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8 wild outdoor adventures in Dubai
Desert camping, skydiving, sea kayaking ... gold-leaf facials and Krug sundowners aren't the only exotic adventures in Dubai
We all know Dubai, right?
Brash, high-rolling, seven-star -- a place to drop loads of cash and stay indoors against the heat.
But Dubai is recently attracting adventure travelers.
Between October and April, when the weather cools, Dubai offers countless opportunities for action on land and sea, or in the air.
Sand islands built in the shape of the world map, the world’s tallest building, luxury hotels resembling huge chandeliers -- Dubai’s man-made skyline is well-known from amazing images.
For some, the best way to experience these 21st century landmarks is by jumping out of a Cessna and plummeting toward them at hellish speeds.
Jumpers take off from Dubai Marina and, strapped to an instructor, tumble out of the plane above the Palm Jumeirah for an instant free-fall adrenaline rush.
Once the chute opens its time to relax and concentrate on sprawling views that unfurl as you descend gently toward the purpose-built Palm Drop Zone.
Skydive Dubai, off Al Sufouh Road, Dubai Marina; +971 50 153 3222; tandem skydives from $545
2. Mountain biking
Devoted mountain bikers who imagine Dubai as soft dunes and dust need to wise up -- and plenty already have.
Within the Hajar Mountains running east of Dubai through Ras al-Khaimah emirate and Oman, there’s a labyrinth of big-time trails to tackle.
A hardcore organization of expat mountain bikers, Hot Cog, has helped discover and maintain 70 kilometers of wild routes through craggy terrain around the Showka area, incorporating narrow trails, wadi beds and animal paths.
You won’t be alone: wild donkeys, mountain goats, lizards and snakes might all be encountered along the way.
With steep climbs and rough ground, tracks are difficult and not suitable for novices, but offer a tasty challenge to experienced riders.
Hot Cog has information on routes and joining a group ride.
Bike rental: Adventure HG,Times Square, Sheikh Zayed Road; +971 4 346 6824; mountain bike rentals from $27
Guided mountain bike rides: Absolute Adventure, Absolute Adventure Center, Dibba; +971 4 345 9900; rides from $100
3. Desert camping
There’s no need to be stuck in a crowded campsite around Dubai.
Beyond the city limits, the emirate’s desert is basically one giant campsite -- albeit a bit light on the washroom facilities.
Dubai locals like nothing better than to throw their gear in a 4x4 and head for the nearest set of dunes.
Off the Dubai to Hatta road, Shwaib is a good spot. Within a couple of hours of leaving the city, you can be set up amid the dunes, ready for an evening of barbecuing beneath the star-rich desert night sky.
With wadi beds and mountains to explore, the next day is often spent on 4x4 voyages or practicing dune sports, such as sand-boarding.
You can camp even if you don’t own the equipment.
Companies such as Arabian Adventures lead guided camping safaris into the emirate’s only national park -- the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve, where herds of oryx and gazelle roam freely.
Arabian Adventures, Emirates Holidays Building, Sheikh Zayed Road; +971 4 303 4888; Starlight Express overnight camping trip from $190 per person
4. Reef- and wreck-diving
The Red Sea grabs the headlines for Middle East diving, but the emirates offer good, lesser-known underwater experiences.
Reefs are sparse along Dubai’s sandy coastline, but there are some good wreck dives a few miles offshore.
Sunk in 1998, Anchor Barge forms an artificial coral-coated reef at a depth of 25 meters -- it's a popular haunt for color-changing cuttlefish.
Nearby, Mariam Express is a cargo ship bottomed in 2006.
There’s much more to see in the Gulf of Oman, off the Arabian Peninsula’s eastern shores, a 90-minute drive from town and offered as a day trip from most Dubai hotels.
The waters of Fujairah emirate are warmer, with abundant reefs and islands to explore. Likely sightings include black-tipped reef sharks, parrotfish, moray eels, scorpionfish and turtles.
Further up the coast, off the Omani territory of Musandam, has some of the region’s best drift diving.
It’s a popular location for multi-day, live-aboard trips -- whale sharks are frequent visitors.
Al Boom Diving, Al Wasl Road, Jumeirah; +971 4 342 2993; from $95 per person for two-dive trip, with equipment
5. Climbing and hiking
Climbing as a pastime in the U.A.E. and Oman has been steadily growing, with new routes being discovered and existing ones developed by a small band of dedicated climbers and adventure operators.
The Hajar Mountains rise to 3,050 meters (10,000 feet) at their zenith.
The towering limestone crags offer a range of challenges -- from 3,000-foot routes up the higher peaks, such as Jebel Misht, to numerous shorter climbs and bouldering opportunities.
Around Dibba, on the east coast, you can even try deep-water soloing -- cliff climbing above the sea.
For non-climbers, there are challenging hiking routes in the northern emirate of Ras Al Khaimah.
The area is best explored on a guided hike; barely decipherable paths edge up cliff sides to high plateaus and mountaintops offering spectacular views across the plains below.
High above the desert in these upper reaches are hidden tracts of fertile farmland, wadi pools and remote villages.
Arabia Outdoors, +971 55 955 6209
6. Sea kayaking
The coast of the Arabian Peninsula has some excellent sea kayaking arenas, including areas of wetland that seem incongruous with the prevailing desert climate.
On the west coast, kayakers can explore accessible mangroves in the emirates of Um Al Quwain and Abu Dhabi, where they can see turtles and flamingos.
Over on the east coast is Khor Kalba, a protected 1,500-hectare area of mangrove forest that attracts important local wildlife.
White-collared kingfishers and Socotra cormorants, both endangered species, make their home here -- paddlers can easily enjoy half a day gliding around calm waters trying to spot the rare bird life.
Still on the east coast, more adventurous kayakers can spend anything between two days to a week traveling around the Musandam coast from Dibba, checking out coves and inlets and camping on isolated beaches.
Absolute Adventure, Absolute Adventure Centre, Dibba; +971 4 345 9900; half-, full- and multi-day kayaking trips from $135 per person
7. Kitesurfing and wakeboarding
Prime hotel and residential real estate occupy large swathes of Dubai’s city coastline, meaning much of it is in private hands.
One stretch of beach that isn’t off limits is in Umm Suqiem, a relatively quiet area of villas in the shadow of the luxury, sail-shaped Burj Al Arab hotel.
In recent years this enclave has become a magnet for wakeboarders and kitesurfers.
Introductory sessions in both, from $55 per person, can be booked through:
Gravel plains, sand dunes and wadi beds provide the surface for all-terrain vehicles in Dubai’s off-road adventure terrain.
Local operators take tourists out for stomach-churning dune bashing, with passengers gripping tightly as experienced drivers treat (or subject) them to a couple of hours of tearing up and skidding down steep sands.
If you want to take the wheel of a 4x4 yourself, there are good resources at hand.
Armed with a copy of the essential UAE Off-Road Guide and a decent GPS, you can choose between rocky trails following a course of wadi beds, tracks winding up into the mountains and trails snaking across the sands.
Arabian Adventures, Emirates Holidays Building, Sheikh Zayed Road; +971 4 303 4888; Morning Dune Drive trip from $53 per person
Offroad Zone, Street 8, Al Quoz 1; +971 4 339 2449; off-road vehicle hire from $272 per day