The United Arab Emirates (UAE) may have turned 40 years old last year, but the area’s recent development is still young in comparison to the beautiful and historic areas worth visiting, beyond the shopping malls of Dubai. Along the country’s east coast, driving from the Arabian Sea to the Gulf of Oman, there are more camels than cars and more roadside stalls than shopping malls. Among the telltale signs that you have left the city and entered desert terrain are shops advertising the services of a “camel doctor”.
The natural beauty in the lesser-known emirates, along the coast from Sharjah, includes Arabia’s oldest mangrove forest in Kalba, the great Hajar Mountains and the seaside towns of Khor Fakkan and Dibba – a road trip that begins in the desert, only a few hours drive from the ubiquitous skyscrapers of Dubai and Abu Dhabi.
Sharjah is the only emirate in the UAE that stretches along the Arabian Sea and the Gulf of Oman. Thanks to the 7th-century discovery of unusually pale pink pearls in the seas off the coast of Sharjah, the emerite grew wealthy – at least until the Japanese found a way to mass-produce cultured pearls and put it out of business in the 1930s. Pearl divers once braved shark and jellyfish in hopes of surfacing with oysters. In the Heritage area of Sharjah city, visitors can tour two houses of former pearl merchants and traders, the Bait Khalid bin Ibrahim and Bait Al Naboodah, which display the wealth accumulated by such hazards and showcase traditional Gulf architecture. For further insights into the local history and geology, visit the city’s Archaeology Museum and its Maritime Museum, which displays genuine Arabian pearls.
The city also contains the brilliant blue Khalid Lagoon and corniche (a walkway surrounding the lagoon), which is a lovely place for a leisurely stroll. Situated on the edge of the lagoon is the Hotel Holiday International, with windows that gaze out over the glittering water and the gleaming gold Al Noor mosque, open for tours in the day. Jet skis, dhow cruises and water taxis can be taken from the western side of the city’s Al Mamzar Lagoon. The Al Khan Lagoon is the thriving cultural hub of Sharjah’s Al Qasba area, where families and couples enjoy lagoon-side cafes and the Eye of the Emirates, a 60m high observation wheel that offers stunning views of the city skyline.
Cruising from Sharjah along the UAE’s east coast, past the clear blue waters of the seaside towns of Dibba, Khor Fakkan and Kalba, toward the nation of Oman, the landscape grows increasingly rugged and wild until you are surrounded by mountains and mangrove forests. With plentiful lagoons and corniches, these towns are a paradise for water sports, refreshing stops after visiting the vast deserts. Tours of the east coast and other areas of the UAE can be booked in Sharjah through companies such as Gulf Ventures.
Heading farther along the Sea of Oman, the Hajar mountains rise up, a dramatic chocolate-coloured range, where one of Sharjah’s longest-lasting Bedouin tribes, the Shouhoh, once thrived. The mountains were made more accessible in 1971 when border restrictions between the emirates were eliminated.
At a roadside Friday market on the East Coast Road between the town of Dhaid (known for its delicious local foods) and Masafi village, open-air stalls give off sweet and spicy scents, and sell everything from pottery and plants to carpets and colourful toys. The goods are far cheaper than in the souks of the cities and browsing through the stalls is a breath of fresh air from the enclosed shopping malls of Dubai. The harvest season (from March until October) brings an abundance of mangoes, melons, strawberries, green oranges and small sweet bananas from mountain farms. Delicious dates and honey produced by bees imported from Italy and Egypt are available year-round.
The town of Dibba, about 70km south of Dhaid, is a great place to spot dolphins. Dhows and fishing boats can be chartered for trips to deserted coves and snorkelling spots. The Omani stretch of beach, located in the town but near the mountains, is also a popular camping spot. The Dibba Al Hasn souk is filled with authentic goods, and is found near the fort, one block in from the corniche on the parallel street.
Between the enclave of Dibba and the port town of Khor Fakkan, it is worth stopping to visit the oldest mosque in the UAE, the Al Bidiyah Archaeological Mosque, which has a distinctive architecture, built from stone and mudbricks in the 15th Century and topped by a pointed dome roof.
The prosperous Khor Fakkan is Sharjah’s largest town on the east coast, found mid-way between Kalba and Dibba Al Hisn. Its curving corniche offers several jet ski hire huts, swings, volleyball nets and football goals dotted among the palm trees. A fish market at the southern end of the bay has an excellent cafe. Out in the bay lies Shark and Snoopy islands, popular destinations for camping and picnics as well as snorkelling and diving to spot turtles, manta rays and other coral marine life. The newly refurbished Oceanic Hotel is set to open in early 2012 and visitors to the area also stay in Fujairah which offers plenty of hotels including the Radisson Blu, through which, as with most major hotels, watersport activities can be booked.
Khor Fakkan is now becoming an important port for cruise ships, a needed boost to the local economy, with cruises stopping here weekly, passing through Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Fujairah and surrounding enclaves.
Just over 33km farther down the coast is Khor Kalba, home to the most renowned restaurant in the region, the Bent Al Nokhetha (Khor Kalba Main Road, south of the fishing harbour at the cornice; 9-710-507-399-723). A delicious Lebanese meal of grilled fish and fresh vegetables should be followed by the restaurant’s rich coffee and a stroll along the Gulf of Oman beneath the brilliant blue sky.
A few kilometres south of Kalba is Kalba Creek, home to Arabia’s oldest mangrove forest and a conservation area for endangered species. Keen-eyed visitors might spot two of the world’s rarest birds: the white-collared kingfisher and Skye’s Warbler. Canoeing is also very popular (try Absolute Adventure). These natural skyscrapers seem worlds away from their urban counterparts.