Sharjah doesn’t dazzle with glitz but with sensitivity towards its history and culture, which explains why Unesco declared it Cultural Capital of the Arab World in 1998, recognition reaffirmed in 2014, when it became Capital of Islamic Culture. Once you have penetrated the traffic-clogged outskirts of town, the historic old town is easy to navigate on foot.
Surrounded by the fierce Hajar Mountains, Ras Al Khaimah (or simply ‘RAK’) is the UAE’s northernmost emirate. Outdoor enthusiasts love it here, thanks to diverse scenery ranging from sandy beaches to sprawling oases, hot springs to sun-baked desert, all backed by the rugged mountains.
Time seems to move much more slowly on the UAE’s eastern coast, whose beaches are a popular getaway for nationals and expats keen to escape the daily razzmatazz. Although there are a few five-star resorts, the vibe is decidedly old school and low key.
About two hours east of Abu Dhabi, Al Ain is fed by natural springs and set among oases and plantations, garnering it the nickname ‘Garden City’. The birthplace of the United Arab Emirates’ founding father Sheikh Zayed was once a vital stop on the caravan route between Oman and the Gulf. Visitors flock to its forts, museums, zoo and smattering of Unesco World Heritage sites.
Fujairah City is the emirate’s business and commercial hub. Office buildings line its main strip, Hamad bin Abdullah Rd, while its northern waterfront is hemmed in by vast fields of circular oil-storage containers. Still, the town is worth a stop, if only to get a sense of Fujairah’s past at the restored fort and the adjacent museum.
The desert is a land of contradictions: vast yet intimate, barren yet beautiful, searing yet restorative. In short, it’s a special, spiritual, almost mystical place that’s often so whisper-quiet it feels as though someone has pushed the mute button.
North of Sharjah, Ajman is the smallest of the seven emirates. Its pretty, palm-lined sandy beach, low-key vibe and value-for-money hotels make it an attractive getaway. Strolling along the Corniche, where locals like to barbecue and picnic in cooler weather, is a popular pastime, while a museum provides a heritage fix.
Umm Al Quwain, a tiny emirate wrapped around an island-dotted lagoon, is in many ways the ‘anti-Dubai’. Small, sleepy, quaint and without a single international resort or megamall, its retro feel stands in sharp contrast to the more glamorous emirate to the south. Steer here if you’re after a taste of the UAE as it was in its pre-oil days.
A great way to shake off the stresses nibbling at your psyche is by taking a trip to Sir Bani Yas Island and contemplating life surrounded by a luxurious resort, free-roaming animals and the calm azure waters of the Gulf.
In the remote far west of the country, this 87-sq-km desert island was originally Sheikh Zayed’s private retreat.
Al Aqah has the East Coast’s best beaches, flanked by mostly high-end hotels with an unhurried vibe. Waters are generally calm and temperatures pleasant even in winter.
Approximately 250km south of Abu Dhabi, the Liwa Oasis is a 150km arc of villages and farms hugging the edge of Saudi Arabia’s Empty Quarter (Rub’ al-Khali), which truly lives up to its name: the odd roaming camel or small verdant oasis magnifies just how magnificent this endless landscape of undulating sand dunes, shimmering in shades of gold, apricot and cinnamon, really is.
About 25km north of Fujairah, Khor Fakkan is dominated by its super-busy container port. At times, an entire armada of ships can be seen on the horizon, queuing to dock, unload or refuel. Still, Khor Fakkan is not without charm, especially along the family-friendly Corniche, which is flanked by beach, palm trees, gardens, kiosks and playgrounds.
Dibba was put on the map in 633 as the site of one of the battles of the Ridda wars, a series of campaigns launched by the caliph Abu Bakr shortly after Mohammed’s death to quash anti-Muslim rebellions and enforce religious unity across Arabia. By some estimates, as many as 10,000 members of the local Azd tribe lost their lives in the uprising.
Cradled by the craggy Hajar Mountains, Hatta, an enclave of Dubai emirate, is a popular weekend getaway. Its main attractions are its cool, humidity-free climate and magnificent mountain scenery. While it makes a good base for off-road trips, Hatta itself is a wonderful place to relax.
Linking Abu Dhabi with Sila on the border with Saudi Arabia is Hwy E11, a mind-numbing, 350km-long, dual-carriage highway. The road is flanked by palm trees and fences, beyond which lie the emirate’s rich oil and gas fields. The main reason to travel along here is to get to Sir Bani Yas Island.
En route to the Liwa Oasis, you’ll likely pass through Madinat Zayed, the largest town in the Al Gharbia region. Along the main commercial strip, you’ll find ATMs, internet cafes, a hospital, a petrol station, Al Dhafra Co-op supermarket and the City Mall.
About 15km south of Fujairah City on the Omani border, the Sharjah enclave of Kalba is famous for its creek (Khor Kalba), a pastiche of mangroves, tidal creeks and sandy beaches that is a birders’ paradise. A key breeding ground of rare bird species, including the white-collared kingfisher and the Sykes’s warbler, the area is also a wintering spot of the Indian pond heron.