What’s not to love about sitting out in nature, enjoying some company and a plate full of delicious food?
Guide: how to plan the perfect picnic in the UAE
The word is out: it’s alfresco season in the UAE. And what better way to enjoy the cooler evenings coupled with everyone’s favourite activity – eating – than pulling out a blanket and a basket of goodies and choosing the perfect picnic spot?
What’s not to love about sitting out in nature, enjoying some company and a plate full of delicious food? And while the last-minute type of picnic, where you take sandwiches away from your favourite shawarma stand or grab some bread, a jar of your favourite spread and a few napkins is all well and good, there’s something a little bit magical about a well-planned-out feast featuring a variety of gourmet delicacies, that is perfectly executed.
We’ve put together a guide to help you perfect your picnic game – from where to source the best picnic baskets and the kind of food to prepare to the best spots in the UAE to lay down your picnic blanket.
How to prepare
Sawsan Al Jundi, 37, has been picnicking along the Abu Dhabi Corniche for most of her life. The Palestinian mother of three, who was born and raised in Abu Dhabi, says no weekend is complete for her and her extended family without a picnic in one of the many parks dotting the Corniche road.
“It’s almost like planning a party every time we go,” she explains. “There’s so many of us – aunts, uncles, cousins and second cousins – and we don’t all fit in anyone’s home, so the best thing is to plan weekend picnics, so we can all enjoy each other’s company – it’s so much cheaper and more convenient than a restaurant.”
The ideal picnic, Al Jundi says, requires only a little planning. “Just choose the location, invite everyone you want to invite, bring something to sit on, and pack plenty of food and drink. That’s it.”
Where to go
There’s no shortage of places to lay your picnic blanket down, so start with choosing the location, which will help you know what else you need to take. Picnics can be held just about anywhere – beaches, parks, sand dunes, rocky mountains, or right in the middle of the city.
In the UAE in particular, there are plenty of parks and beaches with basic amenities to simplify your picnic needs (see list above). Umm Al Emarat Park is a favourite in Abu Dhabi, while in Dubai, Creek Park is especially popular, as it boasts beautiful views facing the creek, is home to a dolphinarium, cable cars and a “Children’s City”.
For a bit of an adventure, pack some food and head either to Emirates Park Zoo in Al Bahia, or drive to the zoo in Al Ain – both allow you to bring food in if you want to picnic. If you’re in Al Ain, you can even picnic up on Jebel Hafeet mountain and enjoy the views, before visiting the zoo.
Then, there are some off-the-beaten-path areas to explore, such as the Al Qudra Lakes in Dubai, where plenty of wildlife roams free and makes for some fun picnic companions, or Fossil Rock out in the middle of the desert.
Chris Browning, an Englishman living in Dubai, says spending time in “the great outdoors”, and packing an impromptu picnic, is a favourite pastime for him and his family.
“An excuse to get away from the bustle of the city in the cooler months is always welcome,” says Browning. “We often look through the UAE Off-Road Explorer book for ideas, and make plans with friends. We are not ‘extreme’ off-roaders. There are plenty of opportunities to get away from it all with only a modicum of skill.”
Fossil Rock is a favourite of the Browning family, and they return often as the trip, complete with picnic, can be done in an afternoon.
“Fossil Rock is a rocky outcrop in the red sand desert in Sharjah, due east of Dubai, and close to the ancient settlement off Mleiha, on the Umm Al Quwain-Al Shuwaib Road. It’s a great way to introduce visitors to the desert, with the added bonus of a climb up the steep Fossil Rock, where every second stone is a sea shell or creature from thousands of years ago. The children spend ages collecting ‘dinosaurs’, and never tire of running up and down the dunes,” he says.
Keep in mind, though, warns Browning: a 4X4 is required for this particular location.
What to sit on
Once you’ve sorted out where you’re heading, think about what you’ll sit on. The grass is certainly fine, as are large beach towels, old tablecloths, woven mats or even blankets.
Or, invest in a picnic rug with style. Australian brand Basil Bangs makes “love rugs”, brightly coloured, iconically printed rugs made of water-repellent, stain-resistant outdoor polyester canvas, which means you can easily wipe off spills and brush off sand and dirt. The rug is generously sized at 1.8 metres in diameter. It is fully lined and padded, and folds away perfectly. It comes with an adjustable shoulder strap, and can be slung across your back like a satchel, with a secret pocket to stash your keys, cash and phone, and the option to buy a matching cushion or umbrella. Priced at Dh500, it can be purchased at The Corner Shop’s stand at the Ripe Market, but you can also order it online from Little Majlis (www.littlemajlis.com), or check out some of the colours stocked at Nest in Abu Dhabi Mall.
If your picnickers are averse to sitting on the ground for too long, pack some foldable lawn chairs, easily acquired from your local supermarket or department store.
How to transport it all
If you’re a picnic aficionado, you might as well invest in a proper picnic hamper. Tavola stores across the UAE stock large, wicker hampers by Cilio Premium, which come stocked with proper cutlery and crockery for four – including miniature goblets and serving napkins, and are priced at Dh725. Or head to Ace Hardware stores, where a small suitcase-like, grey picnic basket with a navy and white striped lining is currently on sale for Dh269, and comes with “dining tools” for four.
If you really want to treat yourself, you can’t go wrong with Heavenly Hampers, a Dubai-based business that delivers hampers stocked with gourmet products all over the UAE. Co-owner and founder Rhian Johnson tell us that their “Ultimate Signature Gourmet Picnic Hamper” is a customer favourite. “It comes with a beautiful wicker picnic basket, which compliments the luxury array of hand-selected, carefully chosen products,” she says.
In addition to plates, cutlery and glasses, the basket will be stocked with a 500ml bottle of olive oil, a 750ml bottle of Lussory non-alcoholic sparkling drink, organic ground coffee, 40 English breakfast tea bags from Clipper Tea, clotted cream fudge, jars of Mrs Darlington’s lemon curd, strawberry jam and sweet apple chutney, salmon pâté from Epicure, mixed nuts and cranberry muesli biscuits by Bisquini. It costs Dh695, and can be ordered online from www.heavenly-hampers.com.
How to upgrade it
Why not have the picnic taken care of for you, from A to Z? Plenty of hotels have tweaked their weekend brunch offers to host picnics instead, allowing guests to wander through the hotel’s grounds and pick a spot to call their own. The hotel then provides a picnic basket, blanket, shade and an array of cold and hot food for the perfect picnic with none of the work. Some of the most popular include The Westin in Abu Dhabi, the Al Badia Golf Club by the Intercontinental in Dubai Festival City and the picnic brunch at the Vida Downtown Dubai. Perhaps the most palatial offering is the one about to launch at Emirates Palace in the capital. From November 4, the hotel is welcoming interested picnickers to their West Wing lawn on the first Saturday of every month until May.
Alternatively, grab a picnic hamper from your favourite restaurant. Both of Dubai’s Book Munch Cafe outlets – at Al Wasl Square and Bay Square – offer picnic hampers.
The hampers are filled with mini versions of the cafe’s popular sandwiches, signature salads, a selection of cheese, nuts and pickles, pinwheel sandwiches for little ones and mini muffins, chocolate pots and cakes. The standard hamper can feed two to three people, or you can opt for a bigger basket for four to six picnickers. The baskets come with a returnable comfy rug and start at Dh240; order at www.bookmunchcafe.com.
What to pack
If barbecuing during your picnic is a high priority, consider investing in a portable grill. Starting from Dh65 on Souq.com, the Shinon Foldable Barbeque grill is light, foldable, easy to clean and comes housed in a simple black case, and with two built-in tools for grilling. Or you can head to Tavola for a heavy-duty Lotus Grill, an extra large portable grill that retails for Dh1,079, and looks incredibly chic.
Standard items required for every picnic and can be kept aside for every outdoor meal include ice packs, bottled water and juice packs, condiments in miniature sizes, salt and pepper packets, a trash bag to clean up after yourself, moist towelettes or a pack of wet wipes and a roll of paper towels.
Insect repellent, hand sanitiser and sunscreen might be good to include, and perhaps a portable speaker for some music.
A deck of cards and some dominoes, or a simple board game, will help make your day out more fun.
What to do about the food
This one is up to you. You can pick up food from anywhere in town to eat picnic style, or go all out and make food from scratch, but remember, finger foods that travel well are key. The best picnics are lengthy, sociable affairs, so have enough food to graze on through the afternoon.
Think chicken or meat skewers that can be munched on with ease, crudites with a side of dip and breadsticks to nibble on.
Choose your equipment carefully, so that none of your containers leak, and check all your boxes are shut tight.
In some cases, coolers might make more sense than a fancy picnic basket, and ice packs are essential, especially if your sandwiches contain ingredients such as mayonnaise.
To avoid soggy salads and sandwiches, keep components such as dressings, fillings and optional extras stored away in separate containers until they’re needed.
And make a salad – pasta and potato salads are perfect picnic fare, with hearty ingredients that hold up well.
Dressed, leafy salads can be become lacklustre if left too long, so add the final touches just before serving to avoid the dreaded wilt.
Here’s a tip: layer heavy ingredients and sauces on the bottom of your container and mix only at the picnic spot.
And finally, enjoy!