I’ve just returned from to Toronto after spending a few weeks in Dubai, and I’m on Day 4 of my 14-day mandatory quarantine back at home. That seems like an ideal setting to share with you the customary Impressions post after a trip – and it’s been a while since the last one for sure!
As you can imagine, there’s quite a fair bit to say in terms of the initial impressions from my first international trip in eight months’ time, so let’s get straight into it.
I’ve written in the past about my self-diagnosed “Five Stages of Wanderlust”, and in particular about the anxiety stage right before embarking on a trip.
Over the years, in the last few days, hours, and minutes before departure, I’ve often felt a sense of lingering doubt about what happens if something might go wrong along the way.
As I travelled more and more often in recent years, that anxiety became less and less noticeable over time. But I’ll be honest, on November 16 as I headed to the airport for my flight to Newark and then my subsequent Emirates First Class journey from JFK to Dubai (via Dubai and Paris, no less), the pre-travel anxiety was ratcheting up quite a fair bit.
I wouldn’t consider myself a very risk-averse person, but even then, for a moment as I stood in Toronto Pearson’s concourse and gathered my bearings, I found my mind flooded with thoughts of uncertainty: “Travelling internationally during a pandemic? Transiting the US of all places? Are you crazy? What if you catch the virus and die?” and other words to that effect.
The burdens of 2020 were very much making their voices heard in my inner dialogue.
It took me a moment to digest those thoughts, find some clarity, and then push through the uncertainty and proceed headstrong into the US pre-clearance facility.
It was pretty minor in the grand scheme of things, but I thought it was worth noting, and I’d be curious whether you’ve grappled with something similar if you’ve travelled internationally thus far, too.
The Journey to Dubai
I had no time or intention to hang around in New York, of course. It was straight on an Uber from Newark to JFK, which turned out to be a fairly expensive one, although I could at least use up my US$15 monthly Uber credit for November from the Amex US Platinum Card.
The Emirates check-in counters opened at 7pm in advance of the 11pm departure. I presented my Health Declaration Form (filled in on the spot) and my negative COVID-19 PCR test, obtained at North York General Hospital in Toronto with a 24-hour turnaround. It was a pretty tight affair, it must be said, since the result only came through an hour or so before I completed my check-in.
(It’s also worth noting that even though Emirates insists on a printed copy of the PCR test result on their website, the check-in agent was totally cool with me showing my result on my iPhone. This turned out to be a theme over the course of the trip – obviously, try bring a printed copy if that’s what’s being asked for, but in this day and age, a smartphone does suffice most of the time.)
I had hoped to check out the brand-new American Express Centurion Lounge at New York JFK, but unfortunately the lounge enforces a strict three-hour access policy, and it happened to close at 8pm due to the COVID situation… which was exactly three hours before my 11pm departure.
The lounge staff didn’t grant any flexibility on this policy (and yes, I did try pulling the “I review flights and airport lounges on my website” card), but they were at least kind enough to give me a tour of the space, which is looking very impressive indeed.
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There’s a variety of New York-inspired design choices in the seating zones, a fully-equipped Equinox spa, and a beautiful hidden speakeasy bar that reminded me of many of my favourites down in East Village. I can’t wait to actually spend some time in this lounge myself and try out the food and drink on a future trip.
For now, I restricted myself to a diet of a granola bar and bottled water, as I was saving stomach room for the upcoming Emirates First Class extravaganza.
By now, I’m sure you’re familiar with the wildly luxurious routing that I took en route to Dubai. In some ways, after eight months at home, it was the perfect antidote.
Since I’ve already reviewed Emirates 777 New First Class before, I won’t be reviewing these flights separately, and I’ll simply leave you with some pictures from the journey and remind you that unbelievably aspirational products like these are still out there, waiting for us, when travel picks up again next year.
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During my nine-hour layover in Paris, I also picked up a surprise new travel companion thanks to my friend who works for Air France (more about him later): a 1:100 model of the Air France Concorde.
And on the way from Paris back to Dubai, I was hit with another surprise: a last-minute equipment swap from one of the newly-refurbished Emirates 777s to one of the older aircraft in the fleet, offering “only” the old 777 First Class cabin.
Hey, you gotta expect the unexpected when travelling internationally these days, and after not one, but two unbelievable flights on the new 777 suites already, I certainly wasn’t going to complain.
Besides, it gave me a chance to review this product as well, and in that review I’ll go into more detail about the COVID-era changes, precautions, and service cuts that Emirates has been making (hint: there aren’t many service cuts). 😉
Dubai has no shortage of high-end hotel options, and the prices are pretty reasonable too given the sheer amount of competition in the market. As someone who loves to try out and review a variety of different properties along my travels, it was the perfect place to get my hotel-hopping fix.
Since I’ll be sharing in-depth reviews of each place in the coming weeks, I’ll keep this section brief and will simply mention a few of my first impressions of each spot for now:
- The Ritz-Carlton, Dubai International Financial Centre: The property is definitely starting to show its age, even if the service and Club Access benefits remain at a very high level that’s expected from Ritz-Carlton. The Category 7 designation feels like a bit of a joke.
- Waldorf Astoria Dubai International Financial Centre: One of my new go-to hotels in Dubai with an interior style that’s exactly to my taste. Attractive pricing in both cash and points considering the product you’re getting, along with solid elite treatment for Hilton Diamond members.
- Sheraton Dubai Creek: A more affordable Category 4 option in the older part of town, offering a counterpoint from the sheer glamour and wealth on show in the city. All the essentials you’d expect from a Sheraton are offered: breakfast, high tea and happy hour, and a wide range of amenities.
- La Ville City Walk, Autograph Collection: Another excellent option for Dubai, a minimalist-style boutique hotel with incredible views from the pool, a killer breakfast in the mornings, and a nice location in one of the newest shopping districts in town.
- W Dubai The Palm: This place needs no introduction. It was my second stay here, and thanks to my friend Tiezheng from Vicarious Voyager being in the mood for a bit of splurge, I got to re-experience the unbelievably over-the-top Marvelous Suite from my first stay back in May 2019.
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Adventure Activities & Social Distancing Proximity
Dubai is one of those places where a couple of days is probably enough as a tourist, but spending more time lets you engage in everything the city has to offer while relaxing into the daily pace of life a little bit.
On this trip, my hand was somewhat forced by the fact that there weren’t too many alternative destinations I could visit, but in the end I had no regrets spending a couple of weeks in Dubai to get to know the place better.
Last time around, I had already visited the top of the Burj Khalifa and gone indoor skiing in the Mall of the Emirates, so this time I opted for a couple of different flavours of adventure.
I spent a few hours flying a plane over Dubai thanks to Jazirah Aviation Club; the regular price for this experience is 800 AED ($280) for an hour of flying, but a friend was kind enough to bring me along for the ride this time.
The planes are equipped with two sets of controls, so even if you have no flying experience, your co-pilot can handle the takeoff and landing while you steer the plane in mid-air while drinking in the incredible views of Dubai’s skyline, the Palm Jumeirah, and the World Islands.
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Even after all the flying I’ve done as a passenger, there’s something deeply enthralling about taking the controls for myself and charting our path through the sky with my own hands. I know it’s just physics, but it still felt like magic.
Too bad we couldn’t do barrel rolls this time around – from what I hear, I’ll need to go bush flying in South Africa or something to give that stuff a try.
Later in the week, I also visited Nemo Watersports Dubai to take some jet skis out on the sea with a couple of friends. Nothing beats the vroom of speeding along the waves and holding on for dear life with the Burj Al Arab, the Atlantis on the Palm, and the stunning Dubai skyline in the distance.
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After absorbing the views of Dubai from both sky and sea, Tiezheng and I also an embarked on an exploration by land in a more low-key affair, renting some bikes from the Sheraton and taking them for a ride along the Dubai Creek in the older part of town, where there was a fair bit more cultural heritage on display.
Tiezheng, a Gulf native, let me know that as little as 20 years ago, Dubai Creek (also known as Deira) was the only built-up area in town, with the modern-day skyscrapers of Downtown and Dubai Marina comprising nothing but a barren desert back then.
Speaking of the desert, I was also supposed to go for an overnight camping trip with Tiezheng and some of his Gulf friends on one evening, but those plans were scuppered after a midday brunch at the Four Seasons Palm Jumeirah got a little out of hand with the free-flowing Veuve Cliquot.
And speaking of that – the rest of my time in Dubai was occupied by a series of social engagements, many of which left me a little bit worse for wear. For better or worse, Dubai is a city that prides itself on its social scene, and the current attitude to getting together for a drink at the pool or on a rooftop bar is a night-and-day difference compared to the current atmosphere back here in Canada.
I love connecting with like-minded individuals around the world, and that’s something I’ve really missed throughout most of 2020. At the same time, I won’t deny that going out on most nights and hosting get-togethers in the Marvelous Suite did put me at greater risk of catching COVID-19.
Like I discussed back when I first wrote about the trip, it’s all about finding the right balance between risk and reward as we learn to live with the virus.
COVID-19 Situation & Testing in Dubai
I’ll comment briefly on the COVID-19 situation in Dubai, which was quite eye-opening to see after spending the vast majority of the pandemic only knowing about the North American approach.
Dubai underwent the strictest of lockdowns back in March and April, backed by the full force of the UAE government. Residents needed special exemptions to leave their homes, and their movements could be tracked effortlessly across the high-tech metropolis.
Combined with rigorous testing, tracing, and isolation, cases were kept to a minimum, leaving the Emirate well-positioned to reopen to tourists.
Tourism is a key economic engine that keeps Dubai afloat, and it’s not hard to see why, given the sheer amount of wealth and resources being poured into casting Dubai as a glamorous global destination.
With a solid plan in place to welcome back tourists, continued widespread testing facilities, world-class healthcare facilities, and a minimal elderly population, Dubai has done a fairly respectable job of keeping a handle on COVID-19 cases thus far, even as cases have risen in recent months too.
Overall, I was pretty happy with the level of precautions taken by the people I met in Dubai. Temperature checks and hand sanitizer are an ingrained way of life by now, no matter where you go, and obviously every tourist that arrives in town will need to have tested negative (in order to enter Dubai, and in most cases, before even boarding the flight).
Masks are mandated – even when you’re outdoors walking on the sidewalk. But that’s not to say that mask usage was perfect, as we saw plenty of people wearing them “earring-style” or around their chins.
Moreover, the big “loophole” here is that masks are obviously not mandatory when eating and drinking, and that’s often a euphemism for socializing in larger groups – granted, often in spaced-out outdoor venues, but sometimes in indoor venues as well.
I booked a drive-thru COVID-19 PCR test at Health Hub Al-Fattaim a few days prior to my scheduled departure.
Even though I was flying Etihad Airways, who have pledged to cover the cost of a PCR test for all passengers departing from Abu Dhabi, it turns out that gesture isn’t extended to Aeroplan reward tickets, so I paid 200 AED ($70) for the test.
Scheduling the test on the website was pretty simple, and the only challenge was that the test needed to be administered in the car outside the clinic, so I paid my Uber driver a little extra to hang around for a while and wait for the test to be completed.
24 hours later, the results returned negative, securing me safe passage to Abu Dhabi and then back home.
A Brief Visit to Abu Dhabi
While Abu Dhabi remains closed to most tourists for the time being unless you undergo a strict 14-day quarantine, there is one way to bypass it: by spending 14 days in Dubai prior to your visit instead.
Therefore, armed with my PCR test and my passport showing my entry into Dubai a fortnight ago, I was able to cross the border into Abu Dhabi the day before my flight, allowing me to check off one more item from my bucket list on this trip: the stunning Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, the largest mosque of the UAE.
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This place is an absolute beauty, and I’m so glad I had the chance to pop by, especially as I got to catch the views both at sunset and by night.
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Built out of 100,000+ tons of marble and boasting both the world’s largest marble mosaic with its central floral pattern and the world’s largest carpet in its interior worshipping area, the Sheikh Zayed Mosque is an absolute marvel to behold.
Best of all, it’s free to visit, so I’d consider it a must-see on your next Abu Dhabi layover on an Etihad Airways flight.
Whether you swing by at dawn, when the white marble is at its most brilliant; at dusk, when the sunset casts the mosque in a soft golden glow; or at night (until 10pm), when the archway lights evoke an Aladdin-esque mystery about the place, this place absolutely will not disappoint.
The Return Journey
Finally, it was time to return home to Canada. I had promised you guys and update on the return journey, which I had left very much up in the air when I had departed for the trip.
Indeed, I had left it very late to hammer out these plans, and that was because I really couldn’t decide on a good option:
- I could fly Dubai–Zurich–Montreal–Toronto on Swiss business class for 85,000 Aeroplan points, but that would have me departing Dubai much earlier than I wanted.
- I could keep my Budapest–Paris–Toronto flight on Air France business class that I had booked via a cheap fare sale back in the spring, but then I’d have to get myself to Budapest the previous day and sleep overnight at the airport; furthermore, it wasn’t clear whether I’d even be allowed to transit through Budapest on separate tickets in the first place.
Eventually, I decided to ask my friend at Air France, who had bestowed upon me the Concorde model that I was lugging around on this trip, whether he’d be able to help me out and drop the Budapest–Paris segment on my Air France ticket.
He worked some magic and helped me out massively, allowing me to book an Abu Dhabi–Paris flight on the Etihad 787-10 to connect onto my Paris–Toronto flight and ensure a smooth journey home.
(Obviously, this might not be the most replicable solution for those of you who may have also booked the ex-Budapest cheap fares earlier this year; I’d note that my next-best option would’ve been to reschedule those flights for sometime in 2021 on account of my Budapest–Paris flight having been cancelled several times. Nevertheless, I do think it’s important to fully disclose how I book the flights that I end up reviewing, including if I’m calling in a favour on an occasion like this.)
I’m looking forward to reviewing two very solid business class products in the form of the Etihad 787 Business Studio and Air France A350 business class.
Both products delivered to a high level, particularly in terms of the food and drink at a time when many airlines around the world have gutted their service offerings. It might even surprise you a little that, adjusting for expectations, I was even more impressed by the latter than the former.
The fifth stage of wanderlust is fulfillment, and I’m happy to say I’ve gotten my fair share of that – something I’ve been craving for months and months – on this trip. And now that I’m quarantining at home looking back on the trip, I must say that even the sensation of trip withdrawal symptoms is something I’m welcoming back into my life with open arms!
In some ways, Dubai was an ideal place to visit for my first trip since the pandemic. For better or worse, it reminded me of what “normal” life feels like, with locals and tourists alike determined to get on with their lives while taking the necessary precautions to manage the risk.
Between making new friends, tapping into an adrenaline rush or two, and a handful of new experiences in First Class, business class, and a wide range of hotels, this trip to Dubai was in many ways exactly what I needed to draw a line under 2020 and make my peace with how the year turned out.
At the same time, as a destination in itself, the city can get old after a couple of days or a week at most. After my first international trip of the pandemic era, I’m really craving new adventures that push my boundaries as a traveller, thinking back to places like West Africa, Kazakhstan, or Micronesia.
I know I speak for all of us when I say that I can’t wait for the better times of 2021 just around the corner.