Traveller's Guide To: United Arab Emirates

Ultra-modern malls meet mosques, mountains and markets in this oil-rich corner of the Middle East.

What and where?

The United Arab Emirates is a federation of seven states, roughly the size of Scotland but a lot sandier. It sits between Oman and Saudi Arabia in the east of the Arabian Peninsula. The Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman – plus the Strait of Hormuz, which splits the UAE from Iran – cut the country into a rough triangle (though Oman's Musandam exclave commands the tip of the landmass).

However, despite their unity as one national body – and the fact that the borders that "divide" them are incredibly complicated but almost invisible – each emirate has its own individual legal system, government and character. Abu Dhabi is the powerhouse in both wealth and size (it makes up six-sevenths of the country). Dubai, the most celebrated of the seven thanks to its incredible construction boom over the last two decades, is the most populous.

Sharjah is the only emirate to boast coastline on both sides of the country, and pushes itself as a cultural centre. Ras al-Khaimah, the most northerly emirate, is a relatively poor relation, bereft of oil. Ajman (the smallest) and Umm al-Quwain are more modest pockets on the west coast. Fujairah, meanwhile, resides somewhat sleepily on the east coast.

A bit of history?

Evidence indicates human presence in the region as early as 5000BC, and trade with Mesopotamia to the north (copper) from about 3000BC. The Portuguese took control in the 16th and 17th centuries, but the British held sway during the 19th, establishing a loose network of protectorates that soothed relations between the rival sheikhdoms.

The UAE, though, is a country born of oil. "Black gold" was discovered in Abu Dhabi in 1958 (and in Dubai five years later), precipitating a move towards independence. When the main treaty with Britain expired in December 1971, Abu Dhabi – seeking manpower and solidarity to ward off possible incursion from Saudi Arabia – formed a union with Dubai, and extended the same invitation to the five other neighbouring sheikhdoms.

Where should I start?

While recent news reports suggest that Dubai's financial foundations may not be as sturdy as assumed, this dazzling emirate remains the obvious place to begin a tour of the UAE. Not least because its airport, as the largest air hub in the Middle East, is accessible non-stop from six UK airports: Heathrow, Gatwick, Birmingham, Manchester, Newcastle and Glasgow.

As an emirate, Dubai is roughly the size of Cornwall, much of it raw desert. But it is its coastal capital city (also called Dubai) that is the main draw for visitors.

Landmarks are plentiful, and, often, hugely impressive. The Palm Jumeirah, the first of three planned developments on reclaimed land (palmjumeirah.ae), is breathtaking in size and ambition, if not necessarily beauty. It can be explored by the monorail that runs up its spine: return tickets cost 25 dirhams (Dh25/£4) from Gateway station on the mainland.

The Burj Al Arab, the sail-shaped hotel that has come to symbolise the rise of Dubai, is visible for miles around (though you need a room reservation to get past the gatehouse: 00 971 4 301 7777; jumeirah.com ). Then there is the Burj Khalifa, the world's tallest building, which opened with a flourish this week.

Shopping is almost a religion. And while the shops themselves tend to be familiar global names, the sheer number of them in the Dubai Mall (1,200, making it the largest mall on the planet – 00 971 4 437 3200; thedubaimall.com ) and the Mall of the Emirates (a "mere" 472 – 00 971 4 409 9000; malloftheemirates.com ) is astonishing. That the latter also boasts Ski Dubai (00 971 4 409 4101; skidxb.com ), an indoor snowdome with five ski runs, sums up Dubai's anything-goes state of mind.

And beyond Dubai's malls and hotels?

Try the immediate vicinity of the Creek (Khor Dubai), crossed constantly by abras (ferries). On the southern side (Bur Dubai), the Dubai Museum provides surprising insights into the history of the emirate from within the Al Fahidi Fort – a late-18th-century structure that is the oldest in the city. Exhibits cover dhow construction, the region's tradition of pearl fishing and Bedouin culture, while a fascinating set of black-and-white photos shows the city as it was in the 1920s (00 91 4 353 1862; dubaitourism.ae , Dh3/50p).

A short walk away, the cool, shady Bastakiya district ( souqalbastakiya.com ) throws out an arty ambience from its nest of alleyways, courtyard hotels, small restaurants and galleries.

On the north bank of the waterway, known as Deira, the Gold Souk (Souk Deira Street and Al Souk) tries to conjure up a genuine Arabian market in its corridor of modern jewellery outlets – and partly achieves it with the calls of the owners. Similarly, the Spice Souk (Sikkat Al Khail Road) hints at authenticity in its aroma of cardamom and cinnamon. And the rich neighbours?

Abu Dhabi is getting much more accessible thanks to the rapidly expanding national airline, Etihad. The hub is the city of the same name (a metropolis that is also capital of the country as a whole). Visitors should certainly see the Sheikh Zayed Mosque ( visitabudhabi.ae ), a marble miracle of 57 domes, the largest mosque in the UAE. Unusually for the UAE, it is open to non-Muslims (tours 10am, Sun-Thurs; open for unguided visits on Saturdays, 9am-noon).

East of the city, Yas Island is a work in progress that will feature theme parks, golf courses and malls. But the star attraction is already finished: the futuristic 21-corner Yas Marina Circuit, which staged the first Abu Dhabi Grand Prix in November. Next door, the petrol-head fantasy that is Ferrari World will come armed with roller coasters and high-speed driving experiences when it launches later this year ( yasisland.ae ).

Directly to the west, Saadiyat Island will raise the stakes even further when it opens outposts of the Louvre in 2012 and the Guggenheim in 2013. On the far eastern side of the emirate, tight to the border with Oman, Abu Dhabi has a second city. Al Ain is a flat, sparse place, but interesting for the Bedouin economics of its Camel Souk (in the Meyzad district – camels from Dh500/£84), and the sweat, and stench of Al Wathba Race Track, where the "ships of the desert" go head to head.

Outside the cities?

Much of the UAE is wildly beautiful. On the outskirts of Al Ain, for example, Jebel Hafeet rears to 1,240m. It isn't the tallest peak in the UAE, but it is the best-known, thanks to the dual carriageway that – in money-no-object Emirati fashion – sweeps drivers to the top. That the road ends in a car park blasted from the rock does not diminish the view, out across plains of dust.

The main mountain range is the Hajar (which translates as "Stone Mountains", which wells up in Musandam and blazes a jagged path south. Hard to explore on foot (trails for visitors are non-existent), they are nevertheless visually striking. The road that links Hatta (in Dubai) and Kalba (in Sharjah) is a thing of wonder, slicing through sandstone via tunnels and hairpin bends – while these lofty crags are also a moody presence next to the east coast's Highway 99.

Historical sights?

Frustratingly few, although you can find fragments of the past in nearly every emirate. Al Ain V C has the best example of a Bronze Age tomb: at the Hili Archaeological Park ( adach.ae ) – even if the circular structure, from the third millennium BC, has been completely reconstructed. The Shimal tombs, a burial site of similar vintage, 8km north-east of the city of Ras al-Khaimah, are worth a detour. Assorted artefacts and context can be unearthed in the National Museum of Ras al-Khaimah (00 971 7 2333411; raktourism.com , Dh3/50p), which squats within the one-time royal palace.

Considering that it was formerly Julfar, a port visited by Marco Polo in 1272, the city of Ras al-Khaimah can be disappointing. But it has a lone jewel. Jazeera Al Hamra, a pearl-diving village abandoned when the Sixties oil boom kicked in, is superbly eerie – a mini Pompeii of coral-stone homes. No signs identify it, but it lies a mile west of the highway from Ras al-Khaimah to Sharjah, behind the modern Jazeera Al Hamra district.

Otherwise featureless, Fujairah City proffers "Old Fujairah", a dilapidated mud-brick hamlet, which is being restored as a "heritage village". It lurks beneath a largely 16th-century fort, founded locally but expanded by the Portuguese (uaeinteract.com/ culture). On the opposite coast, the Ajman Museum (00 971 6 742 3824; am.gov.ae , Dh3/50p) is more extensive, with a slab of material on pearl-diving inside another ex-royal palace.

Sharjah: worth a visit?

Certainly, and it is easy to reach from neighbouring Dubai. The third-largest emirate makes a better fist of showcasing itself, thanks to the Heritage District of Sharjah City, where some 17 museums of varying quality are clustered into what remains of the old town. Bait Al Naboodah – the preserved 19th-century home of a pearl-trading dynasty (00 971 6 568 1738; sharjahmuseums.ae , Dh5/80p) – is a must-see, with its cool chambers laid out around a sun-flayed courtyard.

The Museum of Islamic Civilisation (00 971 6 565 5455; islamicmuseum.ae ; Dh10/£1.70), meanwhile, is a cut above any other museum in the UAE. There is a hint of Paris's Musée d'Orsay in the way it has been slotted into a cavernous Eighties souk, and its many exhibits explain 1,400 years of Islamic history in commendable depth.

Ultimately, Sharjah City is the place to visit if you want to catch a glimpse of life in the UAE beyond the oil-boom façade – especially at the harbour on Corniche Street (where wooden dhows unload after the short voyage from Iran), and in the Blue Souk (King Faisal Street), where the locals shop without much sign of millionaire excess.

What about adventure?

Go inland and the UAE becomes a mass of orange powder. Gulf Ventures specialises in dune-driving, where you blast over monumental piles of sand in a 4WD – as well as quad-biking on the same surface. A four-hour session of both activities in Dubai or Sharjah costs Dh1,650 (£276) per 4WD (maximum six people). On a more romantic note, a sunset "dune dinner" for two comes to Dh450 (£75) per person ( gulfventures.ae ).

The two Gulfs are warm playgrounds for underwater exploration. Divers Down does courses (from Dh250/£42) at Khor Fakkan on the east coast of Sharjah (00 971 9 237 0299; diversdown-uae.com ), while Arabian Diver performs the same routine in Ras Al-Khaimah (00 971 7236 3102; arabiandiver.com , courses from Dh360/£60).

Can I just flop on a beach?

Yes, but only in select places. Although the UAE has more than 2,000km of beach, Jumeirah Beach in Dubai is the only public stretch where Western-style sunbathing is tolerated. Sharjah Beach and Ajman Beach are two parts of the same lovely west-coast crescent, but swimming and any sort of nudity are alien concepts in the UAE, so if you want to top up your tan, you need a hotel beach.

The Kempinski Ajman (00 971 6 714 5555; kempinski.com/ajman ) occupies a fine spot on Ajman Beach. The Cove Rotana does likewise in Ras al-Khaimah (00 971 7 206 6000; rotana.com ).

The best public east-coast beach is at Khor Fakkan in Sharjah, but the usual rules apply. The hotel beaches in Fujairah are at Al Aqah, including at the Rotana Fujairah (00 971 9 244 9888).

Tall storeys: Burj Khalifa

The Empire State Building. The Petronas Towers. Lincoln Cathedral. The list of those buildings that have been ranked as the tallest in the world gained a new number one on Monday this week with the official opening of the Burj Dubai ( burjdubai.com), now renamed the Burj Khalifa in honour of the current president of the UAE. Five years and £2.5bn in the constructing, this 828-metre (2,717ft) skyscraper supersedes its predecessor – the Taipei 101 tower in Taiwan – by an astonishing 309 metres.

The building's 162 floors will be portioned into apartments and offices, while the low levels will hold the Armani Hotel. But most of interest to tourists will be "At The Top", a viewing platform on the 124th floor (at 440m). That its name is not strictly accurate is unlikely to affect demand for tickets.

Island of culture Saadiyat

If the Burj Khalifa is an emblem of Dubai's cloud-bursting aspirations, Saadiyat Island ( saadiyat.ae) is the testing ground of Abu Dhabi's artistic goals. It is currently a hard-hat site – a dreamscape (right) of commercial and residential property due to be completed by 2018. But the two cherries on its shiny top are neither offices nor hotels.

Plans for the Louvre Abu Dhabi have not met with total approval in France, where art critics have been muttering that "museums are not for sale". But with its opening pencilled in for 2012, this offshoot of Paris's great gallery is destined to be popular.

And it has a rival. The Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, currently being designed by Frank Gehry as one of his classically stunning jumbles, is set to follow in 2013. For those who cannot wait, a small exhibition that explains the thinking behind this new modern art showcase – and displays a clutch of works by the likes of Kandinsky and Pollock – is on show at the city's Emirates Palace hotel ( emiratespalace. com) until 4 February.

Travel essentials: United Arab Emirates

When to go

* The UAE is at its coolest during the European winter, offering temperatures in the low twenties. By contrast, June, July and August can be brutally hot, with the mercury roaring into the fifties.

Getting there

* Emirates (0844 800 2777; emirates.com) flies to Dubai from London Heathrow, London Gatwick, Birmingham, Manchester, Newcastle and Glasgow. Etihad (0800 731 9384; etihadairways.com) flies to Abu Dhabi from Heathrow and Manchester. British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com) flies to Dubai and Abu Dhabi from Heathrow. Virgin Atlantic (08705 747 747; virgin-atlantic.com) flies to Dubai from Heathrow. Other airlines can offer connecting services.

* Plenty of companies offer packages. Cox & Kings (020-7873 5000; coxandkings.co.uk) operates a one-week "Emirates Explorer" private journey by chauffeur-driven car that takes in all seven emirates. Prices begin at £1,595 per person, including flights with BA, breakfast, transfers and excursions. Explore (0845 013 1537; explore.co.uk) and Bales Worldwide (0845 057 1819; balesworldwide.com) also offer tours of the UAE.

Money

* The United Arab Emirates dirham is legal tender across all seven of the emirates, and is valued at roughly six to the pound.

Getting around

* Public transport is almost non-existent in a country that relies heavily on the car. Holiday Autos (0870 400 4468; holidayautos.co.uk), Hertz (08708 448 844; hertz.co.uk) and Avis (0844 581 0147; avis.co.uk) all do car hire in the UAE.

Staying there

* For pure kitsch value, spend a night at the gold-plated Emirates Palace in Abu Dhabi (00 971 2 690 9000; emiratespalace.com). Rooms start from Dh1,386 (£236). For a less expensive option in Dubai, try the Al Murooj Rotana (00 971 4 321 1111; rotana.com) – rooms start from Dh550 (£94).

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