This month Mike Varley, Ski & Sports Tours Manager, Mike Rollason, Senior Tour Consultant and Jamie Boyden, Commercial Director, travelled to the Middle East for an Inspection Visit for our Sports Department. From desert dunes and old-world souqs to urban cities and futuristic visions – not forgetting some seriously world class sports opportunities along the way – catch up with everything they got up to in Mike Varley’s travel diary…
Day 1 – It’s hot. And everything is big
In a digital age, to have only a few preconceptions of a place is a rare thing. However, my visit Dubai falls into that category; whilst well-known to many in the west I arrive here on our new Sports Tour Inspection Visit knowing only a little about what to expect.
So let’s get the obvious things out of the way; it’s hot. 36 degrees by day, all day, and then cooling to a balmy 29 degrees at night. I’m told that it hits 52 degrees in August, but that life in Dubai from October to April is beautiful with warm days and cooler nights, so perfect for those unaccustomed to such intemperate highs.
The next thing is the scale. Everything is big. Seven lane highways, junctions with six exits, skyscrapers that are dwarfed by even bigger skyscrapers, huge malls, development everywhere.
The Emirate of Dubai had only half a million people in the early 90s; by this year the population has now grown to around 2.5 million people, all living in roughly 60km strip of land sandwiched between Abu Dhabi and Sharjah. The level of growth is exciting, the ‘Emirate’ brand is now ubiquitous. I can’t wait to scratch the surface and see what lies beneath.
Day 2 – Dubai is living up to the hype!
Our first full day is a day of discovery, driving between the international schools we are due to work with and the different training facilities. The investment in Dubai is clear and the schools we visit are perfectly set up to host football, rugby and netball teams, as well as swim teams.
Training at the Dubai Sevens looks ideal – a key venue on the Rugby Sevens Tour. There are pitches for all sports, a great indoor area and a swimming pool to cool down in after training. The perfect day one for a tour – adapt, train and relax, all in a world class venue!
Later in the day we visit the hotels we intend to promote to groups. We’re bowled over. The Hotel Gloria is close to Dubai Marina; an immaculate hotel with a 40th floor pool, outdoor cinema, large apartment style rooms, multiple restaurants, shops in the atrium and a metro station opposite.
This could be the best quality school hotel I’ve ever seen. Dubai is starting to fulfil its promise – already we have a great base for a school to stay with high quality training and excellent schools wanting to host UK teams. Dubai is living up to the hype!
Day 3 – The height of decadence (pun intended)
Whilst the focus of a tour will always be the thrill of playing local teams in football, rugby or netball, getting out to discover the sights of a new destination is always fun. As you drive around the north of Dubai, one building in particular dominates the skyline.
The 829.8 metre tall Burj Khalifa has to be seen to be believed. From the top you look down on huge skyscrapers and only then can you understand how impossibly tall this building actually is. Abu Dhabi and Saudi Arabia are said to look on enviously and may want to surpass this structure with one of their own. Such ostentatiousness may seem like the height of decadence (pun intended) but it’s also a marvel to behold.
From the largest mall in the world to the mall with the largest indoor ski slope and then back to the world’s largest fountain display, you get the picture. Everything is grand in scale but the delight of Dubai is that everything is nicely done, even the numerous flyovers have decorative alcoving and the streets feel clean and safe.
Day 4 – Enjoy Dubai but embrace the desert!
Whilst caught up in the glitz and glam of modern Dubai, it’s easy to forget that just 30 minutes away lies the desert. After driving another 30 minutes away from the sea and another 20 minutes from the main road, you really feel like you’re in the middle of nowhere. You look at the driver in a slightly different way, as he really is your way back to civilisation.
Desert Adventures and, in particular, the Sundowner that are on are really incredible ways of getting away from modern Dubai and being able to see part of the traditional Arabian peninsula. After some dune-bashing in large 4x4s, we finish at a prepared camp where we try traditional dishes, as well as enjoy sand boarding, camel riding and even watch the belly-dancing show.
However, it’s when they shut down all the lights to reveal the stars above you that you really understand the magic of the desert. The Desert Adventure is something that every group will have to do; enjoy Dubai but embrace the desert!
Day 5 – Abu Dhabi – more spread out, more history, more depth
Just 90 minutes south of Dubai, Abu Dhabi once incorporated Dubai until the younger brother seceded in the nineteenth century and went onto bigger and better things. That’s not to say that Abu Dhabi isn’t impressive. The Corniche is beautiful with more high-rise skyscrapers, providing an impressive skyline, while the Emir’s Palace is a reminder that there’s an older dynasty behind today’s modernity.
Abu Dhabi doesn’t have the glamour of Dubai but, as such, it has its own character; more spread out, more history and arguably more depth. The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque may only be ten years old, but it hints of the other side to this part of the world, the reverential and religious life that all Emirati abide by.
The local Emiratis are now considerably outnumbered by foreign nationals, but they stand proud in their traditional dress and remind you of where you are and the unique place you’re staying in.
Day 6 – ‘Wow moments’ on Yas Island
Yas Island is the home to the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix and Abu Dhabi’s signature theme parks, Ferrari World and Yas Waterworld. It’s also a great base for a stay in Abu Dhabi, 20 minutes to the Corniche with numerous high quality hotels, all with large rooms, outdoor pools and even a swim-up bar if that tickles your fancy.
From these hotels, you’re only 10 minutes from Yas Waterworld, a superb outdoor waterpark with solo and combo slides, vertical slides, rapids, waves and lazy rivers. On a hot day, what better way to unwind? Available on a combination ticket, you can also pop around the corner to Ferrari World, home to numerous Ferrari cars, simulators, go-karting tracks and two of the greatest roller coasters you will ever experience.
The marquee coaster is the Formula Rossa, the world’s fastest roller coaster which takes you from 0 to 240km/h in just 4.9 seconds. It has to be experienced to believe the G-Force exerted, a visit that will live long in the memory. Perhaps less well publicised is the Flying Aces rollercoaster which turns, twists and loops around a fantastic track and, with your legs dangling, it makes for a thrilling ride.
Dubai and Abu Dhabi will give so many memories but for ‘wow moments’, this is an unmissable visit.
Day 7 – Doha – a city of contrasts
From Abu Dhabi and Dubai, you can fly across the Persian Gulf to Doha, the capital city of Qatar. It’s just a 45 minute flight into a new and sparkling airport ready to welcome the world. Qatar, as most people will know, is due to host the 2022 World Cup, and so preparations are in full flow and the new airport is a sign of things to come.
With an economy that, like Dubai, has rocketed thanks to the oil reserves discovered in the 1970s, Qatar makes for a fascinating contrast to Dubai but also to itself. Whilst Dubai excels in opulence and in reaching for the fantastic, Doha is a city of contrasts.
There’s the super-modern West Bay with exquisite hotels. There’s the Pearl, a residential development with a marina, cafes and shopping, a veritable playground for the wealthy. There’s the obligatory mall and the brand-new Aspire Zone, which is geared towards pushing Qatari sporting prowess.
For all that, Doha has charm. The traditional Souq Waqif has stood for a hundred years and whilst the current site was rebuilt after a fire at the turn of the century, it has been done to replicate the original.
Wandering through the souqs, from the gold quarter to the spices area and then on towards the Falcon Souq, there’s a feeling of being in ‘real’ Doha. The city may strive to compete with Dubai, but whatever culture or history Dubai might once have had seems to have been forgotten; Doha has clung to its origins and is better for it. The souq is safe, fun, fascinating and a place that everyone who comes to Doha should visit.
Day 8 – Doha and 2022 to dominate the future
As our last day, we head out towards the suburbs of Doha. The scale of construction is incredible, roads are being diverted and buildings are springing up almost before our eyes. It’s the World Cycling Championships so the authorities have also closed various roads around the city to add further chaos and confusion, and yet, it adds to the appeal.
We visit Doha Rugby Club as well as their next door neighbour, Doha College. The call for prayer rings out across the city and the low-rise buildings of this Doha suburban stand in stark contrast to the high-rise of the West Bay region.
Doha strives for advancement and expansion, mimicking and pursuing Dubai and Abu Dhabi. However, after a few days here I can say that it’s the contrast of Doha that marks it out. It’s a city of old and new, tradition and vision. All cities may strive to improve themselves, but for Doha and 2022 dominating the future, hopefully the cost of development isn’t too dear.