For a complete change of pace and scenery, a day-trip out to the sedate desert city of AL AIN, some 130km inland from Dubai on the border with Oman, offers the perfect antidote to the rip-roaring pace of life on the coast. The UAE’s fourth largest city and only major inland settlement, Al Ain – and the twin city of BURAIMI, on the Omani side of the border – grew up around the string of six oases whose densely packed swathes of palms still provide the modern city with one of its most attractive features. The city served as an important staging post on trading routes between Oman and the Gulf, a fact attested to by the numerous forts that dot the area and by the rich archeological remains found in the vicinity, evidence of continuous settlement dating back to Neolithic times. In 2011 Al Ain was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site – the first in the UAE – on account of the historical and cultural significance of its oases, ancient falaj irrigation systems and archeological remnants.
Al Ain is actually part of Abu Dhabi emirate and is also celebrated as the birthplace of Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al Nahyan, Abu Dhabi’s revered former ruler and first president of the UAE, who served as the city’s governor before taking over the reins of power in Abu Dhabi in 1966. Al Ain’s verdant, tree-lined streets are evidence of Sheikh Zayed’s obsession with “greening” the desert, while the string of shady oases which dot the area has led to its popular moniker as the Gulf’s Garden City. Al Ain’s slightly elevated position also makes it a popular summer retreat for wealthy Emiratis on account of the less humid air, although in truth you’re unlikely to notice much difference.
There are plenty of low-key attractions here to fill up a day or overnight trip including the old-fashioned Al Ain National Museum, the idyllic Al Ain Oasis and a string of mud-brick forts including the beautifully restored Al Jahili Fort. The largely unspoilt desert scenery surrounding Al Ain is home to a further smattering of sights, including the Hili Archeological Park, the state-of-the-art Al Ain Zoo and the craggy summit of Jebel Hafeet. It’s also reasonably straightforward to hop across the border to visit the Omani city of Buraimi, home to a pair of fine forts and a bustling string of souks.