I decide against a map. I just jump into my car and head north on Emirates Road, letting the dusty highway take me straight into the arms of Ajman. It’s love at first sight. Forget the glitz and glamour that surrounds you every day in Dubai and imagine a place where time seems to have paused – old beige low-rise buildings, forts that wear the look of history, and people in no particular rush to get anywhere. Welcome to Ajman. Right on cue I see a little Arab boy turn towards my car to wave. I think he wants to cross the road.
You don’t need to drive very far before you reach the best this tiny emirate has to offer – the 16km stretch of white sandy beach, with its inviting water and melodic splish-splash of waves. An instant hammock would be perfect for times like these. I turn up the volume on my car stereo as I drive down the city’s version of Jumeirah Beach Road (its a lot grittier than its Dubai counterpart).
After a few minutes of being caught between small number plates on big cars, I decide to park up and head closer to the water, getting in the way of the many joggers pounding the paved strip along the beach. It’s surprising to see ‘No Swimming’ signs along the beach (note: there have been drowning incidents due to strong currents). While there aren’t any Jumeirah Janes and Jakes about, the Ajman Aishas and Ahmads keep me company. They tell me about the new real-estate projects in the area that look set to transform the skyline of this sleepy emirate, such as Al Zorah, and I echo their sighs as we watch local fishermen throw weathered nets into the waters.
Located right in the charming chaos of the city is the Ajman Museum, the former ruler’s residence, an 18th century fort built with coral sea stones and gypsum. I’ve never been a fan of wandering around halls looking at moments of history locked in glass cabinets, but decide to go in to learn about the region’s seafaring history. My discoveries make me want to go in search of something to connect the past and present, so it’s off to the local boat-building yard. Still relatively unknown among locals, asking for directions proves problematic – ‘yard’ is lost in translation and I never find the elusive destination.
Most expats choose to stay in the five-star Ajman Kempinski at the tip of the Corniche, which stands proud next to its weathered neighbours. By late afternoon, many families can be found congregating in the area; the men start fires for a barbecue, while the women busy themselves pressing meat around skewers and occasionally calling out to their offspring to be careful and not act childish. I walk barefoot on the sand and come across a building that houses the infamous Baywatch nightclub, with a charming open air shisha café outside where you can sit and while away the hours and watch the sun set on this city. There are many little cafeterias dotting the road opposite the Corniche, where a few delicious meat shawarmas will set you back no more than Dhs10.
Having had my fill of Ajman, I head back on the road towards Sharjah and come across a massive building sporting red signs entirely in Russian. Curious, I step inside: it’s like entering a mini-Moscow (minus the fur hats and snow). All I hear is Russian chatter and, while I receive a few odd looks, there’s a warmth about the place. I attempt to order a meal at the café, but the menu is entirely in Russian too. I step outside, smiling as I walk past the slightly more traditional Lebanese restaurant right next door. It seems that Ajman, for all its sleepy, small-town ways, still holds a couple of surprises.
Ajman Arabian Horse Show Organised by Ajman Stud, the equestrian facility set up by Crown Prince of Ajman Sheikh Ammar Bin Humaid Al Nuaimi, the annual horse show is a key event in the region’s racing calendar. It showcases more than 100 of the best purebreds from the region, competing for the title of Ajman Champion. January 14-15, 2011. www.ajmanstud.com.
Need to know
Get there The best way to reach Ajman is to head through Sharjah on Emirates Road (E311). While it’s not particularly scenic (unless you really, really like sand), there’s less traffic and plenty of signage so you won’t get lost.
Where to stay Kempinski Hotel Ajman: This five-star escape is the most luxurious option in town, with a range of restaurants and a private beach for guests. Doubles from Dhs950, with breakfast. www.kempinski.com/en/ajman (06 714 5555).
Ajman Beach Hotel: This three-star hotel is a good budget option, with nice sea views and a range of recreational facilities. Doubles from Dhs250, with breakfast. www.ajmanbeachhotel.com (06 742 3333).
Ramada Hotel and Suites Ajman: The hotel is located in downtown Ajman and has affordable rooms, plus plenty of recreational areas including a pool, restaurant and spa. Doubles from Dhs250. www.ramadaajman.com (06 740 4666).
What to see
Ajman Museum This 18th-century fort was initially the ruler’s residence and then used as a police station, before finally opening to the public as a museum. It has a good collection of old weapons and tools, old photos and rather eerie reconstructions of Bedouin history. Worth a visit. Dhs4 for adults; Dhs2 for under sevens. Open Sat-Thu 9am-1pm, 4pm-7pm (06 742 3824)
Masfoot Castle The old Masfoot Castle is located on a mountain in Masfoot region. It was built by the late Sheikh Rashid Bin Humaid Al Muaimi, governor of Ajman, in 1965 to protect the region against ‘highway gangsters’. www.am.gov.ae (06 742 2331).
l In the 1800s, a group of families of the Al Naeem tribe set up Ajman city by the creek, with livelihoods revolving mainly around fishing and diving. l In 1820, Sheikh Rashid ibn Humayd Al Nuaimi signed the General Maritime Treaty with Britain to keep the Ottoman Turks out. l Like Sharjah, Dubai, Ras Al Khaimah and Umm Al Quwain, Ajman’s position close to India made it important enough to be recognised as a salute state. l In 1971, Ajman joined Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah, Ajman, Umm Al Quwain and Fujairah to become the UAE (Ras Al Khaimah joined a year later).
Poor Umm Al Quwain. It’s less than an hour from Dubai and by rights should be visited far more frequently by expats, but most swing by for one reason and one reason alone: to pay a visit to Barracuda and its well-known bottle shop. Next door to this there’s Dreamland Aqua Park, which, coupled with a skydive at the nearby flying school, makes for a pretty decent day trip. Still, few seem inspired enough to stay in the ‘retro’ emirate for a whole weekend. But perhaps if they knew about one particular hotel they’d change their minds.
Sitting on the uninterrupted ocean front is the UAQ Beach Resort. It looks pretty dinky from the outside, but you’ll find little to complain about as you’re whisked through a thicket of palm trees on the back of a golf buggy, past a huge pool that’s footsteps from the shores of a private beach. With spacious seafront villas, a shockingly cheap pool bar and tiny kittens meowing from the bushes, we decide we could quite happily spend the evening here doing very little.
But we had more sinister plans during our visit, and could only spare a few minutes to dump our bags and catch a cab over to the nearby Flamingo Beach Resort. Kitsch and charmingly kooky, the Flamingo is one of the lagoon-facing hotels, offering grassy lawns that lead out to a jetty. Rather like Umm Al Quwain itself, it’s a serene spot that offers so much more. Think boat trips and fishing around the 23-kilometre creek known as Khor Umm Al Quwain, itself dotted with tiny mangrove islands inhabited by flamingoes and cormorants. Yet the hotel has been overshadowed by its claim to fame: the art of spearing crustaceans. In other words, crab hunting.
The notoriety of these nightly expeditions means that the Flamingo’s crab-hunting boat is usually full as it splutters off into the mangrove. We’d be hard-pushed to find a more entertaining evening activity as we’re handed spears and told to jump into the shallow water, before creeping stealthily through the mangroves like Amazonian natives. (Or, more accurately, like spear-wielding expats in frumpy fluorescent-orange life jackets, all wading through knee-deep water stabbing wildly at anything and everything that moves).
Time passes and the thrill diminishes as everyone seems to spear a crab except us. We blame it on the fact that the torches we’re holding are attached to the boat, forcing us to march together like a mass killing machine. ‘How are we supposed to spear anything under these conditions?’ we grumble. But we liven up when we get back to shore, where the crabs and the unlucky squid that got in the way are cooked up for dinner.
The next day we head out on the creek again, chugging past tiny islands, spotting long-limbed pink flamingoes fluttering above the mangroves and the inexplicable sight of dozens of watermelons bobbing in the water.
Aside from killing crabs, a waterpark, flying school, museum, motorplex, ladies’ spa and mangrove islands – enough to keep even the most hyperactive tourist entertained for a couple of days – there’s not much more to do in Umm Al Quwain, but this ends up being part of its charm. Later that day, parked on sun loungers at the UAQ Beach Hotel with palm trees in front of us and frosty beverages in hand, we decide doing nothing isn’t so bad after all.
By car From Dubai, head north along the Ras Al Khaimah Road or Emirates Road and follow the signs for Umm Al Quwain.
By bus Buses run from Deira bus station in Dubai and leave when full. A one-way ticket costs Dhs10 per person.
By taxi A Dubai taxi will cost about Dhs170 from Deira bus station. RAK taxis often wait at the station too, and may prove slightly cheaper.
Where to stay
Barracuda Beach Resort The term ‘beach’ in the name is something of a misnomer – the water at the end of the chalets’ private gardens is a lagoon, and staff advise against swimming. It’s basic but clean, although the main draw for tourists is the low-priced bottle shop next door. Near Dreamland Aqua Park, 18km north of UAQ roundabout on the E11 (06 768 1555; www.barracuda.ae). Studios from Dhs600, two-bedroom chalets from Dhs900.
Flamingo Beach Resort All the basics are present and correct: pool, small garden, little private beach. Rooms are clean and the food at Waves restaurant is pretty good. But the main appeal is the chance to scoot out to nearby islands to go fishing and crab hunting. Lagoon Road, near museum (06 765 0000; www.flamingoresort.ae). Doubles from Dhs573, including breakfast.
Umm Al Quwain Beach Hotel The price may be higher than others in these parts, but we all know you get what you pay for. At the UAQ Beach Hotel you get an immaculate private beach, clean chalets with sea views, a massive pool, a cheap bar and some decent food. Opposite KFC, Al Muroor Road (06 76 66647; www.uaqbeachotel.com). Doubles from Dhs850, including breakfast.
What to do
Dreamland Aqua Park A super, splish-splashing waterpark with various fast and enjoyable flumes. You can also camp on the grounds in cute wooden chalets, or pitch a tent on the campsite, and there’s even a go-kart track outside in the car park if you fancy trying your hand at some motor sport. Bonza! Umm Al Quwain-Ras Al Khaimah Road (06 768 1888; www.dreamlanduae.com). Open daily 10am-6pm (7pm in summer). Admission Dhs100 for adults; Dhs70 for children aged four to 11; under fours free.
Emirates Motorplex Umm Al Quwain-Ras Al Khaimah Road, opposite UAQ Aeroclub (06 768 1166; www.motorplex.ae). Check the website for details of racing schedule. Admission is Dhs25 to watch races The club has five tracks for quad bikes, drag cars, motocross and endurance races, and a 120m by 120m skid pan.
Umm Al Quwain Aeroclub Learn how to fly (or fall out of) planes. Umm Al Quwain-Ras Al Khaimah Road, opposite Motorplex (06 768 1447; www.uaqaeroclub.com). By appointment only.
Umm Al Quwain Fort and Museum Similar to other fort museums across the UAE, but with a better layout, this is worth at least a half-hour stroll. There are archaeological relics, weapons and jewellery on display. Al Lubna Road, Old Town (06 765 0888). Open daily 9am-1pm and 5pm-8pm. Tue, ladies only. Admission Dhs4.
Imar Spa A day spa that also offers overnight deals in glam rooms facing a small private beach, with massage, facials, ayurvedic treatments, colonics et al all available. Lagoon Road, just north of the vegetable market (06 766 4440; www.imarspa.com). Open daily 9am-9pm. From Dhs125 for a 30-minute massage to Dhs4,750 for a seven-night detox and colonic stay. For women only.
The website for Desert Islands Resort & Spa by Anantara tells us that we’d be able to keep any pearls we found while pearl diving, but my colleagues remained unconvinced. Time Out Dubai head of digital content Matt Fortune was sure that any oysters we did find would have been planted there to delight unsuspecting tourists. And if we did find any, Patrick Littlejohn, our director of photography, questioned why they let us just keep such valuable, natural pearls. The whole thing seemed suspicious.
Nevertheless, I was hopeful. Pearl diving, after all, was once a huge part of local life in the emirates. The website of His Highness Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, tells of a single pearl sold in the 1920s for the equivalent of Dhs1,936,496, and over Arabic coffee and Bani Yas-grown dates, we’re shown a map of all the known pearl beds in the UAE (there are hundreds). Surely we’ll find some. The map practically makes it look like you couldn’t step into the Arabian Gulf without standing on an oyster.
We’re joined by Major Ali Al Suweidi, the president of Emirates Marine Environmental Group. His family’s heritage is closely linked to the island and its history, and his enthusiastic pride is infectious. As we push back from the dock, he leads us in a traditional chant with vigour (the rest of us awkwardly read from a slip of paper), and invites us to recline on cushions as we sail out to sea. He recounts epic tales of Sheikhs, Sheikhas, royal families and palaces. Everything sounds like a mysterious, ancient legend; pearl divers poignantly rediscovering long-lost items, and complicated customary negotiations between merchants. Pearling boats, we are told, would go out for months at a time, and divers would free-dive to astounding depths hundreds of times each day with little to no food.
By the time we anchor, in the middle of the tranquil, sparkling sea, it feels almost as if we have stepped back into another era entirely. Though our experience isn’t quite as hard-core, it is totally traditional. We’re each presented with a set of white diving robes and shown the age-old methods we would be trying: you cling to a weighted rope that is dropped into the water, pulling you down to the sea bed around three metres below. Equalising pressure turned out to be tricky. My nose is petite (something I am infinitely grateful to my mother for), which, let me tell you, is a nightmare when you’re trying to pinch your nose through a snorkel mask. At first I have a few coordination issues. Somehow, the weight would reach the bottom while I floundered midway down before popping up at the surface. Matt and Patrick have no such issues and their piles of oysters grow, while I have yet to find even one. It’s tiring work, and I swallow copious amounts of sea water in my increasingly frustrated attempts to reach the bottom. So I go rogue and swim out and attempt to dive down without the aid of a rope or weight. Major Ali spots my frantic efforts – you can’t miss them, to be honest. I quite literally can’t get past the surface and only succeed in creating a huge amount of splashing – and calls over.
“Look! Over here, I can see one, quick!” I have a sneaking suspicion that Major Ali took pity on me and chucked a few oysters back in for me to find, but I sheepishly collect them anyway and we head back to dry land where we gather on the shore to open up our finds.
Despite my hopefulness, I never expected to find more than a couple of miniscule pearls, so I was astounded when, as we opened up oyster after oyster, we found giant pearl after giant pearl – enough for one each. They are stunning, especially the incredible and rare pink pearl. We’re all transfixed by the raggedy, weed-covered shells and the beige, fleshy fish that revealed these beautiful shining orbs.
We admire our finds over tea, and I imagine what it must have been like to dive there a century ago, and ponder how much my pearl might be worth. If His Highness Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum’s website is anything to go by, I’m in the wrong industry. Price on request. Sir Bani Yas Island, Abu Dhabi, www.desertislands.anantara.com (02 656 1399).
Four to try Bani Yas-based activities
Take a wildlife safari See more than 15,000 species of animal up close and personal from African cheetahs, Tanzanian giraffes, Indian spotted deer, Arabian Oryx and more. Look out for the tiny Guinea pig-like Hyrax that’s astonishingly the closest living relative to the elephant.
Go on a wadi walk Learn more about the fascinating geological make-up of Bani Yas Island while walking through beautiful multicoloured rock corridors and naturally-formed salt dome hilltops containing ancient minerals and fossils.
Be a history buff Put your learning hat on and find out more about the fascinating history of the island, from the 7,000-year-old arrowheads discovered there to the ruins of the 7th century monastery and the bronze smelting site.
Kayak through the mangroves Great for both beginners and the more experienced, the tranquil mangrove waters are a great place to spot exotic wildlife and explore one of the island’s unique eco-systems.
This region is home to a spectacular array of sea life, including marlin, sailfish, bonito, yellowfin tuna and dorado, all of which you can catch for lunch. So we head to Fujairah with Soolyman Sportfishing to see if we can do just that.
Boarding the “Yellowfin” (a 38-foot ocean boat) at the Fujairah International Marine Club as the sun rises, we’re met by Kyle Carey, our captain for the day. Carey hails from South Africa and has been working the waters of the UAE for two years. In his opinion, Fujairah has some of the best fishing spots in the country, depending on the time of year you choose to go.
“The water is a lot deeper in Fujairah because it sits on the coast of the Gulf of Oman, and there are fewer nets and traps here,” he says, as we speed away from the marina. The best time for fishing in the emirate is from mid-May. Dubai, however, is better now, as the weather is cool and the water more shallow and just starting to warm up.
Out at sea, we encounter the reality of the UAE’s oil industry, as our boat sails past scores of enormous tankers, some of which our skipper says have been stationed offshore for months. While they may be an eyesore, they do provide shade and a breeding ground for many marine species. Fishing requires patience and know-how, so thankfully, we have Carey’s expertise as he guides us between the tankers and buoys. We move from spot to spot, casting out into the deep, indigo-hued sea and wait with anticipation for the line to dip.
Our first catch is without a doubt the most exciting and gets the adrenaline pumping. Reeling in the fish is hard work. Carey advises us to pull up the rod and then, when lowering it, begin to turn the reel.
After a bit of a tussle, we’re off the mark and bring home a beautiful electric blue female dorado, which Carey says is the “chicken of the sea” due to its tender meat and very few bones.
The feeling of the wind on our cheeks is exhilerating and the thrill of spending the day on the open water from the crack of dawn, with Fujairah’s mountains as the backdrop, is well worth it – even if we don’t catch anything.
In the UAE, the sport requires a permit, and each emirate has a different process for obtaining one. Dubai Municipality offers these free of charge (fishing without one can lead to fines), but tour operators will sort these out on your behalf.
Sadly, though, it’s not all fun and games. Issues in the sport arise from the overfishing of some species, such as the grouper and kingfish, which are under threat of extinction. Soolyman Sportfishing supports sustainable and responsible practices by tagging and releasing those that are endangered.
As our experience draws to a close, we return to the marina with a haul of six dorados and two rainbow runners – ample for a tasty grilled dinner on the beach.
With a box of fish ready to be filleted, we head up to RJJ’s – the German Peruvian restaurant at the top of Fujairah International Marine Club – where the chef cleans, seasons and cooks up our spoils, which are served with a generous portion of salad, rice and, of course, chips.
Trust us when we say that the fish will taste much sweeter when you know you’ve caught it yourself. And also when we tell you that after an experience on the open water, you’ll fall for fishing hook line and sinker. From Dhs2,000 for five hours on a four-person boat. Fujairah International Marine Club, www.soolymansportfishing.com (050 886 6227050 886 6227).
Fsh to look out for
Catch Ehrenberg’s Snapper
Commonly found in the UAE on coral reefs and offshore wrecks, this bright species feeds on smaller fish and crustaceans. Stocks of snapper in the UAE are plenty and larger ones can reach up to a metre long.
Catch Two Bar Sea bream
A small, attractive fish with a distinctive two black stripes across its face and bright yellow fins, this species of bream is populous in the waters of the UAE. Its wide shape makes for good eating, too.
Avoid Grouper (hammour)
The UAE’s most popular fish is also one of the most endangered. Grouper is fished at more than seven times the sustainable level, with many young fish being pulled out too soon, so think twice before catching this species and reconsider ordering it at restaurants.