Free! From feeding ferrets to hugging hamsters, the Animal Sanctuary & Petting Farm – a haven of green in the middle of the desert – is the closest you’ll come to a hands-on farm experience here. Home to a range of rescued animals, from domestics like rabbits, guinea pigs, ducks, tortoises and ponies to the obscure like chinchillas, ferrets, porcupines and even baboons, the sanctuary lets little ones handle, feed and learn about animals. Free buckets of food provide pint-sized pet lovers with carrots for the ponies and pumpkin for the porcupine, and mess-loving minis may enjoy mucking out the goats or the duck pond. Kids can even saddle up on Shadow, the horse. Friendly, fun and free (donations are appreciated) it’s an exciting and educational afternoon out.
We Recommend... volunteering your services. Pack a picnic and your tent and camp in the desert behind the sanctuary.
Animal Sanctuary & Petting Zoo, end of Dubai Bypass Road on the Ajman/Sharjah border, 25 minutes from Dragon Mart heading out of Dubai.
www.poshpawsdubai.com (050 273 0973).
Whether you want peace or plenty to do, you’ll find one near you. Here’s our pick:
Jumeirah Beach Park
Ideal for… tots and toddlers: This beach park boasts lovely gardens leading on to a wide beach with lots of shade and sun loungers, plus a cordoned-off swimming area. The Dhs5 entry is worth it for convenient extras like the kids’ playground (swings and slides for tots), changing rooms, barbecue pits and picnic tables.
We recommend... visiting on Monday for mums-and-minis day. Dhs20 per car or Dhs5 per person. Open 7am-10pm. Ladies and children only on Mondays.
Jumeirah Beach Road (04 349 2555).
Al Mamzar Beach Park
Ideal for... a whole day out: This spacious seaside park has loads on offer. Set up a lunchtime barbecue in one of the park pits and spend the afternoon on one of the pristine palm tree-laden beaches. Then hop on the little park train for a scenic tour, stopping at one of the park’s many playgrounds before taking a refreshing dip in one of the three kids’ pools. There’s plenty of facilities, plus a roller-skating area, football pitches and bike rental. Phew!
We recommend... hiring a day chalet. Dhs30 per car or Dhs5 per person.
Open daily 8am-11pm. North of Al Hamriya Port.
Free! Jumeirah Open Beach
Ideal for... beach and biking: A popular spot, there’s a super-spongy track along the beach, perfect for sunset strolls, rollerblading or taking the tykes biking. After all that activity, tuck into a treat from a convenient kiosk.
Jumeriah 1, next to Dubai Marine Beach Resort.
Free! Jebel Ali Beach
Ideal for... camping: Rough and ready, you’ll find lots of people camping and fishing here. Have a game of hide ‘n’ seek among the dunes or search for shells on the flat sand. The wave-free waters (due to construction) make this ideal splashing ground for toddlers. There are no facilities here, so pack a cool box. Next to Jebel Ali Beach & Golf Resort.
We recommend... a trip to the nearby go-karting track for a post-beach buzz.
Emirates Kart Centre (04 282 7111).
Free! JBR Beach
Ideal for... convenience: A super-convenient spot, there’s a huge car park next to the beach, and dozens of dining outlets and attractions just steps away on The Walk. This wide expanse of beach offers plenty of space and is good paddling and shell-searching territory. Next to Hilton Jumeirah.
We recommend… visiting the Covent Garden open-air market opposite the beach, featuring some 75 artists and artisans.
Open Wed-Thu 5pm-midnight; Fri-Sat 10am-9pm. (050 244 5795).
Other Sandy Spots
Free! In the heart of Jumeirah, Mercato Beach is a tranquil haven, though pretty basic, with just sea, sand and a volleyball net. Next to Dubai Ladies Club, near Mercato and Dubai Zoo. Kite Beach is a spacious stretch famous for its strong winds and surf, bringing kitesurfers in their droves to race the waves, which will keep the manic monsters mesmerised. Jumeirah Beach Road, next to the fishing village. Umm Suqeim (Sunset) Beach is right next to the iconic Burj Al Arab, offering a fabulous view of Dubai (can you spot Atlantis in the distance?) and a good spot for sunset picnics.
Jumeirah Beach Road.
For a brief, touristy trip, hop on a city-dwelling camel. Find them during weekends at Safa Park and Dubai’s Bastakiya enclave, the latter setting you back Dhs20 for around 15 minutes. For a more authentic experience, go the whole hump hog with a traditional one-hour sunset camel safari at the Hilton Al Ain.
Dhs150 for adults, Dhs75 for kids 5-12, under fives free (03 768 8006).
Free! December 18 Sharjah Archaelogical Museum is opening its model site to families next month, letting little ones live the life of an archaeologist. Kids get to dig for a hidden object, then they learn how to clean it and record essential details, before departing with a photo, worksheet and maybe even dreams of being an archaeologist.
11am-1pm, Sharjah Archaeology, Museum (06 566 5466).
Convince the kids that there’s nothing like good, clean, green fun.
Free! Beach clean up Tire out the tykes with a rubbish-searching runabout on the beach. The 15th annual beach and underwater clean-up (part of the Clean Up Arabia campaign) is a great community get-together. Meet new people and enjoy a beach lunch and volleyball tournament.
Nov 5 on Al Mirfa public beach in Abu Dhabi and Nov 6 on the east coast at Le Meridien Al Aqah Beach Resort and Spa, 8.30am-6pm, www.emiratesdiving.com (04 393 9390).
Free! Support recyling Cheer on recycled boats as the creators race or ramble their wacky eco creations across the Festival Marina. The innovative designs will amaze you, while other activities along the promenade will keep the kids entertained.
Whatever Floats Your Boat Challenge, Nov 26, Festival Marina. (04 701 1071).
Join Julia, the rüppel’s griffon vulture, Hetterich, the barn owl and Harri, the Harris Hawk for a 45-minute Birds of Prey show, with this season celebrating the return of Jon the bald eagle. Sandra Stuckenbruck and her husband Zoltan have been running the show for 20 years and tell us: ‘Kids get to learn about all the different birds, as well as their special skills.’ Discover the hunting habits of the hawk and the feeding habits of the falcons.
Dhs50 adults; Dhs25 kids 3-12; under threes free. Mon-Sat, 4pm until March 30. Near Mushrif Park on Al Khawaneej Road. www.birdsofprey-show-dubai.jimdo.com.
Free! For some big-hitting fun, all you need is a group of up-for-it gamesters and a few pieces of equipment. Fling a frisbee in Safa Park, bash a ball over the volleyball net at Mercato public beach or coordinate a game of cricket on the pitch at Za’abeel Park.
For a hop on a horse without the hassle of lessons, Mushrif Park, Za’abeel Park, the Animal Sanctuary (see A) and Arabian Wildlife Centre (see Z) offer horse and pony rides, or get a 25-minute ride on a Shetland pony at Jebel Ali Golf Resort & Spa for Dhs50. For a family equine experience, potter along to the polo for a picnic: Dhs50 parking on non-tournament days. Dubai Polo & Equestrian Club (04 361 8111).
Sir Bani Yas Island is a working wildlife sanctuary and home to thousands of animals and birds. To visit, you need to stay at The Desert Islands Resort & Spa by Anantara, which offers tons of nature-based activities (see N for Nature Trails). Or hop across to Bahraini Island. Charter a private boat for the 40-minute journey and spot dolphins en-route. Think unspoiled beaches and tons of wildlife.
Boat charters, Dhs300 per hour from Belvari Marine (050 661 2176).
Jungle Gym Fever
Got a garden? Then an outdoor play system is a smart investment. We love environmentally-friendly wooden Rainbow Play Systems. Modular in design, you can update as your child grows with challenging options from rope swings and chain ladders to trapeze bars, rock walls and even shop counters and playhouse panels. ‘A play set can help kids develop intellectually. It can challenge them, help them discover themselves, and gives opportunities for imaginative play,’ says Rainbow Play Systems’ UAE representative, Naomi Sutherland, email: Naomi@rainbowplayuae.com.
Umm Al Quwain At Umm Al Quwain Marine Club, kayak from the club house along the creek (Dhs60 per hour for a double kayak) or splash out on the club’s houseboat (Dhs1,500 for five hours), which delivers you and the kayaks to an island to paddle around the mangroves, spotting birds and marine life. You can fish from the boat and splash down the boat’s slide (06 766 6644).
Abu Dhabi ‘Our low-impact kayaking eco-tours of Abu Dhabi city’s mangroves, coastal waters and inland areas are ideal for families who want to experience UAE wildlife,’ says Annie at Noukhada Adventure Company. Dhs150 for a 90-min tour, Dhs250 for a half-day island tour. www.noukhada.ae.
Get out of your expat rut with local family experiences.
7.30am Free! Share in the sport of Sheikhs with a camel racing experience at the race track on Al Ain Road. Tue-Thu, near Rugby Sevens Stadium.
10.30am Head to Dubai Creek and charter an abra for a 60-min trip taking you past some of the older landmarks. Expect to pay Dhs100.
12pm Dine al fresco upon cushions on the canopied terrace in Local House Restaurant, Bastikaya (04 354 0705). Enjoy local delicacies like camel soup, camel burger and camel milkshakes.
2pm Free! Visit Dubai Heritage Village near the Creek and see locals at work on traditional handicrafts, try Bedouin snacks and watch cultural dances. Call 04 393 7151.
Full-moon desert drumming Think flaming torches, sizzling barbecues and vigorous drumming, a mesmerising experience for all. Join the next one on Nov 19. Dhs175 adults, Dhs65 kids five-14, under fives free. www.dubaidrums.com.
Nocturnal hunts Stay at the tented villas of Banyan Tree Al Wadi in RAK, and join the night safari hunt for nocturnal creatures like snakes, lizards and scorpions. (See N).
Camp fires Desert Ranch (04 832 7171) holds monthly family camp fires, while Ecoventure (04 372 1222) has regular camp fires at the Al Awadi Field Study Centre campsite.
Desert Islands Resort & Spa by Anantara On the wildlife sanctuary of Sir Bani Yas Island, the resort offers lots of nature trails. Little legs will love the Wildlife Drive – you head out on dirt tracks, passing giraffes, cheetahs and the largest herd of oryx (around 400) in the world. Or just after dawn, try the Nature Walk, where you take a windy path through the bird sanctuary and nature reserve and along by the sea. Get three nights for the price of two in a suite or villa. Dhs999 per night. www.desertislands.com Banyan Tree Al Wadi This resort in Ras Al Khaimah offers a one-hour wildlife drive in its 2km nature reserve, revealing indigineous wildlife, like oryx and gazelles. Little ones will love the fabulous nature walk at the Kids’ Club, where they get to study animal tracks and learn about trees, animals and insects.
Banyan Tree Al Wadi (07 206 7777).
On the water
Take a leisurely dhow Soak up your surroundings with a cruise. A number of dhows depart from Dubai Marina. Try Captain Jack’s Cruises, Dhs60 adults, Dhs30 kids, from 4pm weekdays, 3pm weekends (04 366 3583).
Dolphin spotting To see dolphins in their natural habitat, head to the flipper-friendly Musandam peninsula. Sheesa Beach offer a day-long cruise where you can snorkel, dolphin-watch, and eat, all for Dhs170 per person, or get a gang together and hire the their 35-person double-decker boat. As well spotting flipper, a stopover at Lima provides lots of snorkelling and swimming ending with a barbecue on a deserted beach. Dhs6,000 for one day, one night cruise, www.sheesabeach.com. Or, head to Muscat for a three-hour glass bottom boat trip: spot dolphins from the deck and tropical fish from the glass bottom. 8.30am daily, Marina Bander Al Rowdha, Muscat, www.gulfleisure.com.
Pack a picnic and pick a park. Check out www.dm.gov.ae.
Ideal for... exploration: Set in a natural ghaf forest, Dubai’s biggest (and quirkiest) park includes a mini-zoo and pony rides, as well as the ‘international village’ – 13 mini houses from across the world, scaled down to kiddie size. Great for exploration, these include a Dutch windmill, a mock-Tudor house and a wind tower. There’s also a mini fairground with a carousel (with camels, not horses), segregated swimming pools (Dhs10 entry) and loads of lawns for games.
We recommend... biking on the scenic cycle track. Dhs10 per car. Open 8am-11pm. Airport Road, just beyond Mirdif (04 288 3634).
Ideal for… activities: This busy park has expanses of grass perfect for games and picnics, all dotted with sandy playgrounds and barbecue pits. Take a ride on the Ferris wheel (Dhs2), hire a family trolley car (Dhs20-30 per hour) or hop on to the mini train for a scenic tour. The outdoor inflatable zone – climbing wall, castle and slide (Dhs20 for two hours) will wear the kids out. There’s rowing boat hire (Dhs40 for 20 mins), a waterfall and a mini maze.
We recommend... climbing the grassy slope and rolling down again (and again!) Dhs3 per person. Open daily 8am-11pm. Between Al Wasl and Sheikh Zayed Road, interchange 2 (04 349 2111).
Ideal for… picnics: Two parks connected by footbridges, Za’abeel is a refreshing mass of greenery bursting with gorgeous lakes and streams. On the active side, there are tracks for running and cycling, a cricket pitch, mini golf, horse rides, bike rides and an area dedicated to bouncy stuff. For more laid-back leisure, hire a dinky pleasure craft on the small lake, take a tour on the mini train or lunch at the lovely lakeside restaurant.
We recommend... popping into Stargate to cool off. Dhs5 per person. Open 8am-11pm. Off world trade centre roundabout (04 398 8888).
Ideal for… togetherness: A lovely breezy spot next to Dubai Creek, this vast park has lots of great play areas for small kids and plenty of grassy spots for picnics. Loads of family fun can be had here: careen around the park’s pavements in a four-wheel surrey (Dhs30-50 per hour); surge along the rollerblade track together; have a game of golf; or take the cable car for an aerial adventure (see V for Views). To replenish lost energy, barbecue in one of the pits and chill out in the desert garden. Dhs5 per person. Open 7am-11pm. Near Wafi City, Dubai Creek. (04 336 7633).
We recommend... nipping into the nearby Children’s City, where little ones will be educated and entertained for a bargainous Dhs10. Adults Dhs15 (04 344 0808).
Free! Umm Suqueim Park
Ideal for... younger kids: The proximity of this popular park means you can pop over to Burj Al Arab beach once you’re all greened out. Great for tots, there are lots of sandy play areas – all safe and well maintained – with slides, swings and see-saws, as well as plenty of green spaces. Windy, bumpy pavements through the park make it good territory for tryking and the bijou café is good for lattes and ice creams.
We recommend... getting together with other mums and bubs for a picnic. Dads can come too on weekends. Open Sun-Thu 8am-11pm (ladies and kids only), Fri-Sat 8am-11.30pm (families). Junction of Jumeirah Beach Road and Al Thanya.
Ride a horse in the ocean A trek with a twist, older kids can take a horse for a swim at Jebel Ali Golf Resort & Spa. The beginner’s session is a 45-minute walk and 45-minute swim for Dhs450 (04 883 6000).
Cuddle a camel We love brand-new Desert Ranch, an outdoor classroom set up to educate children (and adults) about these oft-misunderstood creatures. ‘Camels are very sensitive and friendly, especially our 11,’ says Mark Barsby of Desert Ranch. In the 90-minute Camel Cuddling experience, little ones learn how to treat them, interact with them, make them sit down and even bathe them, all finished off with a glass of camel’s milk. Dhs200. Al Sahra Desert Resort, off Al Ain Road (04 832 7171).
Free! There are some great park and beach cycle tracks, including Mushrif Park’s scenic cycle track, the brilliant 1km cycle track near Al Mamzar Park (fab for families), and Jumeirah Open Beach’s special bike beach track, stunning at sunset. Or enjoy a free family bike ride at the Dubai Autodrome, which opens its 2.5km flood-lit outdoor club circuit every Wednesday from 6-9pm (04 367 8700).
Swimming & Splashing
Swim with dolphins There are several options, but Dolphin Bay at Aquaventure wins the pool size battle hands down, with its large outdoor lagoons. They offer a 90-minute session (30 mins pool time) for Dhs845 for kids over 12, including access to Aquaventure waterpark. www.atlantisthepalm.com.
Dubai Dolphinarium allows kids as young as five to frolic with flipper, though it’s in a small indoor pool. You get a 45-minute session (20 mins pool time) and may even land a dolphin ride. Mixed session Dhs400. Mon-Thurs from 1pm, www.dubaidolphinairum.ae.
Surf in the sea Kids as young as five can have a go at catching the swell. Great for early birds, sessions start at 7.45am until 9am. Dhs150 per lesson, www.surfschooluae.com.
Splash in the mountains Book a fun family floating weekend at Khatt Springs Resort. At the foot of the Hajar mountains, this resort boasts mineral-rich, warm natural spring waters flowing down from Khatt mountain, in which you can splash. Dhs500 for a deluxe family room, Al Jazeera Road, opp. RAK Ceramics (07 244 8777).
For guaranteed green turtle time, Noukhada offers a paddling trip around one of Umm Al Quwain’s dense mangrove islands, Dhs200 for two hours (www.noukhada.ae). To learn more about the plight of turtles, visit the Mina A’Salam Enclosure at Madinat Jumeirah, where rescued turtles in the final stages of rehab are kept before being released back into the UAE waters. There’s a feeding session held every Friday during the Al Qasr brunch (04 366 8888). Or head to turtle country, Raz Al Jinz in Oman and visit the Turtle Rescue Care Centre, one of the world’s largest nesting sites for the green sea turtle. Join a guided tour and watch the shelled ones lay eggs and dig nests on the beach. You can stay over here. Turtle tours, Dhs29 adults, Dhs10 kids. Ras al-Jinz Scientific & Visitor Centre, www.rasaljinz.org.
Scuba Padi-approved Bubblemaker courses (Dhs275) introduce kids as young as eight to scuba in a safe, controlled environment. Or try the more educational Padi Seal Team course (Dhs1,750).
Al Boom Centre, Jebel Ali Golf Resort & Spa’s sea-water pool (04 342 2993).
Snorkelling In Fujairah, Snoopy Island is the perfect spot for pint-sized snorkellers. A 10-minute swim from shore and just six-seven metres deep, kids can wade out and spot Arabian angelfish and moray eels. Dhs60 for day, Dhs30 for one hour. 8am-5.30pm. Sandy Beach Hotel & Resort, Fujairah (09 244 5050). For kids over 10, the Cage Snorkelling experience at The Dubai Aquarium provides perfect visibility of 33,000 aquatic animals including 400 sharks and rays. Dhs225, 30 mins (04 342 2993).
Tick off lots of sights in one go with an up-in-the-air experience. Ballooning Kids as young as five can explore the UAE’s desert landscape from 800m in the air. Balloon Adventures Emirates offers tailor-made rides over the Al Ain desert. Dhs950 adults, Dhs800 kids five-12 for a five-hour trip (04 285 4949). Cheaper and less daunting is Ibn Battuta’s tethered balloon. Dhs60 adults, Dhs30 kids 5-15. Sky Dubai Adventure (04 363 6552).
Eye in the sky The 42-cabin Eye of the Emirates at Al Qasba in Sharjah gives six circles (eight mins) with 60m-high views. Dhs30 adults, Dhs15 kids. Near Dubai-Sharjah highway (06 556 0777).
Wadi Bih This expanse of the Hajar mountains, 15km east of Ras Al Khaimah offers great camping, especially the peaks above Wadi Bih – think a cooler climate and flat ground near the old farming terraces.
Absolute Adventure has a camp at Wadi Bih. Dhs250 per person per night, including breakfast and dinner, www.adventure.ae.
Wadi Hatta With lots of vegetation, date palms, swimming holes and wildlife, Wadi Hatta is a good camping spot, as Absolute Adventure’s Paul Oliver explains. ‘We see lots of donkeys there and plenty of birdlife and you see snakes near the water.’ (www.adventure.ae) Novice campers can try the nearby Wadi Al Gahfi campsite – an official campsite, a few minutes from Hatta pools. Wadi Shab In Oman With its vast rocks, palm trees, emerald-green pools and a magnificent waterfall, this wadi is a must-visit. Take a tour with Muscat Diving & Adventure Centre, Dhs380pp, based on four people in a 4X4. www.holiday-in-oman.com.
A few tour companies offer family-friendly adventure activities at their camps.
Ecoventure offers two overnight desert camps (Wilderness Camp and Oasis Camp) both in RAK, for the more adventurous. Challenging activities include abseiling, bushcrafts, orienteering, Jacob’s Ladder and rock climbing. Suitable for the over sevens.. They have tents or a Barasti Hut for hire, or bring your own tent. www.ecoventureme.com.
Al Sawadi Beach Resort is an Omani resort with a camping area that offers a fabulous range of family-friendly facilities, including pool, beach, and more extreme adventures like quad biking for older ones and a proper adventure playground for little ones.
This is your lifetime ticket to the theatre of nature, says birdwatching specialist and Young Birders organiser Sandy Prakesh, who offers bird spotting sessions for sprogs (age 7-17). A two-hour outing to a garden, seaside or protected area introduces budding birders to the basics of observation, plus an hour of actual birding before recording the experience. ‘In the UAE, there are more than 300 endemic species of birds. These sessions prepare children for a hobby they can cultivate themselves, which for many last a lifetime’. Dhs50 per child per session. Sat 7am to 8.30am until April. Email:email@example.com (04 348 7997).
The UAE’s top game reserve, the Al Ain Wildlife Park & Resort showcases everything from baboons, bears and birds to gazelle, giraffe and gorillas, not to mention the rare white lions of Sanbona and the free-roaming wildebeest. Little ones will be blown away by the Out of Africa experience, where giraffe, zebra, gazelle, ostrich and Arabian oryx roam free. Then there’s the Nocturnal House, the Reptile House, the Bird House, a playground and picnic area. Dhs15 adults, Dhs5 kids, under fives free. Sat-Thu 10am-7pm, Fri 10am-8pm. www.AWPR.ae. Or discover more than 100 animal species roaming within the various recreated habitats – think cheetahs, leopards and baboons – at the Desert Park & Arabian Wildlife Centre in Sharjah. There’s also a fun kid’s farm and more pettable animals, as well as a vast indoor aviary (06 531 1212).
Kids Park in Abu Dhabi offers a range of interactive animal experiences, including petting and feeding within a natural setting. You can milk the goats, ride a pony and see everything from deer, ducks and donkeys to oryx and ostriches. There are various dining outlets, an outdoor play area and duck pond. Al Bahya Suburb, Abu Dhabi, www.kidsparkuae.com.