So here’s a starter for ten: all fascinating and all linked to the culture and history of the UAE, so mixing pleasure with perhaps even a little edukashun. And a nice antidote to those fake plastic souks!
I woke up with the idea of doing this, for some reason, and started with the intention of doing one a day because they’re each longish. And then I had a flight to Cairo and real work to do, so I did these instead and thought I might as well just chuck ‘em all up here. Please do feel free to cut and paste, but if you paste on the web, do link back here, ta! You never know, perhaps these will inspire young Bluey to get snapping again instead of lazing around on the beach…
The home of the ruler until 1967, Ajman Museum is situated in Ajman Fort and is probably in line for a UNESCO award for being the most charming, eclectic and generally just eccentric collection of historical artefacts and household junk in the Middle East (yes, they’re virtually indistinguishable), but it’s a fascinating insight into life in the Emirates before traffic and features some marvellous displays. For some odd reason they get funny about photography but will issue a permit if you ask ‘em nicely. By no means as slick or sophisticated as
Find it by driving to
Once you’ve done looking at old furniture, house displays, boats, souqs and so on, then turn right out of the museum and right again at the roundabout and you’ll find yourself, after a couple of hundred yards and a left turn off the traffic lights, in Ajman’s Iranian souk, which is well worth an evening’s wander.
Originally built under the eagle eye of amateur zoologist and long term UAE resident Marijke Joengbloed (hope I got that right, did it from memory), who wrote a letter to His Highness Dr. Sheikh Sultan Al Qassmi, the ruler of Sharjah, to complain that the Bedouin were decimating the breeding grounds of the spiny tailed lizard (or Dhub, in Arabic) as it is considered an aphrodisiac. The good Dr. responded by suggesting they build a wildlife park and conservation centre, which they duly did. Joengbloed, a delightfully eccentric woman, took great pleasure in the fact that the larger animals are outside, while the humans are kept inside looking out at them: effectively reversing the accepted zoo visitor/animal relationship. The park and museum are fascinating, with super displays on the geology and natural history of the UAE’s desert biome as well as examples of the very rich flora and fauna of the Emirates' deserts and wadis. The stars of the show are the Arabian Leopards, who are just big, lazy, arrogant tarts.
You’ll find the park on the Sharjah/Dhaid highway.
While you’re there, try not to look at the awful thing on the other side of the road. It’s a monument to Sharjah being nominated UN culture capital or something like that.
Al Ain Oasis
Lush, verdant palm groves surround you as you walk through the pathways that twist around the plantations watered by a traditional falaj (waterway) irrigation system. It’s a delightful place to wander whatever the weather and is a photographer’s dream. When you’ve done wandering around the oasis (go to Al Ain and just ask around. You’ll get there eventually), then have a stab at visiting the museum, which is great. Alternatively, you can visit the Umm Al Nar tomb in Hili Park (well signposted) or take a trip up the 13km or so of winding road to the top of Jebel Hafit (or Gerbil Halfwit if you have the sense of humour of a weak-minded 8 year old, as I do) and take a gander across the rolling stretches of dunes that mark the start of the Rub Al Khali desert, crossed in the 1950s by Wilfred “The boys’ wet young thighs glistened in the sun” Thesiger.
While you’re there, look up BSS and BRN for tea. Just leave a comment on their blog and they’ll have the kettle on, I’m sure! >;0)
Jazirat Al Hamra
This little coastal village was totally deserted after the family that predominantly inhabited it fell out with the local sheikh. They decamped to Abu Dhabi in the main, leaving the village literally deserted behind them and it remains pretty much in that state today, old coral-walled houses with henna trees in their central courtyards, wired with basic electricity and three-figure ‘phone numbers installed in the richer houses. It’s a little slice of transitional UAE and it stands today. There’s a new
Something of a hidden jewel, Khasab is the small town in the Omani enclave that sits at the tip of the Emirates promontory into the Straits of Hormuz. You just need a passport with a UAE residence visa in it and a few dirhams and you can get through the border post in minutes flat (life’s potentially a bit more complicated for visitors from overseas who should, ideally, get an Omani visa processed from their country of origin. This saves any hiccups on the day, believe me.) There are two hotels in Khasab at the time of writing, the Golden Tulip which is a slightly overpriced 3* and the Khasab Hotel, which is a clean but functional caravanserai type of affair. They’re building a new extension, so that may have changed but we’ve stayed in the old one and it’s OK for a night. They even let us cook our own barbecued dinner and breakfast as we didn’t really fancy the menu on offer!!!
Why go to Khasab? For the drives around the mad, fjord-like coastline, for the drives up into the mountains that overlook the legendary heights of Wadi Bih and the fossil fields up there. And, ultimately, to hire one of the local boats (they range from speedboats to traditional dhows) and motor out into the fantastic seascapes, passing by telegraph island (in 1886 the Brits established a telegraph cable link through the Gulf that passed through
To my immense surprise, this slice of colonial history was preserved by the Sharjah Government just when it was crumbling to pieces and seemed set to be knocked down. It stands today as a great little museum to the history of flight in the region, from the Handley Page biplanes (and seaplanes) that used to connect Croydon to
The restoration of the fort, built originally by the ruler of Sharjah to offer protection to the passengers on the Imperial Airways route as they overnighted in Sharjah, is true to the original in every detail and is most impressive. There’s a great display of ‘planes in there, including some of the first Gulf Aviation planes (the precursor to Gulf Air) and the curators usually allow people with kids to get up in one of the riveted aluminium exhibits. Given that I occasionally have issues with trusting Airbus 321s (are you listening, Al Italia?), I can’t imagine flying in those things, really. Amaazing.
The Mahatta Fort was immortalised, incidentally, in the 1937 documentary Air Outpost by London Films under the aegis of Alexander Korda (and with a soundtrack by William Alwyn). “Thanks to the achievement of modern flight,” the soundtrack gushes in a truly Cholmondeley-Warner voice, “It’s possible to fly from Croydon to the desert
The documentary is held up as an early example of ‘true’ documentary, where the film-maker takes an unscripted approach to showing life as it truly is, which is a little dubious, but it shows not only life in the fort but Sharjah’s people and souk in a fascinating and unique piece of footage.
Mahatta is just around the corner from the ‘Blue Souk’, the Saudi Mosque,
The Masafi Friday Market, Dafta and Bitnah
Drive from Dhaid, the inland town of
Going on up into the mountains will take you inevitably to the Masafi Friday Market, a spontaneous growth of stalls that sprang up around the speed bumps here which sell everything from odious pots and rugs to plants and fresh fruit and vegetables from the surrounding farms. Despite the name, it’s open every day and makes for an interesting wander.
Go on up to Masafi and sling a right at the roundabout (a left will take you past the Masafi factory and then onto the delightful Indian ocean town of
Carry on down the road towards Fujairah through the mountains and you’ll come to the
Hatta is to
Hatta also has an interesting Heritage Centre, which is well worth a visit, with displays of old mountain housing and the like. On holidays and high days they put on displays of dancing and stuff like that.
The Hatta Fort Hotel is well worth an overnight stay. A tiny, delightful and extraordinarily well-run hotel (kept by 19 staff – you’ll find the day’s pool attendant is the evening’s sommelier), the Hatta Fort’s food is great when they’re on their best classical fine dining form, but I wouldn’t go mad for the buffet nights. It serves the best breakfast in the
Do ask them to knock you up a curry if you eat in the restaurant: it’s a great undiscovered wonder. And do have a drink in the unintentionally uber-funky walnut and gold ‘70s Romoul Bar upstairs from the restaurant (mourn the passing of the old cream leather sofas while you’re there). Sadly, they’ve started to renovate the hotel for some reason all of their own and the rooms have been overhauled with tacky gold-sprayed tin dog ornaments and faux leapordskin wraps stapled to the furniture, but just because that spoilt it for us doesn’t mean it has to for you!
Dibba and Wadi Bih
Dibba is a sleepy town on the
Turn right at the dolphin roundabout in Dibba and you’ll be on the way down the East Coast road, through Khor Fakkan and down to Fujeirah. You’ll also pass the Hotel JAL Resort and Spa just as you leave town, a new development by the Japanese airline. It’s worth a stay: we went when it was soft launching and they had some teething troubles, but it seemed to have great promise and very good service indeed.
But turn left at Dolphin roundabout and you’ll be set for a trip up into the mountains. Sadly, I haven’t got space to give you infallible instructions, but find someone (or an offroad book) that will give you directions to Wadi Bih and take a drive up the most awesome wadi track in the Emirates, curling far up into the hills at the top of the Hajar mountain range. The geology alone, the mad folding rock formations and misty valley vistas, is worth the trip – and includes a drive through the largest area of denuded, uplifted seabed in the world. So there. They’re building a spa hotel by the
You may get turned back at the UAE/Omani border post towards the end of the track (give yourself a good hour to drive it), but if not you come out in Ras Al Khaimah.
The Souk Al Arsah
The Sharjah government started to renovate the Souk Al Arsah in the ‘90s, turning an area of broken down old coral-walled buildings into a dramatic and pretty faithful reproduction of the original Sharjah souk. Delightfully, they then let the shop units to the families that had originally owned them although many of these have now been leased out to Indian shop-owners. Some have remained as locally owned and run bric-a-brac (sorry, ‘antique’) shops and are fascinating visits. I cannot recommend a wander around this souk highly enough. Many of the old trading family houses around the souk have also been restored and are open to visit and there’s a maritime display put together by the heritage association, too, reflecting some of Sharjah’s history as a pearl diving centre. When you’ve done wandering, wander over to the Sharjah Fort, again a huge renovation project (there was only one round tower left of the original fort) that has resulted in an interesting building: although it could be a richer display than it is currently, it’s still well worth a trip to see.
Right. If that lot doesn’t get you out of the house, nothing will!