8 Alternative Activities in the UAE - for expats who have done it all...

By: Rachael Harrison

8 Alternative Activities in the UAE - for expats who have done (or are bored of) it all...

Mile after mile of shopping malls, one delicious calorie after another during brunch, endless metres of glittering concrete, glass, and lights stretching up to the sky...For most of us, the UAE is a pretty impressive place where we can go from topping up our tans on the (manmade) beach to snowboarding at Ski Dubai in the space of just half an hour.

But for some of us - particularly those who have lived here a while or who have suffered through endless trips to all ‘the usual’ tourist attractions with friends and family – the excitement of all this modernity can often fade and crumble like a poorly maintained building, leaving us wondering what on earth there is left to see and do that we haven’t already experienced before.

Truth be told, the UAE offers a whole range of alternative activities for people looking for something different.

Sacrificing an evening in a nightclub for a sunset barbecue in the desert

Within the UAE, Dubai specifically has become famous for its glamorous nightlife. Ladies Nights take place on every day of the week, and there’s always the option of splashing your dirhams at one of the city’s clubs. But why not save your money (and your head the next day – see the paragraph below), and opt for a sunset barbecue in the desert with friends instead. Food can be brought from home, atmosphere is created by the sun slowly diminishing over the rolling dunes, light is provided courtesy of the orange glow of the fading day before the surprisingly dazzling display of stars outshine any neon strobe. Furthermore, you get to appreciate a quality night out with friends, where you can enjoy old-fashioned conversation (most importantly, actually hearing what somebody is saying), and de-stress from the rigours of the working week. Whether you camp, make your way to a hotel, or journey home to the comfort of your own beds afterwards, is entirely up to you.

Foregoing the Friday/Saturday morning hangover (and resulting breakfast) in favour of a sunrise stand up paddleboard session

Nothing beats the feeling of being up early on a Friday morning in the UAE. The roads are quiet, the air is cool, and there’s a still atmosphere that you just don’t get on other days of the week. Saturday is similar, but to a lesser extent. There are some glorious sun rises in the UAE, so instead of wallowing in bed and missing them, why not head to one of the many public beaches and greet the day with a paddleboard upon the still morning water? If you happen to have invested in your own, fantastic. Otherwise, head to one of the many private resorts that will hire them to you, or even enjoy a spot of SUP Yoga. It’s a perfect, invigorating way to start the day.

Hitting the pavements and parks running, rather than hitting the malls

The UAE, particularly Dubai, has a welcoming and rapidly growing running community. There are a number of running clubs ready to join, which is a fantastic way to make new friends. Regular races are held throughout the cooler months, from the fun Colour Run, to the Dubai Creek Striders half marathon and the Standard Chartered Marathon, with a whole range of 10kms 8kms and 10 miles events in between! All kinds of nationalities, shapes and sizes take part. Cheaper and healthier than spending hours walking around the mall (the chances of stopping to grab coffee and cake are pretty slim!), running, no matter how slowly, is the perfect way to undo many of those overindulgences that we all partake in whilst living in the UAE.

Escaping the towering yet claustrophobic Sheikh Zayed Road and exploring the forts and open air of Ras al Khaimah

Nobody can fail to be impressed by Sheikh Zayed Road: that’s a given. Day and night, the city’s main artery sees thousands of cars pass by, shaded from the sun by the immense buildings. Yet this modern day canyon, after a while, becomes synonymous with the commute to work, the traffic jams, Salik tolls, and unfortunately, many accidents. Off the beaten track, the historic forts just past Ras Al Khaimah, near the border with Oman, offer a glimpse of the ‘high rise’ buildings of days gone by. Steps to the top lead to further exploration, and stunning views over the emirate stretching to the sea. Flat plains dotted with trees offer welcome shelter from the sun and are the perfect place for a picnic. By visiting the architecture of the past, one appreciates not only the history of this relatively new country, but also how far it has come in such a short time.

Ignoring Friday brunch invitations to relax in scenic and nearby Oman

One thing that UAE expats are all too familiar with is the traditional Friday brunch. A fun and indulgent, yet often expensive, way to spend the weekend. ‘Weekend’ here is the operative word because the brunch usually takes up all of Friday, and the following Saturday is inevitably spent regretting having that extra beverage or three. Brunching every weekend can wreck havoc with your health, as well as your bank balance. For the same financial cost, one can cross the border into Oman, taking in fresh sea air, mountainous views, and the excitement of the undiscovered – all of which do your health the world of good. There are plenty of options in terms of accommodation, depending on your budget, or you could just get back to basics and camp relatively freely. Moreover, flights to Muscat are cheap, frequent, and less than an hour in length, if you wish to explore an entirely different Middle Eastern city. Use the UAE as a base and ensure that some of your time here was spent exploring the wider area. There’s a lot more to discover than you may imagine.

Transforming an afternoon people watching on JBR into a photography session

The UAE lends itself brilliantly to photography – the differing landscapes, the shifting light, the contrasting city scenes and the vibrant mix of people. Rather than merely watching people in one area, try capturing them and making a visual record of your time in this diverse country. No camera? Use a phone. Have an expensive DSLR but no idea how to use it? Take a course at Gulf Photo Plus, a studio situated in Al Quoz. You never know, your new found skills may make you famous in one of the many local photography competitions, and will do wonders to tempt friends and family to visit. You will also break down one of the many misconceptions about this country – that it is all beaches, bars and malls – and discover more for yourself in the process.

Discovering a different way of enjoying sand by missing out on the beach and seeking thrills in the desert

Uninitiated city dwellers may easily forget that there’s a lot more sand in the UAE than one finds on the beach. The desert areas are a prime example of nature in action, and contain much more than the stunning red sand that makes them so much different from the packed beaches along the coast. For the more adventurous, they are a haven of action and adrenalin. Taking your own 4x4 (in a group of course) is one option if you wish to battle these rolling, shifting hills in what has affectionately become know as ‘dune bashing’. Alternatively, you could book a trip with one of the reputable companies who offer an experienced driver. If that’s too much excitement for you, then perhaps a leisurely drive will suffice. You could also try sand boarding and quad biking. Check out the Empty Quarter and Liwa for one of the many examples of this beautiful yet exhilarating opportunity.

Skipping the Burj Khalifa in favour of Jebel Hafeet or the Hatta mountains

Nobody can deny the sheer majesty of the towering Burj Khalifa, whose magnificent 828 metres literally pinpointed Dubai on the map when it officially opened in 2010. But for those seeking more natural grand designs, it’s a good option to head to either Jebel Hafeet (which at 1249 metres is one of the tallest mountain in the UAE, and apparently the winding road leading up to it is one of the best in the world) in Abu Dhabi emirate, or venture slightly further afield to the breathtaking mountains of Hatta. These are the places where myths are dispelled: yes, the UAE does have natural beauty. No, it is not just a series of glitzy metropolises. If Burj Khalifa and its neighbours are the outward, cosmetic appearance of this country, then Jebel Hafeet and her friends are the raw, beating, heart and soul hidden within.

Members of the expatriate community in the UAE are in the fortunate position of watching as cities literally rise out of the sand. Part of history in the making, it is important that we do not forget our wider surroundings and what occurred before the boom that brought us all here. Whilst nobody can deny that brunches, beaches and malls are fun in their own way, these can be enjoyed anywhere in the world. If there’s one thing that you do during your time in the UAE, make time to explore it and do something different. Learn to appreciate why this country is unique, and you will fall in love with it even more.  Whether ‘the foolish man built his house upon the sand’ is true or not, one simply cannot argue with mother nature and what she gave the UAE before it was even formed, and certainly long before the earliest expats even began to arrive.

About the author

Expat Blog ListingRachael Harrison is a British expat living in United Arab Emirates. Blog description: All about life in Dubai - health, running, photography and travel.
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Contest Comments » There are 40 comments

Jane Bowden wrote 10 years ago:

Very nicely written Rachael! I very much enjoyed reading it.

Lisa Fretwell wrote 10 years ago:

A great read- makes me miss living in the Middle East

Carrie wrote 10 years ago:

Ooohhh....nice ideas here! My family are coming over for Christmas for the 3rd time and I was trying to think of a few different things to do! Now I have them :-) Thanks

Mel Roberts wrote 10 years ago:

Loads of great ideas to try out - thanks for sharing Rachel. I'm going to try and find a running club!

Andrew Harrison wrote 10 years ago:

Very good blog Rachael, it's good to hear of all those alternatives to the usual tourist sites that we all tend to flock to when visiting a new place! I'm really looking forward to doing a few of them when visiting next July!

Emma Lowans wrote 10 years ago:

Rachael you really are an inspiration, I am looking forward to trying your ideas!!!!!!

Sandy wrote 10 years ago:

It's refreshing to hear the other side of Dubai life other than drinking and eating. A great read! This should be noted for Expo2020!

Cat Sales wrote 10 years ago:

A really interesting and well written article that brings to life some great ideas. I just wish I was there to experience some of them!

James Rostron wrote 10 years ago:

A great read Rachael - just shows how much the UAE has to offer.

Karen Murry wrote 10 years ago:

Rachael I love all your blog posts and this one in particular, I agree it's so much nicer to break the expat mould and get to know the people and areas beyond the bars and shopping malls! As an ex, expat who has been in 3 Cities in 3 days this week from Australia to Asia & the UK it's easy to start to think they are all the same when you walk the well worn tourist track, hopefully your post inspires more people to venture beyond the city limits and enjoy the uniqueness of where they are.

Jeff & Jill wrote 10 years ago:

What a great read. Having done some of the above, one has to admit Dubai has a lot more to offer than city life. One just has to go and make the most of this wonderful country. Rachael you could not have described the variety better.

Lucinda Raybould wrote 10 years ago:

A great read - thanks Rachael! Loads of really interesting things to try out next year!

Sharon Walton wrote 10 years ago:

Fab Blog Rachel, its great to have insider info from someone who has been to these places. Keep up the good work...

Pauline Harper wrote 10 years ago:

Rachael is constantly visiting lots of interesting places and has many brilliant photos of her exploits - enough to whet your appetite to try them yourself! Its an enthusiastic and lively blog - keep doing it - looking forward to seeing where and what you do next.....

Anekka wrote 10 years ago:

You always write so beautifully Rachael and have this way of being able to make me see things differently. Inspiration and food for thought indeed.

Benjamin Hardy wrote 10 years ago:

Fantastic blog Rachael! I look forward to running with you!

Kathe Clarke wrote 10 years ago:

Hi Rachael, my daughter Julia just loves going camping with you. She can't wait for the next adventure - perhaps you could blog about her some time?

Adam wrote 10 years ago:

You lost me at ignoring brunches! I'd give up the hangovers though.

Kate Graham wrote 10 years ago:

Rach this is a brilliant article to get people to live the good life and make every minute count. Keep living the dream and inspiring others to do it too. Love this!

Julia Clarke wrote 10 years ago:

What fabulous ideas, Rachael! I do believe I have already done a few of these, but I look forward to trying the rest!

Gee Elizabeth wrote 10 years ago:

Excellent penmanship Rach, you've successfully been able to log your adventures whilst tempting readers to try it for themselves. Keep on inspiring sweetie! :) xo

Hayley wrote 10 years ago:

You gave me some very creative fun activities to do with my family over the school vacation. Thanks in advance!! Hayley currell

Michael Harrison wrote 10 years ago:

I tended to think that UAE was just very tall buildings, with shopping malls, restaurants etc, everywhere. It's good to hear about the natural beauty and the different activities that are actually also what UAE is about!

Jane Harrison wrote 10 years ago:

A great blog post filled with positive and inspirational ways to enjoy the UAE beyond the malls and brunches. After doing a number of these alternative activities on a recent visit, I think the people reading this blog would be wise to try a few - I certainly had a very different experience trying some of these out and came away with a completely different appreciation of the country and its history that can sometimes be lost if you just stick to the consumerist or build up areas and limit your explorations to the bars and beaches.

Ravinder wrote 10 years ago:

I've now added to my to-do list! Thank you Rachael for the great recommendations.

Deborah Leggett wrote 10 years ago:

A great read and fab alternatives to the usual tourist traps that we all fall into. Will have to make it my New Year resolution to try at least 1 a month. Keep writing!!

Hilary Harrison wrote 10 years ago:

Well written. I have never visited UAE and had the impression it was all man made and touristy. This blog however gave me a totally different perception from someone who has lived and worked there for over 2 years. Well done Rachael.

Grace wrote 10 years ago:

Fantastic blog Rachael and very well written! Some great ideas! Will def be trying some of them out in the New Year! :)

Judy Evans wrote 10 years ago:

Rachel, What a great read - I believe you have a fantastic writing ability and having visited Dubai I do agree with many of your descriptions in your blog. :)

Rose Dale wrote 10 years ago:

Some interesting options there for alternative adventures, camping in the desert is definitely top of my list!

Melissa Ramanair wrote 10 years ago:

Well written Rachael!!! I had a good read. Changed my perspective on the middle east tremendously.

Angelia wrote 10 years ago:

Great Read. Very informative for people who want to experience something less for the tourist and more for the resident. Thank you.

Dave wrote 10 years ago:

An excellent blog highlighting and inspiring the true UAE. I now have my New Years resolutions, thanks Rachel for articulating an alternative approach to the Emirates.

Tammy wrote 10 years ago:

Good Read Girl...Just reading this makes me want to visit Dubai. I love Adventure and Camping.

Griffin Kennedy wrote 10 years ago:

Great read, very informative! Can't wait to try ideas. Thanks!

Martin And Sandy Woodley wrote 10 years ago:

A great read Rachael! It's fantastic that you are more than making the best use of your time in Dubai and around, and probably discovering a great deal about yourself too! Continue to enjoy and share all the wonderful opportunities open to you.

Jon Glatter wrote 10 years ago:

It's an inspiring read, and a very interesting one too...Might have a go at one or two of these suggestions myself at some stage!!!

Keith Parker wrote 10 years ago:

Nice! Great article and great ideas! Looking forward to trying these out

Cherise Bornman wrote 10 years ago:

Awesome article! Well written and several great ideas. Thanks Rachel!

Iris Harmon wrote 10 years ago:

I visited Dubai and Friday brunch seems to be something of an institution there amongst western ex-pats. How lovely to hear about so many alternatives - great post and an enjoyable read.

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