Fujairah: full of eastern promise

You've heard of Dubai. Even Abu Dhabi. But what about Fujairah? It doesn't trip off the tongue of even a seasoned traveller. Yet this little Emirate could be the next big story from the region. Sankha Guha heads for the sun to test this desert state's brand of beachfront luxury

There comes a point in the British winter when the need for personal warming overcomes my best intentions on global warming. Pitted against the onslaught of January's corrosive damp, how long can the pieties of carbon footprints and aviation emissions hold? My flesh is weak, my bones are cold and, even as the ice caps melt, I am screaming for the sun.

So I find myself on a flight to Dubai and onward to the emirate of Fujairah to claim a tiny patch of beach on the Indian Ocean that has my name written on it. The round trip is more than 7,000 miles; my footprint is measured in gigatonnes of ugly stuff; in my desperation for a glimpse of life-affirming sunshine I have become the enemy of the earth. To cap it all I am wreaking this environmental havoc for a mere weekend's respite from the discontent of my winter.

Fujairah does not trip readily off the tongues of even the most seasoned travellers. It is part of the United Arab Emirates. But here is a question that would stump most contestants on Who wants to be a millionaire?: can you name the seven states in the UAE? For the record they are Abu Dhabi (no need to "Phone a Friend"), Dubai (not a candidate for "Ask the Audience"), then it gets harder - Sharjah, Ajman, Umm al-Qaiwain, Ra's al-Khaimah and by the time you get to Fujairah you really are clueless.

The state has a population of about 118,000. It has two distinguishing features - it is the only emirate to have a coastline on the Indian Ocean, instead of the Gulf, and (whichever god is responsible for doling out fossil fuel deposits was having a laugh) it has no oil. This is a country where roundabouts constitute major attractions - they are featured prominently in tourism pamphlets and guidebooks. As we skirt one in the small town of Dibba I can make out a cluster of sculpted two-storey-high water jugs on the central island. In Paris they have the Arc de Triomphe, in London Nelson's Column and in Fujairah they have outsize kitchen utensils.

I am getting a sinking feeling - or possibly a kitchen-sink feeling. Then we sweep into the driveway of Le Meridien Al Aqah resort - the flight took seven hours, the transfer a further two hours; it is 2am when I arrive. This had better be good.

As I am ushered through the door of the executive suite on the corner of the 18th floor, waves of happiness wash over me. It is amazing how quickly the misery of the journey fades to a bad dream when the accommodation has two bathrooms, a colossal living room, a bedroom, a walk-in closet, a kitchen, one balcony facing the front and, along the side, a terrace large enough to raise a family of goats. My "room" has an area of 100 square metres. Even so, I am told, by the standards of hotels in the region this is not outrageous luxury. I am easily pleased.

There is a fruit mountain on the table in the living room - including such exotica as rambutans, mangosteens, star fruit, cape gooseberries and ... strawberries. They grow strawberries in the desert? As I nod off on a vast, divinely upholstered bed, the sound of the waves gently breaking on the shore of the Indian Ocean is drifting up. It seems anything is possible here. All you have to do is dream it.

I reckon the hotel complex came to the Sheikh of Fujairah in a particularly feverish dream. In the morning it becomes clear just how isolated the gleaming 22-storey hotel is - it stands like a computer-generated mirage surrounded by precisely nothing. Staring down from the 18th floor at the stark slagheap mountains that rise immediately across the road, or down the barren coast, it strikes me that you have to choose which reality you want to believe in - the landscape or the resort.

In its own way the breakfast buffet is straining to span these contradictions - Beef Bacon and Chicken Sausage are on offer. This is what happens when Sharia law shares space with beach hedonism. One table, set aside from the rest, is labelled "Pork Corner" - presumably for those degenerate infidels who have no truck with Beef Bacon.

For guests, life at the resort revolves around water. Most probably don't venture further than the loungers that line the three blob-shaped pools. But I feel duty bound to check out the dive centre. Being borderline hydrophobic I opt to snorkel, imagining fondly that this is the least stressy way of getting wet. When the dive instructor, Brett, starts hauling out neoprene wet suits, flippers and hi-tech goggles I have to suppress a mild panic reflex.

We are not apparently going to have a little five-minute splash about in the shallows but need to board a speedboat that will take us 45 minutes up the coast to explore a marine reserve on the coral reefs of "Snoopy" Island. Brett is a chisel-jawed Zimbabwean who has fetched up in Fujairah - a kind of high-end refugee. Something in his looks and fast-talking, wise-cracking style puts me in mind of Jim Carrey. One of his well-worked lines is "We will probably see a few sharks, but don't worry they are all vegetarian". Pause, and pay off: "They only eat vegetarians".

Very funny, I assure him, as I fight a surge of nausea. Snoopy Island is so called because from the correct angle it looks like the famous cartoon character; however, bobbing around on the coral reef that nuance is lost on me. Once in the water the buoyancy of the wet suit reassures me, but this little grain of confidence vanishes when Brett says the swell is high and the undercurrent is strong. Bring on the sharks.

To say I am snorkelling is perhaps gilding the waterlily - I splash, I flail and I ingest large quantities of salt water. Between urgent gulps of air I look down and see fabulous patterned fish grazing on the reef - stripes, bold patches of yellow and blue, iridescent electric colours - darting in and around the bushes of purple coral that rise from the ocean floor. It is transcendentally beautiful and quite soothing, in the micro-moments when I am not fighting the swell. Then I see the shark - it is large, large enough to take a chunk of my leg if it fancied. I look on fascinated, admiring the fluent and strong undulations of its body as it glides beneath me. I am quite calm - partly because I remind myself it is "vegetarian" but principally because there is nothing I can do about anything. The shark senses my presence on the surface and with a rapid flick of its tail speeds off into the murk like a bullet. I shudder to think what it might feel like if the fish was coming the other way.

"Black-tipped reef shark," says Brett authoritatively when I break the surface. I am spitting salt water, but nod appreciatively.

The normal order is restored at the outdoor brasserie over lunch: I eat fish, not the other way around. On the sound system J-Lo is warbling "Jenny from the Block" - the anthem of material girls everywhere. "I'm still, I'm still Jenny from the block. Used to have a little, now I have a lot."

An Englishwoman two tables away seems to have a lot - but it's not enough. The plate set before her is piled high with seafood but she is counting the prawns. Her husband is absently twiddling with his BlackBerry. In an elocuted voice that doesn't quite conceal a West Country rusticity she calls the waiter over and complains the prawn quota is not up to her standards. Her husband is now super-absorbed in his electronic toy.

The sun is up and the temperature is in the high 20s - the

pool beckons. The water is refreshing and on the lounger I reach for my book. In a rushed moment while packing I had blindly grabbed Francis Wheen's biography of Karl Marx from a pile. It is not ideal for the poolside - my mind wanders too eagerly from young Karl's early flirtations with Hegelian dialectics.

A skimpy 19-year-old bathing babe is parked a few yards to my left. Her lime-green bikini shows off a perfectly toned body; she is wired to an MP3 player and her head is bobbing in time to the invisible beat. Her consort is in his forties and is matching her skimp for skimp - in a bum-cleaving thong thing by Aquascrotum of Pushkin Street. No one has told him that some fashion trends do not travel well. He barks Russian at her. I invent the back story - an oligarch and his plaything? Mafia boss and moll? Politico and mistress? Whatever their narrative is, it seems unlikely that Karl Marx is a favourite of theirs. My book is a solecism. I lower it carefully, cover side down.

Mrs Prawn clumps past, her ample thighs not entirely concealed by the sarong fluttering from her waist. Her royal la-di-da-ness has an air of entitlement about her. She reeks of high maintenance. Her BlackBerried husband is, I fancy, a banker. His face is set in a perma-smirk derived from exercising the black arts of making money from other people's labour. I slide a towel over my book. I will save Karl for another time, another place.

There is a revolution under way in the Gulf. It involves the transformation of the economy from petrodollars to tourist bucks. The emirs, sheikhs and sultans are keenly aware the oil bonanza has to end one day. Dubai is leading the charge with massive investment and infrastructure. Abu Dhabi and Oman are both big players, which leaves tiny Fujairah with some issues.

From my eyrie on the 18th floor through the deepening sky I can see the foundations of a hotel-to-be next door. Another hotel on the opposite flank is opening for business later this year. Half a mile away a marina complex is emerging from the ocean - with a 1,400-room hotel and hundreds of apartments. Within five years the dusty strip of coastline at Al Aqah will be utterly transformed. There will be an awful lot of capacity in the Gulf chasing the big money. You have to wonder: will there be enough oligarchs and bankers to go around?

British Airways Holidays (0870 243 3406; ba.com/ holidayoffers) offers five nights at Le Meridien Al Aqah Beach Resort, Fujairah, from £765 per person, based on two sharing, until 31 March. The price includes return flights from Heathrow to Dubai, transfers and room-only accommodation.

Etiquette in the Emirates: An Insider's Guide

Phew, what a scorcher

The UAE is ideal for winter sun because the days are sunny and warm, with temperatures in the 30s. Visit during the summer months and you can expect daytime temperatures to rocket into the 40s. So year-round, you'll need to slap on plenty of sun cream.

Sleight of hand

If you're dispensing with knives and forks and eating with your hands, make sure you only use the right hand to pick up food. And when you've finished your meal, always leave a little on the plate, otherwise you may find it's refilled by your generous host.

Make mine a double

The norms of Islam govern social behaviour in the Gulf states. Although Muslims are teetotal, you will find alcohol on sale in international bars and restaurants. But remember, during the holy month of Ramadan you can only drink alcohol in your hotel room.

What not to wear

The UAE may be building beach resorts like they're going out of fashion, but outside the hotel you must dress conservatively. Keep upper arms and shoulders covered. Women should cover up to below the knee and put on a headscarf to visit mosques.

It's all in the timing

Friday is the day of rest in the Gulf states, and many offices and shops will shut from Thursday lunchtime - though you may find places open on Friday evening. During Ramadan, don't be surprised to find restrictions and changes to opening hours.

How to spend a pretty penny

Prepare yourself for two very different ways of shopping: browsing around one of the many huge shopping centres, or haggling for a bargain in a souk. And if you can't find what you want, there are always the legendary duty-free malls at the airport.

Get off the road

Even if you're here for a beach holiday, don't miss the chance to go wadi-bashing (off-roading) in the desert. It's great fun and you're guaranteed some brilliant views. But get someone experienced to do the driving and remember to fasten your seat belt.

In the know

You won't find much on the bookshelves about Fujairah. However, 'Insight Guides' has just published a book on Oman and the UAE, price £16.99, which has a healthy section on the little Gulf emirate with tips on what to see and do there.

Sankha's best restaurant

At the hotel's Views restaurant the food is Thai and sufficiently authentic that the green papaya salad will burn a hole in the roof of your mouth. Other successes include the red duck curry. The eponymous views from the terrace are of the hotel pool and are nothing special but manager Angelo (from Sri Lanka) is worth getting to know. He is an absolute charmer, and is ready with a store of anecdotes to humanise the somewhat formal air of the luxury hotel.

Sankha's best roundabout

This is a land where roundabouts have become vehicles - of creativity. The one outside Fujairah City features a splendid giant coffee pot. Some drivers may be convinced they have sunstroke when they first see the 30ft-high traditional coffee pot proudly mounted on a plinth. There are also seven giant coffee cups - just in case a troupe of thirsty giants should chance by.

Sankha's best activity

The hotel spa offers a multitude of pampering opportunities. I went for the Ayurvedic massage. Masseur Sibin Chacko from Cochin in Kerala is the real deal. The attention to detail is impressive - if you've never had your knee caps rubbed you haven't lived. You will come out smelling like a biryani, but it's worth it.

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
techCould new invention save millions in healthcare bills?
Sport
David Moyes gets soaked
sport Moyes becomes latest manager to take part in the ALS challenge
Voices
A meteor streaks across the sky during the Perseid Meteor Shower at a wind farm near Bogdanci, south of Skopje, Macedonia, in the early hours of 13 August
voicesHagel and Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise, says Robert Fisk
News
peopleEnglishman managed quintessential Hollywood restaurant Chasen's
Life and Style
food + drinkHarrods launches gourmet food qualification for staff
Arts and Entertainment
Michael Flatley prepares to bid farewell to the West End stage
danceMichael Flatley hits West End for last time alongside Team GB World champion Alice Upcott
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Life and Style
Horst P Horst mid-fashion shoot in New York, 1949
fashionFar-reaching retrospective to celebrate Horst P Horst's six decades of creativity
News
Members and supporters of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) community walk with a rainbow flag during a rally in July
i100
Life and Style
Black Ivory Coffee is made using beans plucked from elephants' waste after ingested by the animals
food + drinkFirm says it has created the "rarest" coffee in the world
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie T plays live in 2007 before going on hiatus from 2010
arts + entsSinger-songwriter will perform on the Festival Republic Stage
Life and Style
food + drinkThese simple recipes will have you refreshed within minutes
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Oracle 11g SQL 2008 DBA (Unix, Oracle RAC, Mirroring, Replicati

    £6000 - £50000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: Oracle 11...

    Recruitment Consultant (Graduate Trainee), Finchley Central

    £17K OTE £30K: Charter Selection: Highly successful and innovative specialist...

    SQL DBA/ C# Developer - T-SQL, C#.Net

    £45000 - £55000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Working with an exciting ...

    Sales and Office Administrator – Sports Media

    £23,000: Sauce Recruitment: A global leader in sports and entertainment is now...

    Day In a Page

    All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

    Robert Fisk: All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

    Chuck Hagel and Martin Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise
    Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

    Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

    So claims an EU report which points to the Italian Mob’s alleged grip on everything from public works to property
    Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

    Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

    Once the poor relation, the awards show now has the top stars and boasts the best drama
    What happens to African migrants once they land in Italy during the summer?

    What happens to migrants once they land in Italy?

    Memphis Barker follows their trail through southern Europe
    French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

    French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

    The ugly causeway is being dismantled, an elegant connection erected in its place. So everyone’s happy, right?
    Frank Mugisha: Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked

    Frank Mugisha: 'Coming out was a gradual process '

    Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked
    Radio 1 to hire 'YouTube-famous' vloggers to broadcast online

    Radio 1’s new top ten

    The ‘vloggers’ signed up to find twentysomething audience
    David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

    David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

    A blistering attack on US influence on British television has lifted the savvy head of Channel 4 out of the shadows
    Florence Knight's perfect picnic: Make the most of summer's last Bank Holiday weekend

    Florence Knight's perfect picnic

    Polpetto's head chef shares her favourite recipes from Iced Earl Grey tea to baked peaches, mascarpone & brown sugar meringues...
    Horst P Horst: The fashion photography genius who inspired Madonna comes to the V&A

    Horst P Horst comes to the V&A

    The London's museum has delved into its archives to stage a far-reaching retrospective celebrating the photographer's six decades of creativity
    Mark Hix recipes: Try our chef's summery soups for a real seasonal refresher

    Mark Hix's summery soups

    Soup isn’t just about comforting broths and steaming hot bowls...
    Tim Sherwood column: 'It started as a three-horse race but turned into the Grand National'

    Tim Sherwood column

    I would have taken the Crystal Palace job if I’d been offered it soon after my interview... but the whole process dragged on so I had to pull out
    Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

    Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

    Eden Hazard admits he is still below the level of Ronaldo and Messi but, after a breakthrough season, is ready to thrill Chelsea’s fans
    Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

    Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

    The Everton and US goalkeeper was such a star at the World Cup that the President phoned to congratulate him... not that he knows what the fuss is all about
    Match of the Day at 50: Show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition

    Tom Peck on Match of the Day at 50

    The show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition