Longing for a holiday? We’ve picked the best weird and wonderful escapes

If you’re planning ahead for an Eid break or considering your summer holidays, Abu Dhabi World tries out some unusual escapes and suggests some downright different diversions

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Do you suffer from wanderlust? Does the idyllic scene of a far off land set as your computer desktop background teasingly remind you of the adventures you could be having? Well with Eid coming up and the summer holidays not far behind, now is the time to grab a small slice of adventure with these alternative trips.

The highway to Hatta

Adrenaline mixes with intrigue in the mountains near Oman

WORDS Julian Pletts

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Now that the Hatta pools have been closed to expats, this dusty settlement on the southeast corner of the Dubai territory might have dropped down the road trip rankings. However, discount it and you discount the chance of a relaxing or excitement-filled short break.

With a population estimated at just over 12,000 people, Hatta is enjoying a facelift by way of a AED 1.3 billion development plan.

Like the rest of Hatta, the decades old JA Hatta Fort Hotel has benefitted from an overhaul, having undergone a revamp over the last year, and it is a great place to relax or stage a few exciting excursions into the nearby mountainous topography.

Victor, our driver on one such trip, has worked at the hotel for over three decades. He takes a detour on our way to visit the Hatta Dam, keen to show us the contrast between the now rather dilapidated Emirati dwellings versus the lavish Beverly Hills of Arabia housing estate that has sprung up.

Wide black tarmac streets give way to perfectly manicured gardens and cookie-cutter sandy hued houses, with an occasional dome or wind tower flourish, that Victor describes as efforts to outdo the neighbours. The impromptu tour culminates with a short trek to a contrasting date farm, and demonstrations of age-old irrigation techniques still in use today.

After spending a delightful early morning paddling a kayak around the idyllic Hatta Dam reservoir, we return to the hotel to enjoy lazing by one of two pools and engaging in a spot of on-site archery, mini golf and visiting the play park for the younger visitors.

Having previously visited the hotel before the renovations, the rooms seem to have benefited the most. Gone is the archetypal, regionally-inspired heavy red and gold fabric, replaced by a fresh and contemporary white and monochrome interior, delivering designer sleight of hand to maximize the roomy and luxurious feel.

We thoroughly recommend a visit to Jeema Restaurant and indulging in the chef’s special T-Bone sizzler, followed by the made-at-your-table crêpe Suzette experience. Or you could order room service and dine on your balcony overlooking the perfectly manicured lawns as peacocks nonchalantly stroll by.

Another motive for ordering room service is a chance for an early night in order to rise before dawn and tackle the Hatta Mountain Bike Trail Centre (hattamtb.ae). This seemingly regularly tended warren of mapped out trails will keep everyone from weekend warriors to hard-core downhill riders entertained and throbbing with adrenaline for a big chunk of a three-day trip.

During the summer, you need to get up early to make the most of it, and while bike rental facilities are expected soon, at the moment you will need to bring your own bike. For safety you need to ride at least in pairs, follow park rules and let someone know where you are going.

Just a couple of easy kilometres up the road from the hotel, the bike park features everything from granny green runs to heart-in-your-mouth black runs – experts only. While this weekend warrior loved the chance to ride his first wooden berm, the highlight of the ride had to be crossing paths with some rather confused Arabian Oryx as the sun rose. It was an idyllic end to a surprisingly exhilarating short break.

JA Hatta Fort Hotel rooms start at AED469++ per night during Eid. Visit: jaresortshotels.com

A deeper dive in the Maldives

Switching on, not off, to environmental concerns in the Maldives

WORDS David Dunn

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The Maldives is one of those rare places that lives up to the hype.

So it is all the more important, perhaps, that we know why this holiday paradise is so special – and how we can help keep it that way.

So says Brit Rebecca Bull who surely has one of the best postings a marine biologist could seek, at Dusit Thani Maldives.

As corporate social responsibility manager, part of her job at the Mudhdhoo Island’s Eco Centre is explaining to guests why the Maldives is unique, in particular Baa Atoll, in which her resort is based.

The UNESCO world biosphere is home to treasured marine life and beautiful reefs.

Comprising 94 villas and residences, Dusit Thani Maldives is reducing its impact by being as green as possible in its operations, including growing food and bottling water from its own well.

“There’s a lack of knowledge when it comes to coral reefs,” says Rebecca of the region’s most famous asset, partially bleached by the warmed water caused by El Nino.

“Many believe they just grow like plants and can re-grow within the year. It can take years to recover totally and things like single use plastics are a gigantic problem.

“All the plastic that has been produced and gone into oceans is still there because it never biodegrades. It can break down to smaller particles but they’re still present, being fed on by manta rays we have visiting.”

The plight of these creatures is highlighted by sales of soft toy eagle rays placed in rooms, as well as a fundraiser for social projects in neighbouring, less affluent, island communities.

Hawksbill and green turtles are also neighbours and Rebecca details these and fish you might see while snorkelling or diving from the resort.

“We do a lot to help turtles. If we find one wrapped in discarded fishing net we cut them out and, if needs be, take them to a rehabilitation facility where they’ll be treated and cared for until release.

“Last year we also had eight turtle nests on our island. We go out of our way to protect them. We build a barrier to make sure no one is walking over the nest and to protect it from predators.”

As well as giving presentations, Rebecca runs back-of-house tours to show how Dusit Thani Maldives operates sustainably. However, she stresses that nothing is forced on guests.

“I hope anyone coming here would learn of the fragility of our oceans and how important it is to protect them,” she adds. “Just the acts of a single individual can contribute to the longevity of the reef system.”

It’s food for thought as Mudhdhoo Island comes into view on the stunning seaplane transfer from Maldivian capital Male.

Propellers hum the final feet to a wooden jetty where the resort manager and colleagues await, among them your personal ‘butler’.

Accommodation includes discreet beach hideaways and the inimitable over-water villas that reinforce a sense of location and connect with the surrounding turquoise waters. It takes discipline not to occupy the sun deck all day and watch the myriad tropical fish on their constant colourful commute.

Exterior wood panelling gives way to luxury and comfort inside. The view from the
huge bed is of the Indian Ocean, a high vaulted ceiling and the stand-alone tub in a generous bathroom.

The resort feels almost like an extension of the island, not an incursion, as you explore its jasmine-scented trails on foot or by bicycle. This extends to the Devarana Spa where guests are pampered in elevated ‘treetop’ wooden pods, or ground level rooms; or during sunset drinks at the Sand Bar, or dining at Sea Grill beside the pool with its majestic banyan tree.

Being a Thai hospitality brand, it’s little surprise that one of the best dining experiences is Benjarong, serving ‘Royal Thai’ cuisine at an over-water restaurant, yielding perfect sunset views.

Back at villa 212, via a quick stop to see mixologists at work in Sala Bar or the buffet in The Market restaurant, the sea is the soundtrack as you scan the house lagoon for reef sharks or eagle rays before lights out.

Get there: Etihad flies direct from Abu Dhabi to Male from AED 2,910 return. Contact:
resmaldives@dusit.com, dusit.com

Alternative Al Ain

Unearthing unusual experiences in the Garden City

WORDS Rachael Perrett

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When you think of Al Ain, you probably think of a sleepy town marked by red sand dunes, lush greenery, historical attractions and of course, that iconic mountain.

But did you know Al Ain also has some unique activities and attractions that you can’t find anywhere else?

Firstly, the city is home to Al Ain-FC and the team’s iconic home stadium a beautiful place to catch the beautiful game, and soak up the UAE’s love for football.

But if you prefer to get in on the action yourself, Al Ain Sportplex is home to various activities such as ATV four-wheel motorcycles, cricket and paintballing. One activity we certainly did not expect to find was RC Cars and RC Flying, where you can take controls and race your friends.

The out of the ordinary activities don’t stop there.

Where else, for instance, could you shop for a camel? The Al Ain Camel Souk, behind Bawadi Mall, is the last of its kind in the country and a chance to glimpse the ancient tradition of the camel trade, while getting up close to these desert steeds. Keep in mind that people will try to approach you to charge for photos or take you on a tour, but you’re free to walk around on your own so just decline politely.

Inspired by its historical surroundings, Al Qattara Arts Centre is located in a restored mud-brick tower and house, and hosts various cultural and artistic programmes. It’s also home to a fully-equipped pottery studio, a digital room for photography and a calligraphy studio.

The ‘Beehive’ Tombs may be another historical attraction but being outside the confines of a museum, you’ll have much more freedom to explore, plus it’s a great photo opp. You’ll need a 4×4 as the unpaved path turns rocky as you approach the tombs that are situated at the base of Jebel Hafeet.

Another great photo spot is Lake Zakher, located about half an hour outside the city. A haven for birds, it’s a lovely place for a stroll around the lake and to enjoy nature – just remember not to leave any rubbish behind.

Finally, it may be a museum, but with an impressive collection of classic cars, this isn’t the typical display you might expect from a cultural institution. The team at the Al Ain Classic Car Museum collects, restores and exhibits vintage motors and being a small centre, it’s a great stop for a quick tour.

You’ll need somewhere to rest your weary head after all that action and there’s nowhere cooler than the new Aloft Al Ain, situated adjacent to the stadium. With a pool table, colourful rooftop swimming pool, fully-equipped Re:charge gym and 24/7 grab&go Re:fuel station, it’s a casual hotel to unwind in during your Al Ain getaway.

Eid rates from around AED 656 per night. Al Qattara. Contact: 03 713 8888, aloftalain.com

Roads, and rails, less travelled

More short hop suggestions with a difference

India Express

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Head off the beaten track for a whistle-stop tour of India by train. With 71,000 miles of track, cruising India by rail is a great way to cover a lot of ground.

If you think going by train means giving up on holidaying in style, think again. The luxury trains on India’s most scenic routes come equipped with proper beds, great dining options, and sometimes, even a gym.

With a range of routes to choose from, we’d recommend a short-hop tour of India’s Golden Triangle. Weaving its way from Delhi to Jaipur and Agra, it’s a journey back in time to India’s most opulent architectural marvels.

Get there: Flights to New Delhi start from AED 1,200 with Oman Air. For rail tour options, visit: indiarailtours.com

Pony up

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For outdoor types wanting to escape the hustle and bustle, the craggy mountains and almost untouched scenery of the Himalayas beckon.

Head to Nepal and saddle up for a pony trek along the mountain range’s lower slopes, with different valleys and rides to choose from based on ability, and plenty of flora and fauna to see along the way.

With trained sherpas and guides to lead you, you’ll get an up close and personal view of the ethereal beauty of Mount Everest, as well as getting the chance to visit ancient Buddhist sites and see rural Nepal.

Get there: Flights to Kathmandu start from AED 870 with Etihad Airways. For pony trekking, visit: adventuretrekkingtour.com

Surf’s up

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For a beach getaway with a difference, head to Sri Lanka’s south coast for some sun, sand and surf.

From May to September, the place to find the best swells is on the south east coast at Arugam Bay, and along the coastline you’ll find surf resorts, laidback sandy beaches and hideaway villas to chill out in.

If you’ve not got your sea legs yet, you’ll find surf lessons here to get you acquainted with the board, as well as activities including kitesurfing and windsurfing.

Get there: Flights to Colombo start from AED 1,300 with Etihad Airways. For more information on surf lessons, visit: safaarugambay.com

Marvellous Muscat

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Our capital may have its own cultural gems, but neighbouring Oman’s equivalent boasts a unique charm itself.

While many think of Muscat as being a few years behind the UAE, the city beautifully balances its rich historical traditions – evident in the low-lying, sandy toned buildings – with its more forward-thinking mindset as a modern city.

The best way to observe this crossroads is at the stunning Royal Opera House. Located on the main road through the city, it’s easy to observe the building from afar, but we recommend seeing a show to really appreciate the building and its significance. The new programme, which kicks off on 14th September, features an impressive line-up of international talent including Giuseppe Verdi’s masterpiece Aida, Sir Cliff Richard live, Grammy-winning ‘Soul of Brazil’ Gilberto Gil and Arab superstar Sami Yusuf.

For somewhere to stay, enjoy a getaway in a luxury property like The Chedi Muscat or a more affordable one like Radisson Blu Hotel.

Get there: If you don’t want to do the five-hour drive, Oman Air flies direct for around AED 455. For more information on the Royal Opera House’s 2017/2018 programme, visit: rohmuscat.org.om

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