Camels walking along the dessert with the Dubai cityscape in the background
Getty Images
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Culture

On Black Travelers’ Bucket Lists: Dubai

The world’s tallest skyscraper. Its largest mall. Ancient mosques, modern mega-yachts and more have made visiting the Arab city unforgettable.

It was a beautiful evening and, as Lionel Richie’s “All Night Long” played, Shelly and Ken Allen danced under the stars and sang along. Nine years earlier, they’d danced to that same tune at their wedding reception. Now, as the music mixed in syncopation with a dancing water fountain display, the couple once again got their groove on. “It was kinda like hearing that song transported us back in time,” Shelly remembers, “but we were still in the present … on the other side of the world.” For the first time in their lives, the Allens were in the Middle East — and they were loving it.

Welcome to Dubai.

Located on the southeastern coast of the Persian Gulf, Dubai is the largest and most populous city in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), as well as home to Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world. Cardi B and Wiz Khalifa shot music videos there, movies like Mission Impossible – Ghost Protocol and Furious 7 filmed scenes there. Want to get your shopping on? The world’s largest shopping center, Dubai Mall, is located there alongside 70 other shopping emporiums. But another Dubai also exists, one where ancient gold, spice and textile souks (markets) line Dubai Creek and where men in dishdashas (long white robes) and women in abayas (long robes) enter mosques daily to pray. This old school/new school remix may explain why, in 2018, Dubai was the fourth most-visited city in the world. And sisters like Kenna Williams have gotten the memo.

Every year since 2014, Kenna has hosted the Dubai Blackout, where anywhere between 20 and 250 people — mainly sisters and brothers — spend five to six days exploring the city and surrounding areas. Ranging in age from 21 to 80, many are using passports for the first time as they embark on a wide range of experiences. They view architectural wonders, like Burj Khalifa or the sail-shaped Burj Al Arab hotel. They party and mingle on Lotus, a five-deck 500-passenger megayacht as it sails out of the Dubai marina. At the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve they ride over sand hills in SUVs, don snow skis to sand surf or mount camels to stroll the barren land before feasting on grilled lamb, beef or chicken at a Bedouin camp. Then they star gaze. “When the lights of the camp go out, we are greeted by nothing but the sheer light of the stars,” Kenna says. “People put their phones away so there is no glare and we gaze in complete silence. It is a mesmerizing moment.”

The Blackout also travels outside of Dubai. “One of the most remarkable buildings I've ever seen is the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi, which is about an hour or so from Dubai,” Kenna says. “This is probably one of the grandest, if not the grandest, mosques in the world. It is opulent, filled with gold, marble and other priceless materials. It is a religious place of peace and this mosque symbolizes so much for people there.” When visiting places like this, Kenna instructs the group to dress appropriately (women cover their heads) and respect the country’s Muslim traditions. “Although you may see other people who don’t follow the rules” she says, “we make sure that we’re not out of line.”

Kenna, 42, has an engineering and aerospace background and until recently worked in program management with the U.S. Navy. Saying that she loves to travel is a little like saying that water is wet; she’s been to about 40 countries and six continents. In 2015 she was severely injured (and two people died) when the van they were traveling in went over a cliff in Panama. That traumatic experience gave her a new lease on life, “another opportunity to make things right,” she says. But the sudden death of her brother, Tony, in 2016, followed by the death of her father only one month later, threw Kenna in a tailspin. She took two months off from work and traveled solo to 13 countries as she reassessed her life. Then she planned and saved. In September she quit her day job to focus on — surprise — her travel consultation business. She’s committed to living a global lifestyle, meaning that although she’ll keep her home in California, she’ll probably move to Johannesburg, South Africa, and run her business from there. “I’m very unapologetic about how I live my life,” she says.

Ditto the Allens. Shelly (a 41-year-old engineer) and Ken (a 44-year-old public health worker) went on the 2016 Dubai Blackout and got more out of the deal than a Lionel Richie singalong. “We broke off from Dubai Blackout for a day and traveled to two other Emirates - Sharjah and Fujairah,” Shelly remembers. “Both had its own distinct ambience and vibe that really appealed to us. There was not a lot of crowds. No huge skyscrapers. Yet the simplicity of cultural history museums and forts nearly untouched (as an example) were beautifully stunning. It felt peaceful.” The Allens were so impressed by what they saw and felt in the UAE — the ease of transportation, how welcoming people were to foreigners, the fact that English was widely spoken — they packed their bags and moved there in 2017.

Two years later they have no regrets, as they tick off a list of their new city’s advantages. “Having lived abroad we know things from real-life experiences that we probably would've thought ‘no way’ before. Health care costs. Heck, emergency room wait times. Cost of living. Quality of life. Holidays and vacations. The high value and importance of family time that is genuinely encouraged in the workplace. These are just a few things … our list goes on and on,” Shelly says. “We already know that while we will return to America for our family, neither of us could go back to working in what is a typical American ‘workaholic’ lifestyle.”

Next year the World Expo will be in Dubai, so visiting during that time should be extra special. To find out more about the 2020 Dubai Blackout and Kenna’s future excursions, go to http://www.kennalwilliamsllc.com/

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Camels walking along the dessert with the Dubai cityscape in the background
Getty Images