Two weeks ago, winter weary and sunlight deprived, I traveled more than 7,000 miles and 13 flight hours to emerge rumpled and bleary-eyed into the sun-drenched "City of Gold."

The fastest growing and seventh-most visited city in the world, Dubai, which is the most populous of the seven United Arab Emirates and has also been dubbed the "shopping capital of the Middle East," has been rated by American global consulting firm Mercer as one of the best, if most expensive, places to live in the Middle East.


Situated on the Persian Gulf and lying directly within the Arabian Desert, this glittering, immaculate city offers countless delights on land and in the sea, from scaling mountainous, red-tinged sand dunes to paddling Dragon Boats in the crystal clear, turquoise waters of the Gulf.

Dragon boating, which originated in southern central China along the Yangtze River more than 2,000 years ago, was not only one of the most unique and enjoyable experiences I had in Dubai, it was also a great workout; one which, according to the International Dragon Boat Federation (IDBF), requires strength, endurance and skill.

A typical Dragon Boat, which is painted to resemble a dragon, complete with decorative heads and tails attached for racing, is 40 feet long with a crew of 22 — 20 paddlers who, unlike rowers, sit facing forward in pairs on benches; one steer who sits in the back; and one drummer, who sits at the front facing backwards and helps set the pace of the paddle strokes.

Though not yet an Olympic sport but quickly heading in that direction, the IDBF deems Dragon Boating "the mass participation paddle sport of today" and as "a sport and recreational activity that can be pursued by everyone and anyone of all abilities and at every level of competition."

Given that the IDBF describes Dragon Boating a having a "harmony of purpose" that can only be achieved "through many hours of training in the boat, learning to be a complete crew and developing the team spirit and understanding necessary to work together, as one unit, for the common good," I felt honored to be invited by a local team to participate in one of their morning paddle sessions.

After a brisk 30-minute walk to the marina, I was introduced to the team of ex-pat paddlers hailing mostly from the UK, but also from Italy, Norway, and Scotland, and, after a quick briefing, settled onto a bench near the back of the boat. The "warm up" had the muscles of my arms, shoulder and lower back burning within minutes, but I soon settled into the rhythmic pace and all but forgot about my aching muscles as I took in the magnificent city skyline. Half-way through the hour-long workout, we switched sides so that both arms would be equally sore.

Afterward, invigorated by the exercise, the fresh air, and the breathtaking vistas, I was invited to join the group for a post-paddle coffee. Though I began the morning a stranger, I left as a friend, a living embodiment of IDBF's declaration that "There is no other paddle sport in which 22 people work together to create a team result rewarded through the efforts of the whole crew, rather than a few individual performances."

Sherri Leimkuhler is the Times' fitness writer. Her column appears every other Sunday. Reach her at 410-857-7896 or