A return to the Emirates: Mishal Husain's journey back to the UAE was a family holiday with a difference
Saturday 08 May 2010
A trip down memory lane is a little tricky if, like me, yours was an expatriate childhood. Mine was spent in the United Arab Emirates – 10 happy years from 1975, when I was two years old – which makes it the first home I can remember. But the UAE isn't somewhere I pass through much these days and my friends from there are scattered across the globe. Even if I did venture back, the ever-changing urban landscape is more than likely to have rendered once-familiar locations unrecognisable.
Perhaps that's why I'm envious of my husband's close links with his past. His parents have lived in the same south-east London house for 35 years, they have had the same basic telephone number for even longer, and our children feed the ducks in the same Blackheath pond once frequented by their father and aunt.
By contrast, the house I lived in with my parents and brother in Abu Dhabi was long ago razed. We had gone there because my father, then a young doctor, was setting up a specialist urological department in what must have been one of the UAE's first hospitals. It was a newborn nation, with seven emirates forging a union as an 80-year British protectorate came to an end in 1971. But its prospects were good: oil had already brought great riches, particularly for Abu Dhabi, blessed with the largest reserves.
Despite that, it was a relatively conservative, old-fashioned place in the mid-1970s, especially in comparison with its sister emirate, Dubai. Even then, that was where the attractions were. For us, the pinnacle of Dubai high life was the ice-skating rink in one of the big hotels, but today you can go skiing, visit the world's tallest building (the Burj Khalifa), or try the water park at Atlantis – the hotel perched at the crown of the now somewhat discredited Palm development.
Then, as now, the UAE seemed to be dominated by south Asians of all walks of life – testament to the Gulf's long trading links with the Indian subcontinent. Everyone from advisers to the sheikh to shopkeepers to labourers seemed to hail from India or Pakistan, with the taxi driver corps dominated by Pashtuns from the North-West Frontier. They were known as men with a strong sense of community – if one died, the others would collect money to fly the body home and compensate the family for their loss of income – and they would never, ever, accept a fare from my Urdu-speaking mother.
But my favourite memories do not lie in the cities but in the open air of the Arabian night. My parents were keen to soak up all that their new home had to offer, particularly its landscape and history. As often as possible, we would escape to the UAE's eastern coast, far less populated than the Gulf, and in my view far more scenic.
The spot they favoured was in the emirate of Fujairah, just along the Gulf of Oman coast from a small town called Khor Fakkan. There, we spent many happy weekends camping in a cove accessible only by scrambling over a steep rocky hillside, or from the sea.
These were the defining experiences of my childhood, but there are few common threads between them and the London lives of my own five-year-old and his three-year-old twin brothers. Despite that, I was keen for the boys to gain a sense of what those camping trips were like: the warm sand underfoot, the brilliance of the clear night sky and the knowledge that camels are not only found in London Zoo. It was time to introduce them to the desert.
We flew to Dubai, and stayed for a night at the vast and lovely One & Only Royal Mirage hotel, one of those places you really don't want to leave. From the moment the staff offered the boys a ride on the luggage trolley, I knew we were in good hands. Our fabulously comfortable suite was in the Arabian Court, surrounded by manicured lawns which just happened to include a small children's playground and the Eau Zone restaurant, cleverly built to appear as if it was floating above the swimming pool.
The hotel has far more to offer than we could experience in our 24 hours there. I had a hard time dragging the boys away, though they were consoled by each receiving a cuddly camel from the staff (and another luggage-trolley ride back to the lobby). Luckily for my tribe, we wouldn't be roughing it for the rest of the trip. For all my talk of simplicity, I'd decided that the luxury theme might do rather nicely. For us, the desert would be more tented villa than tent: seclusion but with room service.
We headed north to Ras Al Khaimah, described as an "up and coming" emirate, which has skilfully made up for its lack of oil reserves by developing successful ceramics and pharmaceutical industries. There are fewer expatriates here than elsewhere in the UAE, but attractions such as the top-class Al Hamra golf club are tempting weekenders up from Dubai.
Our destination was just inland from the coast: the Banyan Tree Al Wadi resort, set within Ras Al Khaimah's nature reserve. This is a sprawling "all-pool villa" concept, the latest offering from the Singapore-based luxury chain, with 101 desert villas across a 100-hectare site. Ours was one of the tented villas, built on a platform nestled among the dunes, with a decent-sized pool set in a wooden deck looking out on to the reserve. It's the kind of place where you don't have to see another soul if you don't want to – there's no central pool, and in the heat of the day most guests are ferried around in buggies.
Seclusion en famille was just fine with us – the kids' club wasn't yet up and running but the boys were fully occupied chasing each other around the deck and down on to the sand. We didn't regret not being near the sea, but if the beach is more your thing, there are identical tented villas at another Banyan Tree site along the coast – perfect if you are a golfer, as it's on the doorstep of the 18-hole championship course at Al Hamra, also managed by the hotel.
Gazing out from our villa, the desert was as I remembered it: low dunes, with the odd tree here and there, and a scattering of green shrubbery because of the winter rain. The main buildings of the hotel have been built in the same reddish colour as the sand, so they blend in as much as possible with the landscape.
You can choose to take all your meals in the privacy of your villa (the Middle Eastern and Thai dishes on offer were particularly good), but otherwise the main block houses the Al Waha restaurant and the wonderful Moon Bar, with an upper terrace where you can indulge in a shisha under the stars.
Within the site, the hotel places great emphasis on the desert ecosystem and wildlife, which you can experience on foot or by borrowing some mountain bikes – adult and children's sizes are available. We booked a nature walk with one of the resident guides, Indonesian-born Jefri, who showed the boys how to differentiate between the various animal tracks in the sand, and got them beetle-spotting. I thought back to the snakes and scorpions that were a regular feature of my childhood camping trips, and was relieved to come across neither.
But the gazelles were a treat: an entire herd being reintroduced by the hotel to what would once have been their natural habitat. The aim is to have both gazelles and oryx roaming freely across the site, giving guests a sense of the richness of the desert eco-system.
The boys were encouraged to help with feeding and set off with a bucket of greens, coaxing the delicate animals to approach tentatively from the other side of their enclosure.
The camels on the site are the responsibility of a specialist trainer, Sarab, who grew up in very similar terrain in southern Pakistan, and who will look after you if you fancy a ride. I have only the vaguest recollection of ever doing this as a child, and had certainly forgotten how hair-raising it is when your seated camel pulls itself up and sets off. But the boys were delighted – hoisted up one at a time to join me for a quick back and forth on the thankfully placid creature.
But there is one species almost synonymous with the desert way of life, though it is not actually native. Although falconry has been popular in Arabia for millennia, expert Peter Bergh told us there was no such thing as an "Arabian falcon". The tradition apparently began with Arabs catching migrating birds in the winter, then sending them on their way again as the intense summer heat set in.
Today, prized falcons can sell for $2m (£1.3m). If you have never seen a falconry display, it's well worth it. Pete, who hails from South Africa, talked us through the skills involved and then put them to the test, sending his birds hurtling through the sky at breakneck speed and then swooping down for their prey (on the menu today: quail).
At the weekends, the nature reserve surrounding the Banyan Tree gets busier with picnicking families. But for us, it was an enticing, get-away-from-it-all destination – once here, the idea of venturing even into Ras Al Khaimah town seemed a great effort.
I still had a mission, though: to get back to our old camping spot at Khor Fakkan and see how it had changed. I wasn't even sure I would recognise it, although I did remember one lone hotel along the same stretch of coastline. If that building was still standing, it would be my landmark.
We set off from Ras Al Khaimah towards the east, watching the land become more rugged, with craggy hills lying between the sea and the road. This was now a different emirate – Fujairah – which was clearly in the process of rapid development, with new hotels coming up and land being reclaimed from the sea. It remains a popular area for holidays because of its relatively temperate climate for the UAE, but it is also of historical interest – travellers through the ages have passed by, thanks to the nearby trading port of Dibba.
I was on the lookout for an old mosque my mother remembered, but was unprepared for just how old the building in question would be. She was referring to the mud-brick, four-domed Al Bidiya Mosque, which I discovered dates from the 15th century, making it the UAE's oldest surviving house of worship.
It's also possibly the smallest – taking just 30 people at prayer times. In recent years both the V C mosque and the ruins on the hillside above have been restored, with signs put up to make passers-by aware of their rich heritage.
But I still needed to find our cove. Driving further south, I found my landmark – the Oceanic Hotel, rather smaller than it had seemed to my child's eye. From its terrace, I could see what had to be our camping spot: a beach almost encircled by the black rock. But reaching it was another matter. I remembered a footpath of sorts that took us up the hillside and down to the beach the other side, but no one seemed to know where it began.
It seemed I would only be able to trace my footsteps this far. But back along the road there was a similar, easily accessible stretch of beach, where we joined a local family already settled with their picnic lunch. Sitting there, more memories came back to me: looking for hermit crabs in the rockpools with my brother while my father pitched the tent and built the campfire and my mother threaded marinated chicken on to skewers.
I looked at my eldest son, Rafael, now about the same age as my brother was when we started coming to Khor Fakkan. As I started to explain about our hermit crab races (choose one, draw a starting line in the sand and set them off to see whose is fastest), I found one at the water's edge. (Fortunately, the only other form of life I remember from these waters – jellyfish – were nowhere to be seen.)
Back at the Banyan Tree, they kindly offered to recreate the desert camping experience for us, building a campfire next to the villa and producing age-appropriate accompaniments: marshmallows for the children to toast, and a shisha for their parents.
The years seemed to melt away. In 2010 we may have enjoyed more creature comforts, but the essence of the desert was the same: the stars were still bright, the sand warm, the firelight magical, and the silence of the dunes still captivating.
Mishal Husain is a news presenter for BBC TV
Travel essentials: UAE
* The writer travelled with Carrier (0161 491 7630; carrier.co.uk ), which offers a seven-night holiday at the One&Only Royal Mirage and Banyan Tree Al Wadi from £4,600 for a family of four. The price includes British Airways flights from Heathrow to Dubai, transfers, two nights' half board at the One&Only Royal Mirage and five nights' B&B for the price of four at the Banyan Tree Al Wadi. Valid for travel between 3 June and 30 September.
* Dubai is served by Emirates (0844 800 2777; emirates.com/uk ) from Heathrow, Gatwick, Birmingham, Manchester, Newcastle and Glasgow. British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com ), Virgin Atlantic (0844 874 7747; virgin-atlantic.com ) and Royal Brunei (020-7584 6660; bruneiair.com ) all fly from Heathrow.
* Oman Air (08444 822 309; omanair.com ), which flies from Heathrow to Muscat, has recently launched connecting flights to Ras Al Khaimah.
* One&Only Royal Mirage, Jumeirah Beach, Dubai, UAE (00 971 4 399 9999; oneandonlyresorts.com ).
* Banyan Tree Al Wadi, Al Mazraa, Ras Al Khaimah, UAE (00 971 7 206 7777; banyantree.com ).
* Ras Al Khaimah Tourism: 00 971 7 244 5125; raktourism.com
* Dubai Tourism: 00 971 4 282 1111; dubaitourism.ae
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