Dubai might be Arabia’s headline vacation destination, but it also puts you within reach of the region’s best and most surprising short trips.
Mountain retreats suitable for a Bond villain, diving off an island called Snoopy and discovering the UAE’s very own fjords are some of the choices.
Just short of the summit of Jebel Hafeet (a 1,249-meter peak in Abu Dhabi emirate) sits the Mercure Grand Jebel Hafeet (+971 3783 8888; from $120 per room per night).
The Mercure’s location would work for a Bond villain seeking suitable lair premises — reached by a snaking mountain road, with switchbacks and sheer drops, the property sits precariously on a plateau, with views out over the hazy plains.
Around 100 kilometers to the north but located among the same rugged Hajar range as the Mercure, the Hatta Fort Hotel Hotel (+971 4809 9333; from $180 per room per night) lies in a small mountain town en route to the Omani border.
Hatta has historical interest, in the form of a Heritage Village and two 18th-century watchtowers, as well as wadis (a dry watercourse) and trails to explore.
Mainly, though, people come to cool down by the four-star hotel’s pool or hit a few shots on the nine-hole golf course.
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Zighy Bay resort in Musandam.
Diving and more off the rugged east coast
On the other side of the Hajar mountains, a two-hour drive from Dubai, you’ll find the east coast emirate of Fujairah.
These shores offer a different experience from the city-dominated west coast of the UAE: more rugged, less developed and, on the Gulf of Oman, particularly good diving.
Snoopy Island (so called because it supposedly looks like a silhouette of the canine star of “Peanuts” lying on his back) is a popular snorkeling spot, where you can see black-tipped reef sharks, turtles and moray eels.
You can swim out to the island from the beach of the basic-but-quirky Sandy Beach Hotel & Resort (+971 9 2445 555; from $160 per room per night).
For an even greater sense of escape, you can drop in (literally) at Six Senses Zighy Bay (+968 2673 5555; from $1,060 per villa per night) — a luxury resort just across the border in the Omani exclave of Musandam.
Such is its seclusion that one option for arriving at the property is by paraglider from the surrounding mountains.
Dates in the oasis
Every good desert needs an oasis.
The UAE has six of them, which together form a Unesco World Heritage Site in Abu Dhabi emirate’s second city, Al Ain.
Known as the Garden City, it’s a significant inland settlement 120 kilometers from Dubai, a verdant patch at the foot of Jebel Hafeet.
Traditional falaj irrigation systems channel the oases’ waters into expansive, jungle-like date plantations, which are open to the public to wander through and, in season, try freshly picked produce.
This is a cultural and wildlife oasis, too. Looking like something out of an Aladdin movie, Al Jahili Fort hosts open-air classical music performances (Yo-Yo Ma and pianist Evgeni Bozhanov have played here).
Al Ain Zoo (+971 3 799 2000; $5 adults, $1.40 children) houses nearly 200 species and has been working with San Diego Zoo to become a leading conservation center.
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The oryx-friendly Al Maha Desert Resort & Spa.
Stumbling across a couple sipping cocktails in a hot tub amid sandy dunes you might think you’re experiencing another desert standby — a mirage.
Luxury resort operators are increasingly colonizing the UAE’s desert landscape to create high-end hideouts in the sand.
To the north of Dubai is the Arabian Nights-styled Banyan Tree Al Wadi Hotel (+971 7 206 7777; from $463 per room per night) in Ras Al Khaimah.
Less than an hour’s drive inland from Dubai is the Al Maha Desert Resort & Spa (+971 4 832 9900; $1,225 per room per night, meals inclusive), which features detached Bedouin-styled suites, each with private plunge pool. It’s regularly visited by free-roaming oryx (it’s located in a conservation reserve).
Around 300 kilometers to the south of Dubai, in Abu Dhabi emirate, lies Liwa, a remote collection of villages on the edge of the Rub Al Khali, the world’s largest continuous sand desert — it’s the last significant permanent settlement for hundreds of kilometers.
The most upmarket of the three hotels among the dunes here is Qasr Al Sarab Desert Resort by Anantara (+971 2 886 2088; from around $380 per room per night), resembling an outpost desert fort — albeit one with a luxury spa, pool villas and three restaurants on site.
Arabian fjords cruise
How exactly does a remote region of Arabia become known as “the Norway of the Middle East”?
The area in question is Musandam, the Omani enclave 200 kilometers north of Dubai on the tip of the Arabian Peninsula. The reason for its nickname is the network of fjord-like sunken valleys penetrating the mountainous terrain.
The fjords might lack Scandinavia’s forests but exploratory trips aboard wooden dhows are memorable, cruising past isolated fishing villages accessible only from the water, spotting dolphins and mooring up for snorkeling.
The town of Khasab is the gateway to fjord exploration, with a stay at the Golden Tulip (+968 267 30777; from $360 per room per night) the most common option for short breaks.
Equally dramatic is the coastal drive there from Dubai; once into Musandam, the highway hugs the cliffs, winding, rising and falling for 50 kilometers.
All very spectacular — just don’t expect snow.
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Typically immaculate: the golf green on Yas Island.
Dubai isn’t the only place in the Emirates building big-ticket tourist attractions.
Its southerly neighbor and UAE capital Abu Dhabi may be generally regarded as the less brash of these two Arabian hotspots, but its Yas Island development has nevertheless been transformed into a flagship leisure destination.
The Yas Marina F1 Grand Prix circuit and Ferrari World theme park (home to the world’s fastest roller coaster) make it a particularly popular escape with motor racing fans.
There’s also a typically immaculate golf course, a 43-ride waterpark (Yas Waterworld), and several five-star hotels.
The most striking of the latter is the Yas Viceroy Abu Dhabi (+971 2 656 0000; from $170 per room per night), eye-catchingly covered by a curved, color-changing glass shell and located tight in the middle of the grand prix track.
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