Time Out has the UAE road trips definitive guide, featuring things to do in Hatta, Fujairah, Liwa desert, Abu Dhabi, Sharjah, Al Ain and RAK
As much as we love Dubai, sometimes we get a desire to escape. Call it what you want – a feeling, an urge, maybe even a calling. Sometimes that need to jump in a car, crank up some tunes and hit the road for somewhere new simply takes over.
Whether you’re itching for a spontaneous morning drive or have time off work to plan an extended weekend getaway, we’ve compiled the best road trips from Dubai. Prepare for all kinds of adventuring, because on these routes, it’s just as much about the journey as it is the destination. Happy travels!
SHOP IN THE SHARJAH SOUKS (50 minutes) Why go: Sharjah has the best souk experiences in the UAE and they’re well worth the drive north to explore. The Central Market, also known as the Blue Souq, stands side-by-side with the Burj Khalifa, Burj Al Arab and The Dubai Fountain as being one of our favourite landmarks in the country. Inside, there are hundreds of independent traders hawking jewels, rugs, furniture and knick-knacks from Rajasthan, Yemen and everywhere in between. Remember to look in at the fruit and fish souks nearby, too, but any purchases will need to be taken home, unless you want them to start rotting in your car. If you live in New Dubai, the most direct route would be to drive up Sheikh Zayed Road, but it doesn’t fit the road trip philosophy, so take one of the early detour options to bypass the centre of the city and check out the sandier views of Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed Road before pulling back into built-up, busy roads through Sharjah’s industrial area and past the cricket stadium. Central Market, located at Al Majaz, at the end of Corniche Road, close to Khalid Lagoon. Put it in your GPS: 25.347410, 55.384124
Stay overnight: What is it you really want from a weekend away? Some different sights? A different experience to what you have at home? Tranquillity? Coral Beach Resort offers all of the above. Outside the bustle of the Al Majaz Waterfront and the Sharjah corniche and lagoon, it’s a peaceful low-rise venue with modern facilities and simple, affordable rooms. Coral Beach Resort, Al Muntazah Street, www.hmhhotelgroup.com (06 522 9999).
Eat here: The tradition and culture that marks Sharjah out as an ideal road trip destination can be found in its dining as well. Visit Emirati restaurant Arjwan in the Sheraton Sharjah Beach Resort & Spa and you’ll find local cuisine in smart, Arabesque surroundings. You’ll discover Emirati dishes and touches of flavour such as a lamb thareed (slowly braised on the bone) or lamb mansaf (stewed and served with mandi sauce). Arjwan, Sheraton Sharjah Beach Resort & Spa, Al Muntazah Street, www.arjwanrestaurant-sharjah.com (06 599 0088).
Pull over here: You shouldn’t drive as far as Sharjah without stopping in at Al Qasba and enjoying the waterside cultural hub. There are often theatrical shows to take in, as well as a giant Ferris wheel, musical fountains, an art centre and a public park. Al Qasba, www.alqasba.ae (06 525 2444).
GO ON SAFARI IN AL AIN (90 minutes) Why go: You don’t need to battle through traffic on the southbound Sheikh Zayed Road to experience a road trip with adventure, purpose and excitement. Instead, head southeast for 90 minutes to the garden city of Al Ain. Regarded as a greener, slower and even friendlier city than its UAE counterparts, it stands out as having two of the nation’s finer attractions (and a whole lot of roundabouts). Adventure sports centre Wadi Adventure (see below) and the Al Ain Zoo can both be seen in a day. The latter is highly regarded for education and conservation programmes and its safari means you can see animals in an almost-natural habitat without bothering them. From the tour trucks, it’s possible to spot lions, rhinos, giraffes, ostriches and much more. Al Ain Zoo, Nahyan The First Street, www.alainzoo.ae (800 555). Put it in your GPS: 24.179200, 55.739538
Stay overnight: Central Al Ain neither hustles nor bustles. That is exactly why it stands out as an excellent road trip destination. Not that you want to drive out to a location devoid of any character or life, so choosing a hotel as close to any action you can find is a good idea. The Hilton Al Ain has a handful of restaurants, a trio of swimming pools and party spot Paco’s, with a live band and not wholly unenjoyable levels of dancing. Hilton Al Ain, Al Sarooj District, www.hilton.com (03 768 6666).
Eat here: Tanjore is an upmarket restaurant in the attractive Danat Al Ain Resort. Clay oven tandoori specials are delicately spiced and intriguing touches such as chicken tikka marinated in freshly squeezed pomegranate juice and spices should spark your attention. Tanjore, Danat Al Ain Resort, Al Ain, www.alain.danathotels.com (03 704 6000).
Pull over here: No trip to Al Ain would be complete without a visit to Wadi Adventure with its man-made white-water rafting and kayaking river, aerial assault course, climbing wall and yet more adventurous sports. Wadi Adventure, Jebel Hafeet, Al Ain, www.wadiadventure.ae (03 781 8422).
GO HORSE TREKKING IN RAS AL KHAIMAH (90 minutes) Why go: The northern Emirate has set itself the target of attracting a million tourists a year by 2019 and at around 90 minutes (if you avoid the rush hour traffic on Sheikh Zayed Road both ways) the trip up to the top of the tent won’t eat too much time out of your day. The direct route will take you past three emirates and plenty of suburbs, giving you every chance to take in the outlying deserts. After the drive, you can get out of your car seat and into a saddle with horse, pony and camel rides at the Al Wadi Equestrian Centre. Hour-long desert rides, including moonlit treks, are a highlight and a great way to experience the dunes and outdoors up close, Bedouin-style. Al Wadi Equestrian Adventure Centre, Ras Al Khaimah, www.alwadiequestrian.com (07 243 5422). Put it in your GPS: 25.574164,55.8303446
Stay overnight: When you’ve driven up north, you’ll probably want somewhere swish to rest your head at the end of the day, and the Rixos Bab Al Bahr on Marjan Island ticks that box. Unusually for a UAE resort, it popularises the all-inclusive concept, so when you arrive, your meals, drinks and more are included in the price of certain packages. Take a room with sea views and look out at a different stretch of The Arabian Gulf for a change. Rixos Bab Al Bahr, Al Marjan Island, Ras Al Khaimah, babalbahr.rixos.com (07 202 0000).
Eat here: If you don’t fancy staying overnight but do have a hankering for a late one, give your road trip a holiday feel by hitting the beach to eat Brazilian meats with a lively soundtrack from a live trio at Pura Vida. Work will seem a lot further away than an hour-and-a-half drive. Pura Vida, Hilton Ras Al Khaimah, www.hilton.com (07 228 8844).
Pull over here: We clock a Dubai Marina to Al Wadi trip at more than 100km and, if we’re honest, we don’t recall seeing much greenery that whole ride. Get a nature fix by stopping for drinks at Saqr Park. RAK’s largest park is a beautifully landscaped oasis and has a fun train ride chugging around the perimeter. Saqr Park, Al Dhaith, www.rasalkhaimahtourism.com (050 374 4150).
GO EXPLORING IN ABU DHABI (1hr 23mins) Why go: Unless you are the proud owner of an amphibious car, island hopping around the capital could leave you rather soggy. Thankfully, there is the Jalboot ferry to help you keep your head above the water. After driving south, park up at the Jalboot jetty outside the Abu Dhabi Mall and explore the waters at your own leisure with an all-day pass. Along with the numerous islands dotted around, you’ll also be able to take in several of the city’s landmarks including the striking Etihad Towers and Fairmont Bab Al Bahr resort and Yas Marina. A full day’s sailing takes eight hours, but you can duck out at the halfway mark if you tire of the sea breeze. Dhs195 (adults), Dhs95 (children), Dhs495 (families). Daily noon-8pm Jalboot, Abu Dhabi Mall, www.jalboot.ae (600 57 57 56). Put it in your GPS: 24.4955029, 54.381071
Stay overnight: Like Dubai, the nation’s capital has a wide range of top-notch hotels in which to rest your head after a day of adventuring. Easily the most iconic of these, though, is the opulent Emirates Palace. No expense was spared when this incredible venue was built at a cost of Dhs11 billion, and it shows. In short, you will feel like royalty as soon as you set foot inside. Emirates Palace, West Corniche Road, Abu Dhabi, www.kempinski.com/Emirates-Palace (02 690 9000).
Eat here: Head over to the Eastern Mangroves Hotel & Spa by Anantara and book yourself a table at Pachaylen. This unerringly brilliant Thai eatery won the Best South East Asian award at the Time Out Abu Dhabi Restaurant Awards this year and it serves a cracking menu of authentic, mouthwatering dishes from within a lavish, impressive setting. We couldn’t recommend it more highly. Pachaylen, Eastern Mangroves Hotel & Spa by Anantara, Abu Dhabi (02 656 1000).
Pull over here: On your way down to the capital you have two prime pit-stop options. If you’re feeling peckish or want to grab a coffee, there’s the roadside diner Last Exit. But for those hoping for a photo opportunity and some artistic inspiration, park up at the amazing Al Raha mural between Al Raha Mall and Al Bandar. You’ll also be down the road from the aesthetically pleasing Aldar HQ (the one that looks like a giant Smartie), which is well worth another snap.
CLIMB MOUNTAINS IN HATTA (1hr 40mins) Why go: The mountain village of Hatta is unlike any settlement in the UAE, and a dramatic destination with military and cultural significance. More importantly, it is a hub for hikers, mountain bikers and outdoorsy folk wanting an escape from big city life. Walk the mountains or find a rugged off-road cycle route to see a different side to the landscape. Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed Road will be familiar to day-trippers but this time, turn off and join the Sharjah-Kalba Road when you have gone beyond Sharjah’s industrial outskirts and follow the mountain road up to Hatta. Put it in your GPS: 24.819743, 56.133853
Stay overnight: There is something of an après-ski lodge and resort feel to the mountain-side JA Hatta Fort Hotel. It has massive rooms with mountain views and facilities such as a lagoon-style swimming pool, archery and mini-golf. Best of all, we think, are the 80 acres of manicured gardens and nearby rocky hikes. JA Hatta Fort Hotel, Hatta, www.jaresorthotels.com (04 809 9333).
Eat here: The restaurant options are limited in Hatta so stay in your hotel and try all-day dining venue Café Gazebo. The outdoor terraces are in the shadows of the imposing mountains and if you’re very lucky you will be joined by a biker gang. Yes, you read that right. But don’t worry, they’re very well behaved. Groups such as the Harley Owners Group’s Dubai chapter use it as a regular pit stop. Café Gazebo, JA Hatta Fort Hotel, Hatta, www.jaresorthotels.com (04 809 9333).
Pull over here: Hatta Heritage Village is a replica of an authentic Bedouin settlement with 30 or so buildings to explore. It is an interesting insight into a traditional way of life, not to mention an ideal base for mountain walks. Hatta Heritage Village, Hatta, www.dubaiculture.gov.ae (04 852 1374).
WATCH THE SUNRISE ON FUJAIRAH'S EAST COAST (2hrs 30mins) Why go: There are several ways to reach Fujairah and most of them involve cutting directly across the largely uninhabited desert and mountain lands of the UAE. You can get there from Mirdif in less than two-and-a-half hours, and you’ll arrive to find the UAE’s finest watersports and seafaring activities. So let’s recap – variable and quick roads, interesting views and a considerable prize at the end? That is a lot of road trip goals achieved right there and we retain a fondness for Fujairah ever since a snorkelling trip a while back. Sea fishing enthusiasts, divers and weekend sailors tend to flock in this direction. Head for Fujairah International Marine Club and you’ll likely find a skipper to take you out onto the waters. Fujairah International Marine Club, Corniche Street, Fujairah, www.fimc.ae (09 222 1166). Put it in your GPS: 25.126387, 56.357129
Stay overnight: When you’re done making hay in the water, take a trip up the E99 coastal road to Le Méridien Al Aqah Beach Resort, a gorgeous five-star offering with a cracking little beach and lovely views of the Gulf and imposing Hajar Mountains. The hotel has a choice of nine restaurants and bars to discover but if you fancy some fresh seafood by the beach, head over to Gonu Bar & Grill. Le Méridien Al Aqah Beach Resort, Dibba Road, Fujairah, www.lemeridien-alaqah.com (09 244 9000).
Eat here: Regulars at Dubai’s three branches of popular Irish pub McGettigan’s will know the food here is cracking. It also offers a lively brunch, ladies’ night, quiz night and as much sport as you could want to watch in one trip. McGettigan’s, Tennis & Country Club, Fujairah, www.mcgettigans.com (09 224 4880).
Pull over here: On a drive of this distance you’ll see a few eyebrow-raising sights, but none quite so startling as the bull-butting on Fujairah corniche. At around 5pm on a Friday it’s not uncommon to find a patch of land come to life as crowds of hundreds of spectators come to watch bulls lock horns. Drive to the Oman end of the corniche and turn right.
TAKE YOUR 4x4 OFF-ROAD IN LIWA (3hrs 40mins) Why go: Of course, a real road trip should take you, well, off-road. The vast Empty Quarter has endless areas of undeveloped land. A more accessible point is the Liwa Oasis, to the south of Abu Dhabi city. Numerous villages are dotted along the curved line of the oases and the infrastructure is good. In other words, a well-maintained road with vast dunes either side allows non-4x4 owners to get up close to the dunes. If you can pull off-road (and only do so in convoy and after telling other drivers where you will be) then you could see Tal Mireb. At abut 300m high, it is the most impressive dune in the emirate and is a beautiful sight to behold. In the villages lining the oasis you will see many date farms and vegetation. After passing through Abu Dhabi, leave the E11 near Tarif and take the E45 towards Liwa. At the town of Mezaira’a there is a petrol station and shops. Once through here, head right on the E90 and then follow signs to and beyond the Liwa Guesthouse. At the next roundabout turn left towards Tal Mireb. Put it in your GPS: 22.974979, 53.785458
Stay overnight: There is a temptation to think of anything in the depths of the desert as being barren and harsh. On the whole, it is true. Which makes the Qasr Al Sarab’s pure luxury stand out all the more. The stunning resort is an Abu Dhabi highlight with the very heights of Arabian hospitality. Rooms overlook the dunes, spa treatments encourage the use of traditional practises and few hotels in the region have a stronger sense of place. Qasr Al Sarab, Qasr Al Sarab Road, qasralsarab.anantara.com (02 886 2088).
Eat here: You can’t, or at least shouldn’t, drive all the way out into the heart of the beautiful desert and then be cooped up indoors. The Al Dhafrah Oasis is an outdoor restaurant where diners sit in traditional tents in a pleasant oasis setting. Frequently used as a function and team-building centre, it is a barbecue location with authentic Bedouin stylings. Al Dhafrah Oasis, Tilal Liwa Hotel, Liwa, www.tilalliwa.danathotels.com (02 894 6111).
Pull over here: Out in Madinat Zayed you’ll find a shopping centre that sits somewhere between traditional souk and modern mall in its approach to retail. There are fashion, furniture and food stores, but the most striking section is the impressive gold centre. Dozens of gold shops have a treasure collection that would make even a rapper stop and stare. Gold Centre, Madinat Zayed Mall, www.madinatzayed-mall.com (02 633 3311).
SEE ANOTHER ARABIAN CAPITAL: TRY MUSCAT (4hrs 30mins) Why go: This international road trip is a desert trek of epic proportions, a four-and-a-half hour cruise through mountains and along Oman’s coastal route. With more than 400km of road to get along, you will need to be well-stocked with provisions, tunes and essential documentation required for an international border crossing. Forget the fact the flight can be done in under an hour, this is a road trip worthy of the name. Passing through the border at Hatta, your route will take you through wadis, village settlements, major dams and keep you almost constantly within view of mountain ranges. Arriving in Muscat, you have an entire new Arab capital to explore. After such a large-scale trip there can only be one must-see destination to give your journey a suitable soundtrack. A visit to the Royal Opera House of Muscat, of course! The performance line-up can be found on the website. How does Mozart’s Don Giovanni on the last weekend of November sound for starters? Royal Opera House Muscat, Shatti Al Qurum, www.rohmuscat.org.om (+968 2440 3300). Put it in your GPS: 23.585021, 58.388584
Stay overnight: The Omani capital isn’t short of hotels but we suggest trying The Chedi Muscat, set amid 121 acres of greenery, or the Sheraton Oman. The Chedi Muscat, North Ghubra 32, Muscat, www.ghmhotels.com (+968 2452 4401).
Eat here: One of the most memorable dining experiences in the Sultanate is The Ritz-Carlton’s beachside brunch. Known for its excellent seafood offerings, Beach Pavilion serves local catch including Omani lobster and prawns as well as smoked trout, crab, clams and mussels. Exactly the sort of feast you will want after an epic drive. Beach Pavilion, Al Bustan Palace, Quron Beach, www.ritzcarlton.com (+968 2479 9666).
Pull over here: There are so many stops along the Batinah Highway (Oman’s coastal road, which will make two-thirds of your journey) that our strongest advice is to have regular snack and photo breaks when something interesting catches your eye. A sight such as the Wadi Al Hawasnah and Wadi Bani Omar Dam is remarkable. It is a detour of around 10km from your direct route but well worth it. The enormous dam is likely to be your most liked Instagram post of the entire road trip, and that’s what these journeys are all about, right? Put it in your GPS: 23.951189, 57.018401