Fort al Hamily at Liwa Oasis on the edge of the Empty Quarter (Photo: Hemis / Alamy Stock Photo)
If you’re like most travelers to the United Arab Emirates, you’ll never venture beyond the safe embrace of its skyscraper-strewn cities. But that’s not you, right? You’re ready to put the pedal to the metal and discover the wealth of spectacular scenery that lies an easy drive from Dubai — from desert plains and dramatic fjords to lush oases, lofty dunes and more. On the practical side, you’ll find first-rate roads, cheap fuel and fuss-free car rental. So summon your inner explorer, grab your International Driving Permit — a must-have here — and leave Dubai in the (sand) dust on one of these unforgettable road trips.
Desert: From Dubai to Liwa
The most rewarding of road trips in the UAE is along sand-swept highways to remote Liwa — one of the Arabian Peninsula’s largest oases, on the edge of the Empty Quarter (the world’s largest contiguous sand desert). While Emiratis and expats associate this awe-inspiring part of Arabia with legendary explorer Wilfred Thesiger — the first to cross these colossal dunes on camel and foot — modern-day adventurers will recognize the 650-foot-high dunes from “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” filmed here in 2014.
Distance/Duration: 230 miles/3 hours 45 minutes
Tip: Read Thesiger’s “Arabian Sands” (1959) for an appreciation of this inhospitable land.
Fjords: Dubai to Khasab, on the Musandam Peninsula in Oman
OK, so the Musandam Peninsula is not technically in the UAE (it’s an enclave of Oman). Still, this drive from Dubai to Khasab is one of the most jaw-dropping on the Arabian Peninsula. From the UAE-Oman border, the winding road hugs the coast — and each turn reveals yet another tranquil bay where fishermen mend nets and locals cross the beach to buy fresh seafood from the boats.
Distance/Duration: 122 miles/3 hours
Tip: Stay a night in Khasab for a dhow cruise and dolphin spotting — and, if you’re brave, an edge-of-your-seat, four-wheel-drive tour toward the heady peaks of 6,260-foot Jebel Harim mountain.
Bonus tip: When hiring a car in Dubai, make sure the rental agency allows their vehicles to be driven into the Omani enclave — some companies don’t.
Oasis: Dubai to Al Ain
If you do only one road trip in the UAE, make it this effortless escape from fast-paced Dubai to laidback Al Ain. Put the car in cruise control on the smooth, straight stretch of blacktop and focus on spotting some camels. (Those “ships of the desert” are tricky to detect against the tan-colored dunes.) Once in Al Ain, known as the Garden City for its lush greenery, you have handsome forts to explore, date-palm oases to discover and, at Hili Archaeological Park, Bronze Age tombs that will blow your mind.
Distance/Duration: 122 miles/90 minutes
Tip: Don’t miss the giddy, winding drive up Jebel Hafeet mountain — 4,098 feet! — for sweeping oasis and desert views.
Mountains: Dubai to the East Coast
The Dubai-to-Hatta section of this route offers some of the most sublime vistas in the country, from camel-dotted plains to russet-colored dunes — including Big Red, a famed rise popular among adrenaline junkies for sandboarding, quad biking and dune bashing (high-speed dune driving). At the high-altitude enclave of Hatta, the parched, purple-hued mountains are best appreciated from the town’s historic watchtowers. The spectacular drive north from Hatta along the east coast offers more scorched peaks skirted by white-sand beaches. (Take the coastal road that winds through Fujairah, Khor Fakkan and Al Badiyah and ends in Dibba.)
Distance/Duration: 203 miles/4 hours.
Tip: En route to Hatta, take a detour from the crossroads town of Al Madam and head to Al Shuwaib (15 miles/20 minutes) to see Arabian oryx (a large antelope) and gazelles frolicking on the dunes.
Sea: Dubai to the North Coast
The route to the seaside village of Ras Al-Khaimah doesn’t offer the scenic drama of other drives, but this trip is more about the destinations than the journey. Call into cities and towns along the way, and you’ll discover old wooden dhows bobbing in the harbor in Sharjah, stunning palm-lined sandy beaches in Ajman, restored wind-tower houses in Umm Al Quwain, atmospheric old souks in Ras Al Khaimah, and, in the arid mountains inland, centuries-old Portuguese forts and watchtowers.
Distance/Duration: 74 miles/90 minutes.
Tip: Take two hours to stroll Sharjah’s historic quarters, and an hour each in Ajman, Umm Al Quwain and Ras Al-Khaimah.