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In Sharjah's Mleiha Desert, knowing I'm tracing the steps of my ancestors, some of the earth's first human inhabitants, sends a shiver down my spine. Ancient tools have been discovered in an Ice Age cave, probably used as a shelter for migrating humans and animals, carved into the rock of the Faya Mountain. Other archaeological finds at Mleiha, now a top tourist destination within the United Arab Emirates, include the remains of an ancient lake and a fort.

 

Our four-wheel drive Land Cruiser climbs the honey gold dunes at speed, and I hold on tight as it swerves, climbs and cuts the sand like a knife through butter. With no-one and nothing in sight but the vivid orange sun setting in an apricot rose sky, on our desert safari, we could be the only people on earth.

 

Night falls and we're in awe as we settle into the camp and eat a barbecued dinner under the stars, sheltered by the Fossil Rock Mountain. Our expert astronomer provides an outline of the celestial bodies, visible constellations and planets. Through a powerful telescope I spot constellation, Orion, chasing the sparkling Seven Sisters, and marvel at the clarity of the moon's craters.

 

The third largest of the United Arab Emirates, Sharjah lies between the Persian Gulf and Arabian Sea. Considered to be the centre of Islamic culture, it is a land of rugged mountains, rolling sand dunes, lush nature reserves and white sanded beaches.

 

On our tour of the Heart of Sharjah, we learn about the ongoing, ambitious historical preservation and restoration of the city. By 2025, the heritage district will be revitalised as a vibrant cultural destination. Historic buildings will be restored, new structures following classic, traditional architectural styles will become hotels, restaurants, cafes, art galleries and markets. A designated natural area will include mountainous, rural Bedouin and marine environments.

 

Within the Heart of Sharjah district, the Al Bait, five star, luxury heritage hotel fuses the traditional with the contemporary. A total of 53 guest rooms stand within a 90 year-old manor house. As a mid-morning snack, open boxes of treasures, one to share between two people, arrive at the table. The white curling smoke lifts to reveal its secrets - a mele of multi-hued, tasty sweetmeats – macaroons, chocolate truffles, marzipan fruits and mini trifles plus a selection of dainty, savoury bites.

 

We feel welcome everywhere. Non-muslims are invited into magnificent, Ottoman-style, Al Noor mosque,  located by the Khaled lagoon. Before entering, the females in our party are asked to put on the Islamic abaya (black cloak) and shyla (veil).

It is light and comfortable, but immediately  I feel quietened and begin to move slowly, possibly because the long cloak pools around my feet. I volunteer to wear the battoulah or burqa which covers the nose and mouth. In this traditional dress, I wonder how I would be able to play football with my small grandsons. Or bounce on trampoline in the park with my young grand-daughters.

 

Inside the Al Noor, the most famous of Sharjah's 600 mosques, smiling representatives of Sharjah's Centre for Cultural Communication explain the significance of Five Pillars of Islam and present us with Arabic coffee and dates. Nearby, located within stunning tropical gardens, is the warm, humid Butterfly House of plant-covered walls, where around 200 paint-box-coloured, winged insects call it home.

 

Every week, quantities of butterfly pupae from Malaysia are delivered, to emerge as adult butterflies a few days later. Species include the chocolate pansy, blue glassy tiger, autumn leaf and common rose. Just reading their names makes me happy.

Al Noor Island, the newest family attraction in Sharjah features artistic sculptures, maze gardens, a literature centre, a cafe and a forested, adventure playground.

 

The Formula 1 Powerboat World Championships is a platform for, among others, the rich and famous. With prime VIP seats in the stand, we hear the roar of the engines as we watch this, the world's foremost international series of inshore circuit powerboat racing. We feel an adrenalin rush and the thrill of the race, like the competitors as, at full throttle, they implement their skills to outwit and outshine others, skimming the foaming water, their craft almost rising above it in a quest to break records and their rivals' hearts.

 

In the evening, we return to the Mleiha desert to join 600 invited guests for a gala dinner. It's a balmy night, but, perching on low Arabic seating, we sit round open fires under a dark, starlit sky. A group of young men in white Arabic dress, sing, dance and play the drums, loudly. I opt for a henna 'tattoo' on my hand, then, at a stall,  queue to have my first name hand-written in coloured ink on paper, in Arabic. I chat to mothers and children enjoying the party.

 

Dinner is ready and we walk across the sand, collect a plate and stroll through the aisles where tables groan under the weight of numerous, delicious hot and cold dishes.  A spectacular laser show is followed by a thrilling firework display.

 

But a world away, is the tranquil, desert wetland of the Khor Kalba nature reserve in Kalba city on Sharjah's east coast, home to mangroves, tidal creeks and beaches rich with birdlife and a nesting ground for turtles.

 

As we step out of our mini-bus, our luggage is whipped away. We board a small, covered boat which crosses a little creek to get to the Kingfisher Lodge estate, one of the first eco-tourism property developments in the United Arab Emirates. Part of the Kalba Eco-Tourism project, the property's team works with the Environment and Protected Areas Authority to re-establish the eco-system around the lodge and within it. Buggies take us to our individual tents, which are more like pavilions! There are 25 of these, each with its own plunge pool, four-poster bed, sitting area, designer, contemporary bathroom and private terrace with views across the Indian Ocean. Kayaking, fishing, paddle boarding and other outdoor activities are available and there are spa facilities and treatment options.

 

When it's time for dinner, I pick up the phone and within minutes, a buggy arrives to transport me to the restaurant tent, where the food is sublime.

 

Then it's back to my own luxury tent for the night.

If this is glamping, count me in!

 

Factfile:

 

www.visitsharjah.com

www.discovermleiha.ae

www.heartofsharjah.ae/souq-al-arsah

www.ghmhotelscom/en/al-bait-sharjah

www.shjculture.com

www.alnoorisland.ae

www.www.f1h2o.com

www.sharjahcollection.ae/kingfisher-lodge

Glamping it up in Sharjah on magical Arabian nights!

Marion Ainge

writing for

YOUR HOLIDAY TV

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Marion's tent at Kingfisher Lodge

Al Noor Mosque Sharjah

Al Noor Mosque Sharjah My tent at Kingfisher Lodge Kingfisher Lodge terrace

Kingfisher Lodge Terrace

Ice Age cage in Mleiha Desert

Marion at the Ice Age cave in the Mleiha Desert