Travel in the United Arab Emirates

One benefit of traveling through a tiny nation is the cross-country day trip. Not more than two hours' drive from the bustle and bling of Dubai gets you to a vastly different setting: rustic towns, roaming camels, old forts and fishermen. The trip is lively and affordable, and with resort hotels in Dubai routinely charging $600 per night, you might consider staying in the outer emirates and driving into Dubai by day.

Renting a car is well worth it and priced for long trips; major rental companies charge around 225 dirhams ($63) per day for a compact car, $339 for an entire week. The roads are fairly simple, with signs posted in English and fairly frequent places to ask for directions.

There are two ways to go east from Dubai: along the edge of the country or straight through it. Both routes lead to the country of Oman – not a bad road trip destination itself, although you need added insurance from car rental agencies to cross the border.

But there is plenty to see within the United Arab Emirates. Not along the coastal drive from Dubai to the emirate of Ras Al Khaimah; that route is primarily a Middle Eastern pastoral of low-rise, poured concrete buildings from the 1970s. But within Ras Al Khaimah – literally, "tip of the tent" -- camels roam the desert dunes and shrubberies dot the roadsides.

In the emirate of Ajman is the dated Barracuda Beach Resort, most famous for its massive liquor shop, where you can buy top- and bottom-shelf brands from around the world (Officer's Choice whisky seemed to be a house favorite).

In most parts of the UAE shoppers need a state-issued liquor license; in others, like the emirate of Sharjah, alcohol is completely banned. But what conservative Sharjah lacks in nightlife, it makes up for in culture. A good way to take in Gulf traditions and break up the trip from Dubai to Ras Al Khaimah is to walk through Sharjah's Heritage Area, which takes you to the museum at Al Hisn Fort and the gorgeous Beit Sheikh Sultan Bin Saquer al-Qassimi, a traditional Arab house with displays of arts and crafts.

All that, plus the Sharjah Art Museum, are evidence of a time when Sharjah was once the busiest and best-known of all seven of the emirates.

Our destination was the Rotana Coves, a newly built beach resort with reasonable weekday rates as low as $152 (there's also a Hilton for you rewards-point road warriors). The Rotana Coves is a pared-down version of what you'd get in Dubai -- a very nice, but not over the top, replica of an Arabian village. (It's a lovely, if less authentic, version of Taybet Zaman Hotel in Jordan, where they actually bought out an Arabian village and turned it into a hotel). The rooms are beautiful, as is the infinity pool overlooking the Persian Gulf. Hotel restaurants are good and reasonably priced (dinner for two with wine at the Basilico restaurant was $60).

En route to Ras Al Khaimah you'll notice road signs for George Mason University, which has a branch here (perhaps one of the more peculiar places for an American college outpost).

Into the city of Ras Al Khaimah are its visitor highlights. Thick green mangroves line the water, not far from the traditional market and National Museum, the latter housed in a grand Arabian home from the mid-1700's.

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