50 Reasons to visit the UAE in its 50th Year - Part 4: The Quirky
The UAE does quirkiness well. Giant cats made from plants, a Mad Max-inspired food truck park, an abandoned Soviet-era plane, camel milk farms, the QE2 transformed into a hotel, and we're not even going to touch on the Egyptian-themed mall with its Pharaohs and Sphinxes, or the mall in which you can ski. Stories for another post perhaps. Instead we'll continue our tour of 50 Reasons to Visit the UAE in 2021, its Golden Jubilee year, with a few of my favourite quirky sights. Get your cameras ready - there's plenty here to 'gram.
31 Dubai Miracle Garden
If you’ve never seen a 30-foot cat made of bushes or a giant woman levitating over a flower bed with hair made of cascading petunias, you’re really missing out. Fortunately, Dubai Miracle Garden has all of these wonders – and much more – to offer the jaded traveller. A giant Emirates A380 made of flowers? This way, please. Huge Disney characters covered in blooms? Over here. Enormous pirouetting ballerinas with outfits that seem a little risqué for this part of the world, but with 10-feet-long flower skirts? Coming right up. How about The Kelpies, better known as those striking steel horse head sculptures in Falkirk, Scotland, but made out of plants instead? Just to your left, Sir. Dubai Miracle Garden really excels in kitsch. I visited for the first time recently, and felt as if I’d gone back to a much simpler era when all you needed was a few flowers shaped like other things to entertain you (although the fairly hefty price tag of AED55 - the equivalent of GBP11 - is definitely very modern). It feels at odds with the rest of Dubai’s gleaming futuristic attractions, and its small shops and food concessions feel somewhat out of place. It reminds me of Minsk World in Shenzhen, a now defunct theme park on a former Soviet aircraft carrier that was full of similar levels of kitsch (and naturally, I loved it). Physically they have absolutely nothing in common, but there’s a similarity in ambience. But to give credit where it’s due, the Dubai Miracle Garden is the proud holder of the 2016 Guinness World Record for the “Largest Floral Sculpture Forming the Shape of an Airbus A380”. I’m sure competition was tough in this category. It’s not Chelsea Flower Show, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth an hour or your time if, like me, you are a fan of the quirky.
32 The Camelicious Camel Milk Farm
As a newbie in Dubai, one thing really caught my eye on the supermarket shelves - camel milk. Branded “Camelicious” and coming in cute little purple and white bottles with a golden camel on the label, it winked at me as I grabbed my regular milk. I love milk. My first ever weekend job was bottling milk at a local farm in the village I grew up in. I drink a litre of milk a day, cold, straight from the fridge. I can’t get enough of it. But I just couldn’t bring myself to try camel milk. I heard that ti was pink, that it had a very particular flavour, that it was practically fat-free. But I really didn't fancy it. And then my parents came to visit in January 2019 and, also being lovers of quirky travel experiences, they said they wanted to go on the Camelicious Farm tour, so we got in the car and drove out to the desert. On arrival, we donned disposable gowns and blue hair nets, and off we went, through the spotlessly clean dairy, learning how much milk camels can produce, how intelligent they are, and about the different products produced at the farm, including powdered milk, ice cream and chocolate. I’m not a fan of animal attractions that are designed specifically for tourists, but I found the farm enlightening. The camels looked healthy and well looked after, the farmworkers’ interactions with the animals were caring and gentle, and our guide was cooing over how beautiful a particular camel was, or how intelligent, or how fast. The camels are milked twice a day – once at 3am, once at 3pm – and they make their own way patiently to the milking stalls. No one herds them; they know the way, and they head there on their own, waiting until the camels in front have been milked, and slotting themselves into the stalls as soon as they become available. It’s an extraordinary thing to see – they obviously know exactly what to do and how the system works. At the end of the tour you get to meet some of the camels, feed them carrots, take a camel-fie if you so desire. And I finally tried camel milk. It’s low in fat yet tastes creamy. It doesn’t taste of camel. And it's not pink. Although I have to say I prefer it in ice cream.
33 A piece of the UAE within Oman within the UAE
Here's one for the geography nerds. In this era of not much travel, I recently ventured into Oman without a passport, without border control, without quarantine, and without a PCR test. Wasn’t that totally illegal, I hear you cry? Well no, it wasn’t. Over towards the east coast of the UAE is what’s known as a counter-enclave, a country within a country within a county. I travelled from the UAE to Oman to the UAE to Oman to the UAE again, all within half an hour. It’s a geographical curiosity where the tiny village of Nahwa, officially part of the emirate of Sharjah, is encircled by the Madha enclave of Oman, which is itself surrounded by the Khor Fakkan enclave of Sharjah. Confused yet? Just visualise a doughnut – the hole in the middle is Nahwa, the doughnut itself is Madha, and the plate that it sits on is Khor Fakkan. It’s located in the foothills of the Hajar Mountains, surrounded by wadis and palm oases and small farms irrigated by the ancient falaj system of irrigation channels. There’s not a huge amount to see in the counter enclave itself, but as you enter Madha, there are telltale signs that you’re not in the UAE anymore. For a start, there are portraits of the Sultan, the Omani flag flies from the summit of a small hill, the cars have Omani number plates, and the street lamps are the typically ornate style you find across the country. The men wear the traditional Omani kuma cap and muzzar scarf, and for a short moment, you've really been on an international trip.
34 The Abandoned Ilyushin IL-76
Anyone who has ever done a booze run road trip from Dubai to Umm Al Quwain will have seen a mysterious abandoned plane by the side of the road, just after the turn-off for Barracuda (of which more later), rusting away with peeling paint, but for the most part largely intact. It’s a Soviet-era Ilyushin IL-76, and was reportedly owned by notorious arms dealer Viktor Bout. The details of the how the plane ended up on this remote, and now disused, airstrip are vague. Some say it landed mistakenly, the pilot thinking that the runway here was somewhere else (but where would that somewhere else be?). Others that it had technical problems and was forced to land here. And in the book Merchant of Death by Douglas Farah and Stephen Braun, it’s claimed that the plane was destined for the scrap heap, Bout didn’t want to pay the disposal costs, and instead paid a pilot USD20,000 to fly the decrepit aircraft to the northern Emirates where it lies today, and was subsequently turned into an advertising hoarding. All of these stories sound a bit fishy to me, but that just helps to add to the mystery. The plane has the number for the Palma Beach Hotel painted on its side which, after a quick look on Google, seems like it could also be a contender for this list of quirky attractions. According to the website, "it is built with Ancient Egyptian concept blend with classy facilities and amenities to give pleasure, tranquility and luxury to our guest (sic)", and appears to have three large dragons protruding from the wall. Whichever story you choose to believe, the plane is an intriguing sight. There’s a sign saying “No Trespassing” and I’ve never quite had the guts to get close up for a better look. Plenty of people on Instagram have, but I’ve always chickened out at the last moment for fear of being carted off by the Umm Al Quwain police. One day, when I’m brave enough, I’ll sneak up.
Barracuda…. The magic word that says so much to many a UAE expat. Located just next to the abandoned Ilyushin lies the Barracuda liquor warehouse, behind whose nondescript doors lie shelf upon shelf of champagne, wine, beer, spirits of all types, and even little boxes of liqueur chocolates and boozy Christmas puddings. Expats can buy alcohol in Dubai as long as they hold a liquor license, a red card with your photo and a chip denoting your limit (it's tied to your salary). However, the tax on liquor purchases in Dubai is high, and suddenly that six-pack of beer becomes a luxury item. Enter Barracuda to the rescue. Barracuda's shelves groan with supplies, but there’s just one problem – to transport your shopping back to Dubai you need to pass through Sharjah, the dry emirate, and in theory it's forbidden to transport alcohol across its borders. Some people risk it, especially before Christmas, and it's not unusual to see cars so heavily laden that their axels are practically dragging along the ground. Whether you choose to risk it or not, there's a great (licensed) pizza place right next door, Thunder Road, where they make their own mozzarella, burrata and stracciatella, and the restaurant at the neighbouring Barracuda Resort (also licensed) does good Indian snacks and has a pool table. A worthwhile diversion whether you choose to load up the car or not.
(The images here are not of the inside of the liquor warehouse - photography is not encouraged there. Instead, they are of the fabulous pizza place, a friendly camel we met on the way, and the delicious masala peanuts at Barracuda Resort. Perfect with a cold, reasonably priced beer.)
36 Global Village
Imagine a place where you can visit the USA then quickly pop into Iran, Egypt and Morocco, take a short cut through Afghanistan to Yemen to buy honey and traditional daggers, pick up dates and oudh in Saudi Arabia, moisturise your hands with shea butter in Ghana, and top it all off with some som tam in the Thai floating market or a Bosnian kebab – all in one day. This, my friends, is Global Village. A place I wrote off as being overly kitsch for five years, which was silly really as I’ve always had a love of all things kitsch. When I did finally decide to go for the first time this year, I realised what a mistake I’d made never coming before. It’s not a particularly lovely drive to get there, being accessed by a rather unfriendly highway where you’ll be tailgated by a Nissan Patrol going 160kmh in one lane, and almost crash into the back of a knackered old Toyota saloon going 60kmh in another. I chose to go as soon as the gates opened at 4pm which turned out to be an excellent idea as I parked close to the main entrance – judging by the size of the car park, I suspect if you come at a busier time you’ll have quite a hike ahead of you. It’s a bargain – a ticket will set you back AED15 (GBP3) – and I had a giddy sense of excitement as I approached the gate, a cartoonesque vision of Arabian architecture in white and gold where cast members in brightly coloured costumes (and face masks, of course) were riding by on a bizarre contraption, waving and shouting “Hello! Hello!”. Once inside, the first thing you see is the Burj Khalifa in miniature, with Big Ben, the Leaning Tower of Pisa, the Roman Colosseum and the Eiffel Tower all standing proud nearby. The world, in miniature, is at your feet, and all you need to do is wander. And eat. Don't miss out on all the great food you can try here. There are shows and shopping too, and you can even pay a man to push all of your purchases around in a supermarket trolley when they get too heavy to carry. I could have bought loads of things - Egyptian jalabiya, Syrian embroidery, Turkish ceramics - but instead limited myself to one lovely purchase, a brilliantly coloured waxed fabric skirt from Senegal.
37 Smart Salem Centre
I hate going to the hospital. I hate needles. I hate IVs. I hate anything that involves pain or potential pain. I’ve been to more than my fair share of hospitals in recent years for various reasons and I’ve become slightly more used to them, but that doesn’t mean I’m any keener. All of that changed recently when I went to the Smart Salem Medical Fitness Centre to do the medical test for my new visa. It was like walking straight into the future, but a future filled with 1960s Scandinavian furniture. And robots. A chirpy little robot greeted me ("Hello, I'm Salem!") at the door and directed me to a screen to check in (actually, a human directed me, but Salem came along for the ride too). I was shown to a room where every surface was covered in LED screens and soothing images of grass blowing in a warm summer breeze took my mind off the impending needle. I read subsequently that even the blood test can be conducted by a robot, but fortunately on this day a friendly and very gentle nurse did mine for me. I was so distracted by the screens and the incredibly comfortable lounge chair that I barely even noticed. And now came the most exciting part – a robot approached to take my blood sample away. The nurse keyed in a code, the lid opened up, she put the sample in, pressed a button, the robot emitted some very satisfying robot-like bleeps and bloops, and then trundled off in the direction of the lab. A couple more tests followed, and I was then invited to take a seat at a table with a touchscreen where I could order something to drink. Unfortunately the robot waiter was being recharged at the time so my coffee was brought to me by another very lovely human, but overall the whole experience was unexpected, fun and pain-free.
38 Last Exit
When I first discovered Last Exit, the food truck park on the main highway between Dubai and Abu Dhabi, I thought it was one of the most exciting finds I’d made since arriving in the UAE. This was a few years back now, and since then they’ve opened more, but the original, with its vintage American cars, bathrooms where the water comes out of petrol pumps and row of hanging Mini Coopers, felt innovative, unusual and refreshing. The food on offer was the usual burgers and other typical fast food options, but its location close to Ghantoot made it the perfect place to stop off after a morning’s wakesurfing for a hot cup of karak and a cream cheese paratha, or a big fat burger if I’d really worked hard. A couple of years later a new Last Exit opened on the other side of the highway with a Mad Max theme, billing itself as an "edgy, post-apocalyptic pit stop with great food and fun events", which aren't words you hear in that combination every day. It's full of beaten up cars covered in graffiti, towers of defunct TVs, old mining equipment, and a huge model lizard crawling on top of an old blue sedan. How anyone came up with this concept for the road connecting Dubai and Abu Dhabi is something of a mystery to me, but it feels like a stroke of genius. And now I can stop for a drive-through coffee on the way to wakesurf too, which always feels like an extra special treat.
39 The QE2
Ah… the golden age of travel, when crossing the Atlantic was a glamorous affair, and travelling out on Concorde and back on the QE2 was the stuff of dreams. I doubt the QE2 ever imagined she’d end up in Dubai being turned into a hotel, but this is exactly what happened a couple of years back. She now sits permanently docked in Port Rashid, and soon after opening I went for a look and a drink in the Golden Lion, the self-proclaimed oldest pub in Dubai. It’s as if time stood still on a Dover to Calais ferry in the late 1980s. That may sound unfair, but those ferries were outrageously exciting and glamorous to ten-year-old me. It even has the same smell that ferries did back then - the tang of diesel, a tinge of rusted metal, a vague saltiness - and those ledges in the loos that stop the water sloshing out and flooding the boat, simultaneously providing the perfect obstacle to trip over. You enter from the dock on a red carpeted walkway into a spiralling stairwell. There’s something of the Marie Celeste about it. Everything feels very empty. At least, it did the first time I went. There was practically no one on board but me, and I felt as if I had the long empty corridors and lounges all to myself. It reminded me of The Shining, especially when an unaccompanied child dashed past out of nowhere, no parents in sight. But sit for a moment in one of the lounge chairs and feel how the light floods in through the rows of windows. It must have been extraordinary to see the light change throughout the day in the middle of the ocean, with the buzz of the boat all around you. The interior decor has changed little and the original slot machines are still there, decommissioned now due to gambling being forbidden here (“Display Only”). The Queen’s Grill reportedly serves dishes from 1969, the year the ship first set sail, which is not known for being the golden age of British cuisine, but it's a good story. Overall it’s a slightly odd place, and every time I’ve been it’s had a not-quite-open feel to it. I feel a tinge of sadness about this queen of the oceans being hobbled in this way, tied up to the dock for the rest of her days. I’d love to see her reliving the excitement and glamour of her best years, but can’t see that happening any time soon with the pandemic to contend with. Perhaps it’s time to pay the old lady another visit.
40 Hatta Honey Bee Farm
Up in the Hajar mountains, down a very bumpy off-road track, lies the Hatta Honey Bee Farm, where you can don a rather natty bright yellow protective suit, covered in little cartoon bees. It looks like a combination of PPE, hazmat gear and spacesuit, and is ideal for social distancing as it's voluminous enough that no one can get near you. It's also ideal for shooting a family picture that will baffle most people if you make it your 2021 Christmas card. This suit is what you must wear if you want to go on the bee tour and learn about how Hatta honey is made. And it's well worth the trip. Before going out into the Bee Garden you must also pass by the Bee Suit Attendant who will make sure all of your velcro is fastened properly and your zips are properly zipped up - no one wants any little stinging visitors inside their suit. She'll smilingly tell you that the suit is yellow to attract the bees to you, so if you suffer from melissophobia you may want to bear this in mind. And then you head outside where you'll see different kinds of hives, from traditional date palm trunks to brightly coloured modern versions, before meeting the bees themselves and their complex society. After the tour you get to try the different types of honey made here, most of which come from hardy trees that can survive the harsh desert conditions - ghaf, sidr and samar. There's also a wildflower version (my favourite - I found it to have a more delicate flavour). Then it's in the car for a spot more off-road driving, a quick hello to the camels, and then a pitstop at the delightfully retro Hatta Fort Hotel where you can have lunch surrounded by flowers next to the pool. Just avoid wearing yellow in case your new bee friends decide to join you.