There are lots of things to do and see in Dubai and many expats find themselves spending most of their weekends in the city. However, only a short drive away, you can spend time in the great outdoors or stay at hotels which will offer you the chance to relax and unwind.
The winter weather in Dubai is ideal for camping and it is no surprise that this is a popular way for people to spend their weekends. Children especially enjoy the freedom of being able to run around the desert, eat around a camp fire, and sleep under canvas.
Good camping spots can be found in the desert or in the mountains alongside wadis or streams. Most sites can be accessed by 4×4 vehicles. However, unless you have experience driving in the desert, it is best not to stray too far from the tarmac roads. If you do go into the desert, go with two vehicles so you can pull each other out of the sand if you get stuck. Also make sure you take plenty of water with you. It is also important to be careful near wadis as flash floods are common. Even in the seemingly driest weather, it may be raining up in the mountains. People can and do get caught.
If you want advice on the best sites, ask other expats for recommendations. Alternatively, buy an off-road guide book such as The Off-Road Explorer which has a great list of camping sites.
Bab Al Shams Desert Resort and Spa
If you want to spend time in the desert but cannot face the thought of camping, Bab Al Shams is a great alternative. It is a five-star oasis of luxury and tranquility located in the middle of the desert, about 40 km outside the city. It is designed to look like a traditional fort and the luxurious rooms have a traditional, authentic feel. There are many sports and leisure activities as well as a popular spa. If your budget won’t run to a weekend at this exclusive hotel, day packages are available. An experience not to be missed is a meal at the Al Hadheerah restaurant. It offers an extensive Arabic buffet in the outdoor air. There is live entertainment from belly dancers, musical groups and singers. There are also camel rides, pony rides and falcon displays. Make sure you book in advance as this restaurant is very popular (https://www.jumeirah.com/en/Hotels-and-Resorts/Destinations/Dubai/Jumeirah-Bab-Al-Shams).
About an hour away from the city lies the small town of Hatta. It is still within the Dubai Emirate but is strikingly different to the city. It is located in the middle of the rocky Hajar mountains. This great destination has several attractions to offer.
Most well-known is the popular heritage village with thirty restored buildings which gives visitors a glimpse of what life in the UAE was like between 1000 BC and 0 BC. The buildings have been faithfully restored using traditional building materials such as mud, hay, sandalwood and palm fronds. It is a great place for children and adults alike as it gives information about family life, weapons, and date growing.
Another attraction of this area is the Hatta Pools. This is a small canyon full of natural rock pools and cascading waterfalls. It is popular with picnickers and swimmers.
On the way to Hatta, you will pass a large sand dune which is over 300 meters high. It is known as Big Red as the sand here has an usual reddish hue because of a high concentration of iron oxide. Big Red is a popular place, especially on weekends and bank holidays, with 4×4 drivers and people on quad bikes. The dune becomes chock-a-bloc with people trying to drive up to the top. Quad bikes can be hired for around AED 40 for half an hour. There are also many tour operators who offer dune tours.
Hatta is the perfect place for a day trip, but if you want to make a weekend out of it, the 4-star Hatta Fort Hotel is a tranquil retreat and worth a trip in itself for its leisure facilities and popular restaurants (http://www.jebelali-international.com/properties/hatta_fort_hotel/hotel/overview.html).
Approximately 150 km from Dubai, Al Ain is the fourth largest city in the UAE. It is often called the ‘garden city’ of the UAE, although its name translates literally as the ‘water spring’. As both these names suggest, it is built on an oasis. It is much greener and less humid in summer than other parts of the country.
The city is surrounded by mountains including one of the highest mountains in the UAE, Jebel Hafeet, which stands at 1,240 meters. It is possible to drive up this mountain and enjoy magnificent views out over the city. There is a palace and the Mercure Grand Jebel Hafeet Hotel at the very top (http://www.mercure.com/gb/hotel-3573-mercure-grand-jebel-hafeet-al-ain/index.shtml).
At the bottom of the mountain there is a hot-water spring known as the Green Mubazarrah. The natural swimming pools and jacuzzis here are very popular with tourists.
Another attraction of this city is the Al Ain Wildlife Park and Resort (http://www.awpr.ae). This is one of the best zoos in the UAE as the animals are allowed to roam in relatively large enclosures on this 50 hectare site. This is a popular place for families to visit.
This is the smallest of all the Emirates and one of the least developed. However, it is one of the most popular tourist destinations. A journey over to the East Coast from Dubai will take almost two hours and you will pass through four different Emirates on the way. Fujairah lies on the other side of the craggy Hajar mountains and the journey itself can provide interesting views past wadis, rocky gorges and trickling streams.
Here you can find an old fort, the Bitnah citadel and the oldest mosque in the UAE, the Bidiya Mosque. However, most tourists do not come here for the history and culture, they come for the water sports. One of the most popular spots is known as Snoopy Island because of a slight resemblance to the Snoopy cartoon character. This is a popular spot for swimming and snorkeling. Here it is possible to see coral reefs, colorful fish, turtles and sharks.
All along this coast are popular scuba diving spots. There are many diving centers which will take qualified divers out to see the coral reefs and wrecks. Visibility is generally good and diving conditions suit both experienced and beginner divers. Diving centers will also be able to arrange for those with no experience to take a weekend-long PADI open water course.
Another popular spot is the Khor Kalba Nature Reserve. The mangroves here are popular with kayakers and crab-catchers. It is home to many rare birds. Over 20 species of endangered birds have been spotted here, making it a popular destination with bird-watchers.
There are several hotels along the coast. Many of them having their own private beaches. They will normally have diving centers and facilities for other water sports. They are popular with families as they also provide activities to keep children entertained. The most popular hotels are:
- The Hilton Fujairah Resort (http://www.hilton.co.uk/Fujairah)
- Le Meridien Al Aqah Beach Resort (http://www.starwoodhotels.com/lemeridien/property/overview/index.html?propertyID=1901)
- Fujairah Rotana Resort & Spa http://www.rotana.com/property-13.htm)
- The Sandy Beach Hotel & Resort (http://www.sandybm.com)