Beyond Dubai’s sky-hogging towers lies a whole country to explore. Join us on an emirate expedition...
Time Out Dubai staff
The emirate of Abu Dhabi covers around 70 per cent of the UAE, and offers gazelles and oryxes scampering about a private nature reserve (Sir Bani Yas; www.desertislands.com), a loopy collection of private cars, including a rainbow fleet of Mercedes and a truck the size of a house (Emirates National Auto Museum; www.enam.ae), and the capital city itself (www.timeoutabudhabi.com).
Abu Dhabi has developed at a more leisurely pace than Dubai, but is now positioning itself as the cultural emirate, with the Saadiyat Island development. Here, the US$400million Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim Museum is set to open in 2011, along with a Louvre franchise, and from 2009 the city will host the latest addition to the Formula One calendar. Sadly, Abu Dhabi’s nightlife trails far behind Dubai’s, but there are still ample parks and malls to roam in.
At just 260 sq km, Ajman is the dinkiest emirate of all, and one of the poorest. If you drive through it, it looks like an extension of Sharjah, but it has a distinct personality of its own. Unlike Sharjah, Ajman has bars and restaurants licensed to sell alcohol, and women are allowed on its beaches. It has become popular with Dubai residents looking for cheaper rent, and has a distinctly laid- back vibe.
Fujairah may be the most aesthetically pleasing emirate. The city proper isn’t very developed, so visitors generally enjoy the emirate’s natural assets. It has a strip of hotels and small towns with decent beaches on one side, and the craggy, martian-esque Hajar mountains on the other. Probably the best-known landmark is Snoopy Island (it looks like the cartoon dog’s silhouette – if you squint). The whole east coast is a firm favourite with the Dubai diving set, with the coral reefs home to more exotic fish, turtles and sharks than anywhere around the UAE. The mangroves of Khor Kalba are a favourite with twitchers and kayakers.
Ras Al Khaimah
Ras Al Khaimah – ‘tip of the tent’ in English – has a schizophrenic landscape, composed of a desert, a mountain range, a coastline and fertile land. The mountains are dramatic, the sea clear and full of marine life. It is fairly undeveloped, but has some wacky plans for the future, including a station offering commercial flights into space. The fact that this is likely to come before a network of public buses, draws no comment whatsoever.
Sharjah’s reputation as the most conservative emirate (alcohol is banned, and women must dress more conservatively) makes its appeal more limited. But the emirate has more galleries and a broader culture and art scene than anywhere in the UAE (at least until Saadiyat Island opens in Abu Dhabi). The Sharjah Biennial (www.sharjahbiennial.org) will next be held in 2009, and the city is also known for its souks.
Umm Al Quwain
As the least-developed emirate, Umm Al Quwain is not a bustling metropolis. Its only industries are fishing and date planting, but they barely cover the bill. Its real claim to fame is its array of sports activities. Sailing enthusiasts stop by on their way to Musandam, Oman, since the emirate has no reclamation projects in the works, and its waters are cleaner and clearer than Dubai’s and Sharjah’s. With the largest mangrove swamp on the west coast, it is also a hotspot for rare Arabian birds. For thrill seekers the aeroclub (www.uaqaeroclub.com) and autodrome (www.motorplex.ae) are regularly coming up with new ways to defy gravity and burn rubber.