Travel

Trade Downtown Glitz for Rugged Adventure at the UAE’s Best Protected Reserve

Scenic Hatta Mountain Reserve stands in sharp contrast to Dubai's sparkling cityscape.

Photo courtesy of Dubai Tourism
Photo courtesy of Dubai Tourism
Photo courtesy of Dubai Tourism

Gearing up for a trip to Dubai might involve digging out your fanciest pair of shoes, your chicest poolside ensemble, and whichever credit card has the highest limit. After all, the cosmopolitan oasis perched on the edge of the Persian Gulf has long been a bastion of flashy modernity and high capitalism, studded with gravity-defying skyscrapers, pampering luxury resorts, and malls the size of small American cities. But just 90 minutes from the towering Burj Khalifa and all its glitzy mayhem lies a very different side of the United Arab Emirates experience: Hatta Mountain Reserve, a secluded yet action-packed protected area offering visitors and locals alike a much-needed dose of nature. Now a part of the United Arab Emirates, Hatta (formerly known as Hajarain) began life as a territory of neighbouring Oman. Around 1850, however, Sultan Turki bin Said surrendered to the interests of the Na’im of Buraimi tribe, which had recently settled nearby Masfout, and officially transferred the land’s ownership to Dubai. The area has always been extremely valuable, its relatively high altitude of 1,053 feet fostering fertile soils, cooler year-round temperatures, and plentiful rain in a region where freshwater is hard to come by. In fact, Hatta receives 30% of the UAE’s total annual rainfall, replenishing the restored falaj, a traditional Omani irrigation system, and pooling into two sizable downstream reservoirs.

Stationed at the apex of the Arabian Highland Woodlands and Shrublands WWF Global 200 Ecoregion, Hatta also holds the title as one of the Gulf’s most biodiverse destinations. Stroll through the historic village or trek along the jagged Hajar Mountains slicing through blue skies above and you’ll come across 19% of the country’s known plant species, 44% of its native mammalian population, 27% of its birds, 30% of its reptiles and amphibians, and a whopping 79% of its dragonflies. Likewise, tilling the land is still a prominent industry in these parts, with a reported 550 farms, many specializing in lucrative date palms, calling Hatta’s 50-square-miles home.

Photo courtesy of Dubai Tourism
Photo courtesy of Dubai Tourism
Photo courtesy of Dubai Tourism

Given all these advantages-not to mention its driving-distance proximity to urban hubs like Dubai and Abu Dhabi-it’s no wonder that local Emiratis and their fellow residents have been frequenting Hatta as a prime vacation spot for the last 40-odd years. In recent years, tourists have been let in on the secret, with budding interest among visitors looking to pad out their trips to Dubai with some nature-focused activity. The state has, in turn, responded to the area’s rise in popularity, pledging 1.3 billion AED back in 2016 to support a multitude of front-facing projects, including development of housing, green areas, bike paths, and more. In 2019, Hatta Mountain Reserve was designated Ramsar Site Number 2368 by the UAE, a protected class marking the area a Wetland of International Importance. And the future, it seems, is only getting brighter.

“Hatta has transformed over the past few years to become a world class destination and a key touristic attraction,” says Roudi Soubra, executive director of asset management for ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum’s global investment company, Dubai Holding. “With the UAE Government support, we’re proud to have played a pivotal role in developing an eco-friendly adventure destination, with adventurous activities from kayaking to mountain biking, axe-throwing, and archery, among many others. Furthermore, we’re happy to continue to grow and develop the area through numerous initiatives which will further support the local Hatta community, socially and economically.”

Axe-throwing? Kayaking? In Dubai? You betcha. Here’s how to make the most of an endlessly exciting, captivatingly beautiful expedition to the UAE’s natural crown jewel, Hatta Mountain Reserve.

Photo courtesy of Visit Hatta
Photo courtesy of Visit Hatta
Photo courtesy of Visit Hatta

Get your adrenaline pumping at Hatta Wadi Hub

First stop: Hatta Wadi Hub. This outdoor adventure complex harnesses Hatta’s epic scenery to create a one-of-a-kind experience for thrill-seekers of all ages. Drop by the central visitors centre to pick up a coffee or engage in a game of foosball before signing up for any number of family-friendly offerings. Highlights include the Middle East’s first ever zorbing track, where participants are strapped into giant, clear, inflatable balls before being catapulted down a grooved hillside. You’ll also find a tactical paintball course, axe-throwing and archery facilities, a climbing wall, a multi-lane 39-foot-tall water slide, guided off-road vehicle excursions, paragliding, rock climbing, trampolining, and a massive zipline.

The park also connects to more than 30 miles of hiking and biking trails, making it an excellent homebase for those interested in a more low-tech outing. Lodging options-including furnished trailers, tent camping, glamping, and modern cabins-are all up for grabs, plus fire pits for BYOB grilling and a cluster of resident food trucks peddling a variety of cuisines. Pack as much as you can into a day of fresh-air entertainment or take it easy with a walk around the property and a pony ride for the kiddos.

Photo courtesy of Dubai Tourism
Photo courtesy of Dubai Tourism
Photo courtesy of Dubai Tourism

Hit the trails on foot, by bike, or on horseback

Speaking of trails, Hatta is crisscrossed by a vast network of colour-coded pathways ideal for hikers, bikers, and everything in between. Scale the craggy mountainside on an advanced black route or opt for a leisurely cruise along one of the less-taxing green routes. With a 24-hour trail centre and free parking, bikers armed with their own equipment can explore the varying terrain at their leisure, while others can rent what they need and even hire a trained guide by making a pitstop at Hatta Wadi Hub.

No matter which level you’re up for, you’ll be treated to a panoramic view of pastoral farms, sparkling rain-fed lakes, sweeping grasslands, preserved historic sites, and one of the highest concentrations of endemic flora and fauna in the UAE. And don’t forget to pause for a selfie in front of the landmark Hatta sign-modeled after the iconic Hollywood sign in Los Angeles, the 195-foot white block letters peer down from nearly 1,500 feet atop the range’s highest peak. Photo-ops can be found all along the mountain’s base, but the best view is certainly from beneath the sign itself, reachable in about 30 minutes by foot.

While it’s feasible to pack your souped-up Diamondback or trusty Merrells, odds are you didn’t attempt to check a horse on that overnight flight to Dubai. No worries-the folks at Hatta Golden Horse have your back, leading picturesque seasonal sunrise and sunset trots through the hills with their gorgeous fleet of Arabian horses. An hour-long ride runs 100 AED (about $27 USD) per person and includes a barbecue lunch.

Photo courtesy of Tanoor Restaurant
Photo courtesy of Tanoor Restaurant
Photo courtesy of Tanoor Restaurant

Feast on farm- (and hive-) to-table cuisine

All that exploring is bound to work up an appetite. For hungry park-goers, Hatta Wadi Hub serves as a one-stop-shop, stocked with both an onsite coffeeshop in the form of Hatta Wild Cafe as well as a handful of stationary food trucks. Menu options include everything from juicy burgers (Damani Bites) and creative twists on regional favourites (Taste of Hatta) to overstuffed doner and falafel wraps (Doner Race Sandwich) and Italian-style pizza, subs, and pasta dishes (Adrina).

Off the park grounds, a host of standalone restaurants provide a more conventional (yet rarely formal) dining environment. Over on Dubai Hatta Road, Tanoor Restaurant has mastered the art of Emirati home-cooking, with a menu spanning flavorful mezze and savoury meats like lamb, chicken, and camel. If you’re rolling deep, consider splurging on the traditional full sheep dinner, a family-style spread delivered right to your doorstep with all the fixings.

Located inside Hatta Heritage Village’s Shari’a district, Al Hajarian is another formidable contender for the area’s tastiest Emirati cuisine. The handsomely understated restaurant makes good use of Hatta’s agricultural bounty, sourcing ultra-local ingredients from nearby farms to whip up soups, salads, and hearty mains like lamb and chicken makboos, peppered with Khaleeji spices and fragrant yellow rice, tender, yogurt-marinated shish tawook, and rich Indian-influenced curries.

And it’s not just sheep farmers and vegetable-growers hogging the spotlight-insect aficionados also get their fair share of attention here. Hatta Honeybee Garden, the first queen bee-rearing facility in the region, attracts seasoned honey-lovers and the bee-curious alike to its tranquil four-acre sanctuary. Slip into a beekeeper suit and follow along as garden staffers show you the ropes on expert tours. You can also participate in hands-on programming like candle-making workshops and beehive maintenance demos. On your way out, head into the onsite shop to pick up jars of house-made honey organized according to pollinating tree, plus spiced honey fusions, bee pollen, ginseng, and raw honeycomb.

Photo Courtesy of Dubai Tourism
Photo Courtesy of Dubai Tourism
Photo Courtesy of Dubai Tourism

Paddle around the Hatta Dam’s turquoise waters

One of Hatta’s premiere attractions is the Great Dam of Hatta, constructed by Dubai’s government in the late 1990s to collect and divert the area’s abundant rainfall. Today, it stands as one of the largest of its kind in the Gulf Cooperation Council, storing a combined 2,596 million gallons of water between the upper and lower reservoirs and providing drinking water, crop irrigation, and groundwater protection for a huge swath of the UAE. And that’s not all-the Dubai Electricity and Water Authority has recently announced a $386.5 million dollar plan to build the Arabian Peninsula’s first-ever pumped storage hydropower plant, set to kick off in early 2024. The initiative is a part of the Dubai Clean Energy Strategy 2050, which promises to convert 75% of Dubai’s power to renewable energy by 2050.

But that’s the future. For now, the dam is a magnet for water sports enthusiasts from all corners of the world. Get up close and personal with its pristine, teal-hued depths by renting a kayak, water bike, or pedal boat from purveyor extraordinaire Hatta Kayak and embarking on some splashy fun in the sun. Or kick back and enjoy the sights without breaking a sweat from one of Hatta Kayak’s electric boats, which run the gamut from a four-man Donut Boat to a 25-seat VIP tour boat.

Just remember: As tempting as the waters may be, swimming in the Hatta Dam is strictly forbidden, so keep your arms and legs inside the vehicle at all times.

Photo courtesy of Courtesy of Dubai Tourism
Photo courtesy of Courtesy of Dubai Tourism
Photo courtesy of Courtesy of Dubai Tourism

Wander through historical riches

It doesn’t take an academic to pick up on the fact that Hatta buzzes with historical significance. What sets it apart, however, is how well preserved everything is-quite a change from the futuristic cityscape just 80 miles northwest in downtown Dubai. From ancient rock carvings to graves dating to 3500 BCE and century-old mosques, you could easily spend your entire Hatta vacation entrenched in the past.

The old village of Hatta is littered with once-strategic watchtowers that now offer curious visitors excellent views of the Mountain Reserve. Hatta Fort, a citadel erected in 1896 from mud bricks and stone chiselled from the mountainside, encompasses the most famous tower. At 36 feet tall, it stretches high above the fortress and the stately Juma Mosque, Hatta’s oldest with roots in 1780, below. The structure has remained a very popular tourist draw since its restoration in 1996.

For a totally immersive experience, spend some time in the surrounding Hatta Heritage Village, an open-air museum showcasing what Emerati life was like nearly 3,000 years ago. The attraction was painstakingly refurbished by the Dubai Culture and Arts Authority (DCAA) before opening to the public in 2001 to great acclaim. Some 30 traditional houses share space with exhibits detailing economic, political, and cultural artifacts like period weapons, pottery, handicrafts, clothing, furniture, agricultural tools, and more. An hour wandering these serene stone streets and you’ll feel worlds away from the Dubai Mall and all its sparkling modernity.

Photo Courtesy Dubai Tourism
Photo Courtesy Dubai Tourism
Photo Courtesy Dubai Tourism

Sleep beneath the stars or book a stay in a vintage trailer, sleek cabin, or four-star resort

Between poring over ancient artifacts and working off that extra order of mezze on a brisk hike up the hillside, any trip to Hatta Mountain Reserve worth its salt deserves at least two days of dedicated hang time. That’s where the area’s plethora of hospitable accommodations come in, with something for every budget, interest, and, let’s say, level of appreciation for the Great Outdoors.

Camping-both primitive tent-pitching sites and more upscale glamping opportunities-is a fantastic way to wring even more wilderness adventure out of your stay. Hatta Mountain Bike Trail Center offers resourceful overnighters a cozy place to post up, including barasti huts, grills, showers, and bathrooms, while Hatta Wadi Hub provides a similar setup plus onsite food trucks and other amenities. Have tent, will travel? Simply head toward the mountains, find a suitable campground, and drop your tarp-there are free campsites all over Hatta Mountain Reserve that require little more than showing up and snuggling in for the night.

For those looking for a slightly more comfortable dark sky sleepover, Hatta Wadi Hub comes correct with a bustling caravan park alongside access to the yurt-centric Hatta Dome Park and Damani Lodges Resort, beautiful private mountainside huts decked out with private balconies, speedy wifi, ensuite bathrooms, and plush beds. Elsewhere, Sedr Trailers-a network of shiny Airstream trailers nestled high in the mountains and only accessible via offroad ATV-oozes with Insta-worthy appeal. Each site comes with its own terrace, bathroom, and dining area, while a communal fire pit and barbecue area takes care of the rest. (Another perk? Room service from a resident food truck.)

Finally, if anything even resembling camping ruffles your delicate feathers, look no further than JA Hatta Fort Hotel. Despite its name, there’s nothing militaristic about this contemporary high-end resort. The pristine mountain views from the guestrooms, villas, and new Terra Cabins are just one of the property’s many draws. The full laundry list of offerings spans swimming pools, minigolf, multiple restaurants, a cocktail lounge, an indoor game room, wellness spa, petting zoo, fitness centre, and guided outdoor excursions. Much like the UAE, a country volleying between indulgent Dubai and rustic Hatta, it’s the best of both worlds.

Get the latest from Thrillist Australia delivered straight to your inbox, subscribe here.

Meredith Heil is the Editorial Director of Thrillist Travel.

Travel

Ditch your Phone for ‘Dome Life’ in this Pastoral Paradise Outside Port Macquarie 

A responsible, sustainable travel choice for escaping big city life for a few days.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

The urge to get as far away as possible from the incessant noise and pressures of ‘big city life’ has witnessed increasingly more of us turn to off-grid adventures for our holidays: Booking.com polled travellers at the start of 2023 and 55% of us wanted to spend our holidays ‘off-grid’.  Achieving total disconnection from the unyielding demands of our digitised lives via some kind of off-grid nature time—soft or adventurous—is positioned not only as a holiday but, indeed, a necessity for our mental health. 

Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, an accommodation collection of geodesic domes dotted across a lush rural property in Greater Port Macquarie (a few hours’ drive from Sydney, NSW), offers a travel experience that is truly ‘off-grid’. In the figurative ‘wellness travel’ sense of the word, and literally, they run on their own independent power supply—bolstered by solar—and rely not on the town grid. 

Ten minutes before you arrive at the gates for a stay at Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, your phone goes into ‘SOS ONLY’. Apple Maps gives up, and you’re pushed out of your comfort zone, driving down unsealed roads in the dark, dodging dozens of dozing cows. Then, you must ditch your car altogether and hoist yourself into an open-air, all-terrain 4WD with gargantuan wheels. It’s great fun being driven through muddy gullies in this buggy; you feel like Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park.  As your buggy pulls in front of your personal Nature Dome, it’s not far off that “Welcome…to Jurassic Park” jaw-dropping moment—your futuristic-looking home is completely engulfed by thriving native bushland; beyond the outdoor campfire lie expansive hills and valleys of green farmland, dotted with sheep and trees. You’re almost waiting to see a roaming brachiosaurus glide past, munching on a towering gum tree…instead, a few inquisitive llamas trot past your Dome to check out their new visitor. 

To fully capture the awe of inhabiting a geodesic dome for a few days, a little history of these futuristic-looking spherical structures helps. Consisting of interlocking triangular skeletal struts supported by (often transparent) light walls, geodesic domes were developed in the 20th century by American engineer and architect R. Buckminster Fuller, and were used for arenas. Smaller incarnations have evolved into a ‘future-proof’ form of modern housing: domes are able to withstand harsh elements due to the stability provided by the durable materials of their construction and their large surface area to volume ratio (which helps minimize wind impact and prevents the structure from collapsing). As housing, they’re also hugely energy efficient – their curved shape helps to conserve heat and reduce energy costs, making them less susceptible to temperature changes outside. The ample light let in by their panels further reduces the need for artificial power. 

Due to their low environmental impact, they’re an ideal sustainable travel choice. Of course, Tom’s Creek Nature Domes’ owner-operators, Cardia and Lee Forsyth, know all this, which is why they have set up their one-of-a-kind Nature Domes experience for the modern traveller. It’s also no surprise to learn that owner Lee is an electrical engineer—experienced in renewable energy—and that he designed the whole set-up. As well as the off-grid power supply, rainwater tanks are used, and the outdoor hot tub is heated by a wood fire—your campfire heats up your tub water via a large metal coil. Like most places in regional Australia, the nights get cold – but rather than blast a heater, the Domes provide you with hot water bottles, warm blankets, lush robes and heavy curtains to ward off the chill.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

You’ll need to be self-sufficient during your stay at the Domes, bringing your own food. Support local businesses and stock up in the town of Wauchope on your drive-in (and grab some pastries and coffee at Baked Culture while you’re at it). There’s a stovetop, fridge (stocked as per a mini bar), BBQs, lanterns and mozzie coils, and you can even order DIY S’More packs for fireside fun. The interiors of the Domes have a cosy, stylish fit-out, with a modern bathroom (and a proper flushing toilet—none of that drop bush toilet stuff). As there’s no mobile reception, pack a good book or make the most of treasures that lie waiting to be discovered at every turn: a bed chest full of board games, a cupboard crammed with retro DVDs, a stargazing telescope (the skies are ablaze come night time). Many of these activities are ideal for couples, but there’s plenty on offer for solo travellers, such as yoga mats, locally-made face masks and bath bombs for hot tub soaks. 

It’s these thoughtful human touches that reinforce the benefit of making a responsible travel choice by booking local and giving your money to a tourism operator in the Greater Port Macquarie Region, such as Tom’s Creek Nature Domes. The owners are still working on the property following the setbacks of COVID-19, and flooding in the region —a new series of Domes designed with families and groups in mind is under construction, along with an open-air, barn-style dining hall and garden stage. Once ready, the venue will be ideal for wedding celebrations, with wedding parties able to book out the property. They’ve already got one couple—who honeymooned at the Domes—ready and waiting. Just need to train up the llamas for ring-bearer duties! 

An abundance of favourite moments come to mind from my two-night stay at Tom’s Creek: sipping champagne and gourmet picnicking at the top of a hill on a giant swing under a tree, with a bird’s eye view of the entire property (the ‘Mountain Top picnic’ is a must-do activity add on during your stay), lying on a deckchair at night wrapped in a blanket gazing up at starry constellations and eating hot melted marshmallows, to revelling in the joys of travellers before me, scrawled on notes in a jar of wishes left by the telescope (you’re encouraged to write your own to add to the jar). But I’ll leave you with a gratitude journal entry I made while staying there. I will preface this by saying that I don’t actually keep a gratitude journal, but Tom’s Creek Nature Domes is just the kind of place that makes you want to start one. And so, waking up on my second morning at Tom’s —lacking any 4G bars to facilitate my bad habit of a morning Instagram scroll—I finally opened up a notebook and made my first journal entry:

‘I am grateful to wake up after a deep sleep and breathe in the biggest breaths of this clean air, purified by nature and scented with eucalyptus and rain. I am grateful for this steaming hot coffee brewed on a fire. I feel accomplished at having made myself. I am grateful for the skittish sheep that made me laugh as I enjoyed a long nature walk at dawn and the animated billy goats and friendly llamas overlooking my shoulder as I write this: agreeable company for any solo traveller. I’m grateful for total peace, absolute stillness.” 

Off-grid holiday status: unlocked.

Where: Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, Port Macquarie, 2001 Toms Creek Rd
Price: $450 per night, book at the Natura Domes website.

Get the latest from Thrillist Australia delivered straight to your inbox, subscribe here.

Related

Our Best Stories, Delivered Daily
The best decision you'll make all day.