Being able to drive is one of the ultimate freedoms – isn’t it time you made the most of it?
Six of the best road trips from the UAE and Oman
While we enjoy the milder weather of winter, painfully aware that in a few weeks the mercury will begin to soar again, it is perhaps timely to spare a thought for our cars. If you think that is a bit odd, consider the obscene punishment we mete out to them during our summers – the heat, humidity and airborne dust exact a terrible toll on not just us as humans, but anything and everything that needs to perform outdoors.
So the six-or-so months of temperate UAE climes are a much more suitable time than the summer to consider a lengthy road trip – to see some of this country and region in the best possible way. For too many of us, a car is simply a method of getting from point A to point B in the solitude that no method of public transportation could hope to offer.
They are air-conditioned metal boxes on wheels that we take for granted and abuse when they start to play up, having forgotten about that incredible sense of freedom we felt when we were told we had passed our driving tests. But that basic promise of freedom remains as real as it ever was. We just need to take advantage of it more often. Road trip, anyone? Here are six of the best.
Sometimes it isn’t the journey that is important but the destination, which perfectly sums up a visit to Al Ain, the wonderful oasis city that is equidistant from Abu Dhabi and Dubai. Quite apart from the lush,
leafy suburbia, the mountain backdrop provides a setting unlike any other in the UAE. Heritage seeps from Al Ain’s pores – it has been inhabited for more than four millennia, is the birthplace of Sheikh Zayed, the Founding Father of the UAE, and is home to the highest proportion of Emiratis anywhere.
It is also home to an exceptional driving road, up Jebel Hafeet, which straddles the border between the UAE and Oman. Built in 1980, this 11.7-kilometre ribbon of tarmac rises 1,200 metres and features no fewer than 60 corners, ranging from tight hairpins to sweeping bends with excellent visibility on offer.
To get there, take the E22 from Abu Dhabi (or alternatively, the E30) or from Dubai use the E66 (either way, you will be kept on your toes by a plethora of speed cameras), then the E40, which takes you to the bottom of the mountain. Once you have made the ascent, you will no doubt want to do it again. And again. And again. So you would be well advised to fill up your car’s tank while you are making your way through the city.
Many don’t realise that Hatta is part of Dubai, albeit 130km inland from the metropolis, deep in the heart of the dramatic Hajar mountain range, which offers some of the finest driving routes imaginable.
From Abu Dhabi, you can take the E22 onto the E20, then E66, E55 and E102, but the most straightforward route is the E11 north, exiting to join the E311 at Al Samha. After passing the new Al Maktoum International Airport, take the eastbound E77 to bypass Dubai Investments Park and eventually join the E611. From Dubai, you take the E44 onto the E611. To join the alternative route from Abu Dhabi, continue on the E44 to join the E55 (from Abu Dhabi, you can also join the E44 via the E311). From there, when you reach the E102, head east, then once you reach Shawka, you enter some of the region’s most dramatic drive routes.
You can spend your entire day exploring these canyon roads with abandon. Most of them are practically empty and perfectly surfaced, and a charming village is never far away. You can grab lunch at the newly refurbished Hatta Fort Hotel or visit the popular Heritage Village, where you can see first hand how mountain-dwellers lived in times past. Hatta Dam is worth a visit, too – a stunning reservoir of turquoise water surround by vertiginous mountainsides, it is a beautiful, calming place to while away an hour or two before hitting the road again.
On the longest of our routes, it is best to set aside at least five hours to reach Oman’s Nizwa, which is close to the base of Jebel Akhdar, from either Abu Dhabi or Dubai. To make this journey, you will also need to be in a well-maintained four-wheel-drive vehicle with a maximum of six occupants. A police checkpoint will only let you past if you meet that criteria and have your ID, driving licence and insurance documents with you.
Located in the Omani Hajar Mountains, wherever you are coming from, the best route is via Al Ain (reach there from Abu Dhabi on the E30, or alternatively, the E22; from Dubai, use the E66). At Al Ain, the E40 near Jebel Hafeet leads to a checkpoint at the border, after which the road is known as Highway 21. Follow this through a truly awe-inspiring mountain range and, just before reaching Bahla, take Highway 15 to Nizwa.
This ancient town is well worth taking time to explore. Known for centuries as the Pearl of Islam, it is overflowing with antiquated forts and traditional markets, but it is the road between here and the summit of Jebel Akhdar that we are really interested in, especially after covering so much ground through the previous
Thanks to the altitude, this area is blessed with relatively high rainfall that has resulted in lush vegetation – Jebel Akhdar translates as “green mountain”. Head for the police checkpoint, which is 30km from Nizwa, and prepare to have your mind blown by what some refer to as the Middle East’s Grand Canyon. At the summit, you can stay in five-star luxury at the Anantara resort or get down with nature and set up camp. Either way, it is worth hanging around to see the sunrise.
If you want the ultimate driving road – perhaps the greatest in the world – you need to visit Ras Al Khaimah. For there, within the Hajar mountain range, is the UAE’s highest peak: Jebel Jais. The new road that leads to the summit is, hands down, the best you are likely to ever experience. That is something not lost on the world’s car manufacturers, which now fly in media from all over the world to test their new models on this incredibly complex route, which combines incredible views, dozens of switchbacks and hairpin corners, and a respite from the temperatures at sea level – it is usually 10°C cooler up there. It is a good three-and-a-half hour drive from Abu Dhabi, so it is best to leave early if you plan to travel there and back in one day. You can use the E11, E311 or E611. Either way, you will end up on the E11, from which you need to divert before reaching the centre of RAK, onto the eastbound Khuzam Road. Keep going for about 20km until you reach a roundabout at the foot of the mountain, where you take a left turn. That is the beginning of the road that will forever change your perception of what a great drive really is. If you are piloting something a bit lively, even better, but don’t think that smoking your tyres is the only thing to do once you are there. The world’s longest zip line also awaits, and there is a viewing deck up top, from where you can survey the majestic landscape beneath.
If you want to get away from it all without leaving the country, few areas offer the peace and tranquillity of Liwa. It is a long, boring drive from, well, anywhere, but the spectacles on offer make the journey well worth the effort. From Dubai or Abu Dhabi, the beaten path is the same – take the southbound E11 until you reach the junction for the E65, which heads toward the Saudi border. You will be looking at a minimum two-hour drive from the capital, mostly in a straight line, but just as mental fatigue is setting in, the Empty Quarter makes itself known in inimitable style.
There is a reason that parts of the desert around Liwa were used for filming Star Wars: The Force Awakens. This is the world’s largest uninterrupted sand mass and home to the country’s tallest dunes, and if you pay a visit to the five-star Qasr Al Sarab Desert Resort, the lengthy approach road will take you through a dreamy landscape. If you can’t face driving home the same day, there are plenty of remarkable places to camp out under the stars, and if you book early enough, there are good deals to be had at the aforementioned hotel, which overlooks terrain that can only be described as breathtaking. If you are feeling particularly adventurous, return via the E90 and E95, which run parallel to the Saudi and then Oman borders, all the way to Al Ain, through jaw-dropping desert vistas and seemingly endless salt plains. A truly epic drive.
An Oman destination that is much closer to home than Jebel Akhdar and easily doable in a day, Musandam is an extraordinarily beautiful area teeming with incredible wildlife, particularly of the marine kind. But even if you are averse to swimming with dolphins in the fjord-like coastal waters, the region’s roads offer absolute perfection, whether travelling on four wheels or two. From Dubai, take the E11 north, as per the Jebel Jais route, but then continue as far as it goes before the border crossing that takes you from RAK into Oman, where the road after passport control becomes the 02, or Khasab Coastal Road. This route follows the coast around the entire tip of the Arabian Peninsula, snaking its way through jagged mountainsides that overlook the sea. It is ideal for motorcyclists, because traffic is often sparse, and the views are second to none. Once you reach Khasab, turn around and ride or drive the route back again – it is incredible.