From desert backwater to the Middle East’s 21st-century destination du jour, the United Arab Emirates has transformed at a staggering rate over the past half-century or so following the discovery of oil. The lofty skyscrapers and major-league attractions of booming Dubai and Abu Dhabi court much global attention, but there is more to see here, not least culture-crammed Sharjah.
If you plan on hopping between emirates, you have three viable options: rent a car, enlist a taxi to take you or ride local buses or minibuses. In Dubai, a transport network of metro, buses, waterbuses and abras (water taxis), make getting from A to B easy, while Abu Dhabi also has an extensive bus network.
The bright lights of Dubai are a good place to begin. The ultra-modern cityscape encompasses everything from age-old souks to air-conditioned megamalls. There is the 828-metre-high Burj Khalifa, whose sky-skimming peak required a rerouting of airplane paths. Right beside it is the Dubai Fountain, where a mesmerising jet and light show takes place several times a night. Perhaps the most daring of Dubai’s showy development projects is the Palm Islands, a man-made archipelago comprised of palm-shaped islets, complete with trunks and fronds.
Of course, there is much more to the UAE than Dubai. Just a hop down the coast is Sharjah, a more conservative, alcohol-free emirate with a historic old town that offers heritage and history by the bucketful.
The prosperous and thoroughly modern capital of Abu Dhabi is awash with adventure. Feel your stomach drop on the dizzying rides of Waterworld or cling on for dear life as you twist and turn on the 150 mph Formula Rossa roller coaster in Ferrari World. It’s not all about thrills and spills here, either; there is also a chance to engage with culture, whether in the majestic 40,000-plus-capacity Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque or in one of the city’s increasing number of top-notch museums.
While Dubai can offer indoor skiing and diving with sharks in an aquarium tank, sometimes there is no real substitute for the real deal. Adventurers who yearn for au naturel thrills will find them in the northernmost emirate of Ras Al Khaimah. Its beaches, deserts and craggy Hajar Mountains offer superb hiking, rock climbing and sandboarding.
On the east coast is the mountainous, beach-fringed emirate of Fujairah, another spot that falls far from the tried-and-tested tourist track. With forts, watchtowers and the 500-year-old Al Badyah mosque, there is no shortage of history here. Elsewhere, the Gulf of Oman’s marine-life-packed waters are a snorkeler’s delight.
When it comes to deciding what to eat, the United Arab Emirates dishes out almost every type of global cuisine – from Greek to Japanese to Mexican –at price levels that range from budget to blowout. Native Emirati cuisine blends Middle Eastern and Arabic influences. Mezze such as hummus and tabbouleh are staples as are hearty stews and aromatic rice dishes.
Alcohol is served in designated areas in all the emirates except for Sharjah, but if you want to be among locals, head for the hugely popular shisha cafés, where you can puff away on an array of fruity flavours.