Mention Dubai and the United Arab Emirates and skyscrapers, malls and indoor skiing slopes come to mind. But when I had the occasion to spend some time traveling around, I discovered there is much more to the Emirates. Think spectacular mountain scenery, golden sand dunes as far as the eye can see, and brand new wildlife conservation efforts, but also delicious local food, markets and date palm gardens. So don’t spend all your time between your 50-floor hotel and the city beach, rent a car and get out there!
Passing through all seven Emirates, this 6 day itinerary combines big-city mega-attractions with a dose of the Emirates’ less well known natural beauty. You can visit the UAE any time between October and May (it’s best to avoid the summer months, when it simply gets too hot). December to March is peak season, when temperatures are pleasant but prices high.
- The rugged Hajar mountains in RAK and Fujairah
- Sharjah’s Wasit Wetland and Mountain Conservation centres
- Al Ain sand dunes and oases
In Dubai, we stayed at the Jumeirah Emirates Towers Hotel. It’s rather business oriented, but it’s centrally located and has some amazing views if you’re lucky enough to stay on one of the higher floors. For more of a holiday vibe and easier access to the beach, a hotel in the Dubai Marina is another option. If you need some help deciding which neighborhood to stay, check out triphappy.com.
Taxis and Ubers are easily available and reasonably priced, but you can of course get a rental car immediately upon arrival. We found it’s easier to get around by taxi in the city.
Day 1: Dubai classics
Go for an early morning stroll around Bastakia Quarter, a historic Persian district consisting of pretty, late 19th century houses. Many have wind towers for natural ventilation. Several buildings are open to the public and serve as galleries. It’s all a little too well restored for my taste, but still gives a good idea of how Dubai used to be, not so very long ago.
Follow up with a delicious traditional breakfast at the Arabian Tea House. Housed in an old building with a courtyard (although of course there is an AC area), the place looks a little touristy but is also frequented by locals, the food is great. Close by is the textile souk, and if it’s not too hot you can keep walking along the Dubai Creek to the house of Sheikh Saeed Al-Maktoum.
From here, take a taxi to the Deira fish souk, which has recently been moved to a new location a little further out. The new, air-conditioned building might not be very atmospheric, but it’s clean and authentic and the selection of fish is fantastic!
After lunch near our hotel and a few hours of relaxing, we headed to Burj Khalifa, the tallest structure in the world at a height of almost 830 m. Booking tickets for the observation decks in advance is essential. You can choose between At the top, on the 124th and 125th floors, and the more expensive At the top SKY, on the 148th floor (this ticket also gives you priority access to the lower floors). We had booked the latter for 5 pm. We were very happy we were priority, as it still took us about 40 minutes to get to the elevator… Others had to wait for almost 2 hours. However, the upper, “exclusive” observation deck was just as crowded as the one below, and the view not much better, so I didn’t feel it was worth the exorbitant price. You can get great views from plenty of hotels and restaurants in Dubai, so it might not be necessary to pay to go up Burj Khalifa at all (Atmosphere on the 122th floor of Burj Khalifa is one of them, although a meal here doesn’t come cheap either). Yes, you are much higher than anywhere else, but personally I think the views are better when you are in the middle of skyscrapers, and when Burj Khalifa is one of the buildings you see! However, if you don’t want to miss being on the world’s tallest building, I would recommend a priority ticket to the 124th floor, less expensive than the top floor but still with a more-than-good-enough view, all while avoiding the worst queues. The entrance to Burj Khalifa is located in the Dubai Mall (of course, the biggest in the world), get there sufficiently in advance so you can have a look around and admire the aquarium.
After having seen it all from the top, we went down and walked past the Dubai Fountain to the Dubai Opera for a ballet show. Check their calendar to see what’s on during your visit. Afterwards we had a late supper at one of the restaurants overlooking the fountain. There is a fountain show every half an hour between 6 and 11 pm, and although it is very kitsch, I had to grudgingly admit that I enjoyed it!
Day 2: Sharjah museums, wetland birdwatching and Al Wadi sunset
Pick up a rental car and head to Sharjah. The must-see here is the Sharjah Arts Museum, which it turns out is closed on Friday morning (until 4 pm), the only occasion we had to go. I was very disappointed, but I’ll just have to try again next time I’m in the neighborhood! The Museum of Islamic Civilization is also supposed to be very interesting, but again closed on Friday morning.
We had lunch at Themar al Bahar, a sea food restaurant a short drive from Sharjah city along the coast (just across the border in another Emirate, Ajman). It doesn’t look like much but when we saw it was packed with locals we realized it must be good. I can especially recommend the grilled shrimp!
Don’t miss the Wasit Wetland Centre on your way out. A discreet but attractive construction in the wetlands of the Wasit Nature Reserve, it’s a great place to stop by for an hour or so for some relaxed birdwatching. The centre is very informative and gives the opportunity to see both captive and wild wetland birds, all from the comfort of an AC observation corridor.
We then headed to Ras Al Khaimah, or RAK for short, where we had booked a stay at Al Wadi Desert resort. The resort is located in the middle of their very own natural reserve, which is home to Arabian oryx, sand gazelle, mountain gazelle and other wildlife. Luxurious villas each have a private pool and bikes to get around (the staff can also shuttle you around in a golf cart whenever requested). There are some nice walking trails through the surrounding desert and there is also an equestrian centre proposing horse and camel rides (strangely enough no guides were available for a horse ride when we were there…) The resort has a restaurant, the Farm House, and a bar with light meals. On Fridays, they also propose an open-air barbecue with middle eastern food, which was delicious.
It’s a very beautiful location, but we found our room a bit too enclosed and dark: understandable considering the Emirati climate, but a pity if you want to enjoy the desert surrounding you. There is however plenty of birdlife in the trees and shrubs around the villas. Tented villas are meant to open soon and might have more charm. Service is also not quite up to standard for a luxury hotel, staff try very hard but lack finesse.
Day 3: RAK desert and Hajar mountains
Today we got up with the sunrise for an early morning walk through the desert before breakfast. It was very humid and the mist gave the landscape a beautifully surreal aspect. We just managed to make out a few gazelles in the distance… An early morning bike, horse, or camel ride should be amazing too!
After packing up our things, we got ready for a little tour of RAK. We started with Jazirat Al Hamra, the ruins of a pearl fishing village abandoned in the 1960s. This “ghost town” wasn’t as charismatic as I expected, but as it’s only a little detour and you can drive through most of it in your car it’s still worth taking a look. It must be more photogenic in very early morning or late afternoon light. We also passed by Dhayah fort, which is not worth the detour at all.
We then headed towards the Jebel Jais mountain road, a brand-new road climbing into the Hajar mountains to the highest peak in the UAE. The scenery is gorgeous, there are several viewpoints where you can stop along the road. Emirati style, you can drive your car right up to the edge and don’t even really need to get out to enjoy the view. For now, there are some basic kiosks selling refreshments and some rather unpleasant public toilets, but there are big plans to construct architectural observation decks, most likely complete with restaurants and shops… So enjoy the amazing views while it’s still relatively quiet and undisturbed!
After winding our way back down, we headed to Fujairah, the next Emirate on our list. Here we had settled on one of the many waterfront hotels, in our case the newly opened Fairmont Fujairah near Dibba. The setting, overlooking the Gulf of Oman with the Hajar mountains as backdrop, must have been jaw-dropping before having been filled with ugly constructions. Unfortunately, there is no boutique hotel or resort that is a little more integrated with these natural surroundings. The Fairmont was very comfortable and fine for a night, but I wouldn’t stay longer. We did have a very good seafood dinner at The Copper Lobster, try the Omani rock lobster prepared in a clay pot!
Day 4: Fujairah coast, Khor Kalba and wildlife centres
Take the coastal road towards Fujairah town, imagining how amazing the scenery must have been at a time when there were no constructions… only a generation or so ago! Make sure to stop by Al Bidya Mosque, right by the side of the road. The oldest mosque in the UAE (most likely from the mid 15th century), the tiny structure doesn’t seem very impressive, but that may be exactly what makes this place so special in a country where everything is the tallest or biggest. Dress conservatively, arms and legs should be covered and women must cover their hair.
Keep driving all the way down past Fujairah town to Khor Kalba Nature Reserve. The mangrove, tidal creek and beach are home to some rare birds, including Arabian Collared Kingfisher and Sykes’ Warbler. The peninsula has been closed to the public for some time now, seemingly for conservational reasons, but it looked like they are also constructing a resort. Some research showed the Kalba Kingfisher Lodge is supposed to open by the end of 2017. If it turns out to really be an eco-resort catering to tourists interested in nature, that would be a great addition to tourism in this region, so make sure to check where things stand! In the meantime, you can still get a look at the landscape and maybe some birds from the bridge leading to the peninsula. We saw loads of sea turtles in the waters below!
A short drive inland from Khor Kalba is the Al Hefaiyah Mountain Conservation Centre. Related to the Wasit Wetland Centre, the focus here is on local mountain species. From the comfort of an AC corridor you can see the animals in well landscaped enclosures, comparable to their natural habitat. An outdoor path leads past several viewing hides for more opportunities to see the animals. The emphasis is on education and conservation, very important in a country that can seem out of touch with its natural environment.
Another animal attraction just a few minutes away is the Kalba Bird of Prey Centre. You can see some pretty impressive falcons, owls, eagles and vultures here. There is a long tradition of falconry in Emirati culture and the Bird of Prey Centre holds falconry shows daily from October to April (except Mondays).
We stopped for lunch at Al Meshwar in Fujairah. This restaurant, on several floors of a big and quite ridiculous building (you’ll see) is very popular with locals. The atmosphere is nice, and the middle eastern food tasty and abundant. You can make a little detour past Fujairah Fort if interested, you can see it quite well from the road.
After this we still had some driving to do as we had decided to spend our last two nights at Telal Resort, close to Al Ain in the Emirate of Abu Dhabi. Telal is spectacularly located right in the middle of the sand dunes of Remah desert. They offer comfortable and secluded tent-like villas, with great desert views but terribly kitsch decoration. There is a lovely swimming pool and they can organise different desert activities. The restaurant is unfortunately rather average. It is also worth noting that Telal is dry, meaning they don’t sell alcohol. You are however allowed to bring your own. As the villas and the main building (with pool, restaurant and spa) are very far apart, staff shuttle you around by car, which is quite a hassle to say the least. But having the desert on your doorstep makes up for everything!
Day 5: Al Ain desert, camels and oasis
After getting up on time to enjoy the sunrise, we headed to Al Ain Camel Market. Try to go early, it’s all outside and the smell doesn’t get any better with the heat. This was the only place we’ve been where we encountered almost only Emiratis (who are far outnumbered by expatriates, they make up only around 10 percent of the UAE population!). Some of the camel traders might try to pressurize you into taking pictures with baby camels for a fee, but they are generally just polite and a no thank you will be enough to be left alone. I do recommend women to dress conservatively as there are only men around. Besides camels (dromedaries to be precise, swift Arabian camels) there are also goats and other cattle, definitely a fun place to check out.
We then tried to visit Al Jahili fort, but it turned out to be closed on Mondays, so we had to make do with the outside. We continued to the nearby Al Ain Oasis, a green haven in the middle of the city. The oasis still serves as a date palm plantation, maintained by traditional irrigation systems. It’s a lovely place for a stroll under the date palms, although it gets hot here too… The adjoining souk is nothing special, nor is the café, which is a pity as a traditional Arab coffee with dates in a nice setting here would have been amazing.
For lunch, I highly recommend Al Fanar for a taste of traditional Emirati food. The place might seem touristy, but it’s very pleasant and besides us there were only locals. The food is delicious, and slightly different from the middle eastern food served in most UAE restaurants.
After lunch we went for a leisurely drive up Jebel Hafeet. The mountain itself is very beautiful, the view a bit underwhelming (but maybe better on a very clear day). The first viewpoint you pass on your way up is actually the most beautiful. Keep an eye out for eagles and Egyptian vultures.
Just before the top of the mountain is the Mercure Grand Jebel Hafeet hotel, where we stopped for a coffee. The place is very dated and doesn’t take full advantage of its spectacular location. But it could still be worth considering spending your first night near Al Ain here, as that would allow you to see a sunset and a sunrise from the top of Jebel Hafeet, besides being conveniently close to Al Ain camel market.
We spent the rest of our afternoon by the pool at Telal before heading out for a sunset walk through the sand dunes. Simply stunning!
Day 6: Back to Dubai
After a last sunrise over the desert, we spent a leisurely morning by the pool before heading back to Dubai. It was hard leaving the desert behind! But I was very happy to have discovered a different side of the Emirates. If like me you were wondering if there is anything to do in the UAE besides shopping malls and theme parks, I hope this blog has given you some ideas!
Have you been to the UAE, or are you planning on going? Is there anything I missed? I’ll be going back for sure so I would love to hear your tips and comments!