Why You Must, Shar-jah
Replete with culture and artistic modern marvels, Sharjah wins you over with its slow-paced charm
The only image in my head attached to Sharjah was the top shot of the famous cricket stadium or one of its stands, populated with cricket lovers if not celebs. But somewhere through my five-day trip to Sharjah, as we waited on a stoplight adjacent to the famous cricketing venue, I realised that my preconceived snapshot of the UAE’s third largest Emirate, had disappeared without notice.
Sharjah has character rooted deep in the Emirati culture while playing host to a variety of cutting-edge global feats, and deserves its title of the cultural capital of the UAE. And that was exactly what I found missing from my first introduction to the Emirates, on my maiden trip to Dubai last year.
Mind you, I loved my time in Dubai: it’s a retail therapy paradise, with a smorgasbord of global culinary experiences, bright lights, tall buildings and all the bling you can imagine. But it was Sharjah’s slow-paced charm that won me over.
During our first ride into the city, the ornate Islamic style buildings stood testimony to how, even with its contemporary advances in local architecture and recreational spaces, Sharjah continues to keep its traditions at the very centre.
Al Noor Mosque
A thought which was reaffirmed as we crossed by the majestic Al Noor Mosque illuminated through laser mapping in resplendent hues, as part of the Ninth Annual Sharjah Light Festival.
If you want to enjoy the outdoors, the winter months (October to March) are the best time to visit. February is a good bet, being the time the city hosts a wondrous light festival, which transforms Sharjah’s famous landmarks into images out of a technicolour dream.
The festival drew over a million of domestic and international visitors this year, who attended the neatly produced shows across the city, marvelling at the cutting-edge laser projections mapping. The finale took the awe to the next level with a slew of artists performing afloat at the Al Majaz Waterfront and choreographed pyrotechnics painting the skyline thereafter. A highly recommended experience!
Emirati food and Bedouin veiled selfies
Sharjah is far more pocket-friendly than Dubai and has plenty of eateries with desi and Arabian cuisines. With fairly varied influences stemming from the Bedouin and Levantine styles, the cuisine intrigues you with its layers and no it’s not meat-lovers’ central.
“Ahlan wa sahlan (welcome),” Bibi Fatima said as she welcomed with us Oudh smoke, large succulent dates and coffee at her home for a traditional Emirati meal, over stories of Bedouin customs, local culture, coffee etiquette, women’s rights and her erstwhile career as government official.
After a lavish spread of homecooked food we were taken to ‘the parlour’ for a massive dessert course, with 6 to 8 varieties to choose from including the famous Knafeh, Firni and some savouries.
A little later she had us all dress up in local finery, complete with Bedouin metallic veils for the ladies, and group had their fill of selfies to go.
The desserts here are to die for, Umm Ali (the famous bread pudding) for example was love at first bite. Other sweets you must try: Mahalabia, Basbousa, Kunafa, Assidat al-Boubar or Aseeda and Dates Khabeesa.
Souks, birds of prey and a glamping finale
To complete the culture trip, one must head to the Heart of Sharjah, a heritage preservation project which is home to one of the oldest marketplaces in the country - the Souk Al Arshah. Although I found the popular attars at the gorgeous Blue Souk good value for money, this souk has the better selection of baubles, trinkets, antiques and souvenirs.
The souks are a bargaining-friendly areas, so by all means, use your words. While you’re there, do hop over to The Halwa for a real olfactory experience inside this famous Omani halwa shop.
The souk connects you to ‘one of the largest and most ambitious restoration and conversion projects’ of the region - Al Bait (The Home) - a beautiful luxury resort consisting of converted historic manors, a museum and a library, steeped in Bedouin culture along with luxury. Combining local customs and architecture, this resort is best described as desert decadence.
A stroll around the Sharjah Vintage Car Museum is a different kind of lux meets history experience, and a treat for classic car lovers.
Then of course, there is the exhilarating experience of the Rain Room, an immersive installation that allows one to walk through a continuous downpour without getting wet. To be honest, it left me feeling like a pre-teen who just went rogue in the rain, an absolutely unforgettable episode.
Towards the end of our trip, we hit the highway to Sharjah’s scenic exclave of Khorfakkan on its east coast, which gave us a chance to marvel at the dramatic Hajar Mountains before reaching the oldest mangrove forest in the UAE - Kalba.
Sitting on the Oman border, this quaint city is also home to some rare bird species and the unique Kalba Birds of Prey Centre. With live demonstrations of falconry and displays, the centre provides the visitors with unique experience of witnessing these majestic birds in action, up close. I don’t think I’ll ever forget a greater spotted eagle swooping across my head, it was a mix of fear and excitement all at once.
From one heady experience we headed on to another at the Kalba Kingfisher Lodge. This glamping diva of a lodge features safari-style luxury tents, that come with a refreshing decor palette of soft browns and deep blues, in imitation of its rustic desert surroundings and the Gulf of Oman that envelops the property.
Kalba Kingfisher Lodge
Complete with a lavish bath, four poster bed, a patio, plunge pool and the roaring sound of the ocean, in my book this place defines glamping to the tee. And the unobstructed view of the sunrise and sunset from your little lux tents is a spa session for the mind.
This place was in every way an Instragrammer’s paradise, I thought, as I gazed at the natural sights while preparing for checkout. And, this is why you must Shar-ja!
The writer visited Sharjah on the invitation of the Sharjah Tourism Board in India.