Escape to Snoopy Island
Aaron Noah M.
Location: Al Aqah, UAE
“We need to get out of here.” Niall said with a great sigh. “I haven’t been out of Dubai for months.”
The city was getting to my Irish friend. It can do that, even with the most steel-and-concrete-blooded metro dwellers. Circus-like commuter traffic, construction dust, and a hundred hollow mutterings of “hello mam-sir” eventually wears on the soul, producing a kind of urban fatigue that no amount of shisha or Tiki Puka Pukas will alleviate. If Dubai’s celebrated nightlife cannot cure you, it’s time for a weekend escape.
Happily, we have a bounty of trip options in this region. If you have the cash, a short flight out of Dubai will soon have you snorkeling in the Maldives, hiking the Italian Dolomites, exploring ancient Jordanian ruins or trekking the wild savannas of Kenya. If your wallet is feeling a bit light, then there are still plenty of local areas to explore by car. The dramatic fjords of Musandam are just north, the jagged Hajar Mountains and the Gulf of Oman are to the east, Liwa oasis and the vast Rub Al Khali (Empty Quarter) lie south, and the beauty of the desert is all around, just minutes outside of the city.
“Sound great to me, but we’ll have to keep it on the cheap side.” I said.
“Same here.” replied Niall. “Where to then?”
“Someplace local. How about Snoopy Island?”
“Never been there.”
“Beaches, snorkeling, and barbeque. You’ll love it.”
I knew “barbeque” would get his attention because it would remind him of days long past when a group of us lived in a villa. We spent many evenings after work lounging in the garden with cheery conversation and drinks in hand. Every other night we’d fire up the barbeque grill and cook up mouthwatering favorites such as steaks with pepper gravy, burgers with grilled onions and pineapple, and foil-baked potatoes. When I suggested Snoopy Island for a trip, I wanted to recapture the spirit from those villa barbeque nights.
Snoopy Island is a rocky marine outcrop about a hundred meters offshore from the Sandy Beach Hotel & Resort at Al Aqah, in the emirate of Fujairah, UAE. Location is everything, and Sandy Beach has done well to commandeer the entire beach and stretches of water surrounding Snoopy Island which, does indeed, look something like the famous cartoon dog sleeping atop his doghouse. In addition to the rock’s prominent silhouette, the waters surrounding Snoopy Island are well renowned for snorkeling. Unfortunately, the prolonged scourge of red tide in 2008 killed out many of the once colorful corals surrounding the island, but there are still hundreds of fish and other critters to keep flippered folks entertained.
The hotel itself is a scenic complex of beach, trees, lawns, chalets and bungalows. It also features a swimming pool, several bars, two restaurants, and a diving center. Most rooms look out toward the Indian Ocean, and while you’re frolicking outside, the Hajar mountains make an impressive backdrop to the hotel grounds. The area doesn’t look like much when making your approach drive (the public beach nearby tends to be trashed), but once you’re inside the resort area the charming landscape and relaxed atmosphere will soon put a smile on your face, erasing those city blues.
“Sounds nice,” Niall agreed, “let’s book it.”
Our Snoopy Island escape group consisted of four of us from the Gulf Vantage crew. I booked a four-person chalet instead of two regular rooms, as each chalet has its own outdoor table and a coveted barbeque grill, as well as a kitchen, a full-sized refrigerator, and a lounge area with a television.
The two hour trip from Dubai to Al Aqah is an easy jaunt, with a few sections in the mountains that are worth pulling over for photo ops or to buy trinkets. Driving east there are two routes to ponder after getting to Masafi: one road going southeast to Fujairah (and then north to Al Aqah) and one road heading northeast to Dibba (and then south to Al Aqah), with the latter choice normally the quickest. For us the only slow spots were construction zones, smoke breaks, and a quick stop at the supermarket to pile up our supplies for the weekend.
Soon we were lounging in our seaside chalet with the noise of the city all but forgotten. While the others relaxed indoors with the air conditioning, Niall and I ventured to the beach for a swim. The sand was in good shape with plenty of lounge chairs available, and we shared the beach with a few sun burnt Russian tourists and scores of amusing little crabs digging burrows in the shore. Our afternoon was happily squandered away drifting in lazy circles on gentle waves, with Snoopy Island watching over us in the background. The only thing we were missing was snorkeling; the afternoon tide always churns up the sea and makes for hazy waters. We would have to wait for morning for the best conditions.
Next up on our comfortable agenda was to regroup for drinks, barbeque steaks, card games, and the most relaxing night any of us have had in months. There is something primal and utterly satisfying about gathering outdoors around a fire and enjoying food and conversation with a tribe of friends. I wish more UAE hotels embraced this character of lodging, rather than the tiresome trend for über-luxury resorts. It’s easy to see why this place is a favorite among expats and locals; unlike some of the bigger resorts in Fujairah, Sandy Beach maintains a simple charm unspoiled by pretentious glitz and overdevelopment.
After an enjoyable late night it is extremely difficult…no…it is a mission from hell to wake early to go snorkeling, but if you’re at all interested in sporting flippers and chasing sea critters, then you’ll need to make the sacrifice to get the best out of Snoopy Island. Sea turtles and small sharks can be spotted around 7 to 8am, but many other wonders abound up until about 11am when the clear waters start dissipating with the tide.
I’m sad to report that none of us in our little group woke up in time to go snorkeling that next morning, but luckily for me I had sampled the waters the year before. The hotel dive shop rents out all of the required gear (including life-jackets for lazy swimmers like myself) and then getting out to Snoopy Island only takes a few minutes, going from the shallow sandy shoals to deep water and then back to the shallow but rocky areas surrounding the island. On my last visit I swam with a fantastic collection of starfish, crabs, and schools of colorful fish. Unfortunately I also met up with some small jellyfish on the backside of the island and managed to get stung a couple of times before venturing back into safer waters.
My friends had missed the snorkeling, but I was determined to show them some of the area’s other attractions. The four of us hopped in my truck and we cruised south along the coast for about 15 minutes until we could spot the palm trees and cliffs of Al Badiyah, a settlement containing an archaeological site on the side of a rocky outcrop. At the base of the outcrop is Al Badiyah Mosque, estimated at around 600 years old—the oldest in the UAE. It’s an interesting mud and stone structure which is still in use for prayers.
Steps lead up from the mosque to two fort towers on the rocks. Make sure to make an effort to journey up to the top tower; you’ll be rewarded with panoramic views of the Hajar Mountians, kilometers of palms trees, and the Gulf of Oman.
We got back on the road and continued south towards Fujairah city. Near Zubara we turned inland and ventured into Wadi Wurrayah in the Hajar Mountains. This area is now an officially protected wildlife park, although what that means in practical terms, I’m not sure. I’m glad the government has begun to recognize the value of the natural habitat in several areas, but I hope the official rhetoric will translate into real protection of the natural resources here. Rumor has it that one of the last remaining wild Arabian Leopards roams Wurrayah, but that is one animal I’d be happy NOT to encounter while exploring the wadi!
The road going into the mountains is a paved rollercoaster ride plunging down into the wadi and climbing back up again through dramatic rocky landscapes. At some of the low sections you can veer offroad and follow the dry riverbed; I tried a short section of it, but my passengers were quick to protest the bumpy ride. Like other wadis, the bottom sections of Wadi Warrayah are almost completely dry most times of the year. Remember, these are flash-flood areas, so if you see any water flowing or even rainclouds on the horizon, get out the wadi immediately, as floodwaters can rise very quickly!
The paved road ends unceremoniously at a gravely plateau overlooking Wadi Wurrayah. For those with a bit of energy, you can take a short (but steep) hike down into the gorge to a small pool and waterfall. My companions were already restless and begging to find someplace for a break and snacks, so my suggestion for a hike was quickly ruled out. However, I was determined to at least SEE the pool, so I scampered up a rocky ridge, peered over the edge and snapped a pic. It looks like a nice spot (despite the graffiti) and from what I’ve read, you can hike further along to more secluded, less molested, pools. Good reason to come back!
Our little group retreated back to Al Aqah and took up our rightful places lounging in the bungalow. Immersed in the scenery and relaxation, the four of us could have been on some remote tropical island, rather than just two hours from the skyscrapers of Dubai. There was only one dilemma to consider now.
Niall yawned while reclined in his chair and then asked, “What should we do for dinner?”
I replied lazily, “I dunno. I think supplies are getting low. Another barbeque?”
Silence followed. We needed to go buy more food and supplies and then get everything prepared again. There was a small market about 15 minutes drive up the road, but from our well-entrenched positions on the lounge furniture, it might as well have been located in China.
Niall solved the problem. “Let’s have someone else do the cooking tonight.”
Possibly the only downfall to the Sandy Beach Hotel & Resort is its mediocre meal options. There are two restaurants to consider. Near the pool you can get a mixed fare of basic plates such as burgers, Lebanese snacks, and pasta. The quality is good enough for a quick lunch bite, but certainly not worthy of a proper dinner; the other restaurant near the nightclub is meant to fill that gap. A year ago when I had tried the place they only offered an expensive full-course fish menu. It was nice, but for a group of four or more, you’d like more options.
Then I remembered Le Méridien. Just two minutes up the road from Sandy Beach is a much larger and more luxurious resort. For those needing a bit more pampering, Le Méridien is probably the better Al Aqah destination for you. It has beautifully landscaped gardens, multiple pools, a manicured beach, a fitness center, a spa, a sauna, and nine different restaurants. It was those restaurants, and possibly a change in scenery, that we needed.
The main hotel building at Le Méridien has a great buffet restaurant with Arabic and International cuisine, however, we were looking for more atmosphere, something outdoors in those wonderful gardens. There was Thai, Indian, and Italian places up for grabs but after wandering the resort grounds we settled on Gonu, which is an outdoor bar and grill right next to the Indian Ocean.
The location and atmosphere couldn’t have been better, and the selection of quality cooking was enough to keep our tummies happy as well. After polishing off a delicious meal, we all settled in with a bottle of vino bianco and quietly admired the churning sea. Small lights hanging from the bamboo roof swayed in the ocean breeze, and as I inhaled that cool salt air and looked around at everyone smiling, relaxing, savoring the mood, I couldn’t help but think that this exact moment was one of those where…hey, life doesn’t get much better than this.
I glanced over at Niall and asked, “Well? Did this cure the city blues?”
He was looking out, still lost in the sea before him. Then he turned to me with a clever grin, not saying a word.
I believe that meant “Yes.”
Sandy Beach Hotel & Resort
4-person Chalet price: AED 920. Prices vary: sometime cheaper on weekdays but more expensive during national holidays.
BBQ: the grill is there but make sure to bring everything else, including briquets, matches, utensils, and a wire brush to make sure your grill is clean BEFORE using it.
Le Méridien Resort
Double room price: starting at AED 725. Cheaper in the summer. Also look for online specials.