The Arabian peninsula isn’t really known for its mountains. So as millions of sunburnt tourists head out into the desert for mediocre food and cheesy bellydancing performances, this rebel decided to continue her journey in the opposite direction – or more specifically, towards Hatta, a sprawling hillside village bordering Oman and fringed by some of the highest peaks on the Arabian peninsula.
First, we stopped by the Sharjah Desert Park, where a single entrance fee allows visitors an access to multiple attractions like a natural history museum, a botanical museum and the Children’s Farm, where you can find domesticated – but not necessarily friendly – animals in stinky enclosures. (I don’t blame them, I’d be ready to bite off an errant child’s finger if I were kept behind a fence too.)
Our kids could easily spend hours feeding the goats and riding on donkeys here – and the husband and I would’ve lingered if we weren’t choking on the smell of poop.
The main drawcard here, however, is the Arabian Wildlife Centre, a unique indoor zoo featuring animal species that are endemic to the Middle East, including a multitude of poisonous scorpions and reptiles that survive on the hot, sandy dunes of Arabia. It made me glad that I’m here instead of picnicking in the desert.
My nervousness soon turned into wonder as I stared into the glass panel that held this small, cartoon-like rodent with massive ears called the jerboa, whose long, springy hind legs enable it to sprint – or rather, hop – up to 24 kms / hour. It was happy to show off, darting about in its enclosure, looking so much like Speedy Gonzalez that I wondered where its sombrero went.
The zoo’s busy cafeteria, with its ugly chairs and tables, was purely functional but it had great views of the Arabian oryxes. We came here with low expectations and were surprised with the decent fried noodles and roti.
We continued on our road trip, past featureless scrublands with little greenery, the distant mountains beckoning to us. Our excitement peaked at the sight of a lone camel crossing the road, reminding us that we were in the land of the bedouins, the desert peoples.
Our hotel, JA Hatta Fort, soon came into view. This gorgeous cluster of low-rise villas nestled among the hills had everything we need and more: a massive swimming pool, playground and, most importantly, mini golf and a games room with air hockey so the children could attempt to take each other’s eyes out with a flying puck when they were not busy trying to bludgeon each other with the golf clubs.
The rooms were light and the furnishings sumptuous, but I spent the first night tossing and turning because two Danish girls had just gotten brutally murdered in the mountains of Morocco and, while we were not anywhere close by, my frazzled brain was working overtime.
Hatta, for one, is worlds apart from Dubai: the place has a rural atmosphere and its residents were more conservative compared to their wealthier, more liberal counterparts. Apart from the few depressed-looking Filipinos and Indonesians working in the hospitality industry here, there were few Asian faces at the time of our visit, apart from those daytripping from Dubai.
But it turned out I needn’t need to worry because the strangest thing happened the next day when we were in Hatta Heritage Village, a fascinating but barely-functioning outdoor museum that shows what life was like in the area many moons ago.
Upon our arrival, a big, burly man, who was sitting down for tea with a group of friends, stood up and welcomed us by getting his assistant to serve us some strong Arabic coffee in a thatched hut. He is from around here, he explained in fluent English, and he works for the tourism department.
“Wait here,” he ordered, as we pondered nervously on his next move.
I was pretty sure he was going to retrieve his scimitar from his car so my jaw nearly detached from my head when he came back with brand-new bubble guns for our two boys instead.
After exchanging some pleasantries and thanking him profusely for his legendary hospitality, we left feeling extremely confused (and pleasantly surprised!), our boys skipping ahead of us with their toys like everything was perfectly normal and they didn’t just meet an Arabic Santa Claus in a country that doesn’t celebrate Christmas (it was only a few days away though).
This brief encounter, however, managed to calm the storm that was raging in my heart since the night before, and we managed to have an enjoyable time whilst learning a thing or two about the people’s culture and customs from the dusty, time-worn exhibits, which included the local rulers’ house ‘Bait al-Wali‘ to the 19th century watchtower.
Granted, several audiovisual guides weren’t working and some of the mannequins on display made me feel like I was on the set of a B-grade horror film, but hey, the museum’s free so we ain’t complaining. #somuchpotential
We also drove to the Hatta Dam, an emerald lake that was artificially built in the 1990s to supply the village with electricity and water.
There are plenty of boats, ranging from the funny-looking water bikes to battery-operated donut boats, that you can rent from Hatta Kayak. We settled for a good ol’ pedalo and had fun, if your idea of fun entails furiously paddling to nowhere, all the while wishing you could just peel off your clothes and dive straight in.
We were, however, glad to see our kids having a blast just dipping their feet in the water – so the residents of Hatta can thank them for their feet-flavored water.
That evening, we visited the new Hatta Wadi Hub by Meraas – the same developer behind the iconic Burj Khalifa and the Dubai Mall – and I was shook to see how cool and contemporary this activity park and its accommodation were.
While Hatta’s other attractions were low-key and, frankly, exciting enough to send the average thrill-seeker and adventure-lover to snoozeland, Hatta Wadi Hub and the Damani Lodges Resort is set to be a game changer, with its ziplines, mountain bike trails and rope obstacles, among others. In other words, you could do this:
Or even this:
But of course, the kids made a beeline for the on-site playground, where massive trampoline nets loomed above our heads like giant spiderwebs. I reluctantly tagged along, but it soon became apparent that this wasn’t merely child’s play. I crawled my way like an overgrown baby to the middle of the net, and freaked out as soon as I looked earthwards and wondered if the ropes could support this many bouncing children (and one incapacitated adult).
I quit within five minutes to get some kebab from a food truck and buy a $25 T-shirt and some seriously yummy milkshake from the Visitors’ Centre instead, leaving the husband at the mercy of deliriously happy – and therefore highly dangerous – children.
Who needs all that excitement when you can kick back with an avocado milkshake anyway?
JA Hatta Fort Hotel Superbly child-friendly hotel with all the amenities – including a sheltered children’s pool! – for a great weekend and more. Low-rise villas are large and comfortable, and the on-site dining was great, given that dining choices are severely limited elsewhere. It’s also one of the few hotels in the UAE that serves bacon and pork sausages at breakfast – if that matters. $$$
Damani Lodges Resort These small, sleek cubic chalets are more adult-oriented and spaced apart in the hills for maximum views and privacy, so you and your loved ones could stargaze after a busy day of activities. Guests whiz around with electric buggies and get a discount for a few chargeable activities, but the only downside is that there is no onsite restaurant or in-room dining. Closed in the summer. $$$
- You could easily spend half a day at Sharjah Desert Park, so do factor in the time when you’re making this a pit stop on your way to Hatta. Regular opening hours are from 9am to 5.30pm but the park opens much later on Friday and Saturday (check the website for the exact times).
- Hatta can be done as a day trip from Dubai, and you can skip it entirely if you’re short on time. But staying at least one night guarantees a relaxing time away from the city crowds and gives you a glimpse into rural UAE. Do note, however, that while tourist infrastructure is still basic, it is set to improve in the coming years.
- Hatta is a great winter getaway, but since its top attractions are all outdoors, activities are severely limited in summer.
- Restaurants are hard to come by so if you’re choosy and / or traveling with children, it’s best to pick a hotel with an on-site restaurant or – better yet – room service.
- Entry to Hatta Wadi Hub is free and open to public, but several activities are chargeable.
- The Mountain Bike Centre at Hatta Wadi Hub has a variety of free trails for beginner to experts, but are not suitable for young children, who can instead spend time in the free children’s play area. The centre also features the region’s and the UAE’s first MTB coaching facility.