For a certain segment of travelers, Dubai tends to get a bad rap: It's little more than a tacky, overpriced shopping mall planted in the desert. But dig a little deeper, past the glitzy resorts, soaring skyscrapers, designer boutiques and as-amazing-as-they-say nightclubs, and it turns out this man-made paradise in the desert is a one-of-a-kind adventure playground. After spending a few days there on a recent layover, partaking in an adrenaline sampler of activities, we became the Middle Eastern emirate's latest unwitting converts.
It should be obvious, but any visit here ought to include a trip to the desert. Contact a tour operator – we tried and highly recommend Arabian Adventures – to arrange for a 4x4 to caravan you 40 minutes from the city to the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve (half-day trips from $40; full-day $190). Once you enter the reserve, you'll take a short pit stop as your driver deflates the pressure in the tires before embarking on an exhilarating, 45-minute dune-bashing experience, careering over the forbidding moonscape and sandy hills, all the while expressing your silent gratitude that your vehicle is outfitted with roll bars. If you're traveling during Dubai's dry season (October to April), wadi bashing – "advanced dune bashing" as the locals call it – offers even more breakneck fun, as you traverse dried rocky riverbeds through the nearby Hatta Mountains.
We followed that up with another local specialty, sandboarding – an all or nothing thrill ride that involves strapping on a board and charging down colossal dunes. We wiped out a few times, but managed to conquer the largest local dune and were told that we were "almost ready" to take on Dubai's prestigious Big Red dune, which is a towering 300-feet high. The day's finale was a wildlife spotting tour atop a camel, borrowed from a local desert farm. (Pro tip: Trust the handler when he advises to lean back before dismounting; it's a doozy.)
In true Dubai fashion, the outdoor adventure activities get stiff competition from the manmade offerings housed – where else – in Dubai's famous malls. For instance, a trip to Dubai isn't complete without a visit to the prestigious Mall of the Emirates for the five run indoor ski resort/snow park. The venue is equipped with 30,000 square feet of snowy terrain, a freestyle zone with jumps and rails inside, and, yes, even a DJ who spins tunes while everyone skis. Everything is included in the price of the lift ticket ($49 for 2-hour pass) – except for the hot chocolate in the Colorado-style lodge at the top of the chairlift. And unlike most aquarium's we've ever visited, the Dubai Mall Aquarium allows visitors to strap on scuba gear, hop inside its 10-million-liter tank and go face-to-face with an unnerving collection of sand tiger sharks – all while Victoria's Secret bag-toting shoppers gawk at you through the world's largest single panel enclosure (from $170 for certified divers, $230 for beginners).
Our brief two-day jaunt left us longing to return – and maybe not even as just a stopover on the way to India or Australia – for all the activities we didn't get to hit: For starters, skydiving over the Palm Islands, and hitting the Dubai Autodome to test-drive an F1-style car ($231). Try doing any of that during your next layover in Cleveland.