campers in desert in middle east under stars

Sit under the stars and experience the UAE after dark. (Photo: Getty Images)

Tips + Trends

‘Zone Out’ in the Middle East on These Before- and After-Hours Adventures

When the need for social distancing is a top-of-mind priority for even the most intrepid of adventurers, satisfying one’s wanderlust calls for a bit of creativity. In a newly emerging trend being coined “zoning out,” travelers keen to explore are turning to certain times of the day or night (“time zones”) when popular attractions and activities offer a completely unique and naturally uncrowded experience.

Whether it’s riding into the sunrise on camelback, trekking to a hidden desert oasis, stargazing in otherworldly landscapes or night diving to see coral reefs, these destinations in the Middle East serve up a dose of adventure in every time zone, even as the rest of the world sleeps.

As always, check for travel restrictions or closures before planning your trip.

Ras Al Khaimah, UAE

The emirate of Ras Al Khaimah, the UAE’s very own adventure capital, offers plenty of opportunities to tune out of city life and tune into nature. Its many hiking trails are best explored at daybreak before the scorching afternoon sun turns up the heat in the wadis.

Hikers should head to Jebel Jais, the country’s highest mountain, where six marked trails, suitable for various experience levels, take you to old settlements, abandoned villages and impressive overlooks. The mountainous region is about 10 degrees cooler than the rest of the UAE, year-round.

Beginners can do the 6-kilometer (3.7-mile) Wadi Shah hike, trekking through a canyon with sprawling views of the terrain, returning the same way, while advanced hikers can do the 13-kilometer (8-mile) loop, with plenty of ascents and descents that lead to abandoned villages. You might spot foxes and enjoy the company of mountain goats along the way.

For the ultimate panoramic view of the mountains, do the easy, 4-kilometer (2.5-mile) Balcony Hike along a gravel path. Independent hikers should use trail maps to plan their hikes.

If you’re after a bigger challenge, hire a guide from local operator Adventurati Outdoor and trek to the Hidden Oasis, a lush, hidden plain with palms where farmers from mountain tribes are hard at work. There are two routes that take hikers there, and the round trip takes about eight hours. Steep ascents along the mountain’s edge mean that it’s suited to advanced hikers and best done with a local guide.

Daymaniyat Islands, Oman

beach in oman with rocks
Cool off in Oman. (Photo: Getty Images)

With more than 3,000 kilometers (1,864 miles) of coastline and the nutrient-rich waters of the Gulf of Oman, which are home to diverse marine life, Oman is a popular diving destination in the Middle East.

Thrilled by the prospect of spotting whale sharks, humpbacks, dolphins and coral reefs? Take a cue from divers in the know and head to the Daymaniyat Islands, an archipelago of nine uninhabited islands that comprises a designated nature reserve visited by migratory birds and nesting turtles.

A night dive offers the chance to explore this fascinating ecosystem in a unique way — with nocturnal marine life for company. A vibrant underwater world of coral reefs, manta rays, seahorses, leopard sharks and tropical fish lies below the surface in the archipelago’s clean, shallow seas.

As the site is a protected nature reserve, a diving permit is required. This, along with boat transportation and equipment rental, can be arranged with operators such as Extra Divers.

Al Ula, Saudi Arabia

elephant rock al ula
Seek out Elephant Rock near Al Ula. (Photo: Getty Images)

Astounding monuments, archaeological ruins, well-preserved tombs and fascinating rock formations beckon curious travelers in Al Ula. To explore the red-rock desert landscape, once the capital of the ancient kingdoms of Dadan and Lihyan, is to peek into a chapter of history that goes back 200,000 years.

Among the main sites to visit here is the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Hegra (also known as Mada’in Salih), the ancient southern capital of the Nabataean Kingdom, similar to Petra in Jordan, where you’ll find more than 100 rock-cut monumental tombs with intricate facades, stone carvings and inscriptions.

To make the most of your visit, spend the night in one of the desert camps at Al Ula. For a bit of stargazing, visit Al Gharameel and admire rugged rock formations reaching into the starry night sky. Then, wake up in the wee hours of the morning to visit Jabal AlFil (Elephant Rock), a massive red sandstone structure that resembles an elephant, its trunk extending to the ground. This is a spectacular sight when lit up by the rays of the rising sun. Spend your morning hiking around the spot and reward yourself with a picnic breakfast.

Wadi Rum, Jordan

wadi rum
Venture out to Wadi Rum. (Photo: Getty Images)

For an otherworldly experience in Jordan, spend a night or two in the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Wadi Rum, or “Valley of the Moon,” a desert landscape of weather-sculpted sandstone cliffs, jagged rock formations, narrow gorges, natural arches, caves, archaeological relics and sand dunes that are painted rose gold by the setting sun.

By day, Wadi Rum offers opportunities to go trekking, horseback riding and rock climbing. By night, once the day-trippers have left, it transforms into a moonscape that is at once both stark and sublime.

Almost 25,000 petroglyphs found in Wadi Rum are evidence of nearly 12,000 years of human habitation. Today, the site is home to Bedouin tribes, some semi-nomadic, who operate tours in the area. An overnight stay in Wadi Rum offers the chance to stargaze and to take in the moonlit landscape on camelback until its colors begin to change around sunrise. If you’re after a more thrilling experience, wake up early for a sunrise jeep tour for an exhilarating drive over massive dunes.

Dubai, UAE

Dubai’s vast desert landscape is breathtaking and makes for the perfect escape from crowds. Rise with the sun and head into the Al Marmoom Desert Conservation Reserve on a Morning Dubai Bedouin Experience to immerse yourself in local culture.

While the rest of the city is waking up, you’ll find yourself on camelback, as part of a Bedouin camel caravan, surrounded by majestic desert dunes as far as the eye can see. Seated on traditional carpets, you’ll watch in fascination as a Bedouin shows off his falconry skills.

Afterward, join Bedouin hosts on a tour of the oasis village to learn about their way of life and customs. Admire local handicrafts; sample dates, honey and cheese; and prepare Arabic coffee and spice-infused tea over a fire.

Over a traditional breakfast of balaleet (sweet noodles with eggs), bajela (beans), local cheese and regag bread, listen to Bedouin tales passed down through the generations. Before you leave, join your hosts for traditional dancing in the desert.