6 ways to enjoy the Persian Gulf (that don't involve shopping)

6 ways to enjoy the Persian Gulf (that don't involve shopping)

Dune bashing in Qatar. Skiing (!) in Dubai. There's more to the Middle East's Gulf states than shiny buildings

When imagining a trip to the Persian Gulf, many of us picture bartering for silks and exotic treasures at an ancient souq, or perhaps befriending a Bedouin and wandering the desert in a camel caravan.

Alas, the modern Middle East often seems mostly filled with anonymous glass skyscrapers, brand name shopping and little else.

Don't despair.

There's more than shopping and architecture in the states of the Gulf Cooperation Council, which include Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

More on CNN: Following in Lawrence of Arabia's footsteps 

1. Dune bashing, Qatar

Dune bashing can be as hard on your head as it is on the vehicle. The best way to enjoy the shifting sands of the Arabian Desert is to tear through them in a large four-wheel-drive steered by a sandal-shod driver with sunglasses permanently mounted to his face. 

Welcome to dune bashing, a sport that lures thousands of tourists every year.

Though dune bashing is popular throughout the region, the most idyllic desert trip is the Inland Sea, or Khor Al-Adaid, in southern Qatar near the border of Saudi Arabia.

Large lakes form inlets surrounded by perfect dunes that snake in the desert breeze, offering a pliable track for your vehicle to zip up and down like a skateboarder on a malleable half-pipe. 

After a long day of bashing (consider bringing pain relievers for your inevitable headache), trips typically end with a picnic under a tent next to one of the placid lakes.

Tour companies offering Khor Al-Adaid dune bashing include City-discovery.com and Qatar Adventure. Overnight packages from US$150. 

2. Camel racing, Qatar

Robotic camel jockeys are slowly replacing humans. Whether you're looking to place money on your lucky dromedary or simply want to check out some sand-stirring revelry, camel racing is a Persian Gulf highlight. 

Big bucks can be made or lost during these races in which one-humped camels sprint at speeds of up to 65 kph.

Camel racing is popular in a number of Middle Eastern countries and even some outside of the region, such as Australia and Mongolia.

Despite global outcry from human rights groups, some countries in the Middle East still employ child jockeys (due to their weight). Notably, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates have banned child jockeys due to human rights abuses and, thus, are the most recommended destinations for viewing races in the Persian Gulf.

In Dubai, the enormous Al Marmoom camel racetrack (Dubai-Al Ain E66 Road; +971 (0)4 832 6526) is a top venue. Visitors get a quintessential race experience in a desert setting surrounded by locals cheering on their favorites. 

Entry is free; races take place from October to March. 

More on CNN: 10 of the best value hotels in Dubai

3. Kiteboarding, Qatar

With clear waters and high winds, Qatar is one of the world's best kiteboarding destinations. In a region where spotting a rain cloud is a rare event, sun-soaked activities along coastlines are perennially in vogue.

In Qatar, one of the windiest coastlines is in Al Wakrah province in the southeastern part of the peninsula, making it a hot kiteboarding destination.

Kiteboarders are also common along the bays in Doha, especially near the Pearl luxury project and Al Corniche, the central bay of the capital city. 

Unfamiliar with the sport? Kiteboarding Qatar (+974 660 18941) offers beginner courses and rentals.

4. Yachting, Oman and United Arab Emirates

Fifteen-seat Searay, part of Eden's Abu Dhabi fleet. What would a visit to the Middle East be without an ostentatious show of swank? 

Nothing says luxury like yachting on the crystal blue seas of the Persian Gulf. Eden Yachting runs boat hires out of Dubai and Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates and Muscat and Musandam in Oman.

Chartering a yacht is a great way to explore uninhabited islands and quiet coves once frequented by nomadic tribes of the region.

Oman, especially, embodies seafaring traditions. Sailing trips between the rugged peaks of Musandam bring visitors into contact with wooden boats and small villages docked on the outskirts of the region's civilization. 

More on CNN: 10 outrageous yachts for hire 

5. Shisha nights, Bahrain and Qatar

Whether you call it a shisha, hubble bubble or hookah, the waterpipe is one of the Middle East's most notable exports. Health concerns aside, nightlife in the Gulf is synonymous with the shisha, or waterpipe. The smoking device originated in Istanbul, where it's called "nagila," and spread throughout the Gulf during the Ottoman Empire. 

This flavored-tobacco pastime is still popular across the Gulf.

Most restaurants in the region will cure your shisha need at any time of day. In Doha, the Souq Waqif -- the city's so-called “old town”  -- has several haute shisha lounges that cater to late-night smokers.

Though considered a traditional town that dates back at least 100 years, Souq Waqif was recently given a makeover and has since became one of the top tourist destinations in Qatar. 

In neighboring Bahrain, not only is shisha still prevalent, visitors can revel in a lively club scene with lax liquor laws, one of the most liberal scenes in the Gulf. 

For a fair mix of both shisha and drinks in the Bahrain capital of Manama, Adliya is one of the city’s four lively night spots.

Souq Waqif is located behind the Corniche, off of Grand Hamed Street in Doha. Qatar's Adliya District is located between Kuwait Avenue and Skaikh Isa Avenue in Manama, Bahrain. 

6. Skiing? Yes, skiing, in Dubai!

St. Moritz? Aspen? Not quite. It's Ski Dubai, a massive indoor snow park. Hot enough to fry eggs on car hoods, Dubai summers can be offset with a visit to the ski slope. An indoor one, of course. 

Opened in 2005, Ski Dubai is part of the Mall of the Emirates and features not only a 60-meter manufactured mountain with five slopes, but also daily penguin encounters.

Winter clothing and ski equipment is included in the admission price, so you don’t have to worry about lugging your winter coat through the streets under the Dubai sun. 

The dome employs an energy efficient insulation system that keeps daytime temperatures at minus 1 C, which drop to minus 6 C, when snow is formed.

Ski Dubai, Mall of Emirates; +971 (0)4 409 4000; www.theplaymania.com

More on CNN: Dubai plans yet another 'world's biggest shopping mall'

In Asia since 2006, Justin Calderon has lived and worked in Seoul, Bangkok, Taipei, Shanghai, Kuala Lumpur, Manila and Yangon.

His work has been featured in The New York Times, Newsweek (Japan), CNN Travel, Global Post, Borneo Post and The Nation (Bangkok). 

He is a Mandarin reader and speaker, and is currently studying Burmese. 


Read more about Justin Calderon