Desert safaris can be comfortable adventures

DUBAI -- Once visitors to this tiny Gulf emirate get past the thoroughly modern nature of Dubai city, the star attractions that beckon are the soft adventure safaris into the Arabian desert. Well organized and surprisingly comfortable, these daylong and overnight trips cover desert and mountain terrain and offer views of camel and goat farms and Bedouin settlements.

Camel Market. A surprising variety of wildlife -- from foxes, hares and lizards to gazelles and eagles -- also can be seen during the trip. A full-day safari, for instance, will leave Dubai early in the morning for an off-road journey to traditional desert villages and towering dune country before reaching Fossil Rock, a gigantic outcrop studded with millions of fossils. A cold buffet lunch is served in one of the many wadis of the dramatic Hajar mountains before returning to Dubai at sunset.

The wadis and canyons of the Hajar mountains are the attractions on another full-day outing to Wadi Hatta and its 16th century fortress settlement, which has been restored to provide an example of village architecture. Nestled into the Hajar heights and overlooking a fertile oasis, the village is dominated by the Hatta Fort and embraces the Juma mosque, two watchtowers and 20 houses constructed of stone, mud and reeds. The excursion includes lunch at the Hatta Fort Hotel, a mountain resort complex.

The desert also enables visitors to enjoy the sunset above the dunes before a traditional Arabian barbecue of grilled lamb and kebabs in a Bedouin tent under the stars. The tent also can be home for an overnight safari that adds camel racing and riding.

Desert feasts are just part of the evenings, which generally offer Arabian music, belly dancing, smoking a hubble-bubble pipe and displays of falconry. An added desert attraction offered by Dubai ground operators is the adventure of "dune bashing," a pitch-and-toss ride through the dunes in four-wheel-drive vehicles, with participants learning the skills required to negotiate the difficult desert terrain.

Travelers with a taste for speed can also try sand skiing, an unusual sport that takes participants down the slopes of Dubai's desert dunes.

One of the seven United Arab Emirates, Dubai is particularly well organized to serve as a gateway to Arabian peninsula attractions, which are connected by modern, paved highways, secondary roads and desert tracks.

  • Closest to Dubai along the north road are the tiny emirates of Sharjah, a half-hour drive away, and Ajman, just beyond that. Both are combined into a half-day tour that follows the coast to the country's largest dhow-building yard at which the traditional Arabian Gulf wooden boats are crafted. Tour participants will visit Sharjah, whose domed souk (bazaar) houses some 500 shops selling clothes, jewelry, antiques, carpets and souvenirs, and Ajman, whose ethnographic museum exhibits life in the emirates before the discovery of oil.
  • A full-day scenic excursion heads south to the oasis of Al Ain, for centuries an important caravan station on the ancient trade routes and now a garden city that is two hours overland from Dubai. There is a museum in Al Ain, and other attractions include the camel market, the old souk in neighboring Buraimi and 5,000-year-old tombs at the archaeological site at Hilli.
  • From Dubai, day trips can be organized to Abu Dhabi, also a two-hour drive away. It is the capital of the United Arab Emirates and its richest emirate. No place better demonstrates the power of petroleum revenues than Abu Dhabi, a sleek and shiny city of glass and chrome that rises to towering heights above the desert and sea. A tour will include a visit to the Petroleum Exhibition and Documentation Center, housed in the historical Al Husn Fort; the dhow boat yard, and Batinah harbor.
  • The longest overland journey offered by local tour operators is from Dubai to Muscat in Oman, approximately an eight-hour drive, including a stop for lunch. Oman's attractions require a visit of several days, staying in Muscat by the sea and visiting its clifftop fortifications, the Natural History Museum and the Mutrah souk.
  • On a day trip from Muscat, travelers will visit the fort and market in Nizwa and the Jabreen fort, dating to the 17th century. A longer stay might include touring the southern region of Dhofar, whose most important city is seaside Salalah.

    For additional information on Dubai, including the Dubai '99 Tourism Manual, call the Dubai Department of Tourism & Commerce Marketing in Philadelphia at (215) 751-9750 or fax (215) 751-9551. For the West Coast office in Santa Monica, Calif., call (310) 752-4488 or fax (310) 752-4444.

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