Ten things to add to your UAE bucket list
So you’ve ridden to the top of the Burj Khalifa, toured the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque and taken your visitors to see just about all there is you think you can see. Here are our picks for what to do next.
1. Dreamland camping, Umm Al Quwain
It’s every kid’s dream. Live in a theme park and have the run of the place after-hours. That dream is alive at the aptly named Dreamland in, of all places, Umm Al Quwain. The waterpark offers you the chance to stay overnight inside the park in a small cabana or tent. And while the rides don’t stay open for campers, a designated pool does and the experience of seeing all of the slides quiet and abandoned can only be described as creepily cool. Your camping rate allows you two full days of access to the park, all the camping gear including air mattresses and air conditioning in the cabanas, all meals including a grill and cooler full of goodies (with meat and marshmallows for your cookout) outside your door at the end of the day, and reserved sunbeds so you don’t have to fight the crowds.
Yas Waterworld and new rides at Atlantis in Dubai may compete for your attention, but Dreamland is the classic waterpark adventure with a twist that could only happen in the UAE. Plus, while the queues seem to take forever at the newer parks, even at full capacity in Dreamland, waiting for your turn never seems to take very long at all.
* Marin Devine
• Cabanas for two adults cost Dh650 per night (Saturday to Thursday) or Dh850 per night (Fridays and public holidays) for two adults; Dh900 and Dh1,200 respectively for a family of two adults and two children; see www.dreamlanduae.com for more information.
2. Mini Golf, Al Ain
Not only has the road to the top of Jebel Hafeet been described as the greatest driving road in the world, a driver’s dream that every petrol head should experience before they die, but the view that greets you near the summit is surely one of the highlights of any visit to the UAE.
The pleasingly retro Mercure Grand Hotel perches on an enormous outcrop of rock, 915 metres above Al Ain like the lair of a master criminal of the Austin Powers’ school. An early exercise in postmodern Arabian luxury, the Mercure Grand comes complete with its own array of increasingly vintage entertainments, chief among them the nine holes of high-altitude mini golf. The course is a high-contrast exercise in DayGlo bougainvillaea and artificial turf, but you don’t have to be a guest, a golfer or an aesthete to enjoy this sun-baked alp of unalloyed joy or the sublimity of the desert below.
Mini Golf at the Mercure is exactly the kind of eccentric and unexpected pleasure that Abu Dhabi does best. Playing here won’t do anything for your handicap, but it guarantees a vista and an experience that will stay with you long after you’ve played the final hole.
* Nick Leech
• For more information or to make reservations at the Mercure Grand Hotel Jebel Hafeet, visit www.mercure.com or call 03 783 8888.
3. Bull-butting, Fujairah
Meet Rocket Launcher, Spark and other east coast bovine superstars in bull-butting competition in Fujairah. The titans draw huge crowds every Friday afternoon after asr prayers at a dirt lot south of the city centre on the Corniche.
It is easy to find. Half-tonne bulls saunter down the street next to their owners, ready for battle. In fact, the sport is bloodless and usually lasts no more than a few minutes. Bulls lock horns and the bull who pushes his opponent the farthest wins. Owners like to joke that the sardine- and honey-fed bulls are treated better than their own children.
Bull-butting is held throughout the year, unless there is a funeral. Spectators are advised to either sit on the safe side of the metal barrier that surrounds the ring or, if they choose to join the crowds inside, be prepared to run if a bull makes a break for it.
The sport is often incorrectly believed to be a medieval Portuguese relic from colonialisation but archaeologists like Fujairah-based Michele Ziolkowski point out that bull-butting has existed in the region since the days of Ancient Egypt.
It is an alternative to camel-racing in the rocky east coast emirate of Fujairah and along Oman’s Batinah Coast, where the sport is growing in popularity with youth.
The sport is not without modern innovations, however. European breeds like Jerseys, known for endurance and fertility, were introduced around 2008. This has prompted the bull-butting committee to set different days for humpbacked Brahmans that are originally of Pakistani origin and were commonly used on UAE farms in the past.
* Anna Zacharias
4. Endurance racing, Al Wathba
Few things take you to the very heart of a culture like a prestigious and deeply cherished sporting event: think cricket in India, bullfighting in Spain, or baseball in the United States. While camel racing might be more high-profile and falconry more historically authentic, a visit to a race meeting at the Emirates International Endurance Village in Al Wathba pitches the visitor straight into an elite but socially inclusive sporting event where royalty rubs shoulders with riders, grooms, vets and the inquisitive.
Organised endurance racing only started in the UAE in 1993 when riders competed on camels and horses over a 40-kilometre course through the desert.
Since then however, the sport has risen to become an Emirati favourite, and races such as the 160km HH The President’s Cup and the 120km National Day Cup are now regarded as blue riband events in the UAE’s equestrian calendar.
Whether you’re following a race at speed in a 4x4 or watching the runners and riders up close from the paddock, a visit to Al Wathba on race day opens a window to a world where the UAE is both at its most playful and its most competitive. The drive to the village alone, which takes in the desert camel paddocks that surround Al Wathba, is an experience that should not be missed.
* Nick Leech
• Follow signs from the Abu Dhabi–Al Ain truck road (E30). For a schedule and more details of race meetings, visit www.eef.ae.
5. Mountain climbing, Ras Al Khaimah
Jebel Jais, on the border of Ras Al Khaimah and Oman, was once for the few who could scale the sheer limestone cliffs. The mountain’s sole visitors were grizzled goat herds, hardened hikers, illegal immigrants and royals visiting their hilltop palace by helicopter.
The mountain is now accessible to even the softest city slickers thanks to a new tarmac road. Well, it’s not exactly new.
The RAK Government has blasted and chipped away at the mountain since 2005 and almost completed a 39km road that winds past twisting limestone layers and terraced agricultural settlements.
As the UAE’s highest point, with a 1,935-metre summit in Oman, Jebel Jais is officially the coolest place in the country, with snowfalls recorded in 2004 and 2009.
Plans for an outdoor ski hill, tourist village, golf course, shopping centres and Tetris-like block buildings jutting from its cliffs were scrapped after the global economic downturn hit in 2008, but the road originally built for mountain resorts is still there and is a great way to experience the beauty of the Hajjar Mountains in their natural splendour.
Drive slowly and cautiously. The road is popular with bikers, climbers and the occasional longboarder. Clear, haze-free skies make winter the perfect time to visit, but avoid wadis when clouds are overhead. Sudden rain can cause flash floods.
* Anna Zacharias
• Follow the Ras Al Khaimah – Wadi Bih Road past the dam and into the main wadi. After about 800 metres, there is a signpost for Jebel Jais Road on the left. If you hit the Oman border, you’ve gone too far.
6. Ornament shopping, Dubai
The name, Antique Museum, is misleading on both fronts, really. It is neither a museum, nor is it filled with antiques. It is more of a souq meets flea market meets junk shop.
There is a warren of rooms, many of which require you to stoop to avoid repeatedly banging into the dozens of glass lanterns hanging from the ceiling, or to sidestep the shelves that have swords sticking out. There is also an upstairs section with pieces of old-looking wooden furniture piled up to the ceiling.
According to one enthusiastic salesman, the shop imports from 27 countries for no other reason than “they are pretty things”. He is correct. Some of the things are pretty.
There are a lot of ceramics and pots from places such as Vietnam and Indonesia, and some of the old boxes from India could be described as pretty. The glass lanterns are also beautiful, and even some of the many unique walking sticks could look pretty in the right setting.
Other items, however, such as the four-foot-tall wooden Tintin statues, or the boxes full of ceramic green frogs, are far less pretty. It is not very clear what the target market is, but considering the shop has been around for about 20 years, it must be doing something right.
And the best bit? It is open 365 days a year so it is a great place to seek solace during the summer months.
* Mitya Underwood
• Open seven days a week, from 9am until 8.30pm. Visit www.fakihcollections.com/shopLocator.php to find the location.
7 Revolving restaurant, Dubai
While the Burj Khalifa observation deck offers spectacular views of the Dubai skyline from the heart of Downtown, there is a quirkier, less mainstream alternative view at the Deira Corniche.
Al Dawaar restaurant, atop the creekside Hyatt Regency, has been the emirate’s only revolving restaurant since 1980. It boasts panoramic views of the city with an ever-changing horizon stretching from Sharjah to Jumeirah. The restaurant is one of the few points in Dubai with views of both the old and modern sides of the city, the creek and the ocean.
Aside from a refurbishment in 2006, the restaurant has been a largely unchanged landmark in the heart of an ever-growing city. The view gives a great sense of perspective, given that the city has expanded farther from the old city centre towards the south, and it is a lot of fun spotting buildings and houses.
There is a large buffet with a mix of European, Middle Eastern, Asian and Japanese food, and it even has Emirati dishes, with some signature ones to be added soon. Traditional festive food is served at Eid and Christmas, and the restaurant is set to launch a weekly Saturday roast in February.
The hotel’s creekside location is extremely close to the city’s oldest historic areas, such as Bastakiya and the gold, spice and textile souqs. Al Dawaar offers a mellow, hassle-free and child-friendly environment to wind down a hectic day of dhow-hopping, museum visits, sightseeing and shopping.
* Hareth Al Bustani
• For more information, or to make reservations, call 04 317 2222 or visit www.restaurants.dubai.hyatt.com.
8. Car Museum, road to Liwa
Everything about the Emirates National Auto Museum seems like something out of a bizarre dream.
The giant Land Rover – I do mean giant, as in four times larger than a normal car – that pops up in the middle of the desert on the road to Liwa means you have arrived. The structure itself that holds the private collection of Sheikh Hamad bin Hamdan Al Nahyan is a giant metal pyramid. The assortment ranges from everyday vehicles to 20th-century classics to military autos to the sheikh’s well-known Mercedes sedans in every shade of the neon rainbow, one for each day of the week.
Some cars have been extensively modified, such as an SUV that has an extended set of wheels to make it an eight-wheeler, while others are immediately recognisable, such as a traditional Ford Crown Victoria yellow New York City taxi cab. But nothing beats the five-metre high Dodge pick-up truck that is the centrepiece of this museum, with a smaller replica parked in front of the monstrosity; inside is a full-service, furnished apartment that you can tour. Don’t miss the oversized Jeep, reminiscent of the Land Rover, that you can climb up on. It is parked in the sand out back behind the building. This UAE wonder used to be free, but the Dh50 entry fee is well worth this fascinating spectacle in the middle of nowhere.
* Marin Devine
• The Emirates National Auto Museum is about an hour’s drive from Abu Dhabi on the E65; you can find a map and more information at www.enam.ae. Opening hours are from 8am-6pm daily (though timings are subject to change).
9. Fish Market, Abu Dhabi
The Fish Market in Abu Dhabi’s Mina Port is not often frequented by residents, let alone visitors to the city. But it’s an easy (and inexpensive) way to showcase a more authentic side of the UAE and its rich fishing heritage.
If you are entertaining visitors who are big on seafood, be sure to get to the market as early as possible to catch the fishermen as they unload their dhows with just-caught fish, prawns and crabs.
How to choose your fish? Always make sure to get as fresh a piece as possible. Sometimes, the vendors keep their best pieces in the back, so it’s always worth asking if they have a fresher batch behind the counter.
When it comes to checking the actual fish, the first thing to look at is the skin to see if it’s still iridescent and glossy. The eyes need to be white and the area under the gills should be a bright red.
For a small fee, the fish can be gutted and prawns deveined in the cleaning area of the market. If you’re not quite sure how to cook the seafood, why not try some of the grilling shops located on the far left corner of the building?
In the mood to try something new? The chefs at Al Shader have a “special sauce” that consists of finely chopped onions, garlic, lime and tomatoes that they coat the fish and prawns with, and even offer a generous portion of rice for around Dh5 extra.
Take your steaming hot, fresh, delicious seafood and set up a picnic at the nearby Heritage Park that overlooks the dhow harbour and Fish Market, a beautiful, authentic meal that isn’t in the confines of a marble-lobbied hotel.
* Nadia El Dasher
• Takeaway restaurants such Al Shader (02 673 6229) can season and grill whatever you bought for less than Dh20 per kilogram.
10. Masdar City, Abu Dhabi
For a look into the UAE’s future, nowhere is better than Masdar City, the sustainable low-carbon community that has been taking shape over the last few years off an unassuming road near the airport (just follow the signs to Presidential Flight and/or Masdar City; finding it is part of the fun).
It’s an easy way to wow visitors, whether by the driverless cars that are guided by computer, the futuristic buildings designed by Foster and Partners or the just-opened General Electric ecoimagination centre.
Home to the campus of the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology, it also has a handful of shops, cafes and restaurants which you get to by taking an exhilarating ride in a driverless car, activated by pressing a “play” button.
Pick up some groceries at the Organics Food and Cafe or grab a bite at Sumo Sushi & Bento while looking out on the courtyard with the modern windtower that is used for cooling. If you live in the UAE and still haven’t been there, do it now, before the future is here.
* Mo Gannon
• Open from 8.30am to 10pm; for information on Masdar City, including how to get there, go to www.masdarcity.ae; to make a reservation at Sumo Sushi & Bento, call 02 557 0500.
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To see our five readers’ suggestions read Refilling the UAE bucket list: your top suggestions
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Updated: January 23, 2014 04:00 AM