15 essential UAE road trips

Get your motor runnin', here are 15 epic routes through the UAE and Oman

Aside from the meaning of life, the price of bread and seven across in this morning’s cryptic crossword, few things at Time Out Towers leave us more ponderous than “What ifs?”. What if we never looked both ways before crossing the road? What if the moon was actually made of a variant of cheddar? What if the world was actually flat and it had been renamed “The Apartment”?

Perhaps we need to get out more. Okay, yes, we definitely need to get out more. So how about a road trip? Here are 20 destinations a mere rolling stone away. We’ll hire the car, you bring some grooves like Jagger…

BEST FOR A REST

Ajman

The UAE’s tiniest emirate just proves that the best things come in small packages. If you’re desperate to escape the hubbub of big city life, head up to Ajman for a more laid-back vibe. It’s little wonder they’re so easy-going when they have some of the nation’s best beaches to chill out on, one of the finest being at the Kempinski Hotel Ajman (www.kempinski.com). The five-star hotel at the end of the coastal road has a promenade that reminds us of those found in seaside towns in the UK, with something of an old-school charm and cafés and restaurants to refuel in. The drive up takes you on the Emirates Highway, with gorgeous dunes around you. Once there, you must visit the Ajman Museum (ajman.travel), set in an 18th century fort and offering a cultural insight into the emirate.
GPS location: 25.411111, 55.435039
Driving time: 1hr (56km).

Hatta

The drive north to this UAE exclave is almost as stunning as the scenery that greets you upon arrival. Over the years, Hatta has been used as a summer home by Dubaians wanting to escape the heat and, due its relatively mild climate, has become a draw for holidaymakers from the UAE as a whole, as they seek to do likewise. There are plenty of activities on offer for the more adventurous, but if you really want to relax, we suggest booking a room in the recently refurbished JA Hatta Fort Hotel (www.jaresortshotels.com) and just enjoy the scenery from your balcony. The surrounding Hajar Mountains make for a fantastically picturesque backdrop.
GPS location: 24.820692, 56.135489
Driving time: 1hr 50mins (155km).

Liwa Oasis

Head about 100 miles south west of the capital and you’ll find a desert settlement of roughly 50 villages and the former home of the ruling families of both Dubai and Abu Dhabi. The highpoint in the local calendar is the Liwa Date Festival, an event celebrating the various customs, traditions and heritage of the UAE, in particular the date palm tree. The area contains a number of forts worth visiting, along with the imposing Moreeb Dune, but due to its remoteness, Liwa is ideal for just getting away from it all. If you book early enough, you can get some cracking deals at the luxury Qasr Al Sarab Desert Resort by Anantara (www.qasralsarab.anantara.com), where you can soak up the mystique of the Empty Quarter as you survey your unique surroundings. This place is a real one-off.
GPS location: 23.129507, 53.765050
Driving time: 3hrs (309km).

Ras Al Khaimah

It might be trying to transform itself into a party destination (“the Ibiza of the UAE”, no less) but like Ajman, Ras Al Khaimah’s charm lies in its mellow ambience. A casual stroll along part of the 64km of white-sand coast followed by dinner overlooking Al Hamra Marina is an idyllic way to relax after making the drive up here. For those with a hankering for history, extend your mileage with a trip out to Dhayah Fort (www.rakheritage.rak.ae), the scene of brave resistance from local tribesman against the British Army back in 1819. The surrounding Dhayah valley is fantastically fertile, given its location, and well worth viewing from the hilltop as you contemplate the world around you. For added relaxation value, we implore you to go for a treatment at the Waldorf Astoria Spa (www.waldorfastoria3.hilton.com). Once you’ve tried the floatation bed there, you could head over to the Hilton Ras Al Khaimah Resort & Spa (www3.hilton.com) for a spot of snorkelling at its watersports centre.
GPS location: 25.685301, 55.773478
Driving time: 1hr 20mins (113km).

CULTURAL CLIMES

Al Ain

Being bound on all sides by desert, the UAE is hardly well known for its greenery, but as soon as you approach this most verdant of outposts on the Dubai-Al Ain Road, you’ll soon realise how it gets its “Garden City” moniker. After tackling the myriad roundabouts on the way in, make a beeline for Al Ain Oasis, the nation’s first curated Unesco World Heritage Site and home to the incredible falaj irrigation system, which was constructed some 3,000 years ago. As it’s a city very much in tune with water, you can’t possibly leave Al Ain without making a splash at Wadi Adventure (www.wadiadventure.ae), one of the UAE’s finest waterparks that sits near the grasslands of Green Mubazzarah. Here you can let loose on the world’s largest man-made white-water channels or the super-sized surf pool. Believe us, it’s H2O so good…
GPS location: 24.218295, 55.762304
Driving time: 1hr 40mins (149km).

Muscat, Oman

The Omani capital is the epitome of hospitality, and is swiftly becoming a hugely popular tourist destination for those seeking traditional splendour in a country as laid-back as they come. Culture vultures will have a packed itinerary here, starting with visits to some of the many museums. While not the largest, the Bait Al Zubair Museum (www.baitalzubair.com) is arguably the most intriguing. Funded by the family whose names it bears, this restored traditional home contains a brilliantly curated collection, including a stunning selection of jewellery and wedding garments. Other must-visits are the stunning Royal Opera House Muscat (www.rohmuscat.org.om), especially for those aficionados of the more old-school styles of music. Book a room in the opulent, five-star Chedi Muscat (www.ghmhotels.com/en/muscat) and you’ll have the perfect base from which to explore this most enchanting of cities.
GPS location: 23.601755, 58.399049
Driving time: 5hrs (446km).

Sharjah
Rightly regarded as the UAE’s cultural capital, Sharjah really likes to go against the grain. Once you navigated the traffic (we suggest avoiding peak times) and waved hello to the so-called “Smile, you’re in Sharjah” Roundabout, what you will discover is a city well versed in its history and heritage. For visitors seeking a taste of the olden days, this is the place to be and your first port of call must be Sharjah Fort (www.sharjahmuseums.ae). Lovingly (and painstakingly) restored by the present ruling family, this edifice, first built in 1823, contains an fascinating collection of photographs and artefacts that recount the history of this most proud of emirates. No trip to Sharjah would be complete, though, without a visit to its famous markets. The Blue Souk is the standout, wonderfully recreating a traditional bazaar and most beautiful at sunset when gazed upon across the waters of Khalid Lagoon.
GPS location: 25.347174, 55.384120
Driving time: 46mins (48km).

NATURAL PROGRESSIONS

Jebel Akhdar, Oman

The so-called Green Mountain is one of the most spectacular destinations in the entire Gulf region, especially when viewed from the summit. Oman’s highest point offers some fantastic trekking, giving you the chance to discover ancient villages and plenty of local flora and fauna, which both thrive thanks to the relatively high level of rainfall in the area. One of the best views of the area can be found at the Anantara Al Jabal Al Akhdar Resort (www.jabal-akhdar.anantara.com), perched high in the mountains on the Saiq Plateau and offering five-star luxury in this hugely unique locale. Peer down Oman’s equivalent of the Grand Canyon – this is certainly not one for the vertiginous among you, though…
GPS location: 23.067741, 57.670114
Driving time: 5hrs 16mins (483km).

Jebel Hafeet

Another lofty location, this mountain acts as a kind of rocky guardian to the city of Al Ain, which lies beneath it. While some go to explore the ancient tombs that have been unearthed in the foothills, many rock up here simply to discover the Jebel Hafeet Mountain Road, widely regarded as one of the best drives in the entire UAE. On your way, you can spot an array of wildlife, including the country’s greatest diversity of birds, counting some 119 species. Bats, foxes, snakes and lizards are also native to the mountain, if they’re more your thing, while the hot-water springs of the Green Mubazzarah at the foot of Jebel Hafeet make for a great place to go for a dip.
GPS location: 24.057023, 55.777984
Driving time: 2hrs (175km).

Salalah, Oman

By far the longest trip on our list, you’ll definitely want to make a weekend of it down in sunny Salalah. For those brave enough to tackle this trek (you might want a co-driver or two for this one), the rewards here are immense, as this coastal city is as wonderfully welcoming as it is abundant with nature. In the monsoon, or khareef, season (July to September) this green city becomes even greener, but even though you might’ve missed that particular boat, we suggest you climb aboard another and go dolphin-watching. These most remarkable of mammals put on some show as they circle your vessel, pulling off tricks as if auditioning for a part in the state circus. Twitchers should pack their binoculars and head for the coastal wetlands, where you’ll find an array of terns, waders, raptors and passerines, in a lovely location set against the backdrop of the stunning Dhofar Mountains.
GPS location: 17.050713, 54.106418
Driving time: 11hrs 30mins (1,236km).

Umm Al Quwain
Although it’s the UAE’s least populous emirate, what Umm Al Quwain might lack in human density it more than makes up for in natural immensity. Once parked up, ditch the wheels and head out on the water, circumnavigating the series of sandy islands to the east, which are surrounded by thick mangroves and divided by a number of creeks. The largest island, Al Sinniyah, is a marine sanctuary spanning 35 square miles, and is an absolute must for the birdwatchers among you, with one of the world’s largest cormorant colonies calling it home. Back on dry land, the crowd-free nature of Umm Al Quwain means you can just sit a while, listening to the waves before turning tide and heading home.
GPS location: 25.522762, 55.717311
Driving time: 1hr 5mins (89km).

Wasit Wetland Centre, Sharjah
It might surprise you to know that this area of natural beauty near Sharjah even exists. Perched where the land meets the sea, Wasit Nature Reserve contains a heady mix of dunes, mud flats, salty lagoons and freshwater pools, inhabited more than 60 species of domestic and migratory birds. Twitchers across the UAE flock to this vast spot of natural beauty for a sight of these airborne wonders, scanning the horizon from one of the numerous hides dotted around the vast site. After driving up the main road from the coast to Al Dhaid you’ll be forgiven for missing the entrance to the Wasit Wetland Centre (www.epaashj.ae/learning-centers/wasit-centre), unassuming as it is. But once inside, you can make your way through a series of aviaries or grab a bite to eat in the canteen while watching the birds in full flow through the glass of its long gallery. This is a hugely unique outing that for nature-lover.
GPS location: 25.361608, 55.469868
Driving time: 50mins (56km).

BE A SPORT

Fujairah and Dibba Rock

A haven for sporty types, take an overnight trip to this eastern emirate as the approach is most beautiful at sunset. After stopping for some Instagram pics as the big red thing makes its nightly descent, pitch up at one of the numerous hotels dotted along the coast, such as Le Méridien Al Aqah Beach Resort (www.lemeridien-alaqah.com), before preparing for the next day’s adventures. Parasailing has really taken off in Fujairah and a number of watersport companies offer thrillseekers the chance to give it a go. Mountain-climbing and hiking in the Hajar Mountains are also very popular, but we believe one of the most enjoyable activities has to be a stand-up paddleboard safari to the famous Dibba Rock, where you can also go diving, if you happen to be a real water baby.
GPS location: 25.506929, 56.363428
Driving time: 2hrs 7mins (192km).

Jebel Jais

The mountain road that leads you to this fantastic destination in Ras Al Khaimah has become an instant hit with driving enthusiasts, challenging Jebel Hafeet as the best drive in the region. Once you’ve snaked your way to the top, you simply must tackle the recently built Via Ferrata (www.jebeljais.ae/via-ferrata), which will not only test your agility and head for heights but also give you some of the best vistas of the surrounding area. If that sounds like too much hard work, there’s nothing quite like hurtling down one of the three zipline courses, with the world’s longest and highest set to open here in December. A viewing deck is also being built at the summit, meaning the less active can also enjoy the UAE’s highest peak.
GPS location: 25.937056, 56.130057
Driving time: 2hrs 27mins (195km).

Musandam Peninsula
Arguably one of the most scenic routes out of the UAE, the drive to Musandam is worth the effort for a plethora of reasons. Not only will you be treated to the most stunning landscapes of offer in the region, once in this Omani outpost, you’ll find a veritable hive of sporting activity – most of it based on the water. From kayaking the “fjords” to going fishing using traditional equipment, Musandam has a wealth of aquatic activities on offer. Land lubbers won’t be left out either, as there is some tremendous trekking and cycling to be had in the mountains around Khasab, the former using “secret staircases” hand-built by Pakistani goat herders.
GPS location: 26.164437, 56.242623
Driving time: 3hrs 8mins (234km).

PS. The solution to seven across was “wanderlust”. You should give it a try...

Top Road-Trip tracks

On The Road Again by Canned Heat
With its fabulous falsetto, provided by harmonica-playing legend Alan Wilson, this brilliant bit of borrowed blues boogie was the band’s first, and arguably most memorable hit. You might be tired of crying, but you won’t be tired of hearing this track again, and again.

Highway Chile by The Jimi Hendrix Experience
A riff-maker unlike any other, Hendrix’s supposed autobiographical tale of life on the road is, like much of his work, pure genius. Whack it on full blast down the Emirates Highway with your hair just a blowin’ in the wind, swapping those dusty boots for a Cadillac.

River Deep – Mountain High by Ike and Tina Turner
Nutbush’s finest export left the city limits behind to record this huge hit. As you approach the Hajar Mountains, imagine her sheer energy while (hopefully harmoniously) belting out this record so emphatically that the lack of rivers will be an inconsequence.

Roadhouse Blues by The Doors
Deciding to kick off the marvellous Morrison Hotel with this number was a master-stroke. An inimitable slice of rock ’n’ roll genius, every pre-arranged pit stop should be approached with this blaring out, if nothing else but to say you’re “gonna have a real good time”.

Roadrunner by Jonathan Richman & The Modern Lovers
Immortalised by Stephen King in Christine, this Velvet Underground-inspired 1972 gem is as good as a one-hit wonder can get. The fact that it uses even fewer chords than most of Status Quo’s best efforts make us want to play it not once, but at least twice while we run those roads.

Road To Nowhere by Talking Heads
Inimitable in style and lauded by music fans the world over, David Byrne and the gang produced a string of classics that even made MTV sit up and take notice, despite their “out-there” output. A “joyful look at doom” that will set you on your way, even if the Sat-Nav is sending you on a random ride.

No Particular Place To Go by Chuck Berry
Even with Google Maps guiding you, the feeling of the unknown could often overwhelm when first riding along in your automobile outside the city. Let Mr. Berry show you the way with this unforgettable opus. Dylan called him “the Shakespeare of rock ’n’ roll”. Enough said, right?

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