Renowned for being big, bold and beautiful, but there’s much more than first meets the eye.
Once an obscure corner of Arabia, the United Arab Emirates now glints and glitters with eye-popping luxurious destination hotels. It burst onto the travel scene in 1999 when Dubai's Burj Al Arab opened its iconic doors, and has never looked back. Abu Dhabi has been slower to stamp its mark, as has neighbouring Oman, both very different, but now coming of age. From peaceful mountains to urban outposts and vast desolate deserts, we explore an ancient land looking towards the future.
From mountain high to ocean deep, Oman is full of surprises. It's everything you don't expect of the Middle East. It still has a remote undiscovered feel, there's a slower pace of life, less development, a raw natural beauty and that impossible-to-ignore thousand-mile coastline. This is the region's old soul, a country with a strong sense of identity, culture and tradition, a place you can really engage with local Arab life. Oman's towns retain their ancient charm: they bustle with men in bright blue dishdashas; fishermen going about their trade; children playing on the streets and colourful bazaars and souks brimming with silk, silverware and perfume. Most travellers start their journey in Muscat, a brilliant city/beach combo.
There is no better place to bed down in Muscat than The Chedi: a zen-like bubble that has nailed chic-boutique. Bordered by the sparkling Gulf of Oman and the natural beauty of the Hajar Mountains, its location gets ten out of ten. Sleek without the bling factor, the design and ambience is also spot-on. Buildings remain in keeping with the Omani tradition of low-lying and the bright white décor gleams against the cobalt sky. A smattering of palm trees, tinkling fountains, a water garden and acreages of space add to the overall R&R effect. The rooms are beautiful, combining minimalism with traditional Omani décor and come kitted out with lots of little luxuries as well as a few cinematic views of the gulf. The Long Pool is what it says (it's double the Olympic-length), and if that wasn't enough, there are two more including the Chedi Pool framed by cosy cabanas and a long stretch of private beach. The spa is top of our pamper list and the food is fabulous, particularly the local fare at Arabian Court.
But do try to break out of the Chedi cocoon to explore Muscat. Visit the Grand Mosque, soak up the sights and sounds of the fish market; haggle at the famous and slightly chaotic Muttrah souk; stroll around the Old Town and down Shatti Al Qurum beach at sunset; stop off at the private Bait Al Zubair museum, a treasure trove of Omani art and artefacts; and if you're feeling flush, head to Amouage, the world's most expensive perfumery. Last but certainly not least, embrace the sapphire sea that twinkles morning, noon and night.
The sea is integral to Oman, and much of the country's history is written on its coastline. Today it is alive with a busy fishing industry and a growing tourist trade. Omani based company Ocean Blue International has a small fleet of boats and can arrange anything from dolphin-watching trips to private yacht charters. See Muscat from the water with a city tour, go fishing or take a sunset sail. If you have time, get further off the beaten track and head out to the Dimanyat islands, a stunning six-atoll archipelago home to protected coral reefs. Just ten miles off the coast it feels a world away and the snorkelling and diving is sensational.
Ocean Blue has set up a private campsite or more accurately 'glampsite' (there are beds, showers and a chef to prepare meals), so you can stay overnight under a blanket of stars. A little further (about a three and a half hour sail from The Chedi), is another do-it-now dive destination: Bandar Khairan, home to beautiful reefs and sandy beaches. Alternatively, board the luxury MY Ibra in Kahsab, and head off up to Majlis Bay, sheltered by the Musandam Peninsula's spectacular fjords before heading on to Dibba and Six Senses Zighy Bay.
From underwater to 2,000 metres above water, Oman's mountains soar skywards. The stark rugged beauty of the Hajar Mountain range is an experience in itself, heightened by the picturesque rural escape of Alila Jabal Akhdar. This is the place for travellers looking to get away from it all. A two-hour drive from Muscat through rugged terrain, it does seclusion, intimacy and authenticity, and is the perfect base from which to explore this extraordinary corner of Oman. The hotel teeters on the edge of a gorge, its stone-clad suites looking out over dramatic canyons. Designed with the setting in mind, the stone and wood buildings blend seamlessly with the surroundings.
We love the natural look, and it's even better on the inside. Rooms are all dark wood, crisp linen and decorated with locally hand-woven carpets and hand-painted pottery. Vast bathrooms come with tubs carved from a single marble slab and the views are, in a cliché, to-die-for.
This perspective-changing location is a wonderful place to just sit and be. But fight the holing-up urge; pull on hiking boots and head out (every room comes with a rucksack for good reason). A true trekker's paradise, follow wadis lined with walnut and gnarled juniper trees; walk through sleepy villages and ancient ruins; marvel at the rose terraces (between March and May) and explore Wadi Ghul, nicknamed the Grand Canyon of Oman. For the fit, take on the heady heights of Jabal Akhdar and for those after another culture fix, head to Nizwa and explore its 17th Century fort. After energetic days, return to Alila's mountain-view pool, snuggle up in the library over a board game, and feast on Middle Eastern food at Juniper: the restaurant has a mouthwatering menu of tagines, mezze, labneh, fatoush, baba ganoush and pastilles. Alternatively be rubbed and scrubbed in the serene spa, an ode to healing with out-of-this-world massages using locally grown herbs and essential oils. If Alila Jabal Akhdar signals the Oman of the future, this unsung gem of a destination will firmly cement itself on the must-go travel map.
There's nowhere like Dubai. Like marmite, you love it or hate it, but even those prone to a bit of eye rolling, can't fail to be fascinated by its futuristic vision, sky's-the-limit ambition and boundless optimism. It's definitely gutsy in outlook, but this can-do attitude has delivered the world's tallest building (Burj Khalifa) and the largest shopping centre (The Dubai Mall); Ski Dubai complete with 6,000 tons of real snow; a palm-shaped island; a choreographed dancing fountain and a mind-boggling selection of destination hotels. We could go on… But for a mid-haul healthy dose of vitamin D and a slightly surreal sojourn, we can't help but be a little won over by Dubai's feel-good vibe. We've picked three sublime hotels to get you going.
Families should check out the beautiful Four Seasons Resort Dubai at Jumeirah Beach. Set on a private stretch of blinding white sand, we love its cool contemporary rooms, vast cloudlike beds and enormous bathrooms complete with Etro products. For families, the rooms can be cleverly interconnected behind an additional door or for any child bunking in with adults, there's a very generous complimentary policy. Life is never dull with tennis run by ex-pros, a plethora of watersports, pools galore (quiet, active and indoor) and the flat-out brilliant Kids For All Seasons Programme. There are also kid-friendly menus at Suq, a market-style restaurant with three open kitchens and play area. The city itself is a playground: little ones will love everything from Wild Wadi Water Park to Sega Republic. But it's not all about them: adult time is well spent at The Pearl Spa, Sea Fu, Latin American Coya (hot from London) and Mercury, one of the world's coolest rooftop bars complete with ball-shaped bar.
Boutique isn't a word often associated with Dubai until you reach One&Only The Palm. This wonderful hideaway at the end of Palm Island's crescent is impossible to fault. Peace and quiet reign supreme, with the stresses of daily life a mere figment of the past. We love the Arabic-influenced design and muted, not at all OTT vibe. There are just 94 beautiful rooms (a headcount that covers 25 suites and four villas), complete with apartment-sized bathrooms. This is a place to embrace time and enjoy guilt-free lazing. From cocktails delivered to your lounger to incredible treatments at the ESPA-run spa, a finger rarely needs to be lifted.
To top it off, the three restaurants (all under the guidance of Michelin-starred chef Yannick Alleno) are a foodies dream come true. 101 Dining Lounge & Bar serves exceptional tapas and Mediterranean-style dishes; French restaurant STAY is a must for the 'pastry library' and the laidback al fresco Zest, whispers indulge.
Another One&Only masterpiece is One&Only Royal Mirage, a bigger but equally must-book resort on Jumeirah Beach. Recalling the romance of Old Arabia, the look is authentic with intricate arches, domes, towers and courtyards. A three-in-one resort, families should check into The Palace, its regal presence along the beachfront is home to oodles of leisure facilities including tennis, a watersports centre and a KidsOnly play centre. At the heart is the quieter Arabian Court, or for a total sanctuary head to Residence & Spa, with its 48 rooms and 2,000 square-metre spa and hammam (destinations in themselves).
This is Dubai's foodie hotel: you could stay for a week and never have to leave. All eight restaurants are outstanding but be sure to nab a table at Tajine for mouthwatering Moroccan, try contemporary Indian at Nina and modern-fusion at EauZone. We also love the magical courtyards where you can recline on cushions under fairy-lit palm trees and smoke sheesha.
Originating in Dubai, Emirates has one of the youngest fleets in the world, meaning alongside exceptional service and in-flight entertainment, you can expect the utmost in comfort and latest in cabin design. Emirates flies 17 times daily to Dubai from a choice of 6 UK airports, offering convenient onward connections to over 140 destinations across six continents. Dubai makes a popular stopover en-route to destinations in the Indian Ocean, Far East, Africa and Australasia.
Hot on the heels of Dubai, Abu Dhabi is busy cementing its place on the sun, sea and sand map. It's definitely embracing modernity, but while doing so has also managed to retain a distinct Emirati flavour. The capital is a fascinating mix of tradition and progress: mosques, souks and forts exist alongside lush parks, mega malls and gleaming skyscrapers. Be sure to visit Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque. Able to accommodate up to 41,000 worshippers, it is a masterpiece of modern Islamic architecture, featuring more than 80 marble domes held aloft by 1,000 pillars.
Inside is just as impressive with the world's largest loomed carpet and a 12 ton chandelier sparkling with Swarovski crystals. Outside prayer times you can take a guided tour, an excellent insight into Islamic religion. Take time to walk Qasr al-Husn fort; follow your nose to the fish market at Al Meena and the old spice souks, before visiting Abu Dhabi Heritage Village for a quick lowdown on Bedouin traditions. A little further afield is camel racing at Al Wathba Race Track and the immense desert where 4x4 safaris include dinner round a campfire. Modern musts are Sky Tower for killer views, retail therapy at the futuristic Yas Mall and for the fearless, Formula Rossa, the world's fastest roller coaster found on Yas Island, Abu Dhabi's mammoth entertainment centre.
And there is nowhere more jaw-droppingly brilliant to stay than Emirates Palace, an Arabian icon where you can live like royalty. A destination in itself, it rises up like a fairytale palace fronted by a pristine private beach. The exterior is staggering in size and intricacy, while the interior is adorned with gold, marble and crystal. Rooms are super-swish and there's a butler for every guest. Facilities include a 14-venue culinary journey that travels from Chinese at Hakkasan to authentic Italian at Mezzaluna and Mezlai's Emirati cuisine. We also love the beachside BBQ Al Qasr and traditional Lebanese at laidback Diwan L'Aurberge.The activity list is equally impressive with two vast swimming pools, a FIFA-standard football pitch, cricket, tennis, two fitness centres, watersports aplenty, even bird watching. The cherry on top of the very large cake is the spa: like much of the rest of the experience, it is otherworldly.