In search of silence in Sharjah, the UAE's up-and-coming emirate
Nowhere does next-level opulence like the United Arab Emirates, and in our perpetually moving world, simply savouring silence has become the next sought-after luxury.
To the untrained eye, Sharjah is just a seamless extension of its glitzy next-door neighbour, Dubai, and all the glamour (and grudges) that tag along with it. But Sharjah stands its ground, and few places straddle the line of the past and progress quite so well. This uber-accomplished emirate has some serious culture cred on its CV: Cultural Capital of the Arab World in 1998, Islamic Culture Capital in 2014, Capital of Arab Tourism in 2015.
With this culture seems to come a certain type of calm: feet quietly shuffling through an under-visited museum; a steaming cup of karak chai, that ubiquitous milky black tea spiced to perfection with cardamom and saffron, best enjoyed under an enveloping blanket of desert stars; or simply standing still long enough to baffle a building full of butterflies. Whether you’re looking to take the pace down a notch from the high of Dubai or just need a healthy dose of peace and quiet, these spots in Sharjah promise to bring you tantalisingly close to zero decibels.
Peer into the past at the Mleiha archaeological site
No matter how glitzy the cities are, the Emirati soul will forever be found in the desert. And, as it turns out, some of our own ancestral underpinnings, whether we’re Arab or not, emerged from these sands in Sharjah. One of humanity’s first settlements outside Africa was located in an area of Sharjah now called Mleiha, a hushed, Martian-looking desertscape far removed from the emirate's urban hum. Archaeological excavations have unearthed a bounty of ancient artefacts, including 125,000-year-old stone hand axes, that indicate that early humans thrived here. These findings have rewritten our own history, as researchers now believe that early humans could have left Africa 20,000 years earlier than previously thought.
Start your exploration at the visitors centre, unveiled in 2016, for a crash course in the history of humanity. Excavations are strewn across the surrounding desert, so sign up for a tour and pick your mode of transport for trailing the footsteps of your ancestors: 4WD, mountain bike or your own two feet. But the true highlight of this site is staying for sunset and beyond, so you can overnight amongst the desert dunes. Before you bed down for the night, you can open a window into the past on a dune-driving 4WD excursion to Fossil Rock, a huge landmark stone in the middle of nowhere that’s embedded with countless creatures, and ponder existence with a stargazing session: the visitors centre provides sophisticated telescopes to view constellations, the moon and our planetary neighbours, plus – if it’s a clear night – galaxies far, far away.
Weather the storm at Sharjah's Rain Room
A permanent downpour has arrived in the desert with the opening of the Rain Room art installation, which has settled in Sharjah after a round-the-world tour. Nearly 3000 litres of water drip from the ceiling of a nearly pitch-black room, pierced only by a horizontal beam that seems to train the spotlight on each individual drop. As opposed to braving it in unsympathetic Mother Nature, your body is your umbrella in the Rain Room, where a sophisticated system of networked cameras tracks your movement – step slowly to stay dry and move quickly at your own risk. While admittedly the falling pitter-patter of perpetual rain isn’t decibel-free, the natural noise is music to the ears. Groups inside the Rain Room are limited to six people.
Find stillness amongst the butterflies on Al Noor Island
Attached to the mainland by a single meandering thread of a bridge, Al Noor Island is a wonderfully lush retreat from the high rises of Sharjah city. Walkways, some of which transform unannounced into pavement-wide trampolines, encircle the isle, which was designed by Austrian artist André Heller. Al Noor Island’s central attraction is its modern but nature-inspired glass-paned butterfly house, which is home to hundreds of peacefully fluttering specimens, and it's partially obscured by a sunlight-bright metal ‘wave’ that looks somewhere between traditional mashrabiya (lattice screens in Middle Eastern architecture that allow someone to see out but not in) and a super-deluxe K'Nex set. Lie in wait long enough and you might just be remodelled into a butterfly-approved piece of furniture, as they slowly become less shy about where they settle. Al Noor Island is particularly tranquil at night when 1200 fibreglass bulbs light up the ‘glimmering meadow’ and sway like fireflies: the result is magical.
Stay off the grid … or in the middle of it all
Because of its close proximity to Dubai – and an alcohol ban that seems to frighten some people – Sharjah receives only a fraction of the overnight visitors, so travellers who opt to stay are in for a treat. Brand new boutique hotels that promise to conserve the local culture, heritage and natural ecosystems are popping up across the emirate in some of the least expected places. In the aptly named Heart of Sharjah, a white-washed restored heritage district in the centre of the city, hides Al Bait, low-rise luxury digs that are built on the foundations of old houses (Al Bait means ‘house’ in Arabic). The traditional architecture aims for peak privacy, as the suites are clustered around quiet courtyards. You can even check into the hotel while you're still at the airport so you can get straight to relaxing.
Nestled in the red-streaked sands near the archaeological site of Mleiha is a secluded spot worth seeking out when it opens later in 2019. Al Faya Lodge has just five rooms and was improbably fashioned from an abandoned 1960s-era medical clinic and grocery store; also on site is what’s thought to be one of the first petroleum pumps in the UAE. The rooms have over-bed skylights that are primed for silent stargazing, and just off the modernist-style swimming pool is the unique ‘hands-free’ spa, where treatments are administered simply by relaxing in the rooms: watch the sunset from the Himalayan salt inhalation room before washing off in the tropical shower and heading to the the herbal ventilation area, where the air is peppered with scents of chamomile, cinnamon, cloves and frankincense.
Kayak through Khor Kalba and glamp near the beach
As the only emirate with real estate on both of the country’s coasts, Sharjah makes the most of its stretches of sea. Leave the busy built-up western side for the eastern enclave of Khor Kalba, where you can paddle the calm coastal waters amid mangrove forest, spotting turtles and crabs as you float past in a kayak. For pure solitude at night, book into secluded Kingfisher Lodge, which has just 25 safari-style tents propped up on a private peninsula: glamping doesn’t get more glam than this. It’s worth waking early to salute the sun and linger as the pastel hues emerge over the beach: watch it unfold undisturbed from your bed, your personal plunge pool or your patio.
Lauren Keith travelled to Sharjah with support from Sharjah Commerce and Tourism Development Authority. Lonely Planet contributors do not accept freebies in exchange for positive coverage.