Arabia and the Middle East have long been a huge gap in my travel repertoire, not considering layovers at Dubai and Abu Dhabi airport, even though it’s a relatively short and easy flight from Europe.
Last Autumn, I finally managed to spend a bit more time there when my husband and I decided to take a one-week trip to the United Arab Emirates. A holiday in the UAE is not cheap, but a good deal on flights (using lots of air miles) and carefully choosing travel dates in the shoulder season made it manageable.
One week is tight if you want to explore all corners of the UAE, but it definitely gives enough time to take in the main sights. We rented a car, which really helped in optimizing the trip as we were not dependent on public transport. Roads in the UAE are generally good and our small car easily took us everywhere. Additionally, if you are used to European prices, petrol is dirt cheap (unlike all other things in the UAE!).
Dubai Mixing Arabian Heritage & Hypermodern Construction
We started our trip with two days in Dubai. The main sights of Old Dubai are located in a relatively small area that you can easily cover on foot. The old town has undergone significant restoration – it looks very pretty, but feels somewhat artificial. The highlight for me was the Dubai Museum, located in the old Al Fahidi Fort, which gives a good overview of Emirati history and culture.
Downtown Dubai is the complete opposite. This is where you will find the Burj Khalifa, surrounded by the famous Dancing Fountains. This skyscraper of 829 meters has long been the tallest building in the world. We refrained from going up to the observation deck, because it’s located “only” at level 125, around two thirds of the way up, and we were slightly disappointed by that.
Madinat Jumeirah was my favorite area of Dubai. It is essentially an Arab style hotel complex set up as a mini city, complete with souk and relaxing beaches. Conveniently, it is merely a 15 minutes’ walk from the Burj Al Arab, the only seven star hotel in the world. We could not afford to stay there, but that didn’t stop us from making a reservation for breakfast so we could explore the place!
Our next stop was Majlis Ghorfat Um-Al Sheif in the Al Safa neighborhood. The traditional house was built around 1955 as a summer retreat for the late Sheikh Rashid Bin Saeed Al Maktoum. It is now tucked away in a residential area and even the taxi driver struggled to find it.
Bedouin life: spending a night in the desert
The thing I was most excited about when going to the UAE was seeing the desert, so a night in desert camp had to be part of the program. We booked an overnight “glamping” stay in a Bedouin-style camp. Best of all, it included a desert drive in a vintage Land Rover!
The Bedouin camp lived up to our expectations. We enjoyed a dinner of traditional Emirati foods and wound down in the majlis (traditional sitting area) with coffee and shisha before retiring to our wooden room for the night.
Upon our return to Dubai town the next morning, we picked up the rental car and set off to explore the rest of the country. Our first stop was Sharjah, which is the most traditional of the seven Emirates. It only Emirate that is completely “dry”. Legally you are not even allowed to drive through Sharjah with alcohol in your car.
Sharjah has got a number of excellent museums (which can be visited with a very affordable combi ticket) and the town centre is nicely restored. The Al Hisn Fort is where we spent most time, learning about the history of this tiny emirate.
If you thought the UAE is nothing but desert, you are wrong. Hatta, situated at 330m elevation in the Hajar mountains, is a lovely town to spend a day. The modern town is residential and doesn’t have a lot to offer to tourists, but the Heritage Village is worth a stop.
We also took a walk in the Hatta Hill Park. From the watch tower at the top of the park, the view over the town and surrounding mountains is excellent.
Al Madam – an eerie ghost town in the desert
Our next stop was Al Madam. The modern town is an uninteresting settlement, located at the intersection of two main road and useful if you need petrol or supplies. The real reason however Al Madam was on our itinerary, is the deserted old town, tucked away in the desert. It is unclear why the town became abandoned (although local legends are plenty).
We arrived in the ghost town just before sunset, which was perfect. We could walk around in the daylight and then enjoy Golden Hour in the middle of the desert. I enjoyed the eerie silence, but my husband thought is was creepy. Either way, it is best not to visit this place after watching “The Hills Have Eyes” or the likes.
If you came to the UAE to see camels, you won’t be disappointed at Al Ain camel market. You can even take one home, if you have enough Dirhams handy. All kinds of camels from across Arabia are for sale here. Most trading takes place early in the morning, so the sooner you get there, the better.
It was fun to watch the haggling and trading in the vibrant market place, but I couldn’t help feeling sorry for the animals that were trucked away to an uncertain future with their new owners.
The other must-see attraction is Al Ain Oasis. This plantation is home to close to 150k data palms (and a smaller number of other plants) and was listed as Unesco World Heritage in 2011.
The Empty Quarter – giving new meaning to “remote”
In the afternoon, we set off for a next long trek in the car, from Al Ain to Rub Al Khali or the Empty Quarter. The Empty Quarter is the largest sand desert in the world and it is called “empty” for a reason. Apart from camel farms and tribal settlements, there is strictly nothing, but sand dunes as far as you can see. Despite the length of the journey, we squeezed in a little detour so we could cross the Tropic of Cancer.
The Qasr Al Sarab Desert Resort is one of the few hotels in the Liwa Oasis, so there wasn’t much choice, but it was excellent. It was by far the most expensive (and luxurious) hotel we stayed in. At 15 kilometres from the nearest public road, the remoteness and silence were superb.
We went for a drive around Liwa Oasis, visiting the Liwa Fort and Tal Moreeb, deemed the highest sand dune in the UAE. We also took part in some of the activities organised by the hotel, which, of course, included a camel ride.
One is definitely enough to cover the highlights of the UAE, feel the vibe of the country and have some time to relax. The one thing I regret missing out on is Abu Dhabi. We were originally going to spend only one day in the Empty Quarter and finish our trip in Abu Dhabi, but we liked the Empty Quarter so much, that we decided to stay there longer instead!