The 20 best local UAE discoveries of 2020: from Snoopy Island to The Chedi Al Bait Sharjah

With travel halted, this year brought a new way of exploring, closer to home. 'The National' staff share their favourite places discovered during a turbulent year

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As 2020 draws to a close, we’d hoped to look back on months of travelling to new countries, exploring untouched horizons and engaging with cultures across the globe. Instead, in what has been a tumultuous year, travel went inward.

From exploring parts of our own personalities we didn’t know we had to discovering something unfamiliar in our everyday surroundings, exploration this year has centred around local finds and little-known gems, often in our own backyards.

The places we've dreamt of visiting this year are still waiting for us next year, when hopefully we can get out and explore the world again. For now, The National staff share their favourite local discoveries over the past 12 months.

1. Going below the waves at Snoopy Island

Having finally learnt how to scuba dive during the pandemic, my first memorable local discovery of the year were the waters around Abu Dhabi. From Little Maldives and Al Hala triangle to sunken wreckages off the coast of the capital, there was plenty to see.

But my diving expectations rose sharply when I travelled to Fujairah to go beneath the waves at Snoopy Island. Shore diving from the Sandy Beach Resort – another gem of a discovery – within 10 minutes we were surrounded by colourful marine life.

From corals and sea cucumbers to scorpion fish, puffers and even some turtles, the waters around Snoopy Island are teeming with life and visibility, incomparable to anywhere else in the UAE. We're already planning our next visit.  Hayley Skirka, deputy travel editor

2. Dog-friendly stays in Ghantoot

A dog-friendly staycation in Ghantoot so good that the writer didn't really want to share the details. Wikimedia
A dog-friendly staycation in Ghantoot so good that the writer didn't really want to share the details. Wikimedia

It is testament to how much I love the Golden Tulip Al Jazira Hotel And Resort that I have not been screaming about it from the rooftops. In fact, I almost didn't want to include it here! Like many, I adopted a dog this year, so finding a dog-friendly hotel with a stretch of pristine beach has been a remarkable win. Each time I have been, my pup and I have been spoilt by having the entire sandy stretch to ourselves.

There is no denying that the hotel is pretty basic, but the bungalows are clean and located right on the beach. Waking up and opening your doors to the sand and sea is a perfect reminder of why we live in the UAE. Just make sure you pack everything you'll need to eat, drink and cook with, as there is no restaurant on site, and Deliveroo doesn't extend to Ghantoot – trust me, I have checked. If you approach it as camping, just with an exceptionally comfy bed and AC, you'll be over the moon. – Farah Andrews, assistant features editor

3. The ‘ghost town’ of Al Madam

British Fine Art Architecture & Location Photographer
The abandoned ghost town of Al Madam. Courtesy British Fine Art Architecture & Location Photographer / Wikimedia

The eerie "ghost town" of Al Madam is not a new discovery for many, but considering you need a hardy 4x4 to traverse the terrain, it hadn't previously been accessible to our little Nissan Sunny. The abandoned village, slowly being reclaimed by the sands of the surrounding dunes, feels more like the set of a post-apocalyptic film, rather than just an hour from bustling Dubai Marina in the Sharjah emirate. Strolling through the empty homes, each drowning in grains, feels like walking through a truly living museum crafted by Mother Nature  Emma Day, head of arts and lifestyle

4. A hole-in-the-wall tea shop in Abu Dhabi

A hole-in-the-wall style tea shop in Abu Dhabi left this writer impressed. Courtesy Aarti Jhurani
A hole-in-the-wall style tea shop in Abu Dhabi left this writer impressed. Courtesy Aarti Jhurani

Samovar Tea is a little hole-in-the-wall tea shop in Khalidiya that I discovered serves one of the best fresh milk teas I've ever had. They also offer a variety of Kerala-style snacks – I particularly love their chilli chicken hot dog and pazham pori (fried plantain). The staff here are incredibly friendly, and with finances in the spotlight for many people in 2020, it's a great pick if you want an evening snack on a budget. It has become a firm weekend favourite whether I'm enjoying snacks alfresco with some friends or just picking up a few treats before heading to the corniche. They also do a great budget breakfast (albeit a limited menu); we paid just Dh15 for breakfast for two with tea.  Aarti Jhurani, sub editor 

5. Skiing in the desert

While not exactly a hidden gem, one writer discovered a new-found appreciation for Ski Dubai this year. Courtesy of Ski Dubai
While not exactly a hidden gem, one writer discovered a new-found appreciation for Ski Dubai this year. Courtesy of Ski Dubai

I'll be the first to admit that I'd always thought of Ski Dubai as a little gimmicky. I've taken visitors over the years to see the indoor ski resort – which I would excitedly tell them is the largest in the world – while standing safely on the other side of the glass window. But this year, I actually got the chance to venture inside the resort in Mall of the Emirates for its new Cinema in the Snow experience. From getting into the gear to feeling the sudden temperature plunge and exhaling to see my breath rise above me, I was as excited as a 5-year-old.

The Christmas songs playing in the background and the white-tinged landscape all around were gorgeous and, in the moment, the fact that it was man-made suddenly made it seem more magical, not less.

I'm not sure if my enthusiasm was down to festive spirit or the fact that travelling (and by extension) colder climes have been off-limits for most of the year, but while a visit to Ski Dubai wasn't ever on my Dubai bucket list, I can safely say I would be kicking myself if I hadn't experienced it.  Janice Rodrigues, lifestyle writer 

6. The art of staycationing at Ajman Saray resort 

Discovering the art of staycationing at the Ajman Saray on the Ajman corniche. Courtesy Neil Scott Corder / Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide
Discovering the art of staycationing at the Ajman Saray on the Ajman corniche. Courtesy Neil Scott Corder / Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide

Located in the idyllic emirate of Ajman, along the beach front and with an open-air cafe arena just opposite, Ajman Saray Resort helped me rediscover the art of staycationing this year. This five-star hotel lets you go from room to pool to beach in just a few steps, all of which are in keeping with the promise of a luxury UAE stay.

The basic room is the size of a large studio with a generous balcony and views over Ajman. Even with other guests around, there's always a private spot to be found in the sprawling pool, which is flanked by Jacuzzis on either end. The beach is private, well-served and with clear waters, and an independent water sports operator is less than a minute's walk away. Marriott members who check in also get a Dh200 voucher towards food, and any place that does both a mean club sandwich and live barbecued meats gets my vote.  Panna Munyal, lifestyle editor

7. Camping across the UAE

With travel on pause, I decided to head out on a week's camping trip, taking in most of the emirates. My favourite two discoveries had to be Hatta's camping and hiking hub in the Dubai exclave and Al Saraya Island in Ras Al Khaimah. Hatta was fantastic as it feels like the entire area has been prepped for campers and hikers; I had no idea it existed.

Also, for beginner hikers, the hub is perfect because it details trails by difficulty and the campsite is entirely free. In Ras Al Khaimah, Al Saraya Islands were simply gorgeous. Settling down for the evening with the beach in front of you and the mountains behind you is lovely, but what really took my breath away was the mesmerising sunset.  Leen Alfaisal, multimedia producer

8. The global village at Dubai's Mushrif Park

One of the houses inside the global village at Mushrif Park in Dubai. Wikimedia

One of the oldest parks in Dubai, Mushrif Park is my favourite local discovery this year. Firstly for its size, it's huge – 320 hectares to be exact – with a small fairground, full-sized static train for children to pretend to drive, swimming pools, horse-riding facilities and lots of places for picnics, BBQs and gatherings. All of this makes it an easy place to maintain social distancing.

But the reason my family and I really love it here is because of the mini global village, which is made up of 13 miniature versions of traditional houses from around the world. There's a Shakespearean-era English house, a windmill from the Netherlands, and homes from Thailand, Japan and more. The children love running around them and it's a little bonus that they learn about different cultures and how people used to live at the same time. – Gemma White, acting lifestyle & Weekend editor

9. The vastness of the Empty Quarter

Taking in the vastness of the Empty Quarter alongside a few desert friends. Courtesy Hayley Skirka

Despite a 4.30am wake-up, quite out of place at the tranquil Qasr Al Sarab Desert Resort by Anantara in Rub Al Khali, a ride on a dromedary camel provoked a moment of realisation. As we edged across the untouched dunes of the Empty Quarter, a fraction of the moon hung hauntingly in the sky, as if in some kind of chicken contest with the emerging sun. We walked in silence, the only sounds being the chirps of insects, the rustle of the wind and the steady heavy hoofs of the camels in the sand.

Before long, we stopped, dismounted and turned to face the sun as it floated higher in the sky, erasing shadows and casting golden rays on to the dunes around us. With desert as far as the eye can see, this sliver of calmness reminded me that despite the year we have all had, we're all in it together, under one sky. – Hayley Skirka, deputy travel editor

10. A boutique stay in Sharjah

A stay at the Chedi Bait Al Shajah topped one writer's list in 2020. Courtesy GHM Hotels
A stay at the Chedi Bait Al Shajah topped one writer's list in 2020. Courtesy GHM Hotels

It take just under 40 minutes to drive from Dubai Marina to The Chedi Al Bait Sharjah, but the second you enter its winding alleyways and hidden courtyards, you’ll feel a million miles away from the hustle of city life. This boutique hotel is set among a number of historic manor houses once owned by a wealthy Emirati family, beautifully restored to offer modern, luxurious amenities alongside an old-world feel.

The houses are connected by a number of intertwined alleyways, which offer a slice of history around every corner. It's perfectly located to explore Sharjah's many cultural attractions, with the Rain Room and The Cultural Foundation just a 10-minute walk away. Oh, and it might just have the comfiest beds I have ever slept in. Sophie Prideaux, assistant features editor 

11. The Eastern Mangroves promenade

A long stretch of land that's part of the Eastern Mangroves complex in Abu Dhabi, the Eastern Mangroves promenade is a spot that I've rediscovered in 2020. The beautiful promenade overlooks the protected mangroves and onwards to views of the Abu Dhabi skyline. During 2020, this has been the place where I've been taking my children when we've felt the need to get outdoors.

There's plenty of space to bring bikes or scooters and ride along the promenade, and it's relatively quiet, meaning social distancing is easy. There are also some lovely restaurants and coffee shops in the area. If you're still cautious about dining out, you can grab a coffee to go (Starbucks) or even a pizza (Carluccio's) and sit by the water enjoying the open air and view of the sunset. – Samia Badih, arts & culture editor 

12. Stargazing at Al Quaa

The night sky at Al Quaa as captured by Abu Dhabi resident Chitra Nair.
The night sky at Al Quaa as captured by Abu Dhabi resident Chitra Nair.

A magical spot far away from the city, Al Quaa Milk Way spot was a place I discovered on the night that the UAE witnessed the Geminids meteor shower. About two hours from Abu Dhabi city centre, it is on Google Maps and is relatively easy to find – although the last stretch can feel a little bit eerie with no street lights to be seen.

But that is exactly what makes this secluded spot – in one of the darkest areas of the country – perfect for magical views of the night sky and for stargazing. A hot flask of tea, a cosy blanket and some warm clothing (plus a telescope if you have one) is all that is needed to spend a peaceful few hours gazing at the starlit sky. Aarti Jhurani, sub-editor 

13. Shawka Dam in Ras al Khaimah

About an hour's drive from Dubai, Shawka Dam is a great spot to get outdoors. Armed with a backpack filled with water and snacks for all of us (myself and my dogs) I asked a passer-by for the best walking route. In what must be Shawka's idea of humour, we were sent straight up a staircase on the side of the hill, the equivalent of a 50-storey vertical climb. Do not do this. For a much more pleasant hike, turn left at the roundabout, and walk 100 metres back down the road that you drove in on.

The path on the right hand side here meanders up the hill, still a climb but a much, much easier one than the staircase. Once at the top, just follow the paths. Be prepared for some guess work – none of the paths indicate where they lead, so we did a fair bit of back and forth.

Like anywhere else in the UAE, never underestimate the terrain and take as much water as you can carry. Visiting in early December, I had a great half day out with my dogs wandering around the hills of RAK. The dam was virtually empty, and we felt like we had the hills entirely to ourselves –  it was some much-needed space in a year riddled with confinement. – Sarah Maisey, deputy luxury editor 

14. Walking, walking and more walking

Rediscovering the joy of walking in Abu Dhabi during the global pandemic.
Rediscovering the joy of walking in Abu Dhabi during the global pandemic.

In January, we adopted a rescue beagle called Dembe but unfortunately he  suffers from terrible separation anxiety. Since the pandemic, we've been trying to treat the issue with little-to-no success. . However, one thing I have discovered due to this is the joy of walking. Restricted mostly to our neighbourhood, and needing to escape from the place where I now both live and work, taking to the pavements with Dembe in tow is one of my new favourite pastimes.

Sometimes we power walk, speeding around the streets and greeting other walkers. Other times we ponder, slowing down to watch the birds, count the leaves or play with passing pups. Sometimes I listen to a podcast as I go, but often times it's just the soundtrack of the world around me. Not only does all this walking keep Dembe happy and get my steps up for the day, it's also entirely free. – Hayley Skirka, deputy travel editor

15. A walk on the foodie wild side of Al Yahar Street

Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, October  12, 2020.  Khalidiya by night article by Saeed Saeed on restaurants, café's on Al Yahar Street.  Al Shatir Hassan Restaurant employee, Beth Lopez,  offers motorists the menu for a quick bite.
Victor Besa/The National
Section:  NA
Reporter:  Saeed Saeed
Al Yahar Street is the perfect place for a food-centrie tour in the capital. Victor Besa

With a frenzy of neon lights, the smell of sizzling meats, the slapping sounds of kneaded dough and shouted orders from cars, Al Yahar Street in Abu Dhabi is the backbone of the capital's street-food scene.

From Syrian shawarmas at Kings Shawarma, Lebanese pastries from Tripoli Sweets, Indian parathas at the House of Tea and even noodles served with Cheetos chips at Tea Talk Session, the busy strip in Khalidiya is a culinary and visual feast that I have discovered many times over this year.

For a great evening, spend an hour or two wandering the near two-kilometre street, talk to the friendly traders and indulge in cheap and delicious bites. It will be both a mind and waist-expanding experience. – Saeed Saeed, arts & culture writer 

16. Jubail Island's mangroves

Jubail Mangrove Park in Abu Dhabi was a place for this writer to find a connection with nature. Wam
Jubail Mangrove Park in Abu Dhabi was a place for this writer to find a connection with nature. Wam

I discovered Jubail Island twice this year. The first time was when I visited the mangrove walk after it reopened. Just 15 minutes from Abu Dhabi, it's hard to comprehend how close this place really is to the city when you're surrounded by mangroves, water and nature. New safety measures in place make sure it's never too crowded and the cheap entry price makes it justifiable any time you feel you need to reconnect with nature.

My second visit to the island took me to Abu Dhabi's first eco-retreat, Stay Pura. Here, backed by mangrove canopies and a private beach, guests can check in to dome-shaped tents, kayak through the waters or fatbike around the islands. The dining experience is also one to remember – with billowy sunshades, barasti-style seating and cauldron-shaped firepits. Being able to enjoy time on one of Abu Dhabi's 200 islands is something that the capital has definitely been missing – Hayley Skirka, deputy travel editor 

17. New beginnings at Hudayriyat Island

Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, November 8, 2020.   The new Hudayriyat Leisure and Entertainment District at Hudayriyat Island.  The Circuit X BMX park.
Victor Besa/The National
Section:  NA
Reporter:  Haneen Dajani
The new Hudayriyat Leisure and Entertainment District on Hudayriyat Island was a welcome addition for Abu Dhabi this year. Victor Besa/The National 

In a year where it has felt like most things were closing down, it was nice to see something new happening on Abu Dhabi's Hudayriyat Island. The new leisured area has everything from a beach to running and cycling tracks, as well as a skate park and an area for glamping if you want to spend the night. It also has some newly opened outdoor activities such as the OCR Park, which is the UAE's first permanent obstacle park. Fewer than 20 minutes from downtown Abu Dhabi, the island is a great place to explore especially now that the winter weather has cooled down the emirates. – Evelyn Lau, assistant features editor 

18. Nahwa, a UAE village within Oman

The sign marking the border surrounding the UAE counter-enclave of Nahwa. Antonie Robertson / The National
The sign marking the border surrounding the UAE counter-enclave of Nahwa. Antonie Robertson / The National

After discovering that what is known as a "counter-enclave" existed in the UAE I had to go, and finally did so this year. During a weekend away in Fujairah, we drove south to Sharjah’s east coast, then entered the Omani enclave that sits within it.

An Omani post office and large images of the late Sultan Qaboos made clear where we were, but no passport or visa was required. Carrying on a few minutes up the road we were back into the UAE and yet technically still "inside" Oman. If I had a 4x4 I would have ventured further into old Nahwa, home to beautiful hanging gardens. But that's for next time. – Joe Jenkins, assistant editor-in-chief 

19. An ode to a balcony

With travel halted, one writer found solace in her balcony during 2020. Courtesy Nivriti Butalia
With travel halted, one writer found solace in her balcony during 2020. Courtesy Nivriti Butalia

No staycations for me, instead my balcony was the not-so-hidden gem that I grew fonder of this year. It is literally the only place I travelled to in 2020. In the early weeks of the pandemic, when Dubai's sanitisation programme made it necessary to be home before 8pm, I stopped going out. For two months straight, the walks I took were outside the living room, along a 12-foot periphery, pacing 10 steps forwards then the same back.

A fortnight into this new drill, I grew familiar with ordinary sights. I was able to tell when the sky would be altered by the change in light – which glass window in which skyscraper would glimmer at 7.05pm as it caught the tail end of a sunset. And while I didn't meet any people on these travels, I wasn't entirely alone. A pair of white-tipped songbirds took to occasionally dropping by, seemingly as fond of my humble balcony as myself. – Nivriti Butalia, assistant comment editor 

20. A moment of calm in the desert

Located off the Abu Dhabi-Al Ain road, the journey to get to Arabian Nights Village involved bouncing my car up and down a rugged desert track for the best part of an hour. It was worth it though, to enjoy the tranquility and down-to-earth fun on hand at the resort.

My two children, wife and I, got to tick off most of the standard requirements of the complete desert experience. We did some camel riding, sand boarding and got behind the wheel of four-wheeled buggies for exhilarating dusk driving around the dunes. Then we ended up around a campfire, eating too many roasted marshmallows after a decent buffet dinner, including an Arabic mixed grill.

Climbing a mountainous crimson gold sand dune and just sitting down and quietly surveying the broad expanse of the desert around the Arabian Nights Village resort, gave me one of the few morsels of peace in an otherwise hectic 2020. – Mustafa Alrawi, assistant editor-in-chief