Located just over an hours drive from Dubai, or two and a half hours from the capital, lies the Emirate of Fujairah. Perhaps one of the UAE’s lesser known tourist destinations, but one that should most definitely not be missed.
Fujairah is a mountainous place and is perfect for lovers of the outdoors with rock climbing and numerous wadi’s just waiting to be explored. Fujairah is the only Emirate on the Indian ocean and is perfect waterspouts, diving or just relaxing on a secluded beach along a 90km stretch of pristine coastline.
During the recent spring break, we decided to take our second trip to this mountainous Emirates for a spot of sightseeing and relaxation.
Travelling on route E88 to Fujairah you will pass through the Friday Market (also know as Souq al Juma) which is a great place to pull over for a snack, a coconut drink or a spot of shopping. The market has everything from colourful plants, right through to fruits and vegetables, Omani sweets, terracotta pottery and household item. It is also said to be one of the best places to purchase a carpet in the UAE, as reasonably prices can be had, so long as you are prepared to haggle.
Masafi’s Friday market began decades ago when Emirati farmers began selling their produce from the back of trucks, following Friday prayers at the local mosque. The market has expanded over time and is now a haven for tourists and local travellers alike and is an interesting stop for cultural immersion on any trip to Fujairah.
The mountainous location of the Masafi market (Masafi is also where one of the UAE’s most popular brands of drinking water comes from, which is understandable as the name Masafi is Arabic for ‘pure water’) has a unique micro climate, due to it’s unusually high rainfall (for the UAE). Meaning that tropical fruits can be grown here, so you are getting the freshest of produce at the very best prices. The sights, sounds and colours of this traditional market are an assault on the senses and make a welcome change from the air-conditioned superficiality of the mega-malls where we would usually shop.
The market spans both sides of the street, but there are many shops selling similar items, so there is little need to cross the busy road unless absolutely necessary. The market is busiest on a Friday morning but actually operates 24/7 and despite parts being destroyed by a recent fire, the market is now resorted and in full swing.
Sandwiched between the Hajar Mountains and Wadi Ham, the mountain road begins it’s decent down towards the coast, but try and make a brief detour to Masafi Fort if you have time. The fort is accessed by following the brown signs diverting you from the main road to the recently restored fort. You don’t need a 4×4 for access, though be aware that the roads are not the greatest, but are passable. The fort contains a remarkable underground falaj system that was used to transport rainwater from the mountains into the oasis town.
Another 10km on the road towards Fujairah, it is worth pulling off the road at the small town of Al Bithnah to explore the fort there. Built in 1735 the fort is the second largest in the Emirate and was the source of battles at the end of the eighteenth century when Al Bithnah was the capital of the Emirate. Much like its counterpart in Masafi, the fort here is accessible via steep dirt tracks but the signage is sparse, so you may find yourself getting lost in the pleasant oasis village where life continues unchanged from the modern world. GPS won’t help you locate the fort, so our tip is to just head downwards at each junction you encounter, as the fort is located at the bottom of Wadi Ham.
The fort comprises a coned watchtower, with three distinct levels. Head to the little hut on the left of the gateway and you can have the fortress unlocked by the key keeper and explore the inside. Once inside you will see a pit used to capture rain water, as well as a steep stone staircase that will take you up to the top of the fort at a hight of approximately twenty meters. There is no signage on site, but the keeper of the key, will happily act as a guide if you so desire. Al Bithnah is well worth the brief detour and the views out over the mountains, valleys and palm oasis are well worth the climb.
Thirteen kilometres on and you will reach the city of Fujairah, a small city with a distinctly industrial feel. Fujairah is a popular weekend retreat for locals due to its beaches, mountainous activities and historical attractions and the city centre is full of reasonably priced hotels, that you can use as your base of exploration. We opted for the Millennium Hotel which is a brand new business hotel, attached to the recently opened Fujairah Mall on the outskirts of town.
The hotel has a nice clean feel, but we were disappointed to find our rooms not ready when we arrived. Not to be deterred, we decided to visit the rooftop pool and use the recreational facilities. The pool is located on the 19th floor and the water itself butts up against large glass windows (infinity sty;e), with views over the Hajar mountains and the airport runway – providing stunning views and thankfully little airport noise. There were a number of minor issues, such as the unavailability of towels (the lifeguard informed us that they had run out) and unfortunately the pool bar was closed.
After a short dip in the perfectly heated waters, our room was ready and we were suitably impressed by what we found. Despite being a business hotel, the rooms were remarkably spacious with a large double bed, a small seating area, immaculate mountain views and a large bathroom, complete with bath tub and gigantic rain water shower. The entire room (lights, AC, television, phone) could be controlled by an iPad which was really handy and meant no lost remotes – oh the joys of travelling with children!
After the journey from Abu Dhabi, we decided to round out day one with a trip to the spa. The use of the spa facilities on the eighteenth floor is included as part of the stay (minus treatments). The facilities, though small, were all very new and much like the pool, the jacuzzi provided the same remarkable views over the mountainous landscape, which was just perfect as the hues of sunset filled the immaculately tiled spa and day transformed into night. Despite being the only user of the spa, we were extremely disappointed to find the jacuzzi full of sand and despite the number of staff (and lack of customers), no one had thought to clean it, which was such a shame. The sauna and steam rooms were superb and after a brief steam we ventured out into the city lights to find a spot of dinner.
Being self-proclaimed foodies, we had done pour research and found a number of restaurants that we wanted to sample in advance. The majority of Fujairah spans out from the Sheikh Khalifa Bin Zayed Road, before hitting the corniche and fanning outwards. At night the numerous skyscrapers are illuminated in neon hues providing the feel of a small scale Las Vegas, which seemed perfectly in keeping when we arrived at Al Meshwar Restaurant. The restaurant looks like an old temple and akin to something that you would find in an Indiana Jones film, as opposed to the sleepy streets of Fujairah.
Al Meshwar is a Fujairah institution, serving up great Lebanese cuisine at very reasonable prices. The restaurant is huge and spans four large levels (cafe, smoking area, family dining and shisha terrace) with the ability to cater to 800 customers at a time. The unique decor continues into the interior, with Roman style columns, fountains, waterfalls and an intricately painted ceiling of galaxies and planets. The decor alone makes for a very special dining experience and thankfully the food matches the ambiance, with complimentary bowls of fluffy bread, olives and hummus, we almost felt like there was no need to order main courses. Eventually we opted for the mixed grill, which was easily enough food for two people (if not more). The beauty of Al Meshwar is it’s extensive menu which is more than just Lebanese cuisine and includes steaks, seafood, sandwiches amongst its plethora of dishes. The prices are very reasonable, the portions large and you can get some of the best shisha you are likely to sample for as just 20 AED.
Day two, we were up early for more exploration and sightseeing. Breakfast al the Millennium Hotel’s Al Rihla Restaurant was surprisingly good – with a large choice of dishes with a firm focus on Arabian flavours. The buffet selection offered everything from cold cuts and an extensive cheese selection, to pancakes, omelettes, cereals and fresh fruits. There was not one breakfast item missing, but once again small things let the Millennium Hotel down. Despite the large number of staff, tables were left uncleaned, and despite guests having to get their own tea and coffee, no one was able to find us a tea spoon despite numerous requests!
It is small elements like this (and the fact that there was no soap or hand towels in the spa) or that Joe’s restaurant and shisha bar (much like the pool bar) remained closed during the duration of our stay, that really let the otherwise excellent hotel down.
The hotel is lovely, the rooms spacious, relaxing and nicely decorated. The staff are exceptionally friendly, yet in the over-saturated UAE hotel market, things like running out of towels at the pool becomes unacceptable. We would certainly return to this hotel again, but despite it’s recent opening, we hope that these issues are ironed out soon.
Our second day in Fujairah began with a trip to Al Hayl Castle which is a bit of an adventure to get to! Ascending back into the Hajar mountains, this time we were not on the highway, but dirt tracks. Our route wound slowly upwards into the craggy peaks as we passed donkeys and crept across small rivers (once again no 4×4 required, so long as it hasn’t rained). Al Hayl is probably the most difficult of the Fujairah attractions to locate and access, but it is also the most rewarding. Passing through a wadi and over a dam, before reaching the strategically placed fort/castle high upon the mountainside.
Also known as the ‘fortress mountain’, Al Hayl is located on the west bank of the valley close to the village bearing the same name. Despite not being that old, the fortress is believed to have been built in the 1930s, the natural landscape and high vantage point are exceptional and we were the only people on site during our visit. The fortress is made of gravel, burnt clay and palm leaves and was restored in 2008.
Behind the fort a stairway runs up the rocky mountain side, taking you towards a standalone watchtower adorned with the UAE flag. Just be aware that Al Hayl is not open on Friday mornings.
We were hoping to visit the Fujairah Fort and Museum, but both were unfortunately closed during our visit (April 2016), though in all honesty, we think that fort-overload was beginning to set in at this point. Instead we decided to head North and visit the oldest mosque in the UAE located in the small village of Al Bidya. Located about forty minutes from Fujairah city, the drive follows the coast and some of the most isolated and natural beaches of the UAE, including Fujairah Public Beach (also known as Umbrella Beach) and the long stretch of sandy coastline in the town of Khorfakkan.
Being in the east of the country, Fujairah’s sandy coast is located on the Gulf of Oman and the beaches are suitably idyllic. Flanked by the Hajar Mountains and beautiful turquoise waters, the beaches are generally isolated and make for the ultimate spot for a relaxing retreat. You can easily pull off the road and find a spot to relax away from any other people, plus for the adventurous outdoorsy types, there is the option to camp.
Al Bidya Mosque is certainly the most popular of Fujairah’s attractions and was buzzing with people when we visited on a Friday afternoon. Located about 35km north of Fujairah on the road to Dibba, the mosque (also known as the Othmanian Mosque) is the oldest in the UAE and is believed to have been constructed in 1446. What is remarkable about the architecture is the fact that no timber was used in its construction, instead one central column in used to support the roof and four domes. The mosque is unique in design as it does not have a minaret and despite its age, it is still a functioning mosque, so ensure you dress respectfully if you plan on visiting.
On the hillside above the mosque are two picturesque defensive watchtowers, which have stunning views over the surrounding coastline, mountains and palm groves.
The last thing on out sightseeing agenda was a unique sport that can only be witnessed at one place in the UAE. Each and every Friday afternoon at around 5pm, people gather on a sandy strip of land close to Fujairah’s corniche, to watch the ancient sport of bull butting. Despite nobody being able to tell us the exact location of the event, it was easy to find, as there were hundreds of spectators gathered to watch large bulls, butting horns.
Despite any preconceptions that you may have, this is not a sport in which the animals are harmed. Rather a competition of strength, in which the gigantic bulls have to push each other out of a marked circle. Much like wrestling, the stronger bull is the winner and they are prized by their owners. Each ‘match’ lasts a couple of minutes and it is impressive to witness the strength of these beasts and the reaction of the crowd, many of whom were perched on top of their gigantic four wheel drive vehicles to garner the best vantage point. Thankfully the arena is fenced, so there is little chance of getting gored by a raging bull.
The bull butting, though not for everyone, is a unique UAE tradition and one that is still being passed down to the younger generation. Judging by the sheer amount of people watching these humpbacked Brahman bulls compete as the sun set, this sport shows no sign of dying out anytime soon.
Now we are not going to lie, we did have one ulterior motive for visiting Fujairah. For months now we have been intrigued by the Instagram account of a small cafe in the city centre, that has become synonymous with the innovative presentation of its food and drink items. Beverages are served in everything from lightbulbs to hospital blood bags, some of the drinks smoke and are presented in a variety of florescent colours. Having seen these images flood our feed, we knew that we couldn’t visit Fujairah without a trip to Finjan Cafe.
From the outside it is nothing special, looking like any backstreet karak tea place you would see in the Emirates and even venturing inside we weren’t sure if we had perhaps been mistaken. Inside there is one table with a couple of chairs and a counter at which you order your food (no sign of innovative gastronomy yet). Though once we were handed the menu by the extremely friendly staff, all our fears faded away as we were overwhelmed by the abundance of choice and the presentation methods
We opted for the dynamite shrimp and chicken (better than P.F. Chang’s), the lotus cheesecake and lotus smash, complete with an extra syringe of lotus sauce. Plus some lightbulbs full of berry soda in funky green and red colouration. This is definitely one of these places where you order from your car and wait for your order to be delivered to you, but despite all the gimmickry, the quality of the food was as good as the pricing. The presentation certainly makes Finjan stand out from the crowd of other similar restaurants and is in turn creating a significant social media buzz, if only Finjan could be franchised for a branch in Abu Dhabi.
All in all out short break to Fujairah was a worthwhile treat and despite the poor weather, it felt good to escape the city and soak up new cultural attractions of this country that we currently call home.
We will certainly return again to explore the mangroves of Kalba and its bird of prey centre, maybe do some diving at Snoopy Island, or relaxing in the natural hot springs, but that is a whole other staycation…
We have included handy a map of everything discussed in this blog post with GPS locations, to help you find them easily.
All views within this blog are our own and all photographs are © Out & About UAE, unless otherwise stated.