Pam, my wife, and I hired a car and driver to take us to the East Coast. We planned to go through Hatta, the ancient agricultural oasis and then drive through the Hajar Mountains to Fujairah. Things did not go as planned.
We mistakenly believed that the main road to Fujairah would take us to Hatta. When we realized that our assumption was wrong, we immediately directed the driver to go to Hatta first. Not being able to read our minds, he was headed for Fujairah by the most direct route.
When we got to Hatta, we drove around the old town and out to the dam, which is an impressive site, if only because it contains a lot of fresh water in the middle of the desert. In retrospect, we might have stayed in Hatta at the Fort Hatta Hotel and done some exploring on foot. Instead we asked the driver to head for Fujairah through the mountains. He said there was no road through the mountains. We shared a map that showed a road going from Hatta to Fujairah but he insisted such a road did not exist. We finally gave in and he backtracked about 75 km to go to Fujairah. We found out later that there is indeed a road and the scenery is spectacular – a missed opportunity.
After checking into our hotel, the Diar al Siji, we had an excellent buffet lunch in the main restaurant and did some exploring of Fujairah on foot. Pam walked all the way to the corniche, an hour round trip, while I explored a nearby shopping mall and the high rise World Trade Center. Neither of us was very impressed with what we saw. Perhaps our expectations exceeded the reality.
Fujairah has a 70km coastline and is the only emirate situated entirely along the Gulf of Oman. As we discovered, there is much natural beauty of the rugged and raw variety. The mountains are jagged, the desert is sparse and rocky and the beaches are pristine. Evidently the diving can be spectacular. Unfortunately, it is also one of the world’s busiest oil bunkering ports and we could see the ships lined up for miles waiting to take on their cargo. Not surprisingly, bilge emptying has had a deleterious effect on the harbor.
The second day we hired a car and driver with the idea of driving the length of the coastline and doing some other sightseeing in Fujairah itself. Our first destination was Khor Kalba, a conservation reserve at the foot of the Hajar Mountains, which have historically separated Fujairah from the other Emirates. Khor Kalba, which is actually in Sharjah, is a site that needs attention.
In 1996, UAE’s first national park and nature reserve at Khor Kalba was established. The plan for the creation and operation of the park and reserve was to conserve and nurture the rare flora and fauna of the area while regulating public access.
Nine years later the place looks like a waste disposal area. The mangroves on which the whole ecology depends are disappearing. In the past much of the Gulf coast was lined with mangrove forests, which have long since been logged off. There are still mangrove stands in some places – one such place is in these tidal creeks of Umm al Quwain. Sadly the trees and the birds, fish and crustaceans they support are in danger of extinction because of human intrusion. We saw large government signs, forbidding entry into the mangroves and the killing of any wildlife, but without guards or game wardens to enforce the message, the destruction goes on.
Because fishermen were drying fish on the nearby mud flats, the flies were so thick, we were overwhelmed and had to cut our visit short. Road building to support the many mansions being built in the area has reportedly cut off the flow of fresh water to the trees. We saw fishermen dragging their nets using four-wheel drive vehicles and destroying the natural sand spit protecting the trees in the process.
What could be a great tourist attraction appears to be a site for family picnics, late night parties and crabbing and fishing in forbidden areas. I hope something is done soon.
Leaving Khor Kalba, we drove north along the coast to Khor Fakkan. The drive was interesting. It was cool enough to drive with the windows down and we could smell the saltwater. Khor Fakkan is set on a beautiful natural harbor. Along the water there is an extensive corniche, a very nice park with an open air restaurant and a 200 meter wide sand beach. We stopped to stretch our legs and enjoy the view.
Our next stop was the mosque and watch towers at Al Bidya. We rate this as one of the highlights of the whole trip to the UAE. The mosque is located between Khor Fakkan and Dibba. While the mosque itself, built in the 15th century, is reputed to be the oldest in the UAE, the towers and other structures surrounding the mosque date as far back as 200 BC. The site of the village has been inhabited for 4,000 years (biblically, the beginning of time).
The Mosque is very tiny and has four small domes supported by a massive central pillar. Being able to enter a working mosque thrilled us. They have abayas available for women visitors. This is the only mosque I have ever visited that allowed non-believers to enter. We also climbed up to the two watch towers so we could get a look at the surrounding area. We saw date palm plantations, the village itself and an inlet and beach - well worth the climb.
We drove North to Dibba and the Omani border. Dibba has some attractions, most importantly, a cemetery holding 10,000 rebels who rose up against the imposition of Islam and were slaughtered in 632 AD. Our driver couldn’t find it, though. He said it was on the Omani side but our guidebooks said otherwise. We eventually go 0 for 2 in arguments with drivers.
We drove back to Fujairah to visit the Heritage Center, which is North of Fujairah City Center - what a disappointment. It is intended to portray the traditional life of the Emirate people, including traditional houses, utensils, tools and other items as well as the system used for irrigating fields, including the working bull that makes the system go. We saw a bull but it was so old and sickly, I doubt if it could walk on its own. Nothing was labeled in either Arabic or English. For what its worth, the village is open all day; every day and entry is free.
After the Heritage Village disappointment and on the advice of our driver, we passed on the nearby Ain Al Madhab Gardens which contain a mineral spa with changing rooms, a park and a playground.
We had a late lunch at a gauche looking but interesting Lebanese restaurant, across from our hotel, the Al Meshwar, Faseel Rd., telephone: 09-2229225. The food was excellent and the ambiance of the smoke-filled ground floor, reserved for men only, was fascinating. We ate upstairs. I wanted shwarma but they only serve it at night. This seemed weird to me given that the meat for shwarma is cooked continuously.
The next day we requested a late check out and grabbed a taxi to the Fujairah Museum and the nearby Fujairah Fort. The Fujairah Museum has displays of archaeological artifacts found in excavations throughout the Emirate, some going back over 4000 years. There are is an exhibit of Islamic Art and other exhibits to illustrate traditional lifestyles. You need only budget about 30-45 minutes to see everything in this museum. It’s open from 8 am to 1 pm and 4 pm to 6 pm every day except Saturday. Entrance costs 5 Dirham. Picture taking is allowed.
We walked the quarter mile or so the Fujairah Fort. It’s actually a construction zone. Reportedly 360 years old, the fort was severely damaged in the early twentieth century by the British. It appears they’re just getting around to repairing it some 90+ years later. I think it will be an interesting place to visit someday but it certainly wasn’t the day we were there. The fort itself was locked tight. Everything else was under construction. I believe they plan to move the museum to the fort when they finish restoring it.
On our way back to Dubai, we drove through the Masafi Friday Market which is actually open every day. In addition to the usual tourist oriented junk, vendors sell fruits and vegetables as well as some interesting handicrafts including fabrics and pottery.
Our overall impression of the East Coast tourist scene is that it is “a work in progress.” Unless you like diving or beach resorts, I would suggest there are other destinations in the UAE or Oman that would make better use of your time.