Get out of town to explore the region's must-see sights
In a city where there’s almost one car to every two people (1 million registered vehicles serving a 1.9 million population), it goes without saying that driving is an integral part of Dubai life. But rather than spending your time behind the wheel commuting to and from work, we suggest you spend May escaping the city to explore some of the natural and cultural wonders the region has to offer – whether it’s a trip along the new Fujairah Road or an off-road adventure in Wadi Al Faya.
Whatever your destination, we’ve provided sightseeing recommendations, directions and accommodation information, as well as top tips from our editors. It’s time to fill up the tank, crank up the stereo and enjoy the open road.
Al Ain (via Jebel Hafeet) Duration: About one and a half hours (although the journey will be a lot longer if you want to take in the sights en route).
Why go: The highlight is the drive through Jebel Hafeet, a huge mountain that straddles the border between the UAE and Oman. Rising to 1,250 metres, the road offers staggering views on both sides of the range. In fact, it was named the world’s greatest driving road by automotive website Edmunds.com. On your way up, be sure to stop at the Green Mubazarrah, a lush area of greenery and hot springs.
Points of interest: Al Ain town boasts a fantastic range of sightseeing stops, including the quaint Al Ain National Museum and the Al Ain Palace Museum (www.adach.ae). Meanwhile, families will enjoy the wide range of animals at Al Ain Zoo and Wildlife Park (www.awpr.ae), the brand new Wadi Adventure waterpark (www.wadiadventure.ae), complete with man-made surf and white-water rafting for watersports fans. Finally, try amusement park Hili Fun City (www.hilifunkcity.ae).
Directions: Take Route 66 (no, really) towards Al Ain, following signs to Sanaiya, Sanaiya West and Meziad, then to Jebel Hafeet to reach the mountains. Tourist attractions en route are signposted. Where to stay: Al Ain is a essentially a day trip, so you can head back to Dubai once you’re done.
Top tip: Leave early. Despite Al Ain’s close proximity to Dubai, the wealth of sights means you’ll need to spend more than an afternoon there to do everything justice.
Al Maha Desert Resort & Spa Duration: Two hours.
Why go: Even if you’re not planning to stay at ultra-exclusive desert escape Al Maha, the longer scenic drive out there is well worth the mileage. On the way you’ll spot plenty of greenery, plus date and camel farms, and it’s likely you’ll need to stop to let long, lean dromedaries cross the road.
Points of interest: The roaming wildlife (birds, camels and the odd oryx) will keep you entertained.
Directions: Head out of Dubai on the E66 Al Ain road. Al Maha is about 45 minutes outside the city on the E66 (it’s well signposted), but if you want to take a more scenic route, try taking exit 47 off the E66 towards the village of Maugham. Continue through the village, turn right onto the E44, then turn right again onto the E55 (which becomes the E60 after the village of Shwaib). When you hit the E66 again, turn right and follow the road back towards Dubai until you see a slip road to Al Maha on the right, just before the village of Murqquab.
Where to stay: Each of the luxurious suites at Al Maha has its own private pool, and all are equipped with binoculars (to give you a close-up view of the wildlife) and even an easel with oil pastels. Suites start from Dhs3,600 per night (www.al-maha.com, 04 832 9900).
Top tip: Keep your eyes peeled for passing wildlife, especially on the approach road to Al Maha.
Dibba Duration: Around two to three hours – longer if you want to stop off along the way.
Why go: Heading to the UAE’s east coast is a great way to escape hectic city life for the weekend: the pace is laid-back and the dramatic scenery is a far cry from Dubai’s building sites and skyscrapers. Expect to see sea on one side and soaring mountains on the other (see our cover for proof!).
Points of interest: From Dibba, you can jump aboard a dhow trip at the port – try Sheesa Beach (www.sheesabeach.com) – camp on the sizeable beach next to the Golden Tulip hotel, or try some of Absolute Adventure’s outdoor activities, ranging from mountain biking and rock climbing to kayaking and more. The nearby Wadi Khab Shamsi is also fascinating to explore if you have a 4x4.
Directions: From Dubai, take Emirates Road (E311) through Sharjah towards Ras Al Khaimah, then turn east at exit 119. (If you have any spare time, detour to Barracuda Beach Resort, about 10 minutes west from this junction.) Stay on the truck road for 30km, then turn left at the cement factory; as you approach Dibba, turn left at the roundabout after the Adnoc petrol station. Continue straight (you’ll pass a large mosque on the left) until you reach the Omani border checkpoint. Once you’ve crossed into Oman, follow the main road, then turn right after the mosque to head down towards the sea, the port and the Golden Tulip hotel.
Where to stay: The Golden Tulip offers low-priced accommodation from Dhs772 per room per night (+968 2683 6654), or hardy types can camp on the beach next to the hotel for free. Alternatively, Absolute Adventure (04 345 9900) has a great beachside guesthouse that’s available for hire, with rates starting from Dhs1,250 for six people.
Top tip: Don’t forget your passport – you’ll need it to cross the Omani border. There’s no need to pay for a visa, and the passport check should only take a couple of minutes (you won’t even need to get out of the car), but the rules are strict: no passport, no entry.
Fossil Rock Duration: The whole outing can be covered in half a day.
Why go: The journey is a great introduction to the desert and its dunes, and a great starting point for anyone looking to eventually do some serious off-roading.
Points of interest: There’s the village of Nazwa, rolling red sand dunes and fascinating desert birds (such as the pharaoh eagle owl), plus Fossil Rock (of course), and the nearby Camel Rock.
Directions: Take the Dubai/Hatta Road (E44) for 31km until you reach a flyover. At the roundabout, take the second exit into Al Awir. Take the right turn before the second mosque and drive until you reach a sandy track. Head up the dunes, following the power lines across a main road until you reach Camel Rock and, further on, Fossil Rock. Keep straight to reach the tarmac road and take a right or left to head back to Dubai.
Where to stay: Fossil Rock is a popular camping spot, which is why we’d recommend pitching a tent (weather permitting). However, the area is only a short drive from Dubai, so there’s nothing to stop you from heading back to the comfort of your own bed once you’re adventured out.
Top tip: There is an element of off-roading to this trip, so you should only attempt it in a 4x4. Even better, take some desert driving lessons with Desert Rangers (04 357 2233): you’ll pay Dhs1,800 for a lesson in a Desert Rangers Land Cruiser, or Dhs1,000 if you use your own 4x4.
Fujairah Road Duration: You can take your time, but the whole point of this new road (which opened on December 3 last year) is to reach Fujairah in an hour.
Why go: There’s great diving, great fishing with man-sized dorados bobbing around in the shadows of the oil tankers on the horizon, and a very easy-going atmosphere. The emirate is 80 per cent mountains, so there’s plenty of rock climbing and hiking if you’re more actively inclined.
Points of interest: As well as Snoopy Island for diving and snorkelling, there’s Wadi Wurayah, the only WWF-protected mountain range in the country, which is home to little (non-poisonous) snakes and a natural waterfall. There’s also the oldest working mosque in the UAE, dating back to the 15th century.
Directions: Head into Sharjah on Emirates Road (E311) and, at the National Paints roundabout, take a right towards Maliha (S112). Go straight, passing through the outer industrial areas of Sharjah, and eventually passing the Outer Bypass Road (E611). Just before the road turns into the Sharjah-Kalba Road, there’s an Emirates NBD ATM on the right (handy). Continue on the Sharjah-Kalba Road, past the Al Malaiha turning to the right before turning off onto the new Fujairah Road (E84).
Where to stay: Sandy Beach Hotel & Resort (www.sandybm.com, 09 244 5555) has comfortable beach huts and barbecue stations near the sea (Dhs630 for a standard double). Alternatively, for something a little more upmarket, check out Le Méridien Al Aqah (09 244 9000). Standard rooms cost from Dhs1,130.
Top tip: Try to time your journey so you can see the bull-butting that takes place near the corniche every Friday at 4pm (weather permitting). It’s quite amazing.
Hatta Pools Duration: Two hours’ drive.
Why go: See the historic village of Hatta and drive along the gravel tracks through the mountains. The rock pools are a great place to cool off during summer and are an impressive sight of their own, having been carved by rain over millions of years.
Points of interest: Hatta Heritage Village is worth a stop – here you can see the old watchtower and restored stone buildings of the old town.
Directions: Take the E44 towards Hatta, then take a right at the big roundabout with the fort (the location of Hatta Fort Hotel). Drive through Hatta village to find the Heritage Village (look for the watch tower). Continue around the back of the village and turn right to Al Fay along a straight road with lots of speed bumps and a checkpoint. Turn right onto the dirt road and continue for about 10km to reach Hatta Pools.
Top tip: If you continue down the dirt track after Hatta Pools, you’ll reach a beautiful, winding tarmac road through the mountains, which loops back round to the E44. Most of the checkpoints will accept several forms of UAE ID (Emirates ID, labour cards), although a few will only accept passports, so make sure you take yours.
Khasab Duration: Three to four hours (give or take, depending on how long you get held up at the border).
Why go: The drive itself is spectacular on a clear day, following winding road around Musandam’s coast and its many fjords (the area has gained the nickname ‘the Norway of the Middle East’). There are also a couple of small, quiet bays great for beach camping.
Points of interest: En route, there’s a Bedouin village in Sharjah, though you’ll have to detour from your route along Emirates Road (E311) towards the Sharjah Desert Park (E88), then turn left, driving up north on E611. The village lies around exit 119. Unfortunately, many of the more stunning fjords on the route up to Khasab are filled with litter, dulling their beauty. In Khasab, check out the ferry that sails round the coast to Lima (www.nfc.om, +968 244 95453). If you fancy a boat trip, expect to arrive in Lima in about three hours.
Directions: From Dubai, follow either Sheikh Zayed Road (E11) or Emirates Road (E311) through Sharjah, Ajman and Umm Al Quwain. When you reach Ras Al Khaimah, follow the E11 and keep an eye on signs for Shams (on the UAE side), and Musandam and Tibat (the other side of the Omani border). Once you’ve finished the obligatory kerfuffle at the border and had your passport stamped, follow the incredible coastal road to Khasab. If you’re lucky, you may spot dolphins.
Where to stay: The Golden Tulip in Khasab (www.goldentulipkhasab.com, +968 267 30777) is a popular destination but, being one of the area’s only decent hotels, is quite pricey (from Dhs810 per night).
Top tip: If you forget your sunhat, the petrol station just before Khasab’s main residential area sells cowboy-style straw hats for Dhs5 each (and it accepts dirhams). More importantly, if you’re renting a car, check with the rental firm whether you’re permitted to drive the car in Oman, and make sure you take all the paperwork. One Time Out editor found this out the hard way.
Liwa Duration: At least three hours.
Why go: If you think you’ve seen the desert on a quick trip to Big Red, think again.
Points of interest: Check out Emirates Auto Museum on the E65 outside Abu Dhabi (Dhs50 per person, www.enam.ae, 02 667 6999), which, bizarrely, houses several Mercedes, ‘one in each colour of the rainbow for each day of the week’. The museum also features more serious collectors’ cars and (naturally) the world’s biggest car, and a huge globe-shaped caravan. When you reach the Empty Quarter, you’ll see the most impressive dune in the emirates – Tal Mireb. To reach it, follow the brown signs along the way (the dune itself is about 25km down the road). Liwa Oasis is also rather beautiful.
Where to stay: Tilal Liwa Hotel (02 894 6111) is a comfortable and convenient location. Doubles cost from Dhs499.
Directions: Follow Sheikh Zayed Road (E11) out of Dubai towards Abu Dhabi; divert across the highway interchange to the E65 (direction Hameem, exit 306), which becomes Route E90. Follow this road for about 150km, which will take you into the heart of the desert and the edge of the Liwa Oasis – but watch out for the numerous speed cameras on the main road.
Top tip: This is another journey that’s best for 4x4s, but those who want to see the sights without the stress of having to drive can go on a desert safari with the aforementioned Tilal Liwa Hotel (Dhs450).
Wadi Al Faya Duration: To do it properly, give it a day.
Why go: The wadi, which spans the western area of the Madam Plains towards the Omani border, makes for a surprisingly lush area that’s worth exploring. What’s more, Jebel Al Faya is a site of great archaeological importance – it’s purported that archaeologists discovered remains of a series of Paleolithic settlements that date back 125,000 years.
Points of interest: Not only can you explore a unique wadi winding through a rich desert landscape, but you can also see Jebel Al Faya and Jebel Malaiha, aka Fossil Rock (see page 24). On the way, stop off at Sharjah Natural History Museum (Dhs15, closed on Tuesdays; www.sharjahmuseums.ae) and the Arabian Wildlife Centre (www.breedingcentresharjah.com), both situated along this route.
Where to stay: Camping is always an option, but the wadi’s close proximity to Dubai means it’s probably easiest to head home after a day’s exploring.
Directions: From Dubai, take the Dubai-Hatta Road (E44) until you reach Al Madam roundabout; here, turn left onto the E55 towards Al Malaiha. Various forays into the wadi (to your left) can be made at points along this road.
Top tip: Much of this drive consists of desert and wadi driving, so a 4x4 is essential. For a map, complete with GPS coordinates, see local off-road enthusiast Dariush Zandi’s excellent website, www.offroaduae.com.
Don’t drive? Don’t panic! Three organised road trips to try Absolute Adventure Absolute Adventure offers year-round road trips to various points of cultural and natural interest in the UAE and Oman, and pick-up from Dubai can be arranged. The three-hour Dibba tour, for example, involves a 4x4 drive through the spectacular scenery of Wadi Khab Al Shamsi and the Hajar mountains’ rugged crags. The tour also stops at Ru’us Jebel Plateau so passengers can take in views of Wadi Bih and Jebel Haram. Dhs350 per person (minimum of two people). Contact Paul Oliver on 050 625 9165 or see www.adventure.ae.
Al Boom Al Boom’s dhow trips include an early morning mini-bus ride from Dubai to Hatta – the benefit of the drive is that you can snooze as the bus makes its way out of Dubai, then wake to enjoy the rugged terrain, bathed in the early morning sunlight, en route to the Omani border. Even better, the bus ride culminates in a dhow trip, snorkelling and an overnight stay at the Golden Tulip in Dibba, before returning to Dubai around 6.30pm. A perfect summer escape. Dhs300 per person (includes dhow trip, snorkelling, pick-up and drop-off). Al Wasl Road (04 342 2993).
Arabian Adventures Now that the weather’s heating up, Arabian Adventures has moved its road trips to the evenings, so you can enjoy the best of the desert by sunset. You’ll be picked up in a 4x4 between 3.15pm and 4pm, then driven along Al Awir Road before half an hour’s dune bashing. There’ll be a chance to photograph the sunset, have a drink and enjoy a barbecue, before heading back to Dubai at around 9.30pm. Dhs350 per person. Pick-up and drop-off available from locations across Dubai. www.arabian-adventures.com (04 303 4888).
Essential packing Passport Even if you’re not leaving the UAE, it’s better to have it and not need it than the other way round.
Sunglasses Not just to look cool, but to deal with the low sun at dusk, which can make winding roads troublesome.
Fully charged phone Essential for emergencies: you never know when you might need to let someone know your convoy is wheel-deep in a wadi.
Garmin GPS The leader in top-end sat-nav devices, and an essential piece of kit for anyone who takes off-roading seriously. See www.garmin.com.