Where we’re at: I’m recapping my trip to Dubai and the Maldives in March 2022.
So here’s the thing: I always knew I’d go to Dubai someday. Probably on my way to somewhere else.
And that’s exactly how it happened. Because here’s the other thing: The Maldives are in the middle of nowhere. To get there, you’ve got to pick a transit hub. Istanbul? I’ve been. Saudi Arabia? Eh, human rights issues. Qatar? Was largely under construction prepping for the World Cup. Dubai? Well… why not?
And that’s how the United Arab Emirates became my 47th new passport stamp.
Having heard so many wildly varied opinions on this polarizing place, I wasn’t quite sure if I would fall in the love it or hate it camp. But, I like to see for myself. And so I booked a four night “layover” to explore this crazy city of the future.
Four nights? I didn’t need forty minutes. I was barely out of the airport pressing my face up against the window of the cab when I already knew I loved it — and I couldn’t wait to come back for more. It was already proving itself to be a place of contradictions. While I’d been handed a snazzy free traveler-friendly SIM card on arrival at the airport, I’d also quickly learned that Ubers and other modern rideshares we may be accustomed to are a rip off in Dubai; here, old-fashioned real taxis are the way to go.
Tempting as it was to stay at one of the iconic twelve star resorts or whatever this over-the-top city is best known for, I opted for the chic and well-priced Hotel Indigo. I knew that on this trip I’d be out and about often exploring, and the hotel’s modern and playful design felt like a perfect fit for Dubai when I needed to recharge.
The first leg of this trip was a solo one, so I retreated to my routine of what I do best on the road — wandering and finding cute little work cafes to break up the day. I arrived on a red eye from Tel Aviv, so after a nap and laptop session by the pool and a gracious early check-in to my room, I dipped out again to explore.
The cafe I landed in looked like I’d ordered it up for myself right on Instagram. Boston Lane had a great menu and even better vibes, and I was delighted to find it was located in Courtyard, the 2022 version of a souk; with artsy and creative boutiques through every winding arch. Sometimes the slow, simple work days on the road make me love a place even more than the wild, busy explore days.
That pleasant surprise propelled me through the door to the next gem-in-plain-sight, Alserkal Avenue. A container park turned contemporary arts hub, I found myself clapping with delight and frantically starring items on my Google Maps every couple of steps. Hip galleries? Check. Boutiques that made me wish I could forget the dirham conversion rate? Check check. Cute cafes? Check, check, and check please!
I knew I had truly stumbled, totally by chance, upon “my neighborhood” in Dubai when I realized Alserkal Avenue was also home to a independent cinema showing foreign films and serving baked goods. Be still my heart!
While highly tempted by a Lebanese film called Memory Box that jogged my own memories of one of my favorite countries, the effects of my red eye the night before were starting to kick in and I felt the call of a massage, room service, and my comfy bed back at the hotel.
Thanks to the Israel UAE peace treaty in 2020, it had been a convenient three and a half hour hop from Tel Aviv. But, in classic Alex style, I was trying to maximize my time in each.
The next day was my final one solo, before my friend and our lovely Wander Women Maldives photographer Rayna from Ocean Rays Photography arrived to meet me just in time for dinner.
Thus I decided to more or less rinse and repeat, and after a funky morning workout class at Hotel Indigo, picked a raved-about cafe and booked myself a beauty treatment. An eyelash lift and tint at the nearby salon The Lash Show did check the box of getting me in for my favorite pre-dive trip beauty treatment, but I won’t rush back to this spot, which didn’t have the advertised onsite bar and cafe and felt a tad underwhelming. Still loved the fainting couches, though.
And if you’re having a photographer as amazing as Rayna onboard, you’re going to want a water-friendly maintenance treatment that makes your eyes pop through your mask!
Next door, Brunch and Cake was the perfect place to curl up with my laptop and pass the afternoon while working and people watching. With a menu full of items like pitchers of tea and spritzers as beautiful as any sangria, and avocados carefully carved into roses, it was exactly the kind of extra I was looking for in Dubai.
That night, with Rayna’s giddy arrival to our hotel room, the vibe notably shifted from solo workcation to girlfriend hype-away! We were in the Gulf headed to the Maldives, baby!
A year prior, poolside at a beachclub outside Beirut, I’d met a beautiful couple about to be married in the Lebanese hills. They lived in Dubai and, in Middle Eastern hospitality style, insisted that I visit Dubai and stay with them when I did! We became Instagram friends and from watching the bride’s stories, I knew what a fabulous offer it was — Dubai had never looked so good as it did through her lens.
Sadly, she was out of town when I did finally make it, yet generously provided me with recommendations that shaped most of Rayna’s and my time. Ain’t travel grand?
Not enough hours later, our alarms blared to wake us for our next magical moment suggested by my local advisor: a sunrise yoga class at Palm Jumeirah, one of Dubai’s iconic skyscrapers.
The class was very beginner-friendly — which I had more patience for when I realized the yoga teacher’s mom was in the class, visiting for the first time! — but the views were next level.
The rest of our day was dedicated to one of the reasons Dubai was a very of-the-moment choice — The World Expo. Bumped continuously by COVID, it was the modern day World’s Fair, ambitiously attempting to represent every country in the world. And all Emirati airlines were gifting free tickets to travelers flying into DXB. How could two travelers not geek out on that?
We entered a little ambitiously, hoping to visit the pavilions of all our favorite countries. Quickly, we realized we’d have to prioritize due to oppressive heat, wild lines, and a surprising lack of Disney-like misters, beverage vendors, or shade.
Still, we felt like we were part of an exciting moment! It being the final weeks of the much-heralded Expo, it felt like, well… the whole world was there. (Our hotel had told us that they were oversold on capacity for the occasion, as was pretty much every major resort in town.)
We ended up making many Wander Women Retreats destination stops, of course. We giggled at the USA pavilion, where we were put on a literal conveyor belt — what a metaphor — before being reminded of the glory of American innovation, the Egypt pavilion, where we, true to the real deal, melted in the hot sun in line to view a recreation of ancient wonders, the Maldives, where we squeed over the bright colors and our upcoming trip, and our favorite, Jordan, which opened with a trippy recreation of Petra’s infamous siq walkway.
We rounded out our day with strolls through sleeper hits like the Sustainability Pavilion, which we both loved, an epic waterfall which we cooled off in, and a carnival-like ride that slowly rotated us up to a stunning viewpoint of the whole shebang. After logging ten bazillion steps, and lamenting we didn’t have another day to go back and see everything we missed, we called it quits and made it back to our hotel just in time for happy hour.
While we had big ambitions of heading out for another over-the-top dinner, the call of our beds was strong, and Rayna was valiantly fighting post-travel fatigue and jetlag. So, we took it easy, retreating to room service and a slow start the next morning at the hotel pool.
So far, I’d been basking in the glow of Instagram messages congratulating me on showing a different side of Dubai. Well, that was all about to come crashing down, as Rayna and I had planned The Most Basic Dubai Day Ever. And we were thrilled about it.
We were spending the day at Nikki Beach! I chose Nikki Beach out of the array of options mostly out of nostalgia for the Thailand location and just plain ‘ol brand recognition — I hadn’t done a ton of research for Dubai.
As usual they were kinda snobs there, which I’d expect from any global beach club, but we were thrilled to nab a seat with a reasonable minimum spend and spend the day splurging on bites and great cocktails, girl talking, and getting tipsy in the sun before heading off to a dive trip in a dry country.
We had a blast because we are us, and the aforementioned can’t miss combo of sunshine and spirits, however we didn’t really feel the snobbery was warranted in this case. It was pretty chill all day, not super social, and the beach wasn’t the best — though we did get a kick out of our first dip in the Arabian Gulf.
They were also super duper strict on the no cameras, nearly snatching my Canon G7X, but then oddly not giving a rip if we filmed the literal entire day on our iPhones.
My red eye adventures weren’t over. We were hopping on another one that night to Malé, and we had big plans to go out with a bang.
For dinner, we were taking my Lebanese friend up on one last recommendation. Fi’lia at SLS Dubai promised a beautiful Italian meal before our big flight, with gorgeous views of the Burj Khalifa to boot.
And our group started to grow! Wander Women alumni and friend Jules came to meet us for dinner over her long layover, giving me that first sparkly feeling that would flutter up all through the Maldives of, wow! What an incredible reunion of women from my retreats all over the world!
As we whisked off to the airport, I looked back on this glittering city and reflected on what an impression it had made in four short days. Some amazing movement experiences, an uber hip arts district, a bunch of dreamy working cafes, pool cocktails, and some delightful girlfriend giggles… Dubai, I’ll be back!
Who knows, maybe it will be for a Wander Women Retreat someday…
What do you think? Does Dubai call to you?
It was better than good!
I’ve never been super interested in Dubai, beyond a stopover as you mentioned. However I appreciated your balanced and honest post and while I don’t think I’ll ever plan a Dubai-only trip, if the opportunity presents itself, I’ll gladly explore on a layover.
Hope your end of the year is going well Alex, happy to have you back writing!
I’m soooo happy to be back in writing mode and proud of myself for sticking with it even while on a trip. It just feels right (write — ha). More to come!
Loved this post! I’m headed to Dubai in January for a girls trip, so I bookmarked everything you recommended. I’ll be keeping an eye on the comments to see if anyone has other beach club recs because Nikki Beach seems to be the top option for us so far as well.
Same! Let me know what you find!