Adventuring in Al Ain: five things to do in the UAE’s historic oasis town

When I first moved to the UAE in 2008, I made it my mission to see all of the seven emirates as soon as I could, and get to know the new country I would soon call home. One of the first places I went to explore was the oasis town of Al Ain, a city within the emirate of Abu Dhabi and I instantly decided anyone coming to visit me just had to see it. With its vast red rolling sand dunes, lush palm oases and old forts, it’s easy to feel you are stepping back into another world in the town situated between Dubai and Abu Dhabi.

Landing in the bright lights of Dubai or even Abu Dhabi, it’s easy to get caught up in the modernity that the UAE has embraced with its rapid pace of development so Al Ain is a chance to connect with the more traditional side of the country. Deeply connected to the UAE’s culture and heritage, this totally low rise ‘garden city’ as it is known, is the place where you truly learn about the history of this amazing place and its people, and realise there is so much more to the UAE than beaches, high rise towers, fast cars and malls.

Known fondly among Emiratis as the birthplace of the country’s founding father, Sheikh Zayed, it is steeped in history. But it is not only the history which makes this a must see destination when visiting the UAE. There is plenty to do here, so whether you’re looking for a day trip or a weekend away, culture or adventure, here are five of my picks of things to do in Al Ain:

  1. Sunset atop Jebel Hafeet: The UAE’s second highest peak, the 1,240 metre tall rocky mountain stands guard over Al Ain and the Oman borders. Though there is a Mercure hotel near the top, you can just pack a picnic and take the car to one of the viewing decks and enjoy the incredible views. Sunsets of red, gold and purple are stunning and well worth the trip. If you are looking for a little more of an adventure, you can also run, walk or cycle the 10km road to the top, which many an ultra-marathon runner has done to prepare for the hilly routes of the world’s ultras.
  2. Al Ain Oasis: The UAE’s first UNESCO World Heritatage Site, this 1200 hectare area is home to more than 147,000 date palms and 100 different varieties. With beautifully curated walkways, you soon forget you’re in the middle of the city, surrounded by palm fronds and birdsong. A throwback to the more traditional way of life, much of the oasis is still working farms, fed by the traditional irrigation systems, which have been used for hundreds of years to tap into the underground wells.
  3. Museum walking tour: The Al Ain Oasis is connected to the neighbouring visitor attractions including Al Ain Palace, Al Ain Eco Centre and Al Ain National Museums, so is an easy ramble to soak up not only the local nature, but culture and heritage through the oasis walkways.
  4. Fort hopping: Al Jahili Fort, standing guard over the nearby palm groves when it was built in the late 19th century, is steeped in history. Its permanent exhibition of photos taken by what is probably the last real explorer of his kind, the late Wilfred Thesiger, is a beautiful and fascinating insight into Bedouin life. Qasr Al Muwaiji is also worth a visit, surrounded by another of Al Ain’s lush oases; both places really an insight to understanding Abu Dhabi’s transition ‘from rags to riches’.
  5. Wadi Adventure: The country’s first man made whitewater rafting, kayaking and surfing destination, Wadi Adventure is genius. With a man made beach, ‘air park’ where you can venture on the two level aerial obstacle course and a 200m zip line, this is a great day out, especially for a family. Prices are super reasonable, a fraction of what you’d pay in neighbouring Dubai or Abu Dhabi, and it’s a great way to be active, get outside and try something new. With the stunning backdrop of the mountains, it’s a perfect setting to escape the city.

Where to stay: We stayed at the Danat Al Ain Resort which not only has amazing rates (starting at Dh350/$95 a night), but is really well located; just 25 minutes away from Wadi Adventure and Jebel Hafeet, and around 10 minutes drive from the cultural attractions. The hotel has two really well equipped gyms as it doubles as a health club for local residents, so much better than the run of the mill hotel gyms, in addition to an Olympic pool. You can even take part in classes such as Zumba and yoga if that’s your thing, play some squash or tennis or just kick back with a massage at the spa. (I had the Thai massage by a Thai therapist which was incredible.) Whether it’s private tennis lessons (Dh140 per hour) or massage (Dh195 per hour), prices are much cheaper than the Abu Dhabi or Dubai resort equivalents.

There is so much else to do here, including the hot pools at Green Mubazzarah, the classic car museum, camel market and golf and shooting club, but these are just a few of my personal picks. For more info check out Visit Abu Dhabi.

(Note: I haven’t mentioned the zoo simply because I don’t believe in animals in captivity.)

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