Dubai and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) were the first stop on our World Trip. There’s much more to do in the UAE, even for the adventurous traveller, than the swanky modern urban metropolises of Dubai and Abu Dhabi. We were visiting and staying with a “local” — our friend Simon — which made it even more fun.
We stopped-over for 5 days and managed to pack quite a lot in. Here’s what we got up to:
Day 1 – “Traditional” UAE brunch
Having arrived very late to Simon’s apartment in Ras al Khaimah we caught up on as much sleep as we could knowing that we had planned brunch at 1pm. Brunch in the UAE isn’t simply a fry-up taken in the mid-morning on lazy Sundays, oh no. Brunch is four hours of all-you-can-eat drinking and dining.
We started at 1pm and set to work sampling the vast array of national cuisines available. My personal favourite was the Lebanese grill serving salad and lightly grilled meat — perfect for the modestly warm weather. Drink was in abundance too including the obligatory pineapple cocktail in a pineapple and coconut in a coconut. Waiters would occasionally stop by — completely out of keeping with the venue — to inject large alcoholic jelly syringes into the mouthes of anyone drunk enough to oblige. Full and drunk we continued celebrations in the paid bar upstairs until the early evening.
Much to our delight the evening’s entertainment included a live violin rendition of the Game of Thrones theme tune as well as numerous cheesy saxophone numbers. This was one of those situations where time slows and what feels like 3am is actually only 7pm. Everyone joins the celebrations, including any children who have been brought along for the ride, too young to be embarrassed by their parents wild flailing on the dance floor. The conga snaked its way around the bar for the second time signalling our time to depart.
Day 2 – Grand Mosque and night out in Dubai
Nursing milder hangover’s than we deserved we set off to Abu Dhabi to visit the Grand Mosque, stopping en-route at the “Last Exit” food station – a kind of motorway services with a bizarre post-apocalyptic Mad Max theme.
The Grand Mosque is a spectacular building. Built in the traditional, opulent style it was only completed eight short years ago. Shoes must be removed to visit and a long dress is provided for the ladies, but you can then walk around the interior. The central courtyard is remarkable with a huge white marble patterned floor.
It’s very busy so I’d recommend getting there early if you can.
We then drove from Abu Dhabi to Dubai flying-by the Abu Dhabi Louvre — a kind of sprawling webbed dome of metal entirely unlike its Paris counterpart — on the way. We checked into our hotel, the Orient Guest House in the old part of Dubai (yes, Dubai has an old part — more about this later) and got ready to go out.
I forget where we went but it was a lovely roof bar followed by a Thai restaurant that we travelled to by boat! We then headed on by taxi to the Burj Khalifa — the world’s tallest building — for a drink in the Atmosphere bar on the 122nd floor nearly 1km up!
Like many tall building bars the drinks were expectedly mediocre but you’re not really there for the drinks, are you? There’s a minimum spend limit of around 2000 AED (about £50) each so that guarantees a stay of 2-3 cocktails.
Day 3 – Exploring the Textile Souk and relaxing on the Dubai Creek waterfront
Our hotel, the Orient Guest House, is situated in the what still remains of the historic part of Dubai – the Al Fahidi Historical District. In stark contrast to the skyscrapers elsewhere this area is characterised by narrow streets and low roofed buildings in a traditional style. Some of the buildings even have the traditional wind-catchers — a form of traditional air conditioning system — on their roofs. The place has a bohemian feel to it and there are a handful of gallery cum coffee shops dotted about. There are also a couple of museums though we didn’t visit these.
After breakfast in the rather pleasant courtyard of our accommodation we explored the old town on foot, walking through the local textile souk – a traditional style market full of pushy spice and textile traders. It was barely five seconds before, to mine and Petra’s amusement one particularly forward chap was wrapping a chequered red cloth around an unreceptive Simon’s head.
A little further and we reached the port — a striking juncture of old and new — with water taxis in varying states of disrepair belching their diesel fumes skywards to a backdrop of ultra-modern office blocks.
After this we took a quick trip to the redeveloped Al Seef area a short walk up the Dubai Creek waterfront. This is a mix of clean modern dining venues and a super realistic mock old town and a great place to relax away from the bustle of the Souk.
Day 4 – Jebel Jais, mountains and Wadi Shah hike
Taking a break from urban life we headed inland to the mountains close to the Omani border, and up the long, winding, and unnecessarily large road to the top of Jebel Jais — the highest mountain in the UAE.
Jebel Jais doesn’t appear to be the highest mountain in the area, but the mountains stretch into Oman where the higher peaks reside.
The landscape here is a spectacularly barren martian-cum-lunar affair almost completely devoid of vegetation. It’s amazing it can sustain any kind of life. Human life up here appears to be supported by a couple of trailers serving underpriced kebabs and pot-noodles. We plumped for the latter considering the heat and our initial perceptions of the food hygiene standards.
Alongside it’s height, Jebel Jais’s other claim to fame is being home to the world’s longest zipline — a fact that is proudly advertised across the entire emirate. The tranquility of the viewpoints is regularly interrupted by the high pitched buzzing of the zipline as pairs of thrillseekers hurtle down the frighteningly exposed line over the barren canyon below (see photo).
Wadi Shah hike
Having enjoyed the scenery and a quick pot-noodle stop we retraced our steps down to find the trailhead for our planned hike up Wadi Shah. A wadi is a “valley, ravine, or channel that is dry except in the rainy season”, so basically a dry valley and we were keen to see what the landscape was like for walking.
I’d found the basics of a route on the excellent www.dubaihiking.org and pieced it together with info from the WikiLoc app to be sure we wouldn’t get too lost. The trailhead was easy to find and navigation up the massive canyon in front of us was straightforward.
Disclaimer: please make sure you know what you’re doing before attempting a hike in an unforgiving landscape such as this. There is no water en-route and few passers by to find you should you become lost/stuck/thirsty.
There are a number of interesting looking routes in this area including one leading to a hidden oasis! That walk, despite its apparent short distance, was listed as a full day and we were looking for a 2-3 hour walk so erred on the side of caution and took a route up the wadi and back.
The wadi turned out to be exactly as described, a dry rocky valley with occasional cairns indicating the best route over the many large boulders strewn on the valley floor. It’s completely parched yet surprisingly a handful of trees and small shrubs forge an existence here, making the most of what little subterranean moisture their roots can find.
There’s little wildlife here either, though we did spot a couple of goats and a solitary bird.
It’s pleasantly cool, the steep valley walls providing shade from all but the midday sun and the wind funnelling up towards us. We continue for an hour or two, climbing higher up the valley and passing some curious rock formations on the way before turning back.
On the return trip we’re rewarded with some breathtaking views as the sun sets down the valley and over the mountains beyond turning the wadi walls a deep shade of orange.
Tired, hungry but satisfied we returned home for beers and BBQ on the balcony.
Day 5 – Relaxing in the apartment
Simon had been ill all week with a gruesome cough. Due back at work it was as if at this point he finally succumbed and, unable to work, he went to the doctors instead. He was subsequently signed off from work so we spent the day relaxing on the balcony before taking the hour’s trip to the airport to catch our overnight flight to Bangkok.