Driving along the great open road is one of life’s greatest acts of freedom, so it’s little surprise that in recent years, the good old fashioned road trip has had a major resurgence. While America has Route 66, Russia the Trans-Siberian Highway and South Africa the Garden Route, the Arabian Peninsula holds a little-known route that takes in the dazzling high-rises of the United Arab Emirates and the traditional beauty of Oman in one easy trip.
With its fragrant spices, vibrant fabrics and otherworldly landscapes, the Middle East holds plenty of hidden treasures within its ancient walls, all of which are yours to discover on this enchanting trail. So grab your car keys, buckle up and lose yourself in the beguiling charm of this captivating part of the world.
Abu Dhabi, the capital of culture
Not only is Abu Dhabi the capital of the United Arab Emirates, but it’s also made a name for itself as the rising star of the international art scene. Arriving at the airport is a spectacle in itself: surrounded by golden desert dunes, you’ll feel as though you’ve landed on another planet. Dig a little deeper and you’ll find that Abu Dhabi offers a seriously out-of-the-ordinary experience.
Kick-off your trip with a visit to the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, located between the airport and the Corniche. This Mughal and Moorish-style mélange is truly a sight to behold, made even more show-stopping by its trademark 82 domes and sky-scraping minarets. Once inside, the interiors are just as jaw-dropping. Evocative of stories from The Thousand and One Nights, expect serpentine arabesque shapes and glimmering shades of gold and white, set off beautifully by the flashes of light trickling in from the outside. The best bit? Chandeliers bedecked by thousands of Swarovski diamonds and the largest carpet in the world, painstakingly hand-woven to glittering effect.
Awe-inspiring architecture aside, there’s something to suit all interests here. Bibliophiles can feast their eyes on pages of classic literature on the third floor of the northern minaret, where the mosque library, with its magnificent exterior, is home to 50,000 rare books, along with a spectacular view of the city. Sticking to the show-stopping theme, another place to add to your visit is the Louvre Abu Dhabi, where world-famous artifacts are encased under a grandiose metal and aluminum dome. Although the city is particularly known for its futuristic architecture, Abu Dhabi is also a great choice for environmental travelers, as it boasts a wealth of almost completely unspoiled areas. What better way to explore your blissful surroundings than jet skiing through the crystal clear waters or dedicating an afternoon to kayak through the eerie mangrove forests?
Dubai, the city where anything is impossible
As a serious contender for the most dazzling destination of them all, Dubai is the undeniable star of the show when it comes to a road trip around the Emirates. Showcasing a blend of cultures – including Asian, African and European – and architecture to rival some of the greatest on earth, Dubai won’t disappoint. Heading up the list is, of course, The Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world, standing to attention at a whopping 830 metres. During the winter months, when the clouds hover over its spire, this sky-scraping stunner seems as if it stretches into the heavens. Don’t miss a visit to At The Top, to feast on a delicious breakfast as you drink in city vistas from the panoramic terrace.
If Abu Dhabi has the Louvre like Paris, Dubai has its fair share of cultural offerings too. There’s a museum dedicated to the history of the Emirates, and the city also boasts the famous Museum of Illusions, where you can challenge your mind and creativity as you navigate a series of hair-brained optical patterns and games.
As with all Arab cities, the real hidden treasure of Dubai is its bustling Old Town. Once a small village bordering the modern district, this charm-filled corner of the city is awash with colourful markets, art galleries and impressive museums. Experience a sensory overload at the famous souks where rows of fabrics in shades of purple, ochre, brown and green sway in the breeze and sellers tempt you inside with saffron tea, sweets and samosas, as scents of turmeric, cumin and saffron swirl around you.
Nizwa, the Pearl of Islam
It’s time to leave the rich Arab Emirates behind and head to the southeastern tip of the Arabian Peninsula. The glitter of Dubai and the golden desert dunes give way to the more rocky landscapes of western Oman, often compared to the panoramas of Mars. After a few hours by car, travelling between almost isolated locations, you’ll come across the mountain range of Hajar, where Nizwa (once the country’s capital) appears like a mirage out of the landscape with its traditional earth-coloured houses. The first must-see pit stop here is undoubtedly the fortress, built towards the end of the seventeenth century, and characterised by its 40-metre high column, stretching into the sky. From there, you can admire the area’s crop of date plantations – a fundamental element of Arab cuisine. Southwest of the fortress sits the famous souq, one of the oldest in Oman, where piles of terracotta and silver artefacts jostle for position with stalls overflowing with exotic fruit and vegetables.
Another local experience is the Livestock Market, dedicated entirely to the sale of goats and sheep, with a centuries-long tradition. Although access to non-Muslims is forbidden, the Al Qala’a mosque is an architectural jewel that is worth admiring even from the outside. Once the main centre of the Islamic community, this imposing place of worship stands proudly in one of the most entrancing areas of Oman. Here, you can experience the sounds of early morning prayer and feel transported to another world.
Once inaccessible to any traveller, the Sharqiya Dunes (Wahiba Sands) have become one of the most popular destinations in the Middle East. The dunes, created by the north winds, take identical shapes to create a natural picture of undulating desert landscapes. The only sign of life on this infinite expanse of sand is the traditional Bedouin tents. In respect of local culture and the extraordinary ecosystem of this corner of the earth, it is advisable to journey through the landscape by camel, ending another day of discovery as you admire one of the area’s enrapturing sunsets.
Muscat, a taste of the real Arab world
Next up is Muscat, the final destination on your road trip. A port city, sandwiched between sea and mountains, the thriving capital of Oman showcases wall-to-wall elegance, with brilliant white buildings speckling the landscape. By the order of the Sultan, buildings cannot exceed seven floors in height, so you can experience a taste of the real Arab world, no soulless high-rises in sight.
City life takes place along the Corniche, the promenade in the Mutrah district, dominated by the ancient fortress and overlooked by elegant 18th-century buildings, a clear reminder of a rich past. Here, men in dishdasha and kuma (traditional tunics and headdresses) flock to the souq daily in search of excellent deals, whether it’s fruit, vegetables, ceramics or spices.
Leaving behind the chaos of the market, you’ll come across the most sublime part of the city, designed to amaze and astound visitors. The Royal Opera House, a thriving arts and culture centre. Organized tours are offered at specific times of the day or you can book a ticket to a show and experience the grandeur of one of the performances for yourself.
The city’s cultural offerings continue with The National Museum, which focuses on the historic role of the Omani Empire, a kingdom that extended to the lands of East Africa, reaffirms the longstanding wealth and power of this country. Finally, the majestic architecture of the Great Mosque, commissioned by Sultan Qaboos, completes the circle. White Carrara marbles sit alongside Swarovski-coated chandeliers and a hand-woven silk carpet that, prior to the construction of the Abu Dhabi mosque, held the world record of the longest in the world.