With a superb position on the Arabian Gulf, Sharjah is fast becoming a fashionable destination for a relaxing break. But it also has plenty to offer the culturally-inspired traveller
When I first mentioned I was going to Sharjah, the main comment from my friends was, “Where’s that?” Some thought it was in India, another that it was “near the pyramids”, and one suggested Morocco. All wrong. Sharjah is actually one of the seven emirates that make up the United Arab Emirates, or the UAE as it’s commonly referred to. It’s located on the Arabian Gulf, just along the coast from the better-known Dubai.
I have to admit, I felt a bit cheated as I approached the city from the nearby airport. I guess I was expecting an ancient walled city to emerge from the sand dunes, with camels and palm trees all around. Instead, the shiny new Mercedes taxi was heading towards a skyline that was more reminiscent of New York, along a billiard-table-smooth road that looked like it was laid yesterday.
Within a few hours of arriving and beginning to explore, however, I soon forgot all my initial misgivings. Sharjah is not just a wonderful blend of old and new, it’s also a happy marriage of east and west. Bustling, chaotic street markets, called souqs, vie for attention with gleaming shopping malls. Historic mosques sit next door to modern hotels. And out to sea, Arab dhows sail serenely past giant container ships.
I was based at the luxurious Marbella Resort, which has an enviable position on the largest of the four lagoons, on the southwestern end of the resort. It boasts beautiful gardens, a large pool, and a choice of excellent bars and restaurants. It’s just a few minutes walk from the Central Souq, and the heritage and arts areas around the Corniche Road.
The souq is actually not as old as it may appear, dating back just to 1979, but the air conditioning is a blessing as you explore the labyrinth within. I found myself returning here a number of times during my stay. It’s an enticing place and, with over 600 stalls, it would take a week to see it properly. I think part of the attraction is that you always cling on to that hope of stumbling across some fabulous treasure hidden at the back of a stand, and you can’t stop in case it’s around the next corner!
It may have a 21st-century skyline, but Sharjah has a history dating back five thousand years. Throughout the Emirates it’s known as the culture capital, and has a wealth of museums and discovery centres to highlight all aspects of its long and intriguing past. The Archaeology Museum, close to the aptly-named Cultural Square, has a fascinating array of displays and artefacts to tell the story of this proud nation. Others such as the Heritage Museum and the Sharjah Maritime Museum were also an excellent use of time, and I was impressed at the quality and variety of exhibits in both.
But my favourite cultural visit was about 20 miles outside the city. The Sharjah Desert Park is one of the most popular attractions in the UAE, and combines a natural history museum, wildlife centre, botanical museum and children’s farm. The Wildlife Centre has all manner of desert creatures, including the Arabian leopard, and a variety of venomous snakes. They also have a breeding centre for endangered species. I thoroughly enjoyed the day out, not least for the drive through the desert, and, of course, the obligatory tourist’s camel ride.
Another good trip out of the city, which I enjoyed immensely, is the desert dune drive, which roars its way to the red sands of Fossil Rock. Not the most comfortable trip, of course, but certainly an adrenaline-filled few hours, and a great way to see some of the more remote countryside.
Diving is also excellent in the Arabian Gulf, and I wasn’t going to miss the opportunity to explore the colourful coral reefs. Trips are readily available from a number of places along the seafront, although mine was booked via an agent within the hotel complex. The boat trip to the best diving grounds also gave me a chance to get a different perspective on the city, and to see the high cliffs and secluded bays to the east of the main centre.
The dive trip left from the Sharjah Creek, which itself can be an interesting place to explore. A line of dhows, with fading paint, and iconic of a time that has long since past, are moored against a backdrop of glass skyscrapers. The modern city has plenty to offer, too, with all manner of indoor entertainments such as bowling alleys, cinemas, ice rinks, and even a shooting club. It also has some first-class restaurants, including the wonderfully atmospheric Al Nasmah, on the Al Muntazah Road, which serves a superb selection of traditional Arabic fare.
But the city is also interlaced with a huge number of mosques, minarets, and other historic structures. It’s laid out in blocks, each with a different name, so it’s not too difficult to find your way around with a decent street map. The Al Hoda Mosque in Al Khan, and the Al Maghferah Mosque by the creek, are two I’d recommend you visit.
Whichever places you choose to see, be sure to leave yourself time to relax. Granted, there is a lot to see, but the beaches are excellent and the waters a clean, shimmering turquoise, so it would be a shame not to lie back and enjoy the sunshine just for a while!