I decide against a map. I just jump into my car and head north on Emirates Road, letting the dusty highway take me straight into the arms of Ajman. It’s love at first sight. Forget the glitz and glamour that surrounds you every day in Dubai and imagine a place where time seems to have paused – old beige low-rise buildings, forts that wear the look of history, and people in no particular rush to get anywhere. Welcome to Ajman. Right on cue I see a little Arab boy turn towards my car to wave. I think he wants to cross the road.
You don’t need to drive very far before you reach the best this tiny emirate has to offer – the 16km stretch of white sandy beach, with its inviting water and melodic splish-splash of waves. An instant hammock would be perfect for times like these. I turn up the volume on my car stereo as I drive down the city’s version of Jumeirah Beach Road (its a lot grittier than its Dubai counterpart).
After a few minutes of being caught between small number plates on big cars, I decide to park up and head closer to the water, getting in the way of the many joggers pounding the paved strip along the beach. It’s surprising to see ‘No Swimming’ signs along the beach (note: there have been drowning incidents due to strong currents). While there aren’t any Jumeirah Janes and Jakes about, the Ajman Aishas and Ahmads keep me company. They tell me about the new real-estate projects in the area that look set to transform the skyline of this sleepy emirate, such as Al Zorah, and I echo their sighs as we watch local fishermen throw weathered nets into the waters.
Located right in the charming chaos of the city is the Ajman Museum, the former ruler’s residence, an 18th century fort built with coral sea stones and gypsum. I’ve never been a fan of wandering around halls looking at moments of history locked in glass cabinets, but decide to go in to learn about the region’s seafaring history. My discoveries make me want to go in search of something to connect the past and present, so it’s off to the local boat-building yard. Still relatively unknown among locals, asking for directions proves problematic – ‘yard’ is lost in translation and I never find the elusive destination.
Most expats choose to stay in the five-star Ajman Kempinski at the tip of the Corniche, which stands proud next to its weathered neighbours. By late afternoon, many families can be found congregating in the area; the men start fires for a barbecue, while the women busy themselves pressing meat around skewers and occasionally calling out to their offspring to be careful and not act childish. I walk barefoot on the sand and come across a building that houses the infamous Baywatch nightclub, with a charming open air shisha café outside where you can sit and while away the hours and watch the sun set on this city. There are many little cafeterias dotting the road opposite the Corniche, where a few delicious meat shawarmas will set you back no more than Dhs10.
Having had my fill of Ajman, I head back on the road towards Sharjah and come across a massive building sporting red signs entirely in Russian. Curious, I step inside: it’s like entering a mini-Moscow (minus the fur hats and snow). All I hear is Russian chatter and, while I receive a few odd looks, there’s a warmth about the place. I attempt to order a meal at the café, but the menu is entirely in Russian too. I step outside, smiling
as I walk past the slightly more traditional Lebanese restaurant right next door. It seems that Ajman, for all its sleepy, small-town ways, still holds a couple of surprises.
Ajman Arabian Horse Show
Organised by Ajman Stud, the equestrian facility set up by Crown Prince of Ajman Sheikh Ammar Bin Humaid Al Nuaimi, the annual horse show is a key event in the region’s racing calendar. It showcases more than 100 of the best purebreds from the region, competing for the title of Ajman Champion.
January 14-15, 2011. www.ajmanstud.com.
Need to know
The best way to reach Ajman is to head through Sharjah on Emirates Road (E311). While it’s not particularly scenic (unless you really, really like sand), there’s less traffic and plenty of signage so you won’t get lost.
Where to stay
Kempinski Hotel Ajman: This five-star escape is the most luxurious option in town, with a range of restaurants and a private beach for guests.
Doubles from Dhs950, with breakfast. www.kempinski.com/en/ajman (06 714 5555).
Ajman Beach Hotel: This three-star hotel is a good budget option, with nice sea views and a range of recreational facilities.
Doubles from Dhs250, with breakfast. www.ajmanbeachhotel.com (06 742 3333).
Ramada Hotel and Suites Ajman: The hotel is located in downtown Ajman and has affordable rooms, plus plenty of recreational areas including a pool, restaurant and spa.
Doubles from Dhs250. www.ramadaajman.com (06 740 4666).
What to see
This 18th-century fort was initially the ruler’s residence and then used as a police station, before finally opening to the public as a museum. It has a good collection of old weapons and tools, old photos and rather eerie reconstructions of Bedouin history. Worth a visit.
Dhs4 for adults; Dhs2 for under sevens. Open Sat-Thu 9am-1pm, 4pm-7pm (06 742 3824)
The old Masfoot Castle is located on a mountain in Masfoot region. It was built by the late Sheikh Rashid Bin Humaid Al Muaimi, governor of Ajman, in 1965 to protect the region against ‘highway gangsters’.
www.am.gov.ae (06 742 2331).
l In the 1800s, a group of families of the Al Naeem tribe set up Ajman city by the creek, with livelihoods revolving mainly around fishing and diving.
l In 1820, Sheikh Rashid ibn Humayd Al Nuaimi signed the General Maritime Treaty with Britain to keep the Ottoman Turks out.
l Like Sharjah, Dubai, Ras Al Khaimah and Umm Al Quwain, Ajman’s position close to India made it important enough to be recognised as a salute state.
l In 1971, Ajman joined Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah, Ajman, Umm Al Quwain and Fujairah to become the UAE (Ras Al Khaimah joined a year later).