Hatta is about to undergo a tourism revolution, but it’s already a great place to visit, finds Mark Setchfield
With just a few days to go until my fourth Christmas in the sun, I never imagined I would be surrounded by a herd of deer. As I entered the enclosure, at least 15 deer of all ages surrounded me, some with full antlers, other with small stumps – all of them staring up at me as I tried to capture the moment on my camera. They were quick to feed on the tree branches I offered. This situation was all very surreal. But the reality was I hadn’t travelled to the snowy north.
I was not so far away, in fact, in Hatta – an exclave of Dubai – for a two-day getaway.
The drive itself from Dubai, through the ever-changing landscape was breathtaking. As the scenery changes so much it is hard to keep your eyes on the road, from a towering city skyline to amber, windblown dunes to, finally, the beautiful dark volcanic mountains of Hatta.
Located about 134km south-east of Dubai city, close to the Omani border, this small village has quite a few surprises for such a peaceful little place relying mainly on tourism and water for its primary economy. Historically, the area grew date palms; the fruits were used as a food source and the trees were used for construction. Now many of the old houses have been cleared to make way for modern villas, set in orderly streets. New schools and hospitals have been built, public parks have recently opened and a small shopping mall is another of the very visible changes. The dark mountains are now glowing signs of development as strips of neon light flood the night sky.
The drive from Dubai through the ever-changing landscape was breathtaking, ending at the beautiful dark volcanic mountains of Hatta
Those are just a few of the changes taking place as a comprehensive Dh1.3 billion development plan for Hatta from Dubai Government gets underway. Much of the plan, launched this time last year, is aimed at improving the lives of the people who live in Hatta, with better infrastructure and employment opportunities for local entrepreneurs. In addition to more sport and culture offerings (the Spartan race was held there last month, for the first time), tourism is another branch of the development, and it’s a win-win – providing work for Hatta residents and getaways for visitors and UAE residents.
Expect to see the area around Al Sheraa – a heritage area with a 200-year-old mosque – developed with pathways and places to rest. For those with more energy, the first of five trails in the Hatta Hiking Project opened in spring this year, featuring a 9km trail connecting the key tourism attractions of the town.
My home away from the city for the weekend was JA Hatta Fort Resort, one of the oldest hotels in the country, and close to the ancient village. The resort, with just 52 rooms, opened in the 1980s and was renovated just over a year ago. The staff has undertaken much of the redesign at the hotel, which is set against the Hajar Mountains, explained Deborah Thompson, the newly appointed general manager.
There’s a definite sense of community in Hatta; the hotel staff – some of who have worked there since it opened, tell me they consider it home – are noticeably friendly and welcoming. Deborah addresses them by their first names and I sensed a warm atmosphere. The hotel itself has big plans ahead, including a helipad within the grounds of the hotel, for those who want to get away to their getaway really fast.
I’m overwhelmed by the fresh aroma of lush basil and rocket. Each plant has been grown from seed in six weeks
I’m then whisked off to the location of the next big project: A wellness centre. The hotel already has a small spa, just for women, but plans are to open a larger space for both sexes. Next up was the recently completed greenhouse. Walking into the microclimate, I’m overwhelmed by the fresh aroma of lush basil and rocket. Each plant has been grown from seed in six weeks, with irrigation drawn from the ground, and much of the greenery is used by the hotel’s chef. Deborah explained how all her team members have hidden skills; with staff going from waiting tables to tending to their seedlings. Other plans for the resort are the redevelopment of the climbing walls, a new shooting range, a glamping area (to join other camping areas already available in Hatta, should a tent be more your style) and renovation of the second pool area.
The resort is also home to an animal family, from the aforementioned deer, to peacocks, chickens and over 30 goats, with many animals named after the staff’s family members (including Deborah’s daughters). Some animals may be culled to reduce the ever-increasing numbers, but the staff are very attached the animals, I’m told. Apart from being cute, they are useful: They eat all the hotel’s edible waste.
The rooms are bright and white, with a chalet feel in keeping with the mountain locale, with vaulted ceilings, pebbled walls and a walk out terrace. I spent the afternoon hanging out in my room overlooking the lush green grass, and I could see the silhouette of the Hajar Mountains as the sun began to set. After a night in one of the biggest beds I have ever seen, I was up early for a quick breakfast then headed out to Hatta dam for a couple of hours’ kayaking, having decided against tackling the other very popular sport on offer in the area – mountain biking. Built in the 1990s to supply electricity and water, the dam, one of three in Hatta, has now become a favourite hiking and watersport destination, and a great place for a photo.
When you arrive at the dam, the first thing you will notice is the huge artwork on the spillway. It took German street artist Case MacLain two weeks to complete the 80m-high mural of the late Shaikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan and the late Shaikh Rashid Bin Saeed Al Maktoum, in a project run by Brand Dubai, the creative arm of the Government of Dubai Media Office. It is just another example of how Hatta promotion is ramping up.
From the top of the 330m dam, the water looked a fresh blue colour. I headed down to get my life jacket fitted, carefully stepped into the kayak and with a gentle push, I was off. I could hear nothing but the ripple of the water as I pushed the paddle left and right. I stopped and rested for a few minutes, and thought to myself that this has to be a perfect way to start the day. Surrounded by mountains, gliding over 30m-deep water, getting close to nature – who wouldn’t want to be here?
Feeling confident, I pulled out my phone and managed to catch a heron in full flight as it leapt off some rocks, then headed to the furthest point of the lake, stopping to snap different views. Thinking I was alone on the lake, suddenly a powered dingy zipped past me. The lake is patrolled, making sure no one is left stranded. Riding over the waves, I headed back – two hours of paddling was beginning to take its toll.
My driver, Shetty, has been working for the hotel for over 30 years and luckily for me, is a Hatta expert. When he first arrived in Hatta, there was very little there, a few shops, housing, the mosque and the hotel. He loves the Hatta way of life, and I could see why: It’s relaxed and peaceful, pollution- and traffic-free. Whether you want an action-packed hiking getaway, a kayaking weekend or a tranquil resort to unwind at – or all three – I say jump in the car and head to Hatta.
Expect to pay around Dh1,000 (plus taxes) per night with breakfast at the Hatta Fort Hotel. Call 04 809 9333. The drive to Hatta is probably the only downside to a visit: The border crossing on E44 is currently closed to non-GCC residents, meaning you’ll have to take a detour around Oman. The best route from Dubai is from E102 (Sharjah-Kalba Road) via E611 (Emirates Road), taking 90 minutes.
5 THINGS TO DO IN HATTA
THE HERITAGE VILLAGE
Now restored, the Heritage Village is situated in the heart of the Hajar Mountains. Explore over thirty buildings and get close to the Emirati village way of life. Models, graphics and audio give you an insight to the history of traditional life in the region. Entry is free.
Open from 7.30am you can head out onto the lake either in a kayak (Dh60, for individuals) or pedal boat (Dh120 for one hour for up to two adults and two children). Get there early. Contact Hatta Kayak on 056 616 2111.
There are over 50km of trails, divided into different grades to suit all levels and open 24/7. Much like a ski run, they are graded green for beginners, blue for intermediate, red for experienced and black for very skilled riders. Before you set off, download the latest trail map athattamtb.ae.
Visiting the natural spring-fed pools among the rocks of the Al Hajar Mountains is probably the one reason you’ve visited Hatta before. This series of pools run through narrow canyons and rocky corridors, bursting with waterfalls and turquoise pools. They get very popular, particularly on Friday afternoons, so arrive early. Guided tours can be arranged can through Hatta Fort Hotel – Shetty knows the best spots to visit the pools.
THE HONEY FESTIVAL
After a successful first honey festival earlier this year, it’s back for a second edition running from December 27-31. There will be 50 honey producers present, both from the UAE and from overseas, showcasing 12 variations on the sweet stuff. Head to the Heritage Village. Hatta is also home to the Hatta Honey Farm, a local producer with a number of beehives. Although the farm is not open to the public, there is a shop there selling the honey.