I Went on a Dubai Vacation During the Pandemic — Here’s What It Was Like
Editor's Note: Those who choose to travel are strongly encouraged to check local government restrictions, rules, and safety measures related to COVID-19 and take personal comfort levels and health conditions into consideration before departure.
Like many people, after several months on lockdown, I was itching to get out of the house. But with very few destinations open to Americans, deciding where to go didn’t leave me with many options. I was scheduled to take a relaxing trip to the U.S. Virgin Islands at the end of August, but an uptick in COVID cases forced the island nation into another lockdown, banning incoming tourists. As someone who is used to being able to hop a flight at random, the cancellation was a bit depressing.
While others opted to hop over to Mexico, I wanted to be a bit more strategic in where I decided to go. Staying safe while I explore is no longer just about me — I also need to make sure I can keep those around me safe as well. Mexico’s lack of COVID-19 testing to enter made me uncomfortable with visiting, so I decided to narrow my choice to countries that mandated testing to enter. Thankfully one of my second homes, Dubai, was on that list. A quick search on good old Google showed me that in addition to requiring testing, Dubai’s government was taking advanced measures to keep its citizens and travelers safe. In addition, Emirates Airlines’ pledge to cover expenses should customers be diagnosed with COVID-19 during their travel, helped me feel more at ease.
With that in mind, I grabbed my Away bag and my mask, and set off on a week-long trip for some fun in Dubai’s desert paradise.
Dubai requires a negative COVID‑19 PCR test certificate that is valid for 96 hours from the date of the test before departure. Antibody or home testing kits are not accepted. Passengers must also bring an official, printed certificate in English or Arabic to check in. Showing airline officials the result on your phone will not be accepted. Depending on where you are in the country, getting test results in time for your flight can be a little tricky and even cost prohibitive. Thankfully, my insurance covered the test 100% and I was able to get tested on a Saturday and have results in hand by Tuesday morning, in time for my flight. Many testing locations require an appointment, so be sure to make one as soon as you know your travel dates.
Airport and Flight
There are currently limited flights out of New York City to Dubai each day. Check-in lines were long and slow at JFK, but moving through TSA was a breeze. Emirates provided travel safety kits filled with masks, gloves and wipes prior to boarding and again on the plane. Flight attendants were fully covered (which can feel a bit strange compared to pre-COVID days) in gowns with face masks/shields and gloves. With only one flight leaving JFK per day at the time of my trip, the flight was not super packed and there were still many empty seats. Inflight service was normal, with several meals and snacks being served throughout the 13-hour flight, as usual. The arrival process was pretty normal with the exception of officials checking for COVID-19 test results and, in some cases, administering temperature checks.
Many of the nearly 1,000 hotels in Dubai are open for business, however, in the interest of safety, many are operating at less than 100 percent occupancy. The luxe lover that I am, I opted to stay at the opulent One&Only Royal Mirage for the first part of my trip. The urban oasis (literally, it was one of the only properties, period, in Dubai when it opened in the 90s) pays tribute to Arabian architecture and hospitality and is composed of three distinctive environments: The Palace, Arabian Court and Residence & Spa. It’s the perfect place to get away from the buzzing city life, and with The Palace portion of the property closed due to the occupancy restrictions, it ended up feeling like I had most of the resort to myself.
COVID safety was apparent, but unobtrusive, with discreet temperature checks and hand sanitizing stations at every entrance, frequently sanitized rooms (staff were not allowed past the door as to not contaminate your space) and public spaces and, of course, masks required. In room (I treated myself to a very special stay in a “secret” suite that cannot be reserved online. Shhhh!), the normal amenities were found, in addition to masks and sanitizer that guests can take with them as they explore the property and the city. Overall it was a normal luxury hotel experience, particularly at night when staff walked around to all three residences spreading rose petals and lighting candles at sunset. Truly magical.
For the second half of my trip I wanted to have a little bit more fun since I was over the jet lag, and opted for a stay at the Atlantis Dubai. Like the One&Only, COVID safety was done as discreetly as possible as to not disrupt the guest experience. It was refreshing to see families enjoying fun in the sun together after so many months locked in the house. The pools and Aquaventure Waterpark were open, and were perfect for cooling down in the hot Arabian sun. Dining was normal, though reservations may be required to limit crowds. I opted for a Terrace Suite with views of The Palm, and Atlantis did not disappoint.
A Different Side To The City
Unlike many places that have been forced to close down tourist attractions during the pandemic, Dubai is still full of exciting things to experience around the city — safely of course. I’ve been to Dubai several times, but there is never a shortage of new things for me to discover. My favorite new find was in the artsy cultural area of Al Serkal at the new multisensory experience Oo La Lab. Fragrance boss Faisal Khan explained the science behind scent making, and worked with me to create my own one-of-a-kind fragrance, appropriately named #issavibe.
Next, I took my love of Dubai to new heights with a sunrise hot air balloon ride, got my Fast and Furious on at the new E-Kart experience at Dubai Mall (where I ven bumped into actress Yvonne Orji who was on her first trip to the city!), learned about art in a new way at the Theatre of Digital Art’s multimedia immersive exhibition, and indulged in a traditional Moroccan hammam. After running around the city, I needed to relax, so someone recommended that I go where the cool kids are: Drift Beach Club. If you’re looking to see and be seen, this is where you need to be. The vibe was chic, the photo opps for the ‘Gram were endless, and the restaurant served delicious Mediterranean style food that I can still taste. Every activity practiced social distancing and took sanitizing measures, which made getting out again feel more comfortable.
After being stuck at home eating in, I definitely jumped at the opportunity to dine out at a restaurant and feel “normal” again. Much like the states, restaurants are not packed in order to maintain social distancing and hand sanitizing stations can be found throughout the establishment. Many don’t consider Dubai a foodie city — but it is. There are many restaurants to push your culinary boundaries — like Folly by Nick & Scott. The crispy hen’s egg and monkfish cheeks blew me away (I was hesitant at first), and the stunning view of the Burj Al Arab wasn’t bad either. Speaking of out-of-the-box dining experiences, the 18-course (yes you read that right) dinner at Ossiano is not to be missed. Each course told a story personal to Chef Gregoire Berger and paired perfectly with the underwater setting. If you’re lucky you’ll get to participate in a special proposal like I did. If the normal dine-in experience isn’t your speed, I also took an amazing food tour through Old Dubai with Frying Pan Adventures. My guide, Farida Ahmed, was born and raised in the area so from falafel to kanafeh, she knew all the yummy spots to eat.
Exploring Dubai was definitely a bit different — masks and temperature checks will take some getting used to everywhere, but overall this pandemic hasn’t slowed the city down one bit. The energy in Dubai was just as electric as it was pre-COVID, and even with all the safety measures in place, my experience was still a memorable one. It was the perfect escape from quarantine cabin fever and gave me the sense of normalcy I’d been craving all year long. Mask and all, I’ll definitely be back.