Apr 1, 2024
Worth the Trip

Dubai on a billion dollars a day

Clockwise from top RIGHT: 1. Atlantis, the Palm, resort — crown jewel of Palm Island2. Lagoon bartender, Anatara Resort, Palm Island3. Solid gold window display, Dubai Gold Souk (market)4. Dubai Marina5. Our camel caravan, Dubai desert6. Oryxes, Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve7. Our Bedouin-styled villa at Al Maja Resort in the Dubai desert

I could get used to these digs, I thought. Just look at this place! So sumptuous, so perfectly appointed. I’ve got my own little vanity, entertainment center, minibar, desk/dining table and recliner/bed. There are fresh orchids and a basket of gourmet snacks on the console. A soft pair of pajamas (infused with shea butter and argon oil) is folded neatly atop a fluffy down comforter. Nice.

And we haven’t even left the ground. Emirates Airlines flight 214 is ready for takeoff, and I’m ready for an adventure. The flight attendant brings me a pretty mocktail — with cucumber and mint and a flower. I raise my glass and get the attention of the cute guy in the “suite” next to me.

Cheers, my love! Happy anniversary/retirement/birthday.

My husband and I had been planning this trip for ages. Covid had forced us to change our plans so many times that our special events had accumulated. We were celebrating everything!

We had left our hiking boots and backpacks and river shoes at home and packed the fancy stuff — shoes with high heels and little black dresses for me, and collared shirts and sparkly cufflinks for Ted.

And in a mere 14 hours, we would arrive in one of the glitziest cities on the planet — the City of Gold, Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

If Dubai isn’t on your bucket list, you might need a bigger bucket. The city is a marvel of futuristic technology and extravagant indulgences. It is like no city I have ever visited — and I visited hundreds during my 20-year career as an international flight attendant with Pan Am and United.

Dubai is the capital and most populous city of the UAE, though a mere 60 years ago, before the discovery of oil in 1966, the city-state more resembled a sleepy fishing village than a Jetson’s montage. And while oil riches did indeed build the city, it is the tourism industry that sustains it. Dubai is remarkably hospitable, spotlessly clean and extravagantly indulgent.

Ted and I had had nearly two years to plan this trip. We also had a surplus in our travel budget due to canceled trips during COVID. And with so much to celebrate, we decided to pull out all the stops and glam it up like we had never glammed before — and probably never will again!

Hence the first-class suite on Emirates Airlines, and, upon landing, the Armani Hotel in the tallest building on Planet Earth, the Burj Khalifa, in the downtown district of the city.


Early on while planning this trip, I was surprised and delighted to find that we could actually stay in this iconic landmark; it felt like I was booking a room on the observation deck of the Eiffel Tower in Paris, or in a fortress on the Great Wall of China.

There are only two Armani Hotels in the world (the other is in Milan), and it may be the ritziest accommodation I have ever enjoyed — made more so by the unexpected complimentary upgrade we were given.

Our spacious four-room suite, one of only two in the hotel, opened up to a massive terrace — literally half the size of my house — that overlooked the world-famous Dubai Fountains. The spectacular water, music and light shows are among the most extravagant in the world.

One of my favorite things to do when I visit a new place is to book a private or semi-private tour of the city’s highlights on the first or second day, to get the lay of the land. Our guide, a pretty Russian expat named Natalia (resident of Dubai for 11 years, with no intention of ever leaving), had a full day planned for us, and in our bleary jet-lagged state, it was great to turn the reins over to a competent, enthusiastic insider.

We visited or viewed many of the touristy must-sees: the tranquil Al Seef recreated village on Dubai Creek (by “dhow,” a quaint wooden taxi boat), the massive Atlantis resort, the oh-so-chi-chi Dubai Marina and Smoky Beach, the towering sail-shaped Burj Al Arab (the only 7-star hotel in the world) and the bustling gold, spice and textile “souks,” or markets — where we accidentally spent not $63, but $630 on spices. Oops. We made Hassan’s day. (I blame this costly inability to do basic math on jetlag.)

But perhaps the most interesting stop we experienced was not on foot, but on our knees. Of the more than 9,000 mosques in the UAE, only two allow non-Muslims to enter the prayer hall. Natalia, who had converted to Islam a decade before, helped us don proper prayer attire (an abaya for me, a kandura for Ted) and we knelt on the floor of the Jumeirah Mosque prayer hall and learned all about her faith and love of God.


Checking out of the Armani was bittersweet — but we had a couple of other unique hotel experiences to look forward to.

I never would have believed, leaving the turbo-charged downtown area, that we would soon be enjoying a tropical paradise on Dubai’s famed Palm Island. The Anatara Beach Resort was a whole other world of indulgence, with a delightful twist.

I’ve stayed in hotels with swim-up bars, but never in one with swim-up rooms! (And, incidentally, the bar came to us, by kayak, right up to our lanai.) We floated in our lagoon, swam in the Arabian Sea, then took a taxi to the St. Regis hotel at the base of Palm Jumeirah, for a bird’s eye view of the amazing man-made archipelago.

These artificial islands, shaped like fronds of a palm tree can actually be viewed from space — and yet, in typical Dubai style, they took a mere six years to complete.


As fascinating as the glitz and glam of metropolitan Dubai was for us, our experience in the Dubai desert was perhaps the highlight of the trip.

Our first glimpse of this vast sandbox was from on high, in the spacious wicker basket of a hot-air balloon. We watched, awestruck, as the sun rose into an azure sky while gazelles, oryxes, camels and even giraffes (imported) roamed the desert sands below.

Our accommodation in the desert was just as “bespoke” as the previous two. We stayed at the remote and luxurious Al Maha resort. The 42 villas on the property — all with private infinity pools overlooking the desert — were designed like Bedouin tents, adorned with sumptuous Arabian furnishings and genuine tribal artifacts.

Upon check-in, we were assigned our very own “Field Guide,” an adorable Aussie named Liam, who arranged for all our activities. Among them: dune bashing, camel caravanning, falconry demos, nature walks, archery lessons, spa indulgences and our final — and my favorite — “Dinner for Two in the Desert.”

I never know, when I’m booking these things in advance, what I’m gonna get. It’s a leap of faith. I suspected they might just throw a blanket on the sand 100 feet from the lobby, toss a picnic basket at us and call it good.

Oh, no, this is Dubai — and absolutely everything is over the top! Liam picked us up at our villa at sundown and drove us deeper into the dark desert — where, lit by flickering torches — a spread fit for royalty was laid out on a plush Persian rug. Liam tossed us a “burner” phone.

“Give me a bell when you’re ready to be picked up,” and off he drove.

Our six-course meal required eight pieces of cutlery each. We dined like

Sultans and then lay happily under soft pashminas — luxuriously alone and blessedly together — beneath a billion stars.

Cheers my love! Happy anniversary/ retirement/birthday. I think we have celebrated adequately, don’t you?


Sharla Dawn Gorder is a Pensacola Beach resident and columnist for the Island Times newspaper.  She is the author of “My Vices Collide; a Celebration of Being a Little Messed Up,” and is currently working on her next book, entitled “Crayon Dawn,” due out in October 2024.