x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Views from Jebel Hafeet

From cyclists and motorists to tourists and stargazers, Al Ain's highest peak is many things to many people.

On a clear night, the road can be seen from all of Al Ain.
On a clear night, the road can be seen from all of Al Ain.

AL AIN // Unloading their bicycles from their car's roof rack at the base of Jebel Hafeet, the German tourists Johannes and Frida Schwarz look up at the peak.

As they mount their bicycles, Johannes tells Frida: "See you at the top."

Frida laughs: "Yes, after I get there first."

With that they start racing up the mountain which, at a height of 1,240 metres, is the UAE's second highest peak after the 1,527m Jebel Yibir in Ras al Khaimah. Ahead of them, on what the motoring website www.edmunds.com calls the best driving road in the world, is an 11.7km stretch of road on an eight per cent gradient featuring 22 turns.

On a clear night, the road can be seen from all of Al Ain. Each weekend, thousands of people - tourists, motorists and local residents alike - make the trip up the mountain.

Tetsui Yakamora, an American engineer who lives in Texas, is staying with his parents from Nagoya, Japan, at the Mercure Jebel Hafeet hotel. He is here to see the Al Nahyan palace.

"We have been in Dubai for the last five days and enjoyed it but wanted to come to Al Ain," he says.

"The tour book said that this is where Sheikh Zayed is from and that many forts and palaces are here.

"We are spending one night at the hotel so we can see the view of the city during the day and then at night."

But having reached the peak, he is underwhelmed. "More could have been done with this space," he says. "I would have liked to have seen a museum dedicated to the mountain's history and how this road was constructed.

"Instead there is a cheap restaurant, a cafe and this empty parking lot. This space has much potential."

Driving back down to the Mercure Jebel Hafeet, which stands 915m above sea level, he walks around the hotel.

"The view from here is mesmerising," he says, looking down from the hotel restaurant to the Hot Springs Green Mubazarrah Resort at the mountain's base. "Tomorrow morning we will go down there then go sightseeing in Al Ain."

Mr Yakamora's seven-year-old son was similarly underwhelmed by the mountaintop. "I didn't like it. I got [car] sick. But I like the pool," he says, paddling happily.

But for Jack, a Syrian IT engineer in his 20s, the car park on top of Jebel Hafeet has an altogether different purpose - practising skids in his car.

"It's flat, long and wide," he says. His friend boasts that most of the skid marks on the car park's asphalt are Jack's handiwork.

"It's not really that dangerous at night because there is hardly anyone up there," says Jack. Still, the only protection at the edge of the car park is a rusting metal railing. Beyond that is a sheer drop of hundreds of metres.

For others, Jebel Hafeet is a place for a romantic evening getaway under the starry sky.

"This is where I met my husband three years ago," says Maria Trinidad, a worker in an Al Ain restaurant. "It's the most romantic place in Al Ain.

"On our anniversary, my husband brings me up here. We watch the stars and when we see a shooting star we promise one another to be back up here in another year.

"Sometimes we wait all night just holding each other waiting."

She has never been disappointed by the heavens, she says.

"Every year we see a shooting star. To us it's a sign from God that the next year will be a good one."

ealghalib@thenational.ae