Between dreamlike deserts, oases and fjords
Never-ending skyscrapers, luxury shopping centres and skiing resorts in the middle of the desert… The taste for excess in the biggest cities of the Persian Gulf needs no introduction. But few travellers know that they can visit this region differently, where magical moments off the beaten track in the heart of still-untouched natural settings, far from the thronging crowds, await. From Abu Dhabi to the Sultanate of Oman, explore these richly contrasting lands.
When water springs forth in the desert
Located a two-hour drive from the urban centre of Abu Dhabi, the Al Ain oasis, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, offers an astonishing immersive experience of ancient Arabia. Sprawling over 1,200 hectares, it features a remarkable still-operational traditional irrigation system that makes it possible to cultivate abundance in the middle of the desert. Take a gentle stroll through a forest of 147,000 palm trees, breathe in the scent of fig and orange trees and savour the best dates you will ever taste. Here, people still know how to take their time and honour natural rhythms… An eco-centre located at the entrance of the oasis explains how everything works to visitors.
Located on the edge of the Rub’ al Khali, the largest desert in the Arabian Peninsula, the Sharqiya Sands in Oman offer the unparalleled spectacle of a succession of golden dunes extending to infinity. We strongly recommend spending a night here, admiring the colours at twilight and the reflections of the moon on this huge sandy mirror. Many camps offer tents for this purpose, but Desert Night Camp is undoubtedly the most comfortable choice. After a trip in a four-wheel drive vehicle, settle down beneath the huge sky, listen to the silence of the dunes and wait for the stars to appear… Magical.
Established in 1971 by Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the founding father of the United Arab Emirates, the Sir Bani Yas island nature reserve is a protected natural paradise that provides refuge for many endangered species. With a surface area of 100 km², it offers visitors an unforgettable spectacle watching herds of Arabian oryxes or ostriches spilling over the dunes and frolicking in the shade of palm groves. The many activities on offer include safaris in four-wheel drive vehicles, mountain biking, and even snorkelling among turtles and barracudas. A unique environment for a truly special moment.
The Norway of the Middle East
The Norwegian word ‘fjord’ is perfectly suited to the Musandam Peninsula, a spit of land featuring deep coves at the northern tip of the Sultanate of Oman. With rocky cliffs and hills, crystal-clear waters and an abundance of marine life originating in the Persian Gulf and Arabian Sea, the contrast between the severity of the desert and the welcoming splendour of this turquoise sea is striking. A cruise is still the best way to make the most of this enchanting spectacle.
Storming lunar mountains
The contours of the Arabian Peninsula feature some spectacular highlands that are very popular with high-altitude hiking enthusiasts. Trek along the region’s many marked trails, exploring landscapes that are both balmy and austere. The best routes are along the Al-Hajar Mountains, in Wadi Monay (Emirate of Ras Al Khaimah), or along the border between Al Ain and Oman. If you’d prefer a motorised excursion, you can embark on a safari in a four-wheel drive vehicle exploring the mystical reliefs of Jebel al Harim in the north of Oman.
Along the water’s edge
The Arabian coastline offers a host of opportunities for kayaking trips to explore mangroves. Whether in the Emirates of Ajman or Ras Al Khaimah, Dubai, or on the Qatari shores of Al Thakhira, wildlife enthusiasts will love journeying to the heart of these preserved ecosystems. Keep your eyes peeled for sightings of herons, flamingos, and even the occasional stingray hiding amongst the roots.
A story about the sea…
Up until the mid-20th century, the Arabian Peninsula was nothing like today’s futuristic region where skyscrapers jostle with polders. Most of its inhabitants lived modestly from fishing. To discover the traces of this not-so-distant past, the charming town of Sur has an open-air maritime museum where some superb dhows (traditional sailing vessels) are on display. Visiting a pearl farm in Al Rams, near Abu Dhabi, is also worth the trip. Proof that the maritime traditions of the Arab world are still alive and well in this land of contrasts.
The region also features other spectacular oases, including the one in Bahla, which features an ancient fortress and is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the one in Liwa with its huge sand dunes, and the one in Al Jahili with its 19th-century buildings.
Photo credit: ©iStock
Be enchanted by the captivating shores of the Arabian Desert on a PONANT cruise.