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There are Two Sides to Dubai. Here’s the Guy to Help You Navigate Both

Cleatus George emits a contagious kind of enthusiasm, a quality befitting the Lead Navigator at the newly opened Renaissance Downtown Hotel, Dubai. Ask him anything about Dubai, and his eyes light up. It’s like he can’t wait to tell you all the things he knows about the city.

Turns out he knows a lot. He’s researched and been to the best of the city’s hidden gems and followed the city’s most in-the-know bloggers to give guests the inside scoop on how to experience the city like a local. He’s done his due diligence, keeping up with the latest trends like an ace reporter. Maybe that’s because the native of Kerala, India, once wanted to be one.

“In India, the journalist’s job is a bit risky.” George says. “So my parents were like, ‘You’re the only son to us. Don’t do something risky. Do something nice and hospitable.'”

It doesn’t get more hospitable than an experienced Les Clefs d’Or concierge, who’s led hotel openings at top hotels in the UAE and India. Marriott TRAVELER caught up with George at the pre-opening of the Renaissance in Dubai to talk about its Business Bay neighborhood and the best of new and old Dubai.

[Note: This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.]

One of your passions is photography. What are the most photogenic places in Dubai from your perspective?

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Snap pics in the photogenic Al Fahidi neighborhood. (Photo: Courtesy of Cleatus George)

Dubai has two sides. The very glamorous Dubai where you see all the skyscraper buildings and the old part of Dubai … I like the old part of Dubai where you’re really, really going to get the good pictures. Especially my favorite spot: the Al Fahidi neighborhood.

Some places don’t allow you take pictures, but I sneak in and get pictures right away. There [are] small pathways where basically you can sneak in and get pictures. It’s actually one of the most historical parts of Dubai. That is one spot I really like to take pictures, and the other place where I really go and take pictures is in the desert.

What are those things that people have to do when they come here, especially if they only have a few days? Most tend to gravitate to the desert tours.

As Navigators we really don’t want to recommend those touristy things that everyone wants to do. What I try to find are these kinds of usual things to do, but with a Navigator touch to it. I really recommend to all of my guests the Heritage Desert Safari with a company called Platinum Heritage.

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Don’t follow the masses. Take an authentic and memorable desert tour. (Photo: Courtesy of Cleatus George)

This is the only company in Dubai that does safaris in a vintage 1950s Land Rover. And the very fun thing about them is they are very focused into the culture and heritage. So they don’t do dune bashing like other desert companies do. They actually talk about the desert and the trees, the small insects. It’s actually a tour of a Dubai desert conservation preserve.

When you go to other camps, you get food like rice, salads and stuff, but this tour does traditional Emirati food, and they do something called the yowla dance, where the gentlemen will spin and throw dummy rifles made entirely of wood and metal plating. There is also a traditional Emirati drumming session where the Emirati gentlemen will drum according to the Arabic songs. It’s something very, very different.

Is Dubai the kind of place where you have to have recommendations to experience it like a local, or is it like other major cities where you can walk down the street and stumble into something local?

Dubai has those two sides, as I was saying earlier. You have everything, from Michelin-star chefs, like the restaurants here, but at the same time, you have some nice restaurants that are very home grown, where it’s always good to have a recommendation.

But we are in a location in Downtown Dubai where you can walk outside and be on Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Boulevard, just 10-15 minutes from here, where there are a lot of restaurants, and there is the Dubai Mall. So if you walk around here, you’ll be able to find lots of restaurants, but as I said before, there are those secret things that the Navigator can share.

You were talking about rapid growth in Dubai. What are some of the newer developments to check out?

My recommendation would be La Mer. I love it. It’s beautiful. The best thing about La Mer is basically the entire shopping destination is on a beach side. So, it’s the perfect place for a walk along the beach, a swim in the sea or a even dance on the beach.

In a first outside of East Asia, La Mer will also be home to “Hawa Hawa”, a new air-filled trampoline concept that was first created and installed in public parks in Japan. Also, it’s one of the cool spots where you can enjoy the best sunset with a cup of coffee or snacks from many of the cafes and restaurants around.

What about in Business Bay? What are some things that you should experience in the neighborhood around the hotel?

When I joined the hotel, this was one of my biggest challenges because Business Bay is a growing neighborhood. There is so much rapid growth happening; there’s all the new building and developments and new restaurants coming in. But I was very fortunate that I was able to find a few things that are really amazing in the neighborhood.

One key spot I really want to recommend and promote with people is just like 10, 15 minutes from here; it’s a restaurant called Mama’esh.

It’s a small Palestinian restaurant, where 20-25 people, can sit in … They make everything very fresh, so they don’t keep anything frozen. They have a small wood oven, so they make flatbreads, and everything they make from the oven, they serve it directly to your table.

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Whet your appetite at Mama’esh. (Photo: Courtesy of Cleatus George)

It was some coincidence that one day I met Mr. Hussam, the owner of the restaurant here in the hotel. He is from from Palestine, and he has been living here for a long time. Mr. Hussam was inspired by his mom’s cooking and he wanted to serve the same tastes and ingredients to all the locals and residents here. That’s how the concept started and now he is in the final stage of opening one more restaurant in the Al Manara area.

So it’s those kinds of things that make this restaurant really special. But the food is really amazing. The best thing to try is the flatbread, which is called the Mana’esh, and the Fatayer [a Middle Eastern meat pie]. They have a chicken one with pomegranate. It’s something really nice. And the restaurant actually is kind of a hidden gem because you have to get to the restaurant through a garage. It’s a really cool place.

What local dish do you have to have in Dubai? What’s your go-to street food?

The shawarma here in Dubai is nice to try. There is an area called Satwa. So when you walk through the Satwa, there is a shop called Al Mallah. Al Mallah is the best place where you can go and try the shawarma.

Basically the meat shawarma and chicken shawarma are so delicious, and it is perfect to catch for an evening because when you have a walk in the evening around, let’s say, four o’clock, five o’clock, you want to have a cup of coffee and have a shawarma.

The best thing I like is a place called Istanbul Flower, which is a nice shawarma place, which has been in the city since 2001. And they do a perfect shawarma. When I go there, you see the gentlemen brightly dressed. So there’s a lot of places where you get nice shawarma. I think it’s the perfect thing.

I think when people come to Dubai, they know that there are some unique customs. Are there things that you should know before you arrive, and how you interact with locals?

Dubai is a very modern city. There are a lot of different cultures here and united together. The UAE is celebrating its 46th National Day. It is famous for having all these different cultures. The UAE is home to over 200 nationalities, and they all live in unity and peace. So the country is very much open to everyone.

The only thing is that I tell to my guests is that when you are here, respect the culture right here. You can wear the dress you want. You’re free to walk anywhere you want. You have freedom, and you’re very safe and secure. It’s just about respecting the culture.