Travel in the United Arab Emirates

The hidden jewels of the Emirates lie behind Dubai's shine.

May 28, 2009— -- 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.

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.

Roughly 40 minutes from Fujairah City is the Meridien Hotel Al Aqah, an imposing resort complex with all-sea views and sprawling pool with swim-up bar. Set on the clear waters of the Gulf of Oman, the Meridien has some of the best service in the country and a Filipino cover band wandering the premises. The beach bar serves great cocktails and mocktails, as well as fresh coconut milk (served in a coconut shell and straw). The Meridien also has reasonable day rates if you drive in to Fujairah and drive back at night. For $41 on weekdays,and $55 on weekends, you get full-day access to the resort plus a buffet lunch.

If you want to skip the road trip and see the UAE by air, the Meridien can arrange transport by seaplane; $324 per person for transfer from Dubai, $185 per person for an aerial tour of Fujairah. However you get there, the trip is well worth it. If nothing else, it shows that Dubaification as its limits – that not far away is something very different but just as good.