For the latest in our series of mini road trips in and around our destinations, we turn to our regular UAE expert and travel writer Lara Dunston, who guides us through an easy and exciting drive from Dubai to Oman’s beautiful Musandam Peninsula…
You’ve had enough sun, you’ve tired of the malls, it’s too steamy to keep strolling Deira’s souqs, or maybe you just want to get out of the city and see a bit of the country. What should you do? Do as the locals do and drive to the Musandam.
While Dubai is a terrific winter sun destination, there is so much more to it than sun, sand and shopping. In fact, there’s the UAE.
Contrary to rumours, Dubai is not a country, it’s a city, a city-emirate in fact, and the larger country that it’s part of, the UAE (United Arab Emirates), is worth exploring. While some bits are dull – there are plenty of scrubby sandy plains – some parts are spectacular, marked by waves of sand dunes in peach and apricot, majestic craggy mountains with crumbling watchtowers, and lush date-palm oases. And then there’s Oman.
Little do many people realise but in just over two hours you can be beginning one of the Arabian Gulf’s most dramatic drives in the Musandam Peninsula, an enclave of Oman within the UAE, and spend a weekend cruising dramatic fjords on wooden dhows, snorkelling with dolphins, and taking in some of the region’s most breathtaking views.
The easiest way to do this is to pick up a hire car when you arrive at Dubai airport and hit the road. Also book a sea view room at the four-star Golden Tulip Khasab, the most comfortable hotel in the Musandam. If you’re disembarking from a long-haul flight, arriving after dark or have been drinking on the plane (there’s zero tolerance for drink driving in the UAE), check into an airport hotel, such as Le Meridien Dubai or Al Bustan Rotana Dubai, get a good night’s sleep, and get the car delivered the next morning.
Start out before 7am to avoid Dubai’s peak hour traffic. With none of the chaos and anarchy of traffic in Cairo and Beirut, driving is relatively stress-free in the UAE if you stay focused. The main thing to be aware of is that locals tend to drive fast, but the multi-lane roads are wide and smooth, signage is in English and Arabic, service stations are excellent (like mini-shopping malls with fast-food restaurants) and petrol is dirt-cheap.
First stop: Sharjah, UAE
Follow the signs to Sharjah. As long as you avoid peak-hour, when the Dubai-Sharjah Road sees some of the worst gridlock in the country, it’s an easy 20-minute drive to this very traditional of emirates, with its scenic lake, lively dhow docks, and brilliant souqs. Follow the Corniche Road to the dhow docks where it’s worth parking and taking a short stroll around the Arts Precinct and the Heritage Precinct, home to a restored fort, historic courtyard houses turned into museums, art galleries, and charming Al Arsa Souq.
Ajman, Um Al Quwain & Ras Al Kaimah, UAE
Stick to the Corniche Road, which will take you to neighbouring Ajman and Arabian Gulf Street in minutes. There is little to see in this sleepy town, and the UAE’s smallest emirate, yet it boasts one of the most attractive waterfronts in the country with squeaky soft white sand and lofty date palms, which you’ll find local families picnicking beneath.
Follow the signs to the emirates of Um Al Quwain and Ras Al Kaimah, respectively. Um Al Quwain sees few visitors, other than birdwatchers who come for the abundance of birdlife at Khor Al Beidah. A little further up the road, Ras Al Kaimah is more interesting, with its dilapidated old town dotted with simple tailor shops and a small colourful market. It’s a short drive through the tiny ramshackle communities of Rams, Ghalilah and Ash Asham to the UAE-Oman border.
Welcome to the Musandam, Oman
If you drove directly from Dubai, you’d be at Al Darah border in around two hours. With leisurely stops along the way, the trip could take you around four hours. How long it takes you to get across the border depends on whether the immigration staff have momentarily shut their offices for lunch or tea. If they’re open and you have your passports and some Omani currency, you should be out of the UAE and in Oman in a matter of minutes.
Al Darah to Khasab
From Al Darah it’s a jaw-dropping 40 kilometres to Khasab, the Musandam’s main town. Bukha, the first settlement past the border, has a splendid fort with a single stout watchtower, located picturesquely by the turquoise-coloured sea. On the hill behind is another stone watchtower. The route from Bukha to Khasab must be one of the world’s great drives. We loved it so much we drove it twice in one weekend.
The smooth sealed road skirts the coastline, hugging the colossal, rugged Hajjar Mountains the whole way. On one side are the towering rocky ranges and on the other, creamy beaches separating the crystal-clear sea from the bitumen. You’ll see simple mosques with slender minarets serenely situated by the beach, the peeling hulls of old wooden dhow boats, and dilapidated palm-frond shelters where fishermen maintain their massive nets.
On the mountain side, dramatic ravines secret away diminutive fishing villages of modest houses with colourfully painted iron doors decorated with kitsch palm trees, arabesque patterns and Omani flags. In tiny Al Jadi there are old ruined houses and goats clambering over piles of stones. Al Jerry village has a picturesque beach lined with fishing boats and a blue domed mosque. On a desolate plateau at Al Harf village, local kids play football.
The drive from Al Harf, around the point, down to Hana and on to Khasab, is the most scenic part with gob-smacking views of a rocky coast of creamy cliffs and the Musandam’s famed khors or inlets. Hana village has half a dozen squat, flat-roofed, mud-coloured houses set amid a lush date palm oasis, Mukhi boasts crumbling stone houses with colourful painted doors that shelter sheep and goats, and at Qida, dilapidated old residences, some built into rocks, have pretty decorative arches. Nearby, Tawi is home to prehistoric etchings of warriors on horseback, boats and houses.
Khasab, capital of the Musandam
There’s little to see in the dusty streets of the Musandam’s somnolent capital, Khasab, aside from a few mosques, a restored fort, and a souq, however, the town is the departure point for two rewarding outings offered by local tour groups, such as Musandam Sea Adventures. One is a half- or day-long dhow cruise and the other a four-wheel-drive tour up to Jebel Hareem, the ‘mountain of women’, the peninsula’s highest at 2078 metres.
You could do the drive yourself, however, most foreigners do a tour, as the drive is somewhat harrowing, climbing a steep, narrow dirt road that winds around the rocky mountain. The scenery is extraordinary, from stone houses built into the sides of precipitous cliffs to the surprisingly fertile Sayh Plateau with its farmed fields of almonds, mangoes, and date palms. At the end of the road, a purple-hued mountain ridge drops dramatically into the Grand Canyon-like Rawdah Bowl. Nearby, there are birds-eye-views to Khor an-Najd, a breathtakingly beautiful, glassy turquoise bay.
A must-do is the dhow cruise to Khor as Sham, a majestic rocky fjord that has earned the Musandam the title ‘the Norway of Arabia’. You recline on cushions and Persian carpets on deck to savour the views or spot some dolphins, stopping to dive into the cobalt sea for swimming or snorkelling. An overnight option includes camping on a secluded beach.
And when you’re done? You can do the easy three-hour drive back to Dubai to lie by the hotel swimming pool. Or you can do as my husband and I did the first time round, and do the Khasab-Bukha drive all over again.