Six months into our two-year teaching stint in South Korea we found ourselves with a coveted seven-day vacation. This period happened to fall right in the middle of Christmas and we knew we wanted to experience a destination that we had never been to before. After scouring the web for Christmas airfare deals around the world, we settled on the unconventional Christmas destination of Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Sure, it’s a Middle Eastern country with endless sand and sun, but we ended up finding more Christmas cheer than we thought once we arrived.

Holiday shopping

Make a list, check it twice, and head out for some of the best shopping on the planet. Everything is bigger and more luxurious in Dubai, and its shopping malls are no exception. The Dubai Mall, the biggest in the world, is home to both casual and designer shops that are sure to please both the naughty and nice names on your list. Stuff those stockings with finds from any of the 1,200 stores tucked in this shopping mecca.

If you’re looking for a more traditional shopping experience, jingle all the way to the local souks. These winding alleyways stuffed with small shops and local vendors are a shopper’s paradise. Lose yourself in the winding alleyways as you hunt for artisan jewelry, spices, traditional clothing, and shisha pipes. Bartering is a-okay and many of the vendors are willing to haggle for the best price. There’s no doubt you’ll be able to deck the halls with the treasures you find at the souks.

Holiday cheer

Viewfinder Tip: Hit the Ski Dubai slopes early to experience the fresh snow that’s produced every morning.

Taking on the turns at the bobsled run in Ski Dubai

Dreaming of a white Christmas? No problem. Strap on a pair of ice skates and hit the Dubai Ice Rink located on the ground level of the Dubai Mall. The Olympic-size rink is the coolest place for elite and novice ice skaters alike. The rink offers figure skating lessons for all ages and even features a ladies-only class that will have one completing those pesky triple salchows in no time. If you want to get down and funky, attend one of the public disco sessions. Shake your groovy booty with two hours of skating to the lively tunes of the latest chart-topping music.

Off-roading on our desert safari

If you’re missing the wintery wonderland of home, put on a snowsuit and take to the slopes at Ski Dubai. With over 240,000 square feet (equivalent to about three football fields) covered in real powder year-round, this indoor ski park is sure to have you dashing through the snow in no time. The best part about Ski Dubai is that you don’t need to haul all of your gear to the slopes. Rent a snowsuit, skis, snowboard, gloves, and goggles at the door before jumping on the ski lift and hitting the five different runs in style. Thrill-seekers can take to the world’s first indoor black run while first-timers can practice their moves on the bunny slope. If you like your boots planted on firm ground, enjoy the 3,000-square-meter snow park that houses twin bobsled runs, toboggan hills, and a snow cavern filled with interactive experiences. If Jack Frost starts nipping at your nose, you can end your day with a warm hot chocolate at the Avalanche Cafe that conveniently overlooks the slopes.

If you want to experience Christmas in the desert, do what we did and book an overnight desert safari. Our Christmas Eve in Dubai was spent frolicking around the desert, riding camels, and being entranced by a belly dancer. These tours include pick-up and drop-off at your Dubai hotel along with the aforementioned activities, off-roading, a traditional three-course meal, sandboarding, and beautiful henna designs. While we spent the day with about 30 other guests, we were surprised that it was only another couple from Greece that was spending the night. Our small group spent Christmas Eve around a shisha pipe, talking about life and eventually falling asleep under a blanket of stars. While we might not have awoken to the sound of reindeer hooves, we did hear the occasional bellow of a camel, making for a memorable Christmas story.

While it might not be the first destination that comes to mind when you think of Christmas, Dubai offers a plethora of festive activities to make your spirit bright.

Where do you like to celebrate the holidays?