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Dhows and dunes outside Dubai

Dhows and dunes outside Dubai

Dubai may be the cleanest city in the Middle East, but it’s not the most restful. Helena Frith Powell picks the places to go when the bling is blinding

Dubai may be the cleanest city in the Middle East, but it’s not the most restful. Helena Frith Powell picks the places to go when the bling is blinding

February/March 2017

1 TAKE TO THE SEAS
0 TO 1 HOURS 45 MINUTES
 

A watery escape not only puts a new perspective on Dubai, but it’s also a few degrees cooler than the towers of the city. Qualified sailors can easily rent a boat from Dubai Marina. For the rest of us, Pindar Sailing has two 60-foot yachts based at the Etihad Towers in Abu Dhabi (philippe@teampindar.co.uk; from $100 per person). You can either drive down to the capital, or they will bring the yachts to you. Abu Dhabi has the more interesting coastline, freckled with islands, including a number of follies built by the locals, as well as Nurai Island, which has been turned into a five-star boutique resort, complete with spa. (Rooms from about $1,000 a night.) If time is tight, ask Pindar to bring the yachts to Dubai and retrace the route of the Al Gaffal race, held once a year and featuring all-Emirati crews. The route shows off the best of the Dubai coastline. Starting at Sir Bu Nair Island, you head east for 23 nautical miles to Moon Island, before turning south-east to the finish line at the iconic Burj Al Arab hotel, along the same route taken by pearl divers returning from long trips at sea. The term Al Gaffal translates from the Arabic as “the return”. As you enjoy a sundowner on the deck, you might want to do your best to delay it.

2 SHARJAH
45 MINUTES
DRIVE 

When Saudi Arabia bailed out Sharjah, one of the seven emirates that makes up the UAE, some years back, it insisted that this tiny territory go dry. This makes it a good place for a detox – although those in the know head to the rugby club where, thanks to a local by-law, the bar still serves booze. You get to Sharjah by following the Sheikh Zayed Road in the opposite direction to Abu Dhabi, avoiding rush hour when the roads are clogged with commuters. In 1998, Sharjah was elected the Cultural Capital of the Arab World by UNESCO, and it retains that reputation with several museums, a biennial art fair and annual book fair.
Go first to the Sharjah Museum of Islamic Civilisation (pictured above during the Light Festival), on Corniche Street. If the weather is good, as it invariably is any time between November and May, have a wander down the Corniche. Sharjah is about half a century behind Dubai in many ways, lending it an authentic and old-world charm its glitzy neighbour often lacks. A good place to stay is the newly opened Sheraton Sharjah Beach Resort & Spa, situated on what is possibly the last stretch of unspoiled beach in the emirate. (Rooms from $150 a night.) It has the added advantage of being on the border of the Emirate of Ajman so if the detox gets dizzying, you can head to the nearby Kempinski Hotel for a quenching ale.

3 HATTA
1 HOUR 30 MINUTES
DRIVE VIA E102 

Hatta is in the Hajar Mountains, far removed from the heat and humidity of the coast. Traditionally the place that Dubai-based Emiratis escape to during the summer, it is the closest thing you will find to a mountain retreat in the UAE. There are walking and biking trails all over the mountains. While I’m not mad keen on cycling up hills, for those that are, a trip to Hatta will be a welcome respite from the interminable flatness all around (though do check visa requirements before heading out). While there, paddle in the Hatta rock pools – some refreshing water amid the vast expanses of sand. For an idea of what Dubai life was like before oil started gushing, visit the Heritage Village, a re-creation of a traditional settlement, perched on rocks and overlooking an oasis. Then head to Camel Rock, a natural rock formation that bears a striking resemblance to a sitting camel – in case you don’t catch sight of a real one. But this is the nice thing about Hatta: it does feel real – there are even trees growing without thin black pipes watering them. If you’ve ever lived in the Middle East, you’ll understand why this is exciting. Hatta attracts locals and expats alike, but is known as a family place. Food is basic and Arabic, and the accommodation at the Hatta Fort Hotel (rooms from $560 a night), while a long way off the five-star luxury of Dubai, is comfortable enough.

4 THE MUSANDAM PENINSULA
2 HOURS 10 MINUTES
DRIVE VIA SHEIKH MOHAMMED BIN ZAYED ROAD 

The Musandam Peninsula looks like a series of Norwegian fjords, reconstructed by an oil-rich sheikh, complete with hilltop villages and winding mountain roads. But, unusually for this part of the world, it’s all natural. Officially Omani territory, it is a thumbnail of an enclave, surrounded by the United Arab Emirates. In Musandam you are a world away from the glitz of Dubai; this is “Arabian Nights” territory. You can rent a dhow, smoke shisha, count the dolphins and snorkel among the blue bays, or picnic on deserted beaches and gaze at the stars at night. For sybarites seeking a luxurious place to stay, it doesn’t come much better than the Zighy Bay Hotel. Reach it either via a rocky, twisty path over a mountain, or, if you feel like channelling your inner James Bond, by paragliding down into the bay. Once unclipped from your chute, you’ll discover a stylish resort with villas made of stone and wood, a giant swimming pool, bicycles and a Six Senses spa (rooms from $500 a night). But beware of the goats in the surrounding mountains: a friend of mine had his passport chewed by one, which took a bit of explaining to the local authorities.

5 THE DESERT
3 HOURS 15 MINUTES
DRIVE VIA E65 

No visit to Dubai is complete without your very own Lawrence of Arabia moment. The desert is on your doorstep, and with the camping season running from November to May, there is no better time to go. But beware: your charming spot may be invaded by quad bikes, showering sand. The locals head out in droves, in 4x4s, on motorbikes and even on camels. The best dunes are around Liwa. There is a week-long festival there, where the main challenge is to tackle the Moreeb Dune, also called the “terrifying mountain”. It stands over 300 metres high at an angle of 50°. This is the ultimate challenge for those whose idea of a good time is going up and down a sand dune at high speed. But it’s not all motorbikes and mayhem. Those who don’t like to compromise on luxury should head to the Qasr Al Sarab Desert Resort in the legendary Rub’Al Khali or Empty Quarter, the largest uninterrupted sand desert in the world, where Wilfred Thesiger used to roam with just a couple of Arab boys and a box of dates. There are plunge pools, private villas and a tennis court. Any fool can be uncomfortable, as no doubt Wilfred frequently observed, but it won’t happen here. (Rooms from $500 per night.)

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