United Arab Emirates travel: A tiny cultural gem with big ambitions


Private beach at the luxury Fairmont Hotel (Image: Getty Images/iStockphoto)

When you jet off to the Middle East, most people automatically assume you’re holidaying in glitzy Dubai or Abu Dhabi. But there’s a hidden gem on the Arabian Peninsula, and that’s Ajman. Although it is the smallest of the seven emirates that make up the UAE with a population of just 373,000 and covering 100 square miles, Ajman is a city steeped in cultural history – but one that is also embracing a more modern way of life. With its pristine white beaches and inviting seaside corniche, it is becoming a sun-soaked destination to discover. And while it may be just a 30-minute drive from Dubai airport, holiday prices here are far cheaper than in the big, tourist-thronged city.

Ajman may be little, but with its beaches, craggy mountain backdrops and stunning weather, it has wonderful untouched nature and wildlife at its heart, and is big on things to see and do.

One of the best places to start is the five-star Fairmont Hotel, where all 252 of its opulent rooms have breathtaking views of the Persian Gulf. It’s a real treat, with its own private beach, eight dining experiences, a spa, a floating waterpark and so much more.

If you’re lucky, like me, and bag a suite on the first floor, your balcony extends on to the Badr Lounge, an open-air space famous for magical sunsets and gorgeous panoramic sea views, where you can very easily grab a shisha or a cocktail.

The hotel’s swim-up pool bar was a favourite feature of mine and dining here was a delight.

It’s hard to narrow down which restaurant had the best food, from Italian in Gioia to an evening serenade from famous Oud musician Amer Ammouri while devouring some delicious Turkish kebabs in Kiyi.

Beyond the Fairmont you’ll find some proper Emirati culture. Explore the souks full of gold jewellery or sit down for a scrumptious local breakfast complete with date syrup and cream cheese pancakes in Qdemk Ndemk, a café opposite the hotel whose funky décor includes a 1970s Mercedes parked right in the middle.


Camel rides are one of many things to do in Ajman (Image: Getty Images/arabianEye)

Many changes have taken place over the last half century in Ajman, and there’s plenty of development still happening here, including a new promenade, which will soon be full of restaurants and shops, but there’s also the brilliant free museum, just a stone’s throw from the hotel, which makes sure the emirate doesn’t lose touch with its heritage.

The restored 18th-century fort used to be the home of Ajman’s ruler, before it was given over to become a police station. Now it’s home to archaeological finds and holds all the details of the emirate’s historic traditions and pearl trade industry (ajman.travel/en, admission 5AED per person (£1.12), child/student 1AED (22p) per person.

Also very close to the Fairmont is Al Zorah, which already has the makings of a go-to Middle East destination thanks to its marinas, sophisticated hotels, prestigious Al Zorah Golf Club and protected mangroves right in the middle of it all.

Al Zorah Nature Reserve is a true gem and with a million square yards of mangroves and lagoons, it’s been designated as aWetland of International Importance by the Ramsar Convention, a multi-national body which works with the likes of Unesco on biodiversity.

The outside of Fairmont Hotel

The luxury Fairmont Hotel (Image: NC)

The area is home to an incredible variety of marine and plant life and approximately 58 species of birds, including the pink flamingo, which you can get up close and personal with on a guided kayak tour with local operator Quest for Adventure (questforadventure.net, from AED175/around £39 per person).

Their English-speaking guides fill you in on all the sights and sounds as you glide through the serene forest – and despite being in the middle of Al Zorah, you’re consumed by nature as soon as you’re through the marina.

Emiratis are famously obsessed by horse racing, and Ajman is no different, so a visit to Ajman Stud, founded in 2002 by the Crown Prince, is a real eye-opener.These stunning horses have their own colour-coded stables, and many are world champions. But call ahead and book an appointment first though – don’t just turn up (ajmanstud.com, free).

While Ajman offers a relaxed leisurely vibe by day and night, its big brother Dubai gives visitors the chance to indulge in extreme glitz and glamour – and it is only just down the road.

Dubai is a destination more Brits are flooding to, and it’s easy to see why. It has the biggest and best of almost everything, from the world’s tallest building, famous water fountains and a shopping mall complete with indoor real-snow ski slopes.

Golden products at a souk

Treasures at a traditional souk (Image: Getty Images)

For me, it seemed like a Disneyland for adults.

Everything was pristine; the towering buildings glistened, their reflections bouncing off of the sparkling water of the Burj Lake. For unrivalled views of the Burj Khalifa and the fountain show, I booked a table at Thiptara in the Palace Downtown – the traditional Royal Thai cuisine with an emphasis on Bangkok-style seafood was sublime.

All in all it was good to have seen both emirates and what was particularly nice about my trip was the welcoming nature of the people wherever I went.

But for those wishing to sample a slice of Arabia without the huge price tag, I recommend Ajman.


Virgin Holidays offers three nights’ B&B at the five-star Fairmont Ajman from £495 per person based on two adults sharing a standard room; including Emirates flights to Dubai departing from Stansted on September 16 and transfers (virginholidays.co.uk; 0344 557 3859). Tourist info: ajman.travel

source: express.co.uk