‘One, two, three, cheeeeese!’ For what seems like the 20th time in the past five minutes, I freeze and smile at the crazy man holding my camera while I scale a precarious ladder covered in pigeon poop. And, believe it or not, I’m thoroughly enjoying myself. Manu is my hugely friendly, super-enthusiastic guide who has taken time out of his Friday day of rest to show me around every nook and cranny of Al Hayl Castle. It’s characters such as this that make Fujairah such a great place to discover.
Most people travel to the east coast of the UAE for water-based activities, with Snoopy Rock for snorkelling, the sunken Inchcape ships for scuba and plenty of dhows for dolphin spotting. There’s no doubting this is a great way to spend a weekend, but if you fancy extending your stay with some inland exploration, we recommend travelling down from the Al Aqua part of Fujairah towards the city.
Here you’ll find a thriving industrial area, with one of the busiest ports in the world and huge tankers dotting the ocean like ghost ships watching over the land. Yet it also has that laid-back feel that permeates the UAE anywhere outside of Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Everything feels rustic and traditional, and you can’t help but feel like you’ve stepped through some kind of time portal.
Talking of going back in time (and back to the beginning of this article), I’m spending much of my trip here exploring forts, castles and museums. It’s something I’d rarely think to do when on a weekend break – I’m more a sun-lounger-and-spa kind of girl – yet Fujairah is proving to me there’s life beyond a massage. Clambering to the top of Al Hayl Castle (with Manu capturing every moment of my sweaty, ungainly ascent), I reach the top and take in the view. Mountains completely surround me and the sun seeps through the crags, turning them into silhouetted giants against the sky. A date plantation adds the lushness I so miss when I’m in the city. I’m a 90-minute drive from Dubai, yet I feel a million miles away.
Al Bithna Village and Fort is another worthwhile stop, if only for the intrigue: this tiny collection of low-rise villas, which was once a stopover for trading caravans from the Far East, now seems to be home to some rather prestigious people – I spot more than one car with a two-digit number plate. Fujairah Fort is closed for restoration when I arrive, and it seems as though it’s been like this for years, but the surrounding area is dotted with small houses, as residents are painstakingly recreating the village you would have found here some 300 years ago. Nearby is a museum, too, where you can see artefacts found in the fort grounds and even ancient Islamic bronze coins.
Heading back into the city proper, I stop by at the fish, spice and meat market. Bustling with life, the market traders sit in a tiled, sunken area and chat as they clean and gut the fish. A little further on, butchers stand in their doorways with huge carcasses hanging in the windows.
Across the road and down the street, I find a whole different kind of market. Proudly labelling itself as ‘The Tourist Night Souk’, I discover wares you’d expect to see on an Albert Square market stall in EastEnders, rather than in a UAE town, with shiny hair scrunchies, animal-print galore and some random Spider-Man and Wile E Coyote outfits. Just what I was after.
In the late afternoon, I head out on a fishing trip from the Marina Club. I’m out on the waters, yes, but the experience couldn’t be further from what you find a little up the coast: dodging the huge tankers, there’s an eerie fogginess emanating from the waters (they’re ghost ships, I tells ya). All spookiness is soon forgotten, though, when I manage to catch a huge, vibrant green dorado. It’s the first time I’ve ever been fishing and, from the moment I see the fish flipping around desperately trying to breathe, I swear I’ll become a vegan. Yet two hours later and I’m tucking into the best seafood dish I’ve ever tasted – and yes, it’s a ‘here’s one I caught earlier’, expertly prepared by the Hilton Fujairah’s executive chef.
After a quick post-meal shisha at Breezes bar on the beach, I gratefully retire to my room and vow to spend more holiday time doing things like this – but then I book myself in for a Chinese massage in the beach-side hut for the next morning. There are some things I just can’t give up.
The future of Fujairah City
With only a small selection of hotels, Fujairah currently has a very lived-in, local air, which makes a nice change to the tourist-trap areas you find in the bigger emirates. This could all change, however, with a highway between Dubai and Fujairah nearing completion – Dubaians could soon reach the east coast in around 45 minutes. Chartered flights from Germany are also set to fly into Fujairah Airport in the not-too-distant future, along with cruise ships pulling into the port, with Costa Cruise (www.costacruise.com) already offering whistle-stop tours. A new Rotana hotel has also just opened in town, and there are a few other hotels under construction.
Al Hayl Castle – it has beautiful surroundings and a mad-as-a-hatter watchman.
Need to know
You’ll need a car, but the journey is quick (as long as you avoid the Sharjah traffic), if not particularly scenic. Follow the E11 north through Sharjah, then take the E88 towards Dhaid. Continue straight, passing through Dhaid and Masafi. For a nice break, you can stop off at Masafi’s Friday market on the way through, which is actually on all day, every day. Once you reach Masafi (of water and tissues fame), turn right onto the E89, which brings you directly into Fujairah City. See ‘The future of Fujairah City’ boxout to find out how getting to the east coast will soon be even easier.
Where to stay
Hilton Fujairah: While this 30-year-old hotel is not quite as polished as many of the five-star venues in Dubai, we love it for its laid-back, nostalgic Spanish vibe and friendly service. Doubles from Dhs800 in winter, including breakfast and taxes.
www.hilton.com/worldwideresorts (09 222 2411).
What to see
Tour the town: The Hilton Fujairah can arrange a tour of Fujairah City, taking in local attractions, for Dhs400. They can also arrange the fishing trip for Dhs250 per hour (maximum four people) and will cook up your catch for Dhs60-90, depending on the portion size.
www.hilton.com/worldwideresorts (09 222 2411).
• Fujairah Fort is approximately 300 years old and one of the oldest buildings still standing in Fujairah. However, archaeological excavations have shown that man’s presence in the region actually dates back to the Iron Age.
• In 1902, Fujairah accepted a British protectorate, becoming the last of the emirates to join the Trucial States.
• On 2 December 1971, Fujairah joined the United Arab Emirates.