ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY escape the lures of Dubai to explore the weekend getaway of Hatta in the Al Hajar mountains on the Omani border
Beyond the mandatory list of things to do – visiting landmarks that flaunt engineering genius and luxury, aerial views of Palm Jumeirah, the laser and light spectacle on the 830m Burj Khalifa, hop-on-hop-off city tours, Ski Dubai, desert safaris with dune-bashing and belly-dancing in Bedouin tents, the marvels of mall crawls and Dubai Mall, a one-stop entertainment destination replete with designer stores, underwater zoos, ginormous aquariums and dancing fountains.
Besides a plethora of museums (from coffee to Islamic culture), water and marine parks like Atlantis, there is a lot more that Dubai offers. New attractions like The Frame, Ripe Market, The Green Planet and Bollywood Parks have the crowds coming in, though there are still places where one still gets a whiff of old Arabia.
In the port area of Deira, the oldest corner where the story of Dubai as a pearling industry and trade centre began, one can haggle over Turkish plates, Moorish lamps, hookahs, spices, saffron, perfumes and oud (agarwood) essential oil, aptly called ‘liquid gold’. Take an abra (boat) ride to Bur Dubai for just 1 AED while watching gulls swirling over Dubai Creek (Khor Dubai).
Or stroll down the coffee and spice scented lanes of Al Fahidi or Al Bastakiya, the historical mid-19th century quarter that was restored as recently as 2008 with graffiti walls, art galleries and hipster cafes, a fabulous coffee museum, a chic Arabian teahouse, boutique stays and good old Emirati hospitality over cups of qahwa, juicy dates and delicious luquaimat (sweet flour dumplings). Yet, each visit to Dubai unveils a newer facet of the good life.
We set off for Hatta, 134km southeast of Dubai on the Oman border. Images of the swanky city faded off on the hour-long drive making way for red sand dunes and a dry brown monochromatic landscape of the rugged Al Hajar Mountains. “Hatta” announces itself loudly in a Hollywood-sign style, across a hill. Formerly called Hajarain, Hatta is an enclave of Dubai that has become a popular weekend getaway amidst nature and a restored heritage village.
With tombstones dating to 3000BC besides two 18th century military towers and an old Juma Masjid serving as remnants of its history, Hatta was an oasis town of date palms and orange trees. Somewhere in the 1980s, it slowly transformed into a veritable adventure zone. With tracks and trails for biking and hiking in the mountains and boating and kayaking at the dam’s reservoir, Hatta is the ideal choice for families, expats and corporate groups alike.
We drove up a sharp incline past the mural of UAE’s founding fathers – the late Shaikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan and the late Shaikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum, painted on the spillway of Hatta Dam. Famous German street artist Case MacLain from Frankfurt was commissioned for this artwork, which is among the world’s largest murals measuring 80m in height and 10m across. It took him two weeks of intense abseiling up and down the spillway with high pigment weather resistant paints to complete the work!
Surrounded by endless rows of barren mountains with the glittering teal green waters of the reservoir below, it was obvious why Hatta was such a hit. We picked our tickets and lifejackets at Hatta Kayak, and sank into our canary coloured boat to pedal away watching cormorants swoop in for a dip and emerge with a treat of fish. Fishing and swimming is banned in these waters, so visitors go pedal boating or exhibit their kayaking skills in the calm waters.
A new Explore Hatta trail takes visitors to a heritage village, honey factory, ancient tombs, duck lake and a camel farm! With ambitious plans of ecotourism and glamping, lux resorts and mountain lodges besides projects to boost culture and crafts of the region, Hatta is on to something big.
Set right near the main roundabout in town, JA Hatta Fort Hotel is literally a sanctuary in the desert. Landscaped with surprisingly lush green lawns and shrubbery alive with chirruping birds and peacocks preening in the garden, the hotel is a great place to drop anchor. Its tranquil ambience, good food, activities and games are an added bonus. Time and weather didn’t permit us to go on a mountain bike trail of 52km, so we opted for a delightful round of archery and air rifle shooting.
It took a while to get the hang of archery as we aimed at the target 25 m away, but being crack shots in the shooting range, we floored our Nepali trainer with an all-bull’s-eye record that left him shaking his head in disbelief! At Café Gazebo we grabbed the Chef’s Special ‘Hajar Mixed Grill’ overlooking the pool and the jagged Al Hajar range as we dined on lamb cutlet, kofta, shish taouk and arayes (pita stuffed with meat).
We were lucky to catch a few days of the famous Dubai Food Festival. The 17-day annual food gala has become part of the global gastronomy festival calendar featuring cuisines from across the world. From peacock blue ice candy to pink burgers and charcoal activated ice-cream (with local musicians and cool street magicians thrown in), DFF was rocking. The festival witnesses the involvement of Dubai’s top restaurants, artisanal cafes and numerous kiosks including a food truck alley and a carnival atmosphere at public venues like Swyp Beach Canteen.
As part of Restaurant Week, we got a private Meat Masterclass at The Meat Co. with Chef Andrew Owczarek and tried limited edition tasting menus at the post-modern Indian restaurant Carnival by Tresind and Japanese fine dine restaurant Morimoto. The Top 10 Hidden Gems in the city showcased eateries that push the boundaries by offering one-of-a-kind menus and dishes in a unique atmosphere.
It was nice to see Asian and South Asian eateries dominate the local food scene, besides Yemeni and Lebanese restaurants, though we were pleasantly surprised to see Karnataka’s very own MTR 1924 voted to the list!
Direct flights from India to Dubai take about 3½ hrs. Hatta is 134km southeast of Dubai near the Oman border. www.emirates.com
Where to Stay
JA Hatta Fort Hotel
Hatta-Oman Road, Hatta Roundabout
Ph +971 4 809 9333
InterContinental Dubai-Festival City
Dubai Festival City
Ph +971 4 701 1111
Things to Do
Ph +971 54 998 8789
Kayaking, hiking through farms/mountains, biking
Entry Adults AED 50 to AED 130 depending on activity/package
Entry Adults 200 AED, Kids 100 AED
The Green Planet
Entry Adults AED 95, Kids AED 70
Dubai Parks & Resorts
Entry MotionGate AED 235, VIP AED 595, 11am-10pm
Bollywood Parks Dubai
Entry Q-Fast AED 100 onwards, 4pm-12
Ripe Organic Food & Craft Market
Dubai Aquarium & Underwater Zoo
Ground & Level 2, The Dubai Mall
Mall of the Emirates
Where to Eat
The Meat Co.
Souk Madinat Jumeirah, Jumeirah, Promenade Area
Ph +971 4 368 6040 www.themeatco.com
Choix-Patisserie & Restaurant
Ph +971 4 701 1136
InterContinental Dubai-Festival City
Carnival by Tresind
Level POD, Burj Daman, DIFC
Ph +971 4 421 8665 www.carnivalbytresind.com
Renaissance Downtown Hotel, Dubai
Ph +971 4 512 5577 www.morimotodubai.com
Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared in Deccan Herald newspaper on 17 Sep, 2019.