment of Dubai’s ambitious attitude and a huge source of pride for Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, ruler of the Emirate of Dubai and a popular figure in the UAE. The speedy dim-lit lift races up all 160 storeys at an exhilarating speed and is a real thrill for children. Once at the top, the views of this linear city rising from the desert are pretty spectacular. My girls loved lingering on the circular Perspex chairs at the top.
4. Aquaventure Waterpark
Dubai is a city that’s based around water activities. This vast water park has multiple slides, wave pools and rapids and, unlike many water parks in Dubai, has direct access to a private beach. As with any water park, get here early to nab a good shady spot if you want to position yourself around the action. Alternatively, head to the 700 metres of white sand beach and enjoy mixing up the slides with dips in the ocean.
5. Arabian Adventures
If you fancy escaping the city and heading out into the desert, how about a desert safari? Arabian Adventures specialises in trips to the dunes in 4x4s (of course) and offers a range of packages that vary from taking in the local wildlife to sundowner dinner safaris which involve watching the sun set as you drive through the dunes before bedding down in Bedouin-style camps. Get ready for breathtakingly clear night skies and some serenity. Older kids will love novelty of it all.
Getting there: We flew with Royal Brunei Airlines which seems a bit cheaper than competitors but is ultra-comfortable and child-friendly with tip-top service. It provided a sky cot for Baby. It’s worth noting that it’s an alcohol-free airline. The flight is around six hours and 45 minutes from London so more bearable than many long-haul flights.
Staying at: We stayed with friends in the residential Mirdiff area where you'll find better value rentals on Airbnb but bear in mind it half an hour taxi ride from downtown. If you want full on luxury go for the Renaissance Downtown Hotel, Marasi Drive Box 191984 (+971 4 512 5555) which comes highly recommended from other parents.
When to go: October to April are the safest bet before the temperatures rise to well over 40C.