Time Out discovers the part-sleepy, part-extreme charm of Umm Al Quwain, the UAE’s most retro emirate
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.