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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 19 December 2018

The march of progress in Fujairah makes me wistful for times past

The Hilton Fujairah has finally been demolished, writes Peter Hellyer, making way for a new development

Fujairah City - January 23, 2009 - A couple walks on the grounds of the Hilton Resort in Fujairah City January 23, 2009. (Photo by Jeff Topping/The National) *** Local Caption ***  NC 1 IMG_5292.jpgNC 1 IMG_5292.jpg
Fujairah City - January 23, 2009 - A couple walks on the grounds of the Hilton Resort in Fujairah City January 23, 2009. (Photo by Jeff Topping/The National) *** Local Caption *** NC 1 IMG_5292.jpgNC 1 IMG_5292.jpg

It is no secret among my family and friends, and perhaps among regular readers of this column as well, that I have a particular affection for Fujairah. It’s been a favourite place of mine for 40 years. That’s partly because of its magnificent scenery, with its wadis, watchtowers and traditional agriculture, but also because of its laid-back lifestyle and the friends I have made over the years. After each of the far-too-rare weekend trips I make there, I return to Abu Dhabi with recharged batteries, refreshed by some wandering around and the opportunity for a bit of mardling (a dialect term from the English county of Norfolk meaning "chatting" or "gossiping").

Like all familiar places, it has changed over the years. New buildings have appeared and the traffic has built up. The town, or city, has sprawled out to encompass Saqamqam, once a sleepy little village nestling amid palm groves in the shadow of the mountains. Part of the beach where I used to watch fishermen drawing in their nets, as their predecessors have done for generations, is now enclosed by breakwaters to make a new harbour for the ever-busy port. I’ve got used to those changes. I recall, with amusement, the time a decade or so ago when I commented to a senior local official on the way in which Fujairah was developing and he responded: “What do you think we’ve been doing for the last 30 years?”

And yet …

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Last weekend, there was something rather special missing. The Hilton Fujairah, of which I have been a frequent customer over the years, has now finally disappeared. My children crawled as toddlers around its lobby, dug holes and tried to catch crabs on its sandy beach and splashed around in the pool or the sea. I last stayed there in the spring, a few days before it closed. In June, the building itself was still there, albeit enclosed by a new fence. Now it has gone, and all that is to be seen through the fence is an empty patch of sand, like the gap in a grin where a tooth has been extracted.

On its site, construction by Abu Dhabi developer Eagle Hills of the new Palace Fujairah Beach Hotel will soon get under way, with completion due by 2019. Over time it will, I am sure, become another popular resort, another favoured home-from-home, where, perhaps, some grandchildren can squeal in its lobby or leap into its pool. I look forward to that.

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My feeling of loss, I found, is widely shared, at least among my Fujairah friends and acquaintances. The old building had been part of their lives and those of their children for decades, a centre of the Fujairah community, a familiar landmark, even if it was a mere three storeys high. They recognised, of course, that it wouldn’t stay forever and that it had come gracefully to the end of its useful life. Its disappearance isn’t exactly something to mourn: that would be a little too much. It will, however, be greatly missed.

For now, I’ll just have to get used to staying somewhere else on my visits. There’s certainly plenty of choice for hotels in Fujairah these days, unlike the late 1970s, when I made my first stay at the Hilton. Whether I will ever develop the same affection for another hotel, though, is a different matter. The one where I stayed last weekend did have a familiar face from the old Hilton team on its staff, though no beach and no child-friendly lobby. Much more irritating, though, was the fact that there were no simple instructions on how to operate the computerised bedside console for switching on and off the lights and the TV without switching off all the power points as well. To ensure that our phones were recharged, we were obliged to leave on some of the lights. Such, I suppose, is progress.