Al Ain is Abu Dhabi Emirates second city and home of Sheikh Zayed the country’s founder. The city sells itself as more cultured than its neighbours and it’s certainly true that it’s more low rise.
Back in the day when there was less to do in AD we used to go a lot, often to take family and sometimes just for a blow out ourselves. It’s close to AD and there is a good road so why not.
The delights of Al Ain are as follows, forts, an oasis, a zoo, a mountain and plenty of desert. So here goes with the forts…
I only wish my hazy memory of Al Ain was backed up by photo evidence, but as I lost most of the photos from our first couple of years in the UEA, which coincided with when we used to go to Al Ain semi-regularly…. alas it is not to be.
The city itself is pleasant and low rise and a bit somnabulant but if you like Arab forts then this is the place. There are a few forts to visit and I think we have visited all. They are all in the town so it’s not exactly Arabian Nights, and they are not ancient, but the kids like them and come to think of it so do the adults. Oh and they all cost next to nothing to get in as well.
The photos below are of two separate trips we made to Al Ain National Museum which as well as being a lovely fort has some stuff to look, nothing too mind blowing, but it’s all nice and manageable for the kids. On the right there’s a picture of when Papi Juan came from Ecuador in 2013 and he thought it was smashing.
Close to the fort is the Al Ain oasis, which is the reason the town is where it is. This is an underused but really cool (quite literally in hot weather) space, you can wander around with the kids and have a nose into people’s date orchards. There is nothing very much to do per se, and you do have to be careful for occasional speeding truck, but this is an atmospheric spot that we’ve always enjoyed spending half-an-hour in. Take a look at the link above, but be warned the reality is perhaps more modest than the hyperbolic description might have you believe.
The next must see for family in Al Ain is the Zoo. We visited a few times, especially when the kids were smaller, and as Zoos go it’s a pretty decent one. Do be aware that animals might not be too perky in 40 degree heat, but also be aware that there is the option to do a night visit. Anyway if you’re used to visiting zoos in cooler climes it’s one to bear in mind. The zoo has probably changed since we last visited, they are expanding all the time, so it’s probably time we had another visit.
Jebel Hafeet is a big lump of rock that straddles the border between Al Ain and Oman. It’s a few degrees cooler year round because its altitude which makes it a popular spot in the Summer.
We’ve been up the mountain a few times, in fact in our early years in the UAE it was a favourite, but we haven’t been up of late. At the top is a Mercure hotel with a pool with slides for the kids. We stayed here for the night when the kids were little and it was cheapish and a good getaway. As well as the pool there is a children’s room and an outside sheesha place with a big view over both the UAE and Oman, although there is an argument that on a dusty day the vast expanse of brown stretching as far as the eye can see (which isn’t very far if it’s dusty), would not win a National Geographic photography award. Still a spot to recommend.
The other big hang for us in Al Ain is the desert. We have a spot about 3/4 of the way to the city from Abu Dhabi where we have been four or 5 times. We have also piggy backed a wagon train or two to various spots in the area, which is a favourite with many of the Abu-Dhabi old timers. We even did one or two of the overpriced tours. So, I’ll say a bit about each I guess.
Our camping spot is great because it’s easy to get without a 4×4, the whole desert camping scene in the UAE is based of having one of these, but to be honest buying a big gas guzzler for the sake of three or four camping trips a year seems a bit daft.
We sometimes stay overnight and sometimes just the evening. either way the bare essentials include wood for building a fire and something easy to cook up, often hot dogs. Of course we take a cooler with some beers or even something stronger and a guitar if we’re staying overnight.
We usually arrive about four in the afternoon, we park up on the dirt road and then carry our stuff over the first dune or two. We always go with a few mates, often Cousin Steve and one or two of the boys’ mates as well. We get the fire going in the evening and cook up the grub. The kids keep themselves entertained, which often involves pretending to kill each other or sometimes looking for snakes and scorpions (they’ve yet to find any).
If we’re driving back the same day we usually start to pack up around 10pm, which gets us home and in bed by 11. If we’re staying the night I usually sleep where I drop, I personally don’t bother with a tent, but I do take a rug to lie on and a blanket to cover myself. I find the secret to good night’s sleep is having a skinful.
Of course staying overnight is when the fun really happens, people always appear out of nowhere to share a bottle and it’s a chance to mix with some of the Pakistani guys who look after the farms in the area. They are always friendly and if you approach with a smile you will soon get one back.
The other highlight is of course getting stuck in the sand. Our friend Raul brought a huge plug-in cooler and decided to drive his big car across the dunes so he could keep the drinks cold. Well he got about three meters before becoming stuck, still digging the car out is definitely part of the fun and makes you feel you’ve earned the beer.
Our first trip with a company was for our mate Napoleon’s birthday in 2013, Tommy was puking everywhere and Lorena offered to stay with him, so it was me and Danny. I’m not one for organised trips, but I have to say we had a great time. This was of course because of the company, and because it was so early in the ‘season’ that our group of eight or so were the only ones there. We managed some dune boarding, a little camel ride, dune bashing (not me I hasten to add, it’s definitely not my bag) and plenty of drinking. Danny was the only kid there and he had a fabulous time, in fact although he was only 4 at the time he can still remember it quite clearly 4 years later.
I perhaps had bit much of a good time, so much so that I woke up (with Danny) the next morning among a load of empty beer cans and nowhere near the tent we had been allocated. Still we had a good cooked breakfast waiting for us and Danny got a little camel ride.
Fast forward some years for our second organised desert trip with cousins Steve and Hyun Ju, this one as the typical group on deal and was a hassle free way of seeing the desert, although I’m not sure I’d repeat it. This one was much busier and there was more ‘stuff’ to do, but I have to say I preferred the less to do, more space to ourselves option. Anyway at least I managed to keep hold of a few of the photos this time….
The henna painting was of course a favourite and the belly dancer had Tommy’s eyes popping out on stalks so it wasn’t a wash-out by any means. Oh, and we chose to come back in the evening rather than stay overnight, which probably meant we lost a bit of the ‘experience’ as well.
Our final Al Ain desert experience is with friends, we have been out overnight a few times with experienced expat campers, once me, the boys and Papi Juan, once all of us and once Lorena and the boys.
For all of these we had to go in friends’ 4X4 and although I stick by my earlier statement about gas guzzlers, it does make for the best overall desert experience. Again all the spots are around Al Ain but everyone has their own favourite and unless you get the coordinates they would be next to impossible to find. Still there is plenty of desert to go around, so finding a spot for the first time isn’t hard, it’s just if you try and find it again.