Tuesday, 16 November 2010


Map of the UAE/OmanImage via WikipediaEid Mubarak!

On the way into the radio today, I was caught in the traffic surrounding the open air mosque in Northern Sharjah and watched the crowds going home from prayer - the children dressed in their finest clothes, the girls a riot of colour and gold. All really rather marvellous. It's Eid al Adha or 'long eid', the festival of sacrifice and the holiday that marks the end of the annual Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca.

With a nice five-day break in view, I thought it might be handy to revisit some of the 'things to do in the UAE' that I've posted before. Here are 21 things to do with your Eid - just in case you hadn't already made concrete plans!

Ajman Museum
The home of the ruler until 1967, Ajman Museum is situated in Ajman Fort and should be in line for an UN 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. It's by no means as slick or sophisticated as Dubai Museum, which is really why it’s such an appealing place. One amazing, if simple, display is the date store, showing how they used to collect the date syrup from the pressed jute sacks in runnels that led to an underfloor tank, out of which they used to ladle the syrup, straining it through a palm fibre funnel to get rid of the wasps. Other displays include the Ruler’s suite, a souk, crime and punishment (including real stocks and some graphic stuff about shooting criminals) and a medical display.

Find it by driving to Ajman and asking anyone where Ajman Fort is. They’ll lie to you, but the diversion will be fun…

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.

Sharjah Desert Park
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 (it's also edible). 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.

Jazirat Al Hamra
This little coastal village was totally deserted after the family, the Zaab, 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 village of Jazirat Al Hamra just on the road, before you get to the Al Hamra Fort Hotel on the Umm Al Qawain/Ras Al Khaimah coastal road. Turn left just as you arrive at Jazirat Al Hamra and drive towards the coast and you’ll find the old village. It’s great to take a wander around and have a good old fossick: the mosque, in particular, is wonderful. The beach here is beautiful, but sadly is usually dirty with litter. After the first storm of winter, you’ll find the distinctive egg casings of the paper nautilus washed up on the beach – if you’re lucky: they’re really rare.

Do try and ignore the awful looming developments that now surround this little village.

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.

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 Bahrain, telegraph island then out to Bombay. A couple of Brits were stationed there and apparently used to go bonkers waiting for the 6-monthly supply ship to hove to around the corner, originating the phrase ‘going round the bend’. No, I don’t really and truly believe it either, but it’s too great a story not to tell your wide-eyed visitors!). At the end of the boat trip, you can then play with the schools of dolphins that stream through the water in the boats’ wake. A great afternoon out.

Mahatta Fort Museum
 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 Queensland in the old days when a chota peg jolly well meant a chota peg.

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 Kingdom of Sharjar in just four deys!”


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, Ittihad Park and ‘Smile You’re in Sharjah’ roundabout (known to us for many years as ‘Smile You’re Insane’ roundabout). You can tell when you’re on the right road, it’s straight as a die – that’s because it is in fact the old runway. It’s the road that runs parallel to Feisal Street, going from Ittihad Park to Wahda Street, just round the corner from Mega Mall.
(Lots more on Mahatta here, BTW)
The Masafi Friday Market, Dafta and Bitnah
Drive from Dhaid, the inland town of Sharjah, to the mountain village of Masafi (where the water comes from) and you’ll find yourself passing through the village of Thorban as you approach the foothills. There’s an Eppco station and then, a few minutes after it, there’s a roundabout. The next turning right will lead you to the Thorban pottery – well worth a visit to see the traditional Indian kiln and the potters working away at their wheels. They export the pots from here, believe it or not!

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 Dibba) and you’ll come to a village with shops either side of the road. This is Daftah. Take a left and drive up through the houses (you’ll need a little trial and error) and you’ll eventually find the track that leads up the wadi to the old deserted village of Daftah. Sadly, the great wadi here has been drained of water, but the village is worth a view.

Carry on down the road towards Fujairah through the mountains and you’ll come to the village of Bitnah. There are two things worth stopping off to see here: Bitnah Fort (drive through the village and down into the wadi bed and head right – you can’t miss it once you’re in the wadi. I’d recommend a 4WD, but a 2WD can do it if you don’t care too much about your suspension), which is an ancient looking fort (it isn’t really that old, but it’s picturesque) and the megalithic tomb. To get to the megalithic tomb, head for the base of the huge red and white telecom tower: it’s directly in line between the tower and the wadi and is protected by a fence and covered with a corrugated tin roof. You can’t get in, but this tomb is important in its way: excavated by a Swiss team in the ‘90s, it shows that the wadi from Fujeirah to Masafi was, indeed, part of a 3000 year old trade route and is one of the oldest burial sites in the UAE. It is, sadly, neglected.

Hatta is to Dubai what Dhaid is to Sharjah (and Al Ain to Abu Dhabi): the inland oasis town that the semi-nomadic peoples of the UAE (Trucial States then, but that’s another story) used to escape to in the hot summer months. In Hatta’s case, it’s super-cool, high up in the Hajar mountains and always relatively fresh and lush compared to the arid desert plains. Hatta’s marvellous track, which led from the mountain town across the range and down to Al Ain, has sadly been turned into black-top, but it is still a fantastic drive and you can still strike out to the pools and side wadis.

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 Middle East.

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 Indian Ocean coast which belies a bloody past: it was here that the final great battle for the consolidation of Islam on the Gulf peninsula was fought. Get there by leaving Sharjah on the airport road towards Dhaid, and driving through to Masafi, then turning left at the Masafi roundabout.
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 village of Ziggi so by the time you read this they’ve probably asphalted half the track, but go anyway.

You will almost certainly 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.

The Gold Souks
This is a bit of a 'two for one', as I’ve actually got two gold souks in mind. Dubai Gold Souk is inside the bit of Deira by the mouth of the creek, halfway between HSBC in Dubai and the Grand Hyatt in Deira. You can park up anywhere in that area and just walk inside and you’ll get to it: an alternative is to take an abra across to the spice souk abra station from Bastakia, which is always fun. If you do it in the evening, take a turn up the dhow wharfage, too and have a shufti at the amazing mixture of cargoes, boats and crews. Sitting watching life go by and biting into the piping hot, spicy pakoras from the tea shops on the creekside at sunset was an old pleasure from travelling out here in the ‘80s…

Sharjah Gold Souk, the Souk Al Markazi or Blue Souk, is to be found at the edge of the Buheira Lagoon and sits at the end of King Feisal Street as it joins Al Aroubah Street, near to the fish market, the Saudi mosque and Al Ittihad Square. Any cabbie should know at least one of those! A major piece of contemporary Islamic architecture, the Blue Souq is nestled snugly by the insanely optimistic ‘Smile, You’re In Sharjah’ roundabout, so called because it contains that very injunction picked out lovingly, by insane people, in flowers. In fact, we have long referred to this as ‘Smile, you’re insane’ roundabout.

You’ll likely get better shopping out of the Sharjah souk, although the Dubai one is more extensive. The Sharjah one has the added advantage of an ‘antique souk’ on the first floor, although the chances of finding a true antique there are about as remote as those of finding a talking fish. Bargain like your life depended on it: the stallholders are as venial a collection of bashi-bazouks as you’re likely to find in your life.

Sheikh Saeed’s House
Sheikh Saeed Al Maktoum was Sheikh Rashid’s father (Sheikh Rashid, arguably the founder of ‘modern’ Dubai and a truly visionary man) and therefore is Sheikh Mohammad’s grandfather. His house has now been restored from its former crumbling state, years of neglect having reduced it in parts almost to rubble. The house itself is a fantastic place to take a wander in the daytime and is also home to a delightful collection of early photography of Dubai as well as a collection of coins and other bits and bobs. It’s well worth the visit and costs pennies to get into. The area around has also been restored as a cultural centre and you can easily give an afternoon wandering around. If you want to hang around for the early evening, you can sit by the creekside, drink mint tea and smoke shisha at Kan Zaman as you watch the dhows and pleasure boats, abras and seagulls whizzing around the busy waterway.

Another option is to accede to the clamorous abra drivers who park up by Sheikh Saeed’s house and accept a tour up and down the creek. Don’t pay ‘em more than Dhs 60, they’re robbers, but do take the tour: it’s great fun and they’ll drop you off at the Spice Souk abra station so you can wander the dhow wharfage at sunset or go into the Gold Souk. Neat, huh?

Another hint: if you’re going to be in this area with guests, start the afternoon off with lunch at the Grand Hyatt’s Al Dawar revolving restaurant, known to us both (unfairly, the food's excellent) for many years as the ‘revolting restaurant’. The food’s really good and you get to do an aerial tour of Dubai as you eat and gently revolve 360 degrees in an hour.

You can get to Sheikh Saeed’s house, which is in Shindaga, by driving towards Shindaga tunnel from Bur Dubai and then slinging a right before you get to the tunnel and just after you pass Carrefour or the Al Bustan Flour mill to your right. Or ask a cab to take you to the fruit souk in Bur Dubai and then go left at the lights beyond the fruit souk towards the main souk area.

Established by Iranian traders under British protection in the C19th, Bastakia’s wind towered adobe houses have been restored and are a delight to wander around: particularly as a few have been given over to cafes and art shops. A short walk along the creekside towards Shindaga will take you past the Amiri diwan to Dubai fort, which is a small, but good, museum.

The wind tower, incidentally, so much a symbol of the UAE is an Iranian innovation brought over to the UAE and can best be seen at Ajman Fort Museum, where a working, original wind tower stands. It’s amazingly efficient.

Geeky fact: one of the reasons these houses and forts are made of coral is that they allow air to pass through: in the summer, water was poured on the roof and the family would then sleep under the stars as the evaporation gently cooled them.

Dubai Museum
What a link! Dubai Museum, located at the old Al Fahidi fort in Bur Dubai, sits next to the Amiri Diwan. You get to it by driving down the creekside past the British Consulate (or Saudi Embassy, depending on how you like your directions) or, alternatively, by passing Bur Juman to your left going down bank street and then turning right at the lights. Or take a cab.

The Museum’s small but pretty much perfectly formed: the entrance leads quickly into a courtyard with rooms off it showing video clips and barasti (palm frond) houses showing how people lived in Dubai right up until the 1970s. Then you’re on the way downstairs, past a strangely stuffed and suspended seabird and a wee model of the old settlement of Dubai and into the highly impressive video show of Dubai’s history. From there, it’s a journey through town and desert and then into a display of artefacts from Dubai’s archaeological past and then, almost before you know it, you’re blinking in the sunlight again. If you’ve lived here more than six months and haven’t been, then shame upon you.

Finding Liwa’s a doddle: go towards Abu Dhabi and then drive south – you can use the truck road or the ‘regular’ road – and you’ll need a reasonable road map. If you’re going to do Liwa, there are only two sensible options: the Liwa Hotel or camping. If you’re intending to drive on the dunes you’ll need friends, sand shovels, water, tow-ropes and the million other things that serious off-roading demands. I’d buy a copy of the Explorer offroad book – it’s the best of them. The Liwa Hotel is old, dowdy and really rather wonderful - but the food's nothing to write home about. A night's camping followed by a hot shower at the hotel is popular.

One attraction on the way down is the Emirates National Auto Musuem, the private collection of cars assembled by Sheikh Hamad bin Hamdan al Nahyan. The watchman usually lets people in, so don’t be deterred if it looks closed!

So why bother with Liwa? Well, the Liwa Crescent is true, deep desert. The dunes roll out as far as the eye can see, stunning piles of golden, reddish sand that can peak at 200 feet. It’s camel country, herds roam across the sands and the people out here are still close to the land, even if they do tend towards the Landcruiser lifestyle a little more than when Wilf ‘watery boys’ Thesiger used to wander around these parts.

The solitude out there is absolute, the tranquillity of the desert is a delight and at night-time, the deep desert clear skies and glistening stars stretched out above you, totally free of light pollution. There’s nothing like it! If you can, wander over to take a look at the Moreeb Dune, a huge dune that is regularly decorated with madmen racing hyper-powered dune buggies up its steep, massive slopes.

Wadi Warraya
Wadi Warraya is easy to get to these days, signposted off the Dibba-Khor Fakkan road (or, if you’re going the other way, the Khor Fakkan-Dibba road) and reachable by blacktop road. It used to be an 18km wadi drive from the main road and was by far better off for it, too.

It’s the only guaranteed year-round waterfall in the Emirates and is, sadly, covered in graffiti and often filled with rubbish: the inevitable consequence of the road being built up to it. On one occasion we visited to find a gentleman had pitched his tent and installed a generator to drive the lightbulb on a stick he’d placed in front of it. The noise was awful.

Be careful about letting kids splash in the rock pools at Warrayah: there’s often a hidden payload of smashed glass in there. Climb up, though, and bathe in the bowl at the top of the waterfall, where a natural ‘Jacuzzi’ has formed: it’s really nice up there and the whole area’s great for a wander along the wadis and even a picnic!

Fujeirah Fort & Museum
The East Coast makes for a great day out: strike out early and aim for Masafi (the Dhaid, or airport, road out of Sharjah or the 611 out of Dubai should do, slinging a right at the Sajja turnoff – you could also drive towards Hatta and turn left at the Madham roundabout to get to Dhaid but that’s a long haul. Turn left at Masafi to get to Dibba, then right to pass by the JAL Hotel, the Al Aqha Meridien and then the Sandy Beach – an overnight at any one of these hotels would make the day out a neat weekend break. Drive down the coast towards Khor Fakkan, stop at the Bidya Mosque (the wee meringue-shaped white thing on the right under the lookout tower on the hill) for a peek on the way to Sharjah’s Indian Ocean resort town. Bidya is thought to date back to the C15th, which would take it back to the fall of Byzantium – although there is more ancient history on this coast with Dibba the scene of the battle that finally established Islam as the religion of the entire Gulf (and the burial place of 10,000 warriors today) and Bitnah home to a megalithic (that’s 3,000 years old to you, mate) grave site on the ancient trade route that used to snake up the wadi linking Fujeirah to Masafi.

Wadi Warayah is a right hand just before you get to Khor Fakkan (so is Wadi Shis, but that’s another story for another day)

The Oceanic Hotel at Khor Fakkan used to be nice, but we haven’t stayed there in over 20 years, so don't take this as an up-to-date recommendation! When you leave Khor Fakkan, you’ll head inland for a bit before rejoining the coast and then you’ll find yourself entering Fujeirah itself.

Carry on along the coastal road until you see the Hilton on your left. There’s a large coffee pot on the roundabout (most roundabouts in Fujeirah are monumental, in fact many are monumentally dysfunctional): sling a right here and you can’t miss the Fujeirah Museum as well as the slightly drab ‘cultural and heritage centre’. The Museum’s nice and worth dropping by for, but not worth the trip to see specifically. If that makes any sense. It’s a short walk or a hop in the car from here to the restored Fujeirah Fort, which is well worth a wander round – particularly if you remember the awful ruin on a hillock that stood there washing away into the ground with every winter rains.

Now you can drive down the coast some more to reach Khor Kalba or drive inland to Masafi and perhaps visit Bitnah or Daftah on the way up. The drive’s amazing, particularly at sunset, when the craggy peaks to your left are silhouetted rather wonderfully.

Khor Kalba
If you decided to drive down to Kalba rather than go up to Masafi, you’re in for a treat: Kalba’s got a nice restored fort (it used to be an Emirate in its own right and an important one, as the backup airstrip for Imperial Airways’ airport at Sharjah was in Kalba), which used to be nothing more, literally, than a depression in the ground. It’s also got a neat seaside which extends out into an extensive mangrove swamp. Conservationists will get irritated here: Kalba’s something of a mess and really could do with more environmental protection measures and perhaps something nice like a visitor centre, but for now it’s open to all and the rubbish tells its own tale. The mangroves are fantastic, buzzing with life includling blue-shelled crabs. On the beach, local fishermen bring up dragnets using ancient, battered Toyota Landcruisers, a massive frothing load of fish the eventual result and then, tragically, a beach scattered with the corpses of sand sharks: edible but not liked by the locals and so of no value to them. They can’t be put back, apparently, as they inevitably die once they’ve been pulled up in the nets and have breathed air.

Go back on the mountain road to Sharjah and get a real treat of a drive scenically – including the mad tunnel through the mountain – and you’ll eventually end up at the infamous National Paints Roundabout on the Emirates Road!

Al Maha
Scrimp and save if you have to. Use your Skywards Miles. Sell a child. A kidney. But just do it.
A club class upgrade to Heathrow = 50,000 miles. A 24-hour summer blissout with food on demand and a luxurious desert chalet with a private pool = 50,000 miles. It’s a no-brainer, surely!

Emirates’ Al Maha Desert Resort is getting arguably a teensy weensy bit old and drab and could do with a minor spruce up. (Oi! I didn’t say change it - Starwood hotels is managing the place as of November 1st so expect some changes - any updates gratefully received!) But it’s still Dubai’s most interesting hotel and without doubt stands as the premium resort hotel in the Northern Emirates, no competition. You call ahead when you’re on the Al Ain road (route 66) and there’s a guide waiting to pick you up as you arrive at the holding area (you can’t take your own car in). It’s a quick ride through the dunes on black top to the hotel, passing through the enormous game reserve (something like a third of Dubai’s land area). Once you’re there, ladies in kandouras ply you with towels and fruit cocktails as you’re checked in then it’s a golf cart to your chalet which will feature a massive bath for two, a nice fresh coffee maker, a decanter of sherry (very civilised at sunset on the decking), two chaise longues and a decked area out back graced with its own swimming pool for two. Oh, I should mention it’s definitely not a child friendly place. Yaaayyyy!!!

Room service is included as is any meal you take in the restaurant, so it’s much lounging around followed perhaps by a glass of pop on the dunes after a camel ride or a quick safari with your guide, then freshen up before a drink overlooking the waterhole and dinner in the restaurant: it’s a set menu, but the chef will accommodate pretty much any request, including a Sri-Lankan curry for two if you’re really, really nice to him and give him some notice. It’s a curry to die for, too.

If you’re up to it, there’s falconry in the morning. We’ve never managed the 5.30am wakeup. You’re more likely to find us lolling around in the extensive, excellent (and a tad expensive, but in for a penny...) spa. Incidentally, once you’re checked out, there’s no hurry to get rid of you – the staff always make it a point to ask if you’d like to stay for lunch. Which is a nice touch.

And so, 24 hours after you called from the Al Ain road, you’ll be blissed out, relaxed and filled with strong feelings of love towards your fellow men. I’m not saying the feeling will last, I’m saying this is how to get there…

Doing Da Dune Buggies
Head up the Awir Road to Hatta and a few kilometres past the roundabout and police post of Lahbab you'll see a large dune to your left - the infamous 'Big Red'. Any Friday (or any day during Eid) will see this dune covered in mad locals racing around in their 4WDs, occasionally joined by the odd brave expat. Either side of the road here is dotted with joints that hire out dune buggies. It's great fun but do please wear gym gloves (you know, the 'Steptoe' style ones with no fingers) if you want to avoid getting a wicked blister at the base of your thumb where your sweaty hand grips the throttle. If you don't wake up the next day feeling like you went 5 rounds with Mike Tyson the night before, you didn't do it right.

So there you are - an all-in-one guide to 21 wonderful things to do during Eid or when you next have relatives out to stay and want to get out of the house before you kill someone.

Enhanced by Zemanta


Mita said...

Fabulous collection including a few I haven't been to yet. Seriously, anyone that does not see the amazing amount of things to do here - need their heads examined and should get on the next flight home!

Rootless said...

You deserve a public service award for this.

A few observations (naturally) plus some additions (in a separate comment for reasons of volume):

- another twist on the Fujairah trip is to go via Hatta then to Huwaylat and along the (semi-legal?) track beside the border fence emerging finally onto the hard-top road that takes you down close to the border crossing near Khor Kalba. To get to the border fence, go past the Hatta Fort roundabout towards the border and then turn left after about 0.5k onto the stark mountain moonscape road to Huwaylat. In the tiny village, take the right turn which meanders down through the wadi filled with little farms and verdant productivity until you reach the military barracks at the end of the paved road. Turn left in front of the barracks onto the hardtop track that peters out and you will see the gravel track leading to the fence perpendicular in front of you. Turn right onto the track and then follow the undulations and scenery along the fence for about 10km. 4WD is not essential but reasonably high vehicle clearance probably is - where the border track gradient is steep there is usually an alternate smoother track which veers away from the fence for a while and rejoins it on more level ground. I have heard that you are not supposed to stop by the fence and this track is not meant to be used as a through road but I have never seen any military checks - though it does add some spice for any visitors you may have to play up the possible risks! Note that the UAE has border checks now on both ends of the stretch of road from Madam to Hatta that passes through Oman. Last week, I produced my UAE ID card (finally a use for it! - in fairness it works at the Buraimi/Al Ain border also) while my visibly pregnant, non-related, visiting only passenger had no ID with her - perhaps just as well as the friendly soldier just asked: "Family?" to which we, swallowing all instinct, agreed heartily and were waved through. One other point to note is that I think the views are better on the East coast driving from Kalba up to Dibba rather than the other way around. I am now curious to try that road you mentioned with the tunnel from Kalba. Lunch at the restaurant on the beach at the Meridien Al Aqah on a nice day, while a bit pricey, is always a good way to leave visitors envious of your UAE "lifestyle", even if the only time you do stuff like that is to actually make your visitors envious...

- the Arabian Wildlife Centre (the actual name of the "zoo" in the Sharjah desert reserve) is just fantastic; the best such facility I have ever been at anywhere. It could form the start or end of an ambitious day-trip to Fujairah.

- I finally visited the Souq Al Arsah last week: Sharjah traffic and random road rearrangements have frustrated previous attempts. The traffic hassle factor should be considered for those of us (like me) who don't know or reside in Sharjah to avoid the risk of frustrated visitors (and driver) spending useless hours of limited vacation time trapped in the antithesis of urban planning. The souq, though, is beyond quirky. I agree that it is better that it is not sanitised like Madinat Jumeirah etc and I guess we got scary laughs from the dessicated bird skeletons and (nervously) from the shop with the Nazi flags (not Indian swastikas - full-on Nazi regimental banners). But the heritage area is scruffy and a pain to get to. I haven't yet been to the Museum of Islamic Civilisation (having finally figured out where it is) but I am interested in any comments and it would obviously add to the pull of that whole area if worth visiting. Previous visit to the Blue Souq didn't find much of charm in there to be honest but a drive around the Sharjah creek is pleasant..

Rootless said...


Abu Dhabi finally now has to be added to the list of places to go in the UAE. The main attraction is the Yas island F1 circuit and the amazing (and surprisingly friendly) Yas hotel. Even if you have no interest in motor racing nor fancy a visit to the expensive Ferrari theme park, the architecture and layout of the whole facility is very impressive. A wander around the hotel and looking out over the the track and marina followed perhaps by a drink or lunch is a must. Then, after the lovely new drive by the mangroves into the city, there is the Shaikh Zayed grand mosque - also very imposing and impressive. There are regular tours (check the AD tourism website for times) which you can just show up for or wander around the huge courtyard (free abayas and kandooras provided if needed - another good photo op). Since you're in AD, there is also the Souq al Qeryat by the Shangri La and the Capitol gate building (you know, the leaning one) which is worth a close look from all angles.

I find a drive through Umm al Quwain town to be an interesting source of cultural observation. That can be followed by a picnic near the mangroves and then a re-stocking stop at the Barracuda - a very pleasant and productive day out!

But the best places to go, in my view, are in the incredible Oman interior, the Dakhaliyah region, though most things are not really accessible in a single day trip. The mountainous scenery of Jebel Shams and the Wadi Bani Awf, the historic cities of Bahlah (with a 900 year old 17km wall, enormous fort and the home of legendary sorcerers that many locals still consult) and Nizwa (wonderfully restored fort and real souq), the imposing Jibreen castle with superbly well-preserved surprisingly ornate - and ferocious - 17th century interiors; wonderful old preserved mountain towns like Misfat-Al Abriyeen, Rustaq and Nakhal with their springs and forts and terraces. And the most magical place in the entire region: the fairytale little old villages with their lush green terraces hanging gobsmackingly off the rocky Seeq plateau in Jebel Akhdar (you do need a 4WD to get through the military checkpoint to get up there). Go there in September for the sweetest most delicate pomegranates you will ever taste (ask any Omani but I can verify) or apparently in May/June (I've not been there at that time myself yet) for the amazing fragrance of rose petals harvested for rose water production. There are also the dozens of 4,000 year old beehive tombs in Bat which I have yet to visit but have been designated a UNESCO world heritage site. Even sleepy Buraimi has a distinctive charm sometimes lacking in it's bigger, louder (and much younger) sister city Al Ain (now sadly separated by a razor fence having sucked the Buraimi oasis dry).

Al Ain is a better starting point than Hatta for this part of Oman but you could do a variety of circuits staying one night in Muscat or Nizwa. Several different amazing weekends are possible.

rosh said...

Alex - you SHOULD create a short (and sweet) digital or print travel guide of his post (and Rootless' comments. It's brilliant.

Camel Racing in Oman said...

camel racing is great fun - Oman is so crazy

From The Dungeons

Book Marketing And McNabb's Theory Of Multitouch

(Photo credit: Wikipedia ) I clearly want to tell the world about A Decent Bomber . This is perfectly natural, it's my latest...