There is just too much on offer in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), to relegate it to just a stop-over destination. There are ample day (and night) trips that will keep you enthralled; here, we visit the evocative oasis city of Al Ain, and spot a few of the UAE’s four-legged inhabitants along the way, writes Leigh-Ann Pow.
One of the world’s oldest permanently inhabited settlements, the oasis city of Al Ain, an hour and a half’s drive from Abu Dhabi through sparse, undulating desert complete with wandering camels, presents itself as the perfect day trip, melding an evocative desert location with lush swathes of date palms, teeming markets, a compelling history dating back millennia, and fine examples of traditional Arabian architecture. It is these elements, combined with a more laconic pace of life than in bustling Abu Dhabi, that imbibes the city with a unique appeal all its own.
Driving into Al Ain (although it presents more like a large town), you pass the sprawling building works for the new Sheikh Khalifa Bin Zayed Grand Mosque, dedicated to the current ruler (emir) of Abu Dhabi and president of the United Arab Emirates. On a scale to rival the exquisite Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi, dedicated to Khalifa’s father, Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the driving force behind the formation of the UAE, its giant dome is inset with a verse from the Quran rendered in gold.
Make a beeline for the Souq Al Qattara, where Bedouin women sit crossed-legged on the floor, their faces decorated with the traditional thin metal fabric burqa, selling bags of spices and baskets woven from palm fronds. Nearby, stalls are laden with all manner of salted dried fish, along with produce made plump and ripe by endless sunshine, and a seemingly endless selection of sticky, juicy dates, a staple of everyday life here on the Arabian Peninsula.
A short drive away is the hulking Al Jahili Fort, the UAE’s most historic building, erected between 1891 and 1898 by Sheikh Zayed the First to defend the city and its precious palm groves. Within the soaring fortified walls, constructed from mud and sand, an expansive courtyard leads to a series of circular towers and a visitor centre that houses a permanent exhibition of photography by English explorer Wilfred Thesiger, the first person to bring a camera here in the 1940s to document the lives of the still largely nomadic Bedouin people (oil was discovered in the United Arab Emirates in the late 1950s, before which the economy was dependant on the likes of fishing and pearling).
The nearby Qasr al Muwaiji, the birthplace of Sheikh Khalifa Bin Zayed, makes for fascinating viewing: for all intents and purposes it is a palace, but it is much more cosy and homely in scale than expected, with no blingy chandeliers or gilt edges to be seen. A sleek modern glass box of a visitor centre, inserted into the open courtyard space as part of the recent restoration process, houses a potted history of the ruling Al Nahyan family.
And it goes without saying that a must-visit in the oasis city is the oasis itself, a cool, verdant respite from the desert heat. A UNESCO World Heritage site, the Al Ain Oasis (one of seven oases in the city) is filled with date farms and an intricate network of water channels or aflaj, the traditional irrigation system still used by the farmers who live and work within. As the sun shines through the palm fronds, creating intricate shadow patterns at your feet, the modern world all but melts away, replaced by the rustic beauty of the honoured traditions that play out here, and throughout Al Ain itself, on a daily basis.
Three other Abu Dhabi day and night trips not to be missed
The Liwa Oasis
Almost a three-hour drive from Abu Dhabi, Liwa Oasis, at the edge of the Empty Quarter (Rub’ al-Khali), comprises a 150-kilometre stretch desert dotted with ancient villages, farms and verdant oases, and the historic birthplace of Al Nahyan dynasty, rulers of Abu Dhabi.
The Empty Quarter
The world’s largest expanse of sand desert, this is where visitors to the UAE can live out their Arabian Nights fantasies, trekking through the golden sands and sleeping under the stars in a Bedouin tent.
Sir Bani Yas Island
One of eight islands that make up the Desert Islands in Al Dhafra, more than half of Sir Bani Yas Island is taken up by the Arabian Wildlife Park, one of region’s largest wildlife reserves, which is home to more than 10,000 free-roaming animals including Arabian oryx, gazelles and cheetahs. The island is also the site of the UAE’s only known Christian monastery, thought to have been built around 600AD.