I’m kayaking down a mangrove creek that I could be in Australia or Asia, but this snaking green sliver is just 45 minutes from Dubai, in the neighbouring emirate of Ajman. It’s a major draw for migrating birds (about 100 species) and, as we float, I spy an osprey, oystercatchers and flamingos, while a kingfisher’s metallic blue is an avian glimpse of Dubai bling as it its past.
Kayaking tours are run by Welshman Brian Parry, whose mission is to educate local schoolchildren about how important a habitat carbon sink mangroves are – even their roots prod upwards to take in CO2 and breathe out oxygen.
Parry explains that in this part of the world, mangroves have often been bulldozed for development, but attitudes are changing.
“They are now seen as so important they’re protected by satellite surveillance,” he says. This was not what I was expecting from the UAE and, at his request, I plant a tree, which in my head carbon offsets the short drive back to Ajman city.
Ajman is not what many imagine from the UAE, as its dowdy corniche and largely undeveloped beach resembles Dubai 30 years ago. Away from the main drag, however, there’s nothing dowdy about our hotel, Ajman Saray, a Luxury Collection Resort, or its white-sand beach where waves break gently – perfect for families. Germans and Russians are already here in numbers and they love it as, Kuoni hopes, will the Brits, particularly as it’s 25-30% cheaper than Dubai.
“It’s affordable luxury – it fits our brand,” says Wendy Kenneally, Kuoni’s commercial and operations director. She adds that in contrast to the mega city nearby, Kuoni’s average stay in Ajman is longer, nearly seven nights – proof some see it as a fly-and-flop destination in its own right, particularly as hotels offer all-inclusive packages.
Flopping would be a waste, as within walking distance of the hotels or a cheap taxi ride, you come across the real Arab world. One such encounter is at the quayside fish market, where the catch is auctioned when traditional dhow boats return each morning and evening.
Across the street is Ajman Museum, housed in the former Sheikh’s fortress home. Its displays are old fashioned compared with showpiece museums in Qatar or Abu Dhabi, but that is its charm.
For added authenticity, there are numerous local restaurants – celebrity chef brands are a mirage here. Food is Indian-influenced and biryani-style dishes popular (as in other emirates, alcohol is served only in hotels).
Ajman is a newcomer to tourism and its ambitions are moderate. It mainly earns its crust as a business centre, having until a decade ago disregarded its beachfront while other emirates developed theirs. Now, a few hotels and modest marinas are under construction, a desert camp will be established this year and a traditional dhow is being restored for creek cruises.
There is a modern mall and the new low-rise Marsa Ajman retail development opposite the hotel strip, but it is very much not Dubai.
Given the comfort of the hotels (Ajman Saray was built in 2015 and there’s a minimalist Oberoi that’s more Californian than Arabic in style), plus the proximity of the attractions, many will be content not to leave, but if guests do want their Dubai fix, hotel shuttles run frequently.
I decide against this, but feel Dubai has come to me when I meet Bella Versace. Fresh from a pampering session and surrounded by adoring attendants, Bella bats her eyelashes, nuzzles me and flicks her long tresses. Bella is a thoroughbred Arab and what is known in these parts as a Beauty Horse. I’m no equine enthusiast, but she’s among 140 others I encounter at a specialist stables and I’m besotted by their high-maintenance elegance.
Each January, the multi-million dollar Arabian Horse Show takes place in Ajman, when llies, mares, colts and stallions parade their looks.
It’s a big draw for locals and tourists alike – and probably as showy as Ajman gets.
Book it: Kuoni offers seven nights’ all-inclusive at Ajman Saray in a Deluxe Creek View room, including flights from Gatwick and transfers. Selected May and June departures are priced from £1,269pp. agents.kuoni.co.uk
Airport: 45 minutes from Dubai International.
Best time to go: October to March.
Currency: UAE dirham.
Time difference: +3 hours.
Best for: Families and couples.
Weather: Summers can reach 50°C but winters are cooler, averaging at about 20°C.
Smarter: If planning a trip from Ajman to Dubai, take advice on when to go; rush-hour traffic means a journey that should take 30 minutes can sometimes take 2.5 hours. The same advice goes for airport transfers.
Better: AjmanHotel’sZanziBarisagreat spot on the beach to eat or drink with the sand between your feet, especially as the sun goes down.
Fairer: Unlike Dubai,Ajmanhassofar been passed over by chain restaurants, so visitors have the chance to try independent local eateries. Hotel staff, who are often European, will advise on their favourites.
Have you visited Ajman? Got any tips for what to see and do? Email email@example.com and let us know your thoughts or leave a comment below.