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
Sunday 29 January 2006
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.
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