The museum's archeological exhibits, with features like coinage and pottery from across Iran and Arabia, reminds one that the individual states of the UAE have long been rich centers of trade and cultural exchange. Long before anyone struck oil, a pearl trade sustained the UAE, and the museum's ethnographic exhibit of nose clips, leather finger guards and primitive jellyfish protection suits suggest the brutal conditions for the pearl divers, who spent weeks at a time at sea. Their efforts were the main source of local income for generations, until the early 20th century, when the rise of the cultured pearl industry (think: Mikimoto) caused a crash in prices.
Luckily for the UAE, oil and gas soon replaced and eclipsed receipts from pearls. Today you can see that wealth in Ras Al Khaimah's modern development. Gleaming, rising towers in the new Al Nakheel district show signs of Dubai style growth, yet the emirate has developed at its own pace and with its own big ideas; the ruling family has announced plans to build the Middle East's first commercial spaceport for galactic tourism in Ras Al Khaimah. Meanwhile the emirate has developed an impressive array of adventure tourism, from rock climbing to dives along the stunning Musandam Peninsula (which juts out of the UAE, but belongs to Oman).
The drive out of Ras Al Khaimah is mostly desert, but with majestic views of the Hajjar Mountains, which line the eastern coast. Hearing of the hot springs along the way, we followed signs for the Al Khatt Springs and Resort. What we found was disappointing: separate spas for men and women with a hot water tub and expensive treatments. Very missable.
Onward is the prize of the drive: the emirate of Fujairah. With stunning beaches and ancient history, it is the archeological and architectural heartland of the UAE. While Dubai was building new, Fujairah has been preserving its environmental and historical draws. On the way to Fujairah we saw a thin, seemingly undisruptive tornado, kicking up torrents of desert sand.
Pulling out your road map of Fujairah you'll notice a territorial curiosity: a roughly circular chunk of land called Wadi Madha that is part of Oman. Within that chunk there is a smaller chunk belonging to the emirate of Sharjah. The odd configuration, we were told, is a result of the negotiations between state-building and local tribes, who are unevenly dispersed.
It's worth seeing the city of Fujairah, with its 16th century Fujairah Fort, an imposing structure especially pretty when floodlit at night. More interesting are the sites nearby: the 550-year-old Ottoman Mosque in Badiya, the gorgeous port of Khor Fakkan (again, territory of Sharjah). Also worthwhile, if you can catch it, is the tradition of "Bull Butting," a local version of bullfights in which the two animals lock horns and wrestle. The massive Brahmin bulls, said to be pampered and well-fed, certainly punch their weight.
"My main recommendation is that people should get up into the mountains and off the beaten track. Wander about and look for hidden oases…green fields of bananas, papayas and tobacco," says Peter Hellyer, author of "Fujairah: An Arabian Jewel." Hiking and rock climbing are widely available and encouraged in Fujairah. The mountains and valleys (known as "wadis" in Arabic) are ideal for hiking.