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Ajman, I hear you ask, where’s that? You would not be the first, almost everyone I’ve mentioned it to asks the same. It is actually the smallest of the seven United Arab Emirates. Dubai of course is the big name but Abu Dhabi, Ras Al Khaimah and more recently Sharjah and Fujairah have all promoted themselves to UK visitors. Russian and German tourists have already discovered Ajman but now they are opening a UK office and hoping to entice more British visitors too. I went on a mission to find out what might make people want to go and found a number of compelling reasons…
Like all the Emirates, Ajman holds the same trump card of a hot, dry climate. Winter is the best time to go, the temperature from October through to April sits pretty steadily in the mid to high 20s. And, its a dry heat, so it very pleasant to sunbathe, sightsee as well as be active. Once you get in to May the temperatures start to soar, sometimes to the point of intolerable. Of course hotel rates fall dramatically in summer and everywhere is air conditioned so people do still go but if you like being outside…
Dubai is the gateway to Ajman. The top end of Sharjah lies between them but, nevertheless, Ajman is a mere 30 minute drive from the airport (possibly 45 mins at busy times). Because of the high volume of traffic in Dubai, that’s a quicker transfer than to some Dubai hotels. Dubai is one of the busiest and best connected airports in the world, making Ajman easy to reach whether its for a short break, longer stay or even just a stopover.
Value for money
Your money will go a lot further in Ajman than Dubai. Being so new to the UK market, hotel rates, for now at least, are at their keenest. You can’t really compare it with Dubai, its much quieter and way less developed but, if all you want is a nice relaxing holiday in warm sunshine, you can expect to save 20 to 40% on comparable standard hotels in Dubai. Many Emiratis who work in Dubai choose to live in Ajman, where rental rates are way cheaper and the pace of life is considerably less frantic.
The hotels offer a good choice of restaurants and half board packages will be the norm but, to save even more, you could stay on a bed and breakfast basis and eat out locally. This would work well if you stay on the Corniche where there are plenty of local restaurants within walking distance. The best one we found was a trendy vintage Arabic cafe called Qdeemk Ndeemk, just over the road from the Fairmont. Its important to be aware though that its only the hotels that have alcohol licenses. Local restaurants are dry.
Luxury hotel choices and great beaches
The majority of hotels are along the four kilometre seafront of the Corniche. It is a popular area for locals too but its not the uninterrupted promenade you might imagine. It runs by a busy road and the beach side is broken up in to sections so you can’t walk any distance along the shoreline. The nicer part is towards the far end of the Corniche where the sand is finer and down on the beach you can’t hear the traffic. This is where you find a trio of 5 star hotels, the Fairmont, the Ajman Saray and the Ajman Hotel (formerly Kempinski). They all have private beach clubs and a wide range of facilities including multiple restaurants, a Spa, gym and kids clubs. When we were there just post the New Year holiday, there were lots of families. Outside of school holidays though I am told they are generally much quieter.
Just opposite the Ajman Saray, the creekside Marsa shopping area is due to open very soon. A contemporary development made up of dozens of small spaces for boutiques, craft spaces, coffee shops and cafes, this promises to be a lively place to visit in the evenings.
Another luxury hotel option is the Oberoi Beach Resort. Just outside the city (15 minutes drive from the Corniche) the Oberoi in a league of its own, in more ways than one.
Al Zorah is the prestige development zone and currently the Oberoi is the only hotel although there are plans for at least two more. The foundations for a Lux resort have already been laid even though work seems to have ground to a halt for the time being.
For now at least, the Oberoi (winner of the Telegraph reader awards ‘Best Hotel Group’ accolade 2017 and 2018) stands in splendid isolation. Designed by renowned Italian architect, Piero Lissoni, it is contemporary and achingly cool. The cubist lines are softened by clever planting, reflective pools create a sense of space and light and an impressive 85 metre swimming pool provides a striking centrepiece. At 81 sq metres, even the entry level rooms are huge and, if you need more space, there are 2 and 3 bedroom villas with private pools. There’s a Spa, gym and choice of two restaurants but otherwise precious little entertainment, the dominant sound track is birdsong and the lapping of the Arabian Gulf – it is, quite simply, a haven of tranquillity.
Al Zorah Nature Reserve
The Oberoi sits in a prime location on a 12 km stretch of natural beach within the Al Zorah nature reserve. The other jewel in Al Zorah’s crown is its tidal pools and mangrove forests.
The Reserve sits proudly on the Ramsar List ensuring that this unique ecosystem and its wildlife which includes over 60 species of birds and a resident flock of over 100 pink flamingos will be well protected from over zealous developers. Quest for Adventure, based directly over the road from the Oberoi operate guided kayaking tours to explore the area. It’s a really delightful way to spend a few hours, spotting birds including sea eagles, herons and osprey as well as learning about the ‘blue carbon’ benefits of mangroves. From their waterfront base they also offer zipline wakeboarding, archery and bike rentals.
Still in Al Zorah, resort golfers will enjoy a round or two on the 18 hole Nicklaus designed golf course set along side the mangroves and designed around the tidal pools. With two tides a day, its an ever changing landscape and an unusual, challenging course – very different to other courses in nearby Dubai and, once again, significantly cheaper. I played a few holes with General Manager Phil Henderson. Hailing from Aberdeen, I couldn’t help comment on the fact he was wearing a sweater but, as longterm UAE expat, he told me 25c now seems relatively cool to him! Winter temperatures are perfect for golf though and visitors are made very welcome. Loan of clubs and buggy hire are both included in the green fees if you are staying in one of the Ajman hotels.
Culture and Heritage
I’ve been to Dubai several times and can honestly say when there, I barely noticed I was in the Middle East. Ajman is a very different experience with a proud emphasis on culture and heritage. Of course visitors need to seek it out but, venture beyond your hotel and you will be exposed to a sense of authentic Emirati life.
The Ajman Museum is interesting to learn what life was like in this part of the world before the UAE was formed in 1971. Set in a fort that was formerly the ruler’s home, exhibits include ancient manuscripts and sections dedicated to still practised homeopathic medicine, the pearling industry and a recreation of a traditional market.
Just over the road from the museum, you can visit the modern day equivalent of the Gold and Fabric souks. They will be quiet during the day but in the evenings, they are full of locals bartering for jewellery and picking out highly embroidered fabrics to be made up into bespoke garments within 48 hours.
The fish auction was one of my favourite outings. It’s not a tourist attraction of any kind, just a true slice of life. Held every evening at 5pm on the dockside by the vast Fish Market, its fascinating to observe. Three megaphone wielding auctioneers conduct proceedings as the boats come in, unload their silvery catch straight on to white slabs where its haggled over before being whisked off at speed in wheelbarrows to the successful buyers. Its chaotic and mesmerising. There’s no doubting the quality and freshness of that fish that will appear on your plate for dinner.
From the newly opened Marina in Al Zorah you can take boat trips along the creek and mangroves. Ajman Pearl offer guided cruises where you learn more about the pearling industry which, way before oil, was the source of much wealth in this region. As an added bonus you also get to cruise alongside some of the magnificent modern palaces belonging to current rulers.
Ajman may not be able to boast the iconic sights, buildings and mind blowing attractions (indoor ski-ing anyone?) of its considerably flashier near neighbour but it does have a charm all of its own. And why pay for all the bells and whistles if all you really want is a relaxing holiday in the sun with maybe one or two gentle excursions? I don’t think it will be too long before Ajman is just as familiar a name to wintersun seeking Brits as say Tenerife or Tunisia.
Cathy travelled as a guest of Ajman Travel
Emirates operates over 130 non-stop flights per week from the UK to Dubai – six services a day from Heathrow, three daily from London Gatwick and Manchester, two daily from Birmingham and Glasgow, daily services from Newcastle and London Stansted, and a five-weekly service from Edinburgh. Emirates serves a network of 158 destinations.Return economy fares from Heathrow and Gatwick return start from around £379pp.
Emirates Holidays have 5 nights at the five star Fairmont Ajman costs from just £665 per person. This price is based on two adults sharing a Fairmont View Room on a Half Board Basis and includes return economy flights from London Heathrow with Emirates.
5 nights at The Oberoi Beach Resort starts from £1,039 per person, staying in a Premier Room with Private Terrace on a half board basis.
Both prices based on two adults sharing and including return economy flights from London Heathrow with Emirates. Regional departures available.To book visit www.emiratesholidays.com or call 0208 972 8949.