Why you should ditch Dubai’s fancy hotels and go camping instead

Camping in Hatta is another way to experience the Emirate of Dubai – Dubai Tourism

“I have 15,000 strawberry plants, but I would like a few more,” said Mr Al Mutuwaiee, grinning under his Armani baseball cap. But he’s not hoping for just any variety, he explained: He wants the “white jewel” strawberry, the most expensive in the world, prized for its shiny but completely colorless flesh. However, they are only grown in Japan, “and the export regulations are… strict,” he sighed, opening the door of his greenhouse. “I’m trying, but no success yet. But,” he brightened, “I have hope! In Dubai, nothing is impossible.”

In his spotless kandura robe and designer headpiece, Al Mutuwaiee doesn’t look like an ordinary farmer, but this is no ordinary farm either. A huge, gleaming mango tree towers over the courtyard, providing welcome shade from the unforgiving sun, and rows of ruby-red strawberries lead to a grove of papaya trees, their leaves larger than dinner plates. Behind the trees, mountains loom in all directions, their peaks as sharp as an electrocardiogram – rising and falling against a cloudless sky.

The mountains of Hatta are ideal for hikingThe mountains of Hatta are ideal for hiking

The mountains of Hatta are perfect for hiking, discovers Hazel – Hazel Plush

Yes, this is Dubai – but not as you probably know it. In Hatta, home to Al Mutuwaiee’s small farm, there are no shopping malls, no fancy resorts, no 16-lane highways. An exclave of the emirate of Dubai, the region is small – slightly larger than Jersey – and a two-hour drive from the city; it borders Oman to the south and other UAE emirates to the west and north. Still, its peaks would dwarf most skyscrapers, and thanks to continued investment in tourism and infrastructure worth AED1.3 billion (£281 million), Hatta is certainly a hot property.

High in the Al Hajar Mountains, this is a traditionally quiet, little-visited region. It is full of lush date plantations and family-run farms, mighty mountain peaks and remote campsites: natural delights that, the government says, will be enhanced, not destroyed, by the new developments. It’s easy to see why the location is so ripe for investment; At this altitude it is always a few degrees cooler than in the city, and there is also a fresh breeze. The signs call it ‘The Highlands of Dubai’.

Dubai’s adventure playground

The first major project in the region opened in 2018: Hatta Wadi Hub, an outdoor adventure center whose offering increases every year: ziplining, mountain biking, guided hikes, ax throwing, rope climbing and more. Before the arrival, the only people visiting Hatta from the city were a few hardy wild campers; I know, because I was one of them. “Now we’re building a big shooting range and coming up with all kinds of new activities,” general manager David Charlton enthused during my most recent visit in February. He had the air of someone who created their ultimate playground – which, given Hatta’s extraordinary reward, he is.

From Dubai city, Hatta is an easy drive east on a smooth desert highway. The tallest building in the world quickly shrinks in your rearview mirror: it’s a surreal journey, the road surrounded by rust-red sand dunes and hanging camels. But just when you think you’ve left civilization behind, the Hatta sign appears: huge Hollywood-style letters high in the hills, announcing your location in bold font. It’s actually even bigger than the Los Angeles icon: this is Dubai after all.


The Hatta sign is bigger than the one in Hollywood – MARIA FEDOTOVA

At the Hatta Honey Bee Discovery Centre, you can don beekeeping suits to work with real working beehives and taste honey made from ghaf pollen, the UAE’s national tree. Al Mutuwaiee’s Hatta Strawberry Farm will soon offer pick-your-own organic fruit, plus farm tours and a coffee shop selling homemade jam. There are endless hiking trails through the peaks, ancient tribal forts to explore and almost 40km of cycle routes.

Another newcomer is Hatta Kayak, a water sports base at Hatta Dam. This vast, tranquil reservoir is surrounded by mountains and the water sparkles like diamonds in the abundant sunshine. It is truly breathtaking and you can explore it by kayak, paddle boat or cruise boat, with just a few elegant gray cormorants for company.

Perfect campsite

You would think that a tent would not have much appeal in this country of five-star hotels, but the demand for the campsites in the area is high – no wonder, because they are incredibly beautiful. Mountain views, remote locations, excellent facilities: this is not a rainy weekend in Dorset. Bathrooms and shower blocks are spotless, and trendy food trucks sell good coffee, hot dinners and Arabic specialties such as sweet syrup-soaked luqaimat dumplings.

“The first time I was there, I couldn’t believe my eyes,” confides Rania Jabar, a Canadian who has lived in Dubai for sixteen years, as she watched her children climb the Wadi Hub climbing wall. “Dubai had a whole new side that we didn’t know existed! Three years later, we come there all the time. My kids had never camped before, but they love it.”

Kayaking in Lake Hatta is a magical experienceKayaking in Lake Hatta is a magical experience

Kayaking on Lake Hatta is a magical experience – Dubai Tourism

If canvas isn’t your thing, Hatta’s glamping options include everything from geodesic domes and chic campers to tiny cabins tucked into the hills. The accommodation is hotel quality, but they’re self-contained and secluded – and nightly rates start at £80. I stayed at Damani Lodges, whose small huts come with Dubai-style equipment (king size bed, strong WiFi, golf buggies to get around travel) and panoramic views of the valley from the terrace.

Mine also had its own BBQ area, with charcoal available – or the offer to have dinner grilled for me and delivered to the lodge. You can guess which option I chose; a carefree feast of lamb kofta and mezze, spotted under a sorbet-pink sunset.

Hatta, DubaiHatta, Dubai

Sunset over Hatta – Dubai Tourism

Hatta is far from finished: numerous new attractions are planned in the coming years, including a mountain cable car, a freshwater beach and another 120 kilometers of cycle paths. Yet there is much to enjoy here straight away, during a few days’ break from the city. A ‘waterfall oasis’ with restaurants, cafes and play areas is currently being finalised, reportedly costing AED46 million (£10 million). “New campsites, lakes, water sports, hotels – it’s all happening,” Al Mutuwaiee told me, proud of his country’s burning ambition.

And perhaps that’s the real key to Hatta’s allure: breathtaking scenery and outdoor fun, with a touch of Dubai’s signature optimism. Because that not so modest farmer is right: in this surreal, spectacular wilderness, ‘the impossible’ simply disappears into the wind.


Damani Lodges (00 971 4 820 5500; visithatta.com) has cabins from £119 per night, excluding breakfast. Emirates (0344 800 2777; emirates.com) flies direct to Dubai from seven UK airports, from £535 return.

Hatta Kayak (00 971 56 616 2111; hattakayak.com) rents kayaks from £13; Wadi Hub activities cost approximately £10.80 per adult. Conditions for camping are best between October and March. For more information, see visithatta.com and visitdubai.com


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