Sometimes city living can take it out of you. You can try to relax on the (rather crowded) beach, or book yourself a (pricey) spa treatment, but nothing quite recharges the batteries like a change of scenery. Most of us have motors – at last count Dubai has a car ownership rate of 541 cars per 1,000 population, higher than New York and London). The roads are also safer – fatalities have dropped by 21 per cent, from 495 to 391, since last year, with traffic accidents falling 25.5 per cent from 5,034 to 3,773. So now there’s no excuse for avoiding the highway.
We’ve rounded up 10 different UAE routes you can easily manage in a day, whether for the scenery along the way or whatever’s waiting for you at your final destination. We’ve also included suggestions for some further afield for those able to add in a plane fare. Right, we’re off to see new road movie Due Date to get in the mood…
Destination: Al Ain
Journey time from Dubai: An hour and a half – it’s 140km away.
Why do it? To drive to the top of Jebel Hafeet, one of the UAE’s highest points at 1,240m above sea level. Renowned as the best road trip in the UAE (the best in the world by some!), the route through Jebel Hafeet (which translates as ‘welcoming mountain’ in Arabic) offers sweeping views across both the Omani and UAE borders – as well as slightly cooler temperatures than down below. You can also enjoy the Green Mubazarrah, a lush area at the base of the mountain that boasts genuine hot springs, earning Al Ain its nickname as ‘the Garden City’. These begin beneath the mountain and, over thousands of years, have developed into pools in which you can bathe. The nearby Ain Al Faydah picnic resorts boasts a boating lake, gardens and chalets. Across town you’ll find the Al Ain Zoo and Wildlife Park (www.awpr.ae), with a large selection of animals (including rare white lions), large enclosures and golf buggies to take you around if you wish.
Best for: Animal lovers, and those who lust after green landscape and good views.
Directions: From Dubai, take the Al Ain Road (aka Route 66). Head in the direction of Al Ain’s town centre, towards Sanaiya, Sanaiya West and Meziad, then follow the signs to Jebel Hafeet. The road continues up the mountain for 12km. At the top you’ll find the Mercure Hotel (+9713 783 8888, www.mercure.com). For the zoo, once in Al Ain City, follow the signs to the Al Ain Wildlife Park & Resort, aka AWPR (www.awpr.ae).
Tip: Get there before 5pm, or it will be dark before you reach the top.
Destination: Big Red sand dunes
Journey time from Dubai: 40 minutes to one hour.
Why do it? This car journey will take you on a thrilling desert safari into the desert. Dune-bashing through the distinctive scenery will give you chills as the car leaps over ridges and hangs at 45-degree angles, and you’ll feel like you’re going to roll right down the sheer faces. This is a huge tourist attraction in the Middle East with tour companies running two trips a day, so don’t expect to be all alone in the peaceful desert –
you’ll undoubtedly be surrounded by hurtling jeeps revving across the landscape. It is, however, a chance to see Dubai’s rich red sands in an otherwise virtually barren landscape and watch the sunset in the distance. If you’re lucky, you may even spot a desert fox, snake or scorpion.
Best for: Adrenaline junkies
Directions: The Big Red dune is easy to spot along the Dubai-Hatta Road (E44) or the Oman Road (E66) as the landscape changes shape and colour from yellow to red. Along the Hatta Road you’ll see 4x4 drivers pulling into the nearby row of shops to deflate their tyres before hitting the dunes. There are a few dirt track entry points, but they are hard to spot, so keep your eyes peeled.
Tips: Dune-bashing can be a dangerous activity and is for experienced desert 4x4 drivers only. You can hire a 4x4 at most rental companies for less than Dhs500 a day with a UAE licence, or book a tour for up to six people per car with a pro driver (050 159 1199, www.dubaidunebashing.com). Tours start at Dhs165 per person, and you’ll also get dinner in a mock-Bedouin camp.
Destination: Abu Dhabi
Journey time from Dubai: 90 minutes.
Why do it?: Yes the driving can be hairy, but there are many fascinating things about a trip to the capital. First off is the effectiveness of Sheikh Zayed’s dictate to make Abu Dhabi a green city: as soon as you cross the border, trees line the road. Start at the stunning Sheikh Zayed Mosque in time for a tour before it closes at 11am (02 444 0444), then head to the gold-lined walls of Emirates Palace, where you can eat cake with real gold dust on it for Dhs278 per kilo (02 690 9000). Finish off at Yas Island, where you can have a late lunch overlooking the race track at Yas Hotel (02 656 0000) before you visit brand-spanking-new Ferrari World, which opened on November 4 (02 496 8001).
Best for: People who want to get out of Dubai but don’t fancy intrepid travel.
Directions: To the mosque: Get on Sheikh Zayed Road and follow the signs to Abu Dhabi, crossing onto the island over Maqta Bridge. Take the second major exit to the right, signposted Eastern Ring Road, which takes you around a cloverleaf back over the main road. Keep right; after passing the front of the mosque, turn right.
To Emirates Palace: When you leave the mosque, you’ll once again pass in front of it on the Eastern Ring Road. Continue past the turn-off to the mosque but keep in the right-hand lane; when the road branches, take the right side, signposted Corniche. You are now on Al Khaleej al Arabi Street. Continue for 16km until you reach the T-intersection at the end of the road where it meets the Corniche. Turn left. After about 3km, you’ll find the turn-off to the hotel.
To Yas Island: Retrace your route back along the Corniche for about 8km. Yas Circuit is signposted from here. You’ll cross a very high bridge onto Saadiyat Island (the future home to the Louvre and the Guggenheim).
Return to Dubai: Follow signs back to Sheikh Zayed Road.
Tips: Fill up on petrol while you’re still in the capital (it’s cheaper than in Dubai). Also, be wary of the fast lane along SZR when in Abu Dhabi – the speed cameras seem to be set a lot higher than in Dubai and people will constantly be flashing their lights at you.
Destination: Khasab, Oman
Journey time from Dubai: Three hours.
Why do it? A wildly different country, culture and landscape lies just a few hours’ drive away from Dubai. Cross the border and enjoy cultural attractions such as Bukha Fort, fantastic mountain scenery and, once you near Khasab, crystal-clear seas and spectacular fjords that have earned Khasab the nickname ‘The Norway of Arabia’. You’ll also find secluded beaches, boat trips, cliff walks, kayaking and scuba and snorkelling with dolphins and whale sharks.
Best for: The culturally curious and naturally adventurous.
Getting there: Take Sheikh Zayed Road north all the way to Ras Al Khaimah. From here, take the Al Rams Road and follow signs to the cement factory. Otherwise, head to the Omani border crossing, which isn’t a long drive, though the time it takes to cross the border depends very much on the mood of the officials and how many people happen to be crossing the border at the time (expect 15 minutes on a good day; 45 minutes if it’s busy). Once you’ve made it into Oman, there’s a great beach a couple of minutes from the checkpoint where you can pitch a tent and have a swim and a picnic before heading up the coast. From here on, the scenery is spectacular – think S-bends, sheer drops, towering cliffs and great views of the Arabian Gulf to your left. Bond fans will wish they were making the journey in a DB7.
Tip: Those who suffer from car sickness should bring their medication for those turns.
Destination: Sur, Oman
Journey time from Dubai: Seven hours – worth spending a weekend at least.
Why do it? For the excellent scenery – think large, imposing rocky mountains and famed dhow (wooden boat) yards, as well as the fertile, lush wadis just south of Sur, which are well worth a 4x4 bash. There’s also a fantastic new motorway (not an expression we employ lightly) between Muscat and Sur, which winds around the mountains and makes for a very smooth ride. Head a further 61km south and you’ll reach the Turtle Beach Resort on the Ras-al-Jinz (Turtle Beach). If you’re lucky, you may see one of the 30,000 turtles that hatch here annually; if not, you still get to stay on a gorgeous beach and enjoy watersports. Between Sur and Muscat you can also stop over at the fishing village of Quriyat, a major port centuries ago.
Best for: Those with stamina – seven hours is a fair old hike. You also need to enjoy quiet spots, because Oman is incredibly sleepy.
Directions: Drive to the Hatta border on the Hatta Road (E44). From there, follow signs to Muscat, heading up to the coast. In Muscat, go to ‘Wadi Adai’ roundabout. Then follow the signs towards Quriyat. Continue following the signs for 100-150km and you’ll see a Shell petrol pump on your right-hand side, immediately after crossing a winding road across a mountain range. A few metres after the petrol pump, you’ll find a roundabout with a big blue Sur sign that points to the right. Turn right, then right at the next roundabout and left at the one after that, and you’ll find yourself on the new motorway. Go straight for 100km or so. Sur is at the end of this road.
Tips: Make sure your car is properly insured for use in Oman – check your policy. The rules have recently changed so that only certainhire companies can offer Omani insurance – Avis (www.avis.com) and Budget UAE (www.budget-uae.com) both offer the correct coverage.
Destination: Khor Fakkan
Journey time from Dubai: Two hours 30 minutes.
Why do it? As well as being one of the most picturesque locations in the UAE, sandwiched between the mountains and the refreshingly undeveloped coast, Khor Fakkan also has some of the best dive and snorkelling sites around thanks to its numerous coral outcrops. Don’t let the name put you off when it comes to Shark Island. You haven’t driven two hours just to roll up your jeans for a paddle – this is a must-see (and the sharks aren’t dangerous).
Best for: Anyone who wants to feel a world away from the break-neck pace of city life.
Directions: Head north towards Sharjah on Sheikh Zayed Road (that’s the E11), and keep an eye out for signs towards Dhaid on the E88. Keep going straight, passing the Masafi factory and the Friday Market. Once you reach Masafi, you can turn right towards Fujairah, but when you arrive at the coast you’ll need to take a left. Keep heading straight for about 20 minutes, whereupon you’ll find yourself in the centre of Khor Fakkan.
Tips: When you reach Masafi, you can either head left towards Dibba or right towards Fujairah – right is the best option as far as snack stops go, but why not make a full loop on your way back? As you put the mountains behind you on your return journey (if it’s after 5pm), we strongly recommend stopping for a chicken shawarma and a chat with the locals.