In many ways, Dubai is about as unreal a city as they come. It's a flashy desert metropolis that many have compared to Las Vegas without gambling, a place where people from around the world come to bask in the sun, have fun, make money, and be part of a fascinating urban experience. You can easily spend all your time in Dubai and not run out of things to do. But for all its appeal, Dubai is not the only place you should visit while in the U.A.E.
For starters, you'll need to sign up for a desert safari. Whether it's an evening dinner in the sunset-lit dunes or an overnight trip to a Bedouin camp under the stars, an outing to the Arabian Desert should be front and center on your itinerary. A trip to the picturesque mountain enclave of Hatta with its traditional village and freshwater rock pools, makes for another wonderful day trip. And you'll love Musandam, the peninsula near the U.A.E. border with Oman in which dhow boats for hire weave their way along beautiful waterways set between jagged cliffs of the Western Hajar Mountains. Each of these destinations feels like a trip back in time, offering a sense of serenity in the region's most scenic areas.
Sharjah is the cultural capital of the U.A.E., a city steeped in conservative values and very different from neighboring Dubai. Come here to understand more about the country's religious and cultural influences.
If you want to visit a true desert oasis offering more moderate temperatures than elsewhere in the country, travel to Al Ain in the emirate of Abu Dhabi. This and other Emirati cities tend to share little resemblance with Dubai and are far more like the traditional hamlets you'll find elsewhere in the Gulf.
The U.A.E. is relatively small, and you can reach most places as day or overnight trips. Tour companies offer excursions to each of the destinations discussed below. If you want to do it on your own, the U.A.E.'s highway network is excellent, gas is comparatively inexpensive, and traveling by car is generally safe. Just watch out for extremely fast drivers, occasional blowing sand, and lost camels checking out the road.
The idyllic town of Hatta rests in the Hajar Mountains, 115km (71 miles) from Dubai and just 10km (6 miles) from the Oman border, yet still in the emirate of Dubai. Here, you can stroll through the relaxed town and the reconstituted Hatta Heritage Village, swim in the refreshing Hatta rock pools set within striking canyons, and visit the historic Hatta Fort, built in 1790 and flanked by wind towers. This is a wonderful place to experience the emirate of Dubai the way it originally was, and the mild climate makes Hatta an appealing getaway from the city in the hottest months. If you'd like to stay overnight or stop for something to eat or drink, the serene Hatta Fort Hotel (www.jebelali-international.com) sits on 32 hectares (80 acres) of manicured gardens set against the backdrop of the Hajar Mountains.
Situated at the northeast tip of the Arabian Peninsula, Musandam makes for a peaceful 1- or 2-day excursion from Dubai. Actually in Oman, the Musandam Peninsula is surrounded by the Gulf of Oman to the east, the Gulf to the west, and the Strait of Hormuz to the north, with Iran just 55km (34 miles) across the strait. The peninsula is punctuated by narrow inlets of deep blue-green water weaving their way between jagged cliffs belonging to the Western Hajar Mountains. Dhow cruises take visitors through these inlets and fjords where swimming, snorkeling, and diving beckon. Rich marine life includes coral reefs, turtles, dolphins, tropical fish, and sometimes whales on the eastern side. This stunningly beautiful area, occasionally referred to as the "Norway of Arabia" because of its fjords, offers some of the best fishing and scuba diving in the Middle East.
Khasab is the laid-back harbor town from which the dhows leave. Visitors can pre-book a dhow tour package with Khasab Travel & Tours (tel. 04-266-9950; www.khasab-tours.com), which also offers mountain safaris, diving trips, and longer Oman excursions. Full-day dhow tours, which include lunch, beverages, and plenty of time for swimming and snorkeling, depart at 9am and return at 4pm; the cost is AED 200. Full-day trips that include roundtrip transportation from Dubai cost about AED 650. Half-day dhow trips lasting 4 hours depart at 9am or 1:30pm and cost AED 150, half price for children 11 and under. Khasab Travel & Tours handles Oman tourist-visa arrangements. Alternatively, visitors can negotiate the length and price of a private dhow cruise with any of the many local dhow captains working in the Khasab harbor. The scenic town of Khasab also has an old souk, a few restaurants, and a handful of hotels for visitors looking to stay overnight. The Golden Tulip Hotel (tel. 968-2673-0777; www.goldentulipkhasab.com) offers its own dive center and will also arrange dhow cruises, mountain safaris, and dolphin-watching excursions. However, the top resort in the area is the eco-friendly Six Senses Hideaway Zighy Bay (tel. 968-2673-5888; www.sixsenses.com), which offers luxurious village-style accommodations on the northern side of Musandam Peninsula.
Allow about 3 hours to reach Musandam from Dubai. If you are driving, turn right at the Shams Roundabout located 30km (19 miles) north of Ras Al Khaimah, and then follow the road to the U.A.E. exit post. There, you will grab a U.A.E. exit form and then drive a short distance ahead to the Oman point of entry, where you will fill out an entry form and pay for any applicable visa. From there, continue along the coastline until you reach Khasab, the gateway to the Musandam Peninsula. Although driving yourself is feasible (just check with your rental-car agency about insurance policies for entering Oman, which can be expensive), it's easier to visit Musandam through a Dubai-based tour operator who will handle transfer and visa arrangements.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.