For most people, the United Arab Emirates mean just one place: Dubai, the mega city of iconic skyscrapers, palm-shaped islands, city-sized malls, indoor ski slopes and fancy beach resorts. But if you look beyond that, you will find a diverse mosaic of six more emirates, each with its own character. Oil-rich Abu Dhabi, UAE’s capital and culture hub, Sharjah, UAE’s art and heritage centre, the smaller Ajman and Umm Al Quwain with their atmospheric magical silence. Ras Al Khaimah, that is all about the beach, and last but not least Fujairah, the only of the seven with a coastline on the Gulf of Oman and a dash of adventure-activities.
First thing first though and since we did land in Dubai, let’s start from there. Back in 2014, in our previous visit here, what really stood out for us was Dubai’s ambition and ability to dream and materialize projects that elsewhere would have never been even considered. Being here for a second time and with the overwhelming glam and the extravagance that Dubai loves, aside the new futuristic projects thatare undergoing made us realize how spot on we were back then.
Science fiction concepts such as flying taxis, a lightning-fast Hyperloop train, mobile fuel stations and robotic police are all a reflection of Dubai’s mindset that looks only at the future. With many more grand projects on the go and the World Expo 2022 undergoing, it’s clear that Dubai is a city that writes its own story. Most of our time here we were on a limbo mode, since living out of your vehicle long periods of time like us makes you feel lost without it. With that said though and with the help of friends that welcomed us in their homes, while our vehicle was in transit, we got to experience the glam in “The Palm Jumeirah” and the diverse life in the downtown Dubai area, where everyday people go on with their lives. Walking around Dubai, you become part of a bustling microcosm peacefully shared by cultures from all corners of the world. During our time here, with the EXPO 2022 going on in the outskirts of the city and plenty of time on our hands, we couldn’t help ourselves but schedule a couple of visits there. Impressed? Sure, as the exhibits are a step in the future, an architectural wonder hosting a venue that brings individuals from all over the world together to connect, learn and share ideas.
It’s a window to world cultural context through past, present and future. For six months, Dubai will be the world’s showcase, in which the participating countries (194 all together) will present to the world their best ideas, projects and innovative models in the field of tangible and intangible infrastructures. Seriously impressive stuff! For the rest of our days here and till our vehicle arrived, we went on with a lifestyle that we hardly do: a city life type, with its routines and ups and downs. Rochelle’s late night TV numbness, nights out for dinner with friends, a walk to the nearest supermarket for the day’s food shopping, an after dinner walk in the park, a morning jog etc. The day that we would receive our vehicle finally arrived and after some small hick ups of missing paper, we finally unloaded Voukefalas from his container and got him ready to hit the road again. We would like to send here a big thanks to our friend Harris Arseniadis, who opened his house and welcomed us in. Harris, you rock, brother!!!
We left Dubai with direction Abu Dhabi that seems to have constant ants in its pants with its flashy developments. Our reason for being here was to firstly visit the Louvre and secondary the no-expense-spared Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque. Designed by architect Jean Nouvel, the highly anticipated Louvre Abu Dhabi opened its doors to public in the late 2017. Here, artworks are grouped by theme and time-frame rather than country or specific civilization.
The result is a global-trotting journey through human heritage, highlighting the universal threads of all cultures. You can encounter beautiful bronze dragons from northern China sitting in front of a glazed-brick Persian archer from the Achaemenid Empire, as well as the bronze head of an Edo Culture king from Nigeria, displayed in a room lined with French and Italian 17th-century oil paintings. The buildings themselves are all grouped around a central plaza that stretches out into the sea and are shaded by the elaborate 7500-ton filigree dome that seems to hover in the mid-air above. Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque now is considered by many a triumph of Islamic architecture into the modern world. While it includes references to different Islamic styles (Mamluks, Ottoman, Fatimid, Moorish and Indo-Islamic), the overwhelming impression is contemporary and innovative. In the interior, three steel, gold, brass and crystal chandeliers fill the main prayer hall, the largest of which weighs approximately 11 tons and is decorated with sparkling Swarovski crystals, along with 40kg of 24-karat galvanized gold. One of the prayer hall’s most impressive features is the world’s largest hand loomed carpet, fashioned from Iranian cotton and New Zealand wool and flown in from Mashhad, Iran, on two airplanes.
Just the central medallion design took 1200 craftspeople two years to complete, and it was hand-knotting. That translates as 2.268 billion knots! Before saying goodbye to Abu Dhabi, we did a drive by on the waterfront Corniche, with its white sandy beach and generous promenade that stretches the entire length of the northwest shore of the city, giving spectacular views of the iconic high-rise tower blocks assembled along the seafront.
Moving inland, the desert was calling. The Al Wathba desert is not far off from the Abu Dhabi-Al Ain road but still manages to capture your imagination for what there is to follow. After a couple of nights out in Al Wathba, we reached Al Ain, a city that is set among date plantations.
Al Ain is fed by natural springs and it was once a vital stopover for the caravans between Oman and the Gulf. It is also the birthplace of the United Arab Emirates’ founding father, Sheikh Zayed. We paid him a visit but he was not there! His house is now a national museum. Al Ain is sprawling out from the green heart of its central oasis make in it a busy but at the same time a laid-back place. Its lack of ultramodern skyscrapers has given this preserved fort (Sheikh Zayed palace) and Unesco World Heritage site plantations a reputation of a cultural hub. Worth mentioning is that the oasis is still watered using the 3000-year-old falaj (irrigation channel) system. Finally we completed our visit with a drive up to Jebel Hafeet, a 1200meter mountain that provides sweeping views of the Empty Quarter fading away in the horizon.
Next up was Hatta. Scattered with palm trees and cradled by the Hajar peaks, Hatta is a chilled-out mountain retreat with the highly photogenic green-blue waters of the Hatta dam as its main attraction. Here, a recently opened series of mountain-bike trails in the surrounding hills has turned this small settlement into a popular destination among the UAE residence. Back on the coast now, we reached Fujairah, the place that time has always seemed to be moving slower than the rest of UAE. Its narrow coastline quickly gives way to the Hajar Mountains that reflect strong offshore wind to the barrel coastline. Here we were directed by locals to a popular campers’ area and spent a couple of nights before we reached Dibba. It’s a place that remains well below most travelers’ radars but offers vistas of craggy, barren beauty at every turn facing the Indian Ocean. The east coast belongs mostly to Fujairah Emirate, interrupted by the Sharjah enclaves of Kalba, Khor Fakkan and Dibba Al Hisn with Omani Dibba Al Baya extending further north, only accessible from here.
On the other side of the peninsula and surrounded by the all year round hazy Hajar Mountains, Ras Al Khaimah, UAE’s northernmost emirate, was our final destination in the country. From sandy beaches to sprawling oases and from hot springs to sun-baked desert Ras Al Khaimah has it all. Growth has been fast moving in recent years, resulting in a free-trade zone, a luxury beachfront area with resorts and high-end residential area. Most of the development is based around Jazirat Al Hamra, some 15km south of Ras Al Khaimah City.
With Ras Al Khaimah completed, our time (as well as Rochelle’s visa) was over. Our gateway to the spectacular Musandam Peninsula of Oman was lying in front of us but we will tell you all about that in our next post. Stay safe and take life into your own hands. Life is not a problem to be solved, but a reality to be experienced.