Al Ain Blog

Sunday Sandy Snapshot #12

The highest mountain in the Abu Dhabi Emirate of the UAE can be found in Al Ain – Jebel Hafeet.  It sticks up from the desert surrounded by scrubland and small dunes; here in the foreground is the overflow from Ain Al Fayda park, after some heavy rainfall in March 2014. sss017

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Al Ain Jeep FUNatic 2015 – Friday 13th March

For the second year in a row I will be leading the team which is overseeing the offroading part of this fantastic family event.  Anyone with a 4×4 Jeep can join, subject to availability – it will be an easy drive through some very scenic dunes, followed by a great lunch and afternoon’s entertainment at the Rotana Desert Camp.  Amazingly good value at only 300aed per car (up to 2 adults and 2 kids) which gets you lunch, soft drinks, entertainment, t-shirts and other jeep goodies!

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Emirates Desert Championship Round 5

Held on Friday 13th February at Lisalli, the fifth round out of six, saw a large field of bikes, cars and quads take to the sand dunes to compete in this popular event.

Once more stationed at the most remote PC on the moto, I did not get the chance to take many photos as I spent most of the event escorting people out!  Here’s the best of what I have

Pleased to report that the injured biker from last time, Alex Macfarlane was recovered and back on the course, however this time his bike failed him and he had to be towed back to the start.  (Photo by Thomas Tacker)

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EDC results can be found here.

Next round to take place on Friday 6th March – location to be advised!  Hope to see you there!

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Shop and Ship UAE

Sometimes as an expat you want/need to buy something which is unavailable locally – this is less of a problem in the UAE than many other places, but there are still times you can’t get hold of a must-have item!  A possible solution to the problem, particularly if it is a low weight item, is a service called Shop and Ship which is part of the Aramex group.

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How it works

You sign up for an account which incurs a one-off fee of $45, but currently (Feb 15) there is a special offer for only $10!

You receive forwarding location addresses (almost like a PO Box) in 14 different countries – Canada, USA, UK, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Turkey, UAE, India, South Africa, China, Hong Kong and Singapore.

When you buy goods online from a country which has a SNS depot, make your delivery address  your forwarding address in that country.  Please note that there is a list of prohibited goods - all parcels are inspected by customs so do not be tempted to import something illegal.  Some sellers on ebay will not ship to SNS so check before you buy!

Shop and Ship will transport your parcel to the country you reside in, in my case the UAE.

It will then be delivered to your home but if you prefer – and I normally do – you can collect it at their local office.  You pay the onward charges from the country of origination to your current location. Simple as that!

Prices are very reasonable and the service from the USA is very fast – less than a week in many cases!

GPS location of Aramex office in Al Ain – N24 13.372 E55 46.477.

 

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One to One Ayn Al Fayda Resort – Al Ain

Not many expats know about this park, or so it would seem.  We’ve lived 7 minute’s drive away from it for over five years but apart from having a meal in the restaurant, have never ventured further.  Of course it was closed for refurbishment for two of those years; but that’s no reason to have missed this lovely resort which is on our doorstep!

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Ayn Al Fayda is a very old complex and predates Al Ain’s other famous outdoor area – Green Mubazzara.  At one time Sheikh Zayed’s Palace was here and it now houses the “Sheikh Zayed Palace Museum” which is packed full of photos from his childhood, the early days of the UAE through to more modern times.  Opening hours are a little vague, but the beauty of this park is that there are so many different activities in one place there are plenty of alternative activities if something is closed.

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The Al Ain Classic Car Museum is opening tomorrow, 30th January 2015 at 1800hrs and if you are a petrol head like me it is well worth a look.  There are heritage cars – mainly landrovers – which pre-date the UAE as well as American imports which have been brought into the UAE over many years.  Log on and “like” their facebook page to be kept updated!

Opening hours – Fridays 1600hrs to 2100hrs – Saturday to Thursday – 0900hrs to 1700hrs.  Other times by appointment.

Admission 5aed.

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On the subject of motoring – there is an area within the park dedicated to offroading on Quadbikes.  I had a chat with their manager, Saeed, and he tells me that they have a wide range of quadbikes and buggies with something to suit everyone from age 6 upwards.  There’s a set course for children and 1700 square metres of rough ground for adults to ride around on.  Quads can be hired from only 30aed for 15 minutes for kids sizes, which sounds like a cheap way to entertain your kids for a while.  Adult size bikes, both auto and manual are available and their buggies are – Polaris 250cc and 800cc; Raptor 700cc; Banshee 350cc.  You can rent them from 150aed for half an hour; all rentals include crash helmet hire.  Opening hours are 0800hrs to 2100hrs Sunday-Thursday and 0800hrs to 2200hrs at the weekend.  Weekends are extremely busy!

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If you prefer equine to automotive, then why not visit the Al Bairaq Equestrian Club.  I didn’t venture in here but you can call them on 050 7122929 or 050 7972275 pr visit their instagram page.

Ayn means “the spring” so you would expect to find a lot of water hereabouts – and there is plenty!  As soon as you come through the retro 1970s gates of the resort, you might notice a fountain to your left (wasn’t on when I was there taking photos tho) – just behind here there is a public swimming pool area.

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Moving further into the park and you will see signs for “Duck Lake” – this is an area you can rent for parties and groups and the One To One Hotel holds regular Friday evening entertainment there.

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No park is complete without a boating lake and Ayn al Fayda has a massive one.  Pedalos are available to rent and you can pedal yourself round a huge canal, enjoying the wonderful views of Jebel Hafeet as birds soar overhead.  They weren’t open on a Tuesday afternoon when I visited but I am sure this place is open and very busy at weekends.

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The final “aquatic” attraction is a ladies only pool, which is open from 0900hrs to 2100hrs, 7 days a week and offers a pool, sunbathing and shaded relaxing area.  I am quite tempted to try a month’s subscription here – 350aed for a month, day passes available for 75aed.

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With all that activity, chances are you will be hungry and you can find some great restaurants on the park.  We’ve eaten at the lovely Zaitounah Restaurant, which specialises in mediteranean fare – prices are very reasonable and the food is good and plentiful.  They also serve grape and hop beverage and are open from 1200hrs until midnight, 7 days a week.

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Next door, the Glass House, which is a vast conservatory, dishes up arabic food 7 days a week; they also have a Friday buffet from 2pm to 5pm which priced at a most reasonable 99aed.  Shisha is available in the adjoining garden.  The Glass House is open from 0700hrs to 0200hrs.  “Sandwiched” in between is the 18OZ diner which I haven’t visited personally but I believe it is a must-go for burger lovers!

Last, but not least, the One to One Hotel offers 26 hotel rooms, 57 luxury villas.

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My Favourite Restaurant in Sanaiya, Al Ain

Many people never venture into the Industrial Area of Al Ain as it’s very busy and the parking/driving can be a little chaotic, however there is nothing to fear and everything to find – you can read my original post on the area here.

I am a big fan of Lebanese food and am often to be found at the Halaby Restaurant, just up from the big light shop (BFT) at the Al Ain Gift Market Traffic Lights.  GPS N24 11.820 E55 45.780.

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Given it’s location, you may be surprised how well appointed the restaurant is – comfortable chairs, clean tables with tablecloths (albeit plastic, wipe clean) and plenty of light – the ceiling lights are mini chandeliers!

Most importantly, it is spotlessly clean throughout and has a “western” loo!

The service is also pretty good – Nijad Ala and his colleagues can explain each dish in perfect english and can suggest some to try, if you are unfamiliar with Lebanese cuisine.

I love their lentil soup, followed by a bowl of muttable and arabic bread to dip – a bargain at 14aed.  They also do a great mixed grill which at 30aed is a cheap meal if you are very hungry; this dish also comes in a 1kg super size too and is enough for 3-4 adults. The Halaby offer a takeaway service too, delivering all over Al Ain (and beyond) – call 03 7610612.

Please note this is not a paid review – this is one of the best Lebanese restaurants I’ve come across!

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Offroading in All its Forms – Updated October 2014

I’m often being asked “will you take me offroading with you”?  This begs the question – how does one define offroading in Arabia?

For some people are chuffed to bits just driving up a gatch track (gatch is an arabic word for a special kind of limestone which these tracks are traditionally made from) or a sand track, find a sheltered spot, pitch a tent, have a bbq and watch the stars!  And there’s nothing wrong with that.

Others like to drive over some small gentle dunes for an hour or two of an afternoon, stop at sunset, have a bbq and watch the stars!  And there’s nothing wrong with that.

Another type of offroading popular in Oman and the UAE is navigating through dried up wadis and up and down mountain tracks.  Stop at sunset, have a bbq, watch the stars!  And there’s nothing wrong with that either. (But count me out as I am soooooo scared of heights: I don’t do mountain roads!)

For me, offroading means planning a long route on google earth, with start and end points, a couple of waypoints for interesting places or something to avoid (oh how I hate “Hell’s Bowl” near Al Yaher!), and a group of experienced drivers will make their way from point to point, tackling whatever obstacles appear.

Not all 4x4s are suitable for my kind of heavy-duty dune bashing but equally, I think it’s a sin to have a 4.8 litre Nissan Patrol just used for camping trips! When I take friends out to the desert, whether privately or in my capacity as a marshal of Oasis Offroad, it’s important to me that the rest of the group sustain as little damage to their car as possible during the trip.  If you want your car scratch and ding free then I would stay off the desert with it – in fact I wouldn’t even take it onto the roads here!  Small scratches from plants are almost inevitable, although many will polish out.  Other common areas for damage are bumpers, especially on relatively low cars such as Ford Explorers and Mitsubishi Pajeros and also low slung radiators for example on the Dodge Durango.

Lots of 4wd cars will take you into the desert for camping trips, but in my opinion, unless they have a gearbox with both 4high and 4low options and good ground clearance, they aren’t really suitable for dune bashing.  Approach and departure angles are also a consideration as you will encounter sand bowls which can be real bumper killers if not negotiated carefully. Below I’ve made a list of my personal choices for  a dune bashing car would be along with any pros and cons.  No doubt many will disagree with me!
Marina’s top 10 Cars for Dune Bashing – (all available second hand) in alphabetical order (which is the only reason the Jeep is at the top and the Nissans and Toyotas are at the bottom of the list!)
Jeep Wrangler
one of the most customisable cars for the desert, although some modifications now will not pass registration test. Very easy to drive. Can have reliability issues, newer ones(JK)  are known to have electrical issues. Possible to pick up quite cheaply in the summer.
Mercedes G Wagen
amazing in desert with no mods, extremely expensive to buy, parts not cheap, holds value well
Mitsubishi Pajero
good in desert but needs to be driven carefully to avoid bumper damage.  Get the 3.5 or 3.8L version as 3.0L is gutless on the dunes.  Essential to re-inforce rear bumper before taking it onto the sand. 7 seater available.
Nissan Pathfinder -
1995-2005 (2nd generation) a very good budget choice for gentle/intermediate offroading.
2006-2012 models (3rd generation) good in desert, but really need lifted by 2″.  Fantastic power, 7 seater available.
2013 on (4th generation) this once capable offroader has turned into a softroader and is not suitable for the desert!
Nissan Patrol SWB
excellent in desert, hard to pick up a clean second hand model, but hold their value well, get it lifted by 2″ and you can take it anywhere, older models only available in manual gear.  Get any second hand model checked by your local garage to ensure it hasn’t been thrashed to death.  If you find a good clean one, expect to be chased down the road by locals calling “you want to sell your car?”
Nissan Patrol LWB
excellent in desert, slightly more likely to get “crested” than the SWB but great for a family.  There are more of these in the marketplace so good second hand models are available and will hold their value well.  7 seat option available.
Nissan Xterra
great family car for the desert, but worth putting a lift kit on to minimise underside damage.  Automatic gearbox only but gear ratios are great for duning! Came out in 2007 so only newer models available second hand.
Toyota FJ Cruiser
excellent in desert, like the Xterra, it came out in 2007 so no old budget models available, greatly improved clearance when lifted 2″, excellent gear ratios for desert driving.  Only available in automatic gear. Not everyone likes the “suicide” back doors. I was lucky enough to test drive the 2014 Xtreme model in May 2014.
Toyota Landcruiser SWB
as Nissan Patrol SWB but has leaf springs so less comfortable ride.
Toyota Landcruiser LWB
as Nissan Patrol LWB

Also worth considering –

Ford F150

it didn’t used to be possible to register pick-up trucks privately in AD Emirate but it is now, providing you have the 4 door model. Some dealerships offer models with a lift kit and these are the ones you should go for – if you take this truck to the sand unlifted it is almost certain you will sustain bumper damage.  The Raptor which has a 4″ lift kit and V8 is very capable and desert-ready.

Jeep Cherokee (old style)

excellent in desert with a few minor modifications.  Can have reliability issues. Can pick up cheap second hand models but get it checked out before you buy by a trustworthy mechanic – I have friends who have bought Cherokees and then spent a fortune keeping them on the road/in the sand.
Hyundai Galloper

 older car but quite capable for easy/intermediate level dune bashing.
Hummer H3

Although popular for the desert, these come in to their own for wadi driving, relatively new to market so no bargain secondhand models available. 
Landrover Discovery

can be picked up cheaply, able offroader but centre of gravity higher than many competitors, maintenance costs can be high.  Newer models – LR3 and LR4 are packed full of electrics which require a competent auto electrician to fix, which you may not find in your city (such as Al Ain) and certainly won’t find if it breaks down in the desert!

You may note that 8 out of my top 10 choices are Japanese and this is not a coincidence.  Japanese cars in general are able to cope with the hot roads and dust better than most others, they simple and easy to to maintain, and you can sell them quickly and for a decent price any time of the year.

Full 4x4s are excellent for offroading, however clearance and the strength of your tyre sidewall will dictate if it is suitable for wadi bashing.  Lots of sharp rocks have to be negotiated and if you have a tyre with a soft sidewall, which is ideal for sand dune bashing, they can get damaged easily.
4×4 cars which aren’t particularly suitable for dune bashing – this list is not exhaustive – I have marked the ones that I personally will not accept on a trip.
Jeep Commander – very low bumper, bad entry/exit angles – possible to take out but must have a lift kit.
Jeep Cherokee (latest models) – very low bumper, essential to remove lower trim before starting a trip (or else the sand dunes will do it for you), lots of electrics, more of a softroader.
Nissan Pathfinder(2013) – bumper too low (will not accept on an Oasis Offroad trip)
Nissan Armada – bumper too low, very heavy car (will not accept on an Oasis Offroad trip)
Toyota Sequoia – too heavy, too long, too low (will not accept on an Oasis Offroad trip)
It doesn’t matter if your car is new, old or really old, the crucial thing is that it has to be very well maintained. 
Some car insurance companies offer “offroad recovery” however from experience I know that this service is not always available when you really need it.  The rule is that if your car is rattling/banging/overheating etc on the road, it will be far far worse on the sand!

From experience, I don’t recommend you buy a new car for the desert as there are plenty of good second hand options out there.  If you become a sand addict it’s best to have two cars – a comfortable family vehicle and a second hand offroader. If your car goes offroad regularly it will be in the garage for repairs/preventative maintenance more often and if you have access to another car it will save you the hassle of being car-less when this happens.

RSA, AXA and Zurich insurers cover offroad damage with their fully comprehensive policies though only for cars about 6 years old or less.  There is no limit to the age of car you can buy here, and so long as they are well maintained you can take the oldest of vehicles out into the desert.

See you on the sand my friends!

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Real Estate in Al Ain

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Very soon, lots of newcomers who arrived in Al Ain at the end of the summer will have completed residency procedures and will now be able to rent their own villa or apartment.

For many of us, the way things are done in the UAE are a million miles away from what we are accustomed to at home, and this is very true of the real estate sector.

The tenant pays the realtor, typically 5% of the annual rental price, but this is a one off-cost and if you stay in your villa for multiple years you won’t need to pay it again.  Average villa rental prices are AED 120-150k per year, which means you have to find AED 6k-7.5k right at the start of your lease.

Rental is paid annually, in either one or two cheques – the second postdated for 6 months. Some landlords will take up to four cheques but that is rare in the Garden City – and whatever the payment terms are, you have to submit all the cheques at the signing of the lease.

Leases should be attested.  Once your lease is signed you need to take it to the main Municipality Building along with all your residency paperwork plus a copy of the landlord’s passport and they will stamp it.  Any lease that is not stamped is strictly not legal.  Once you have this stamp you can get your electricity supply sorted out (Al Ain Distribution Service), sponsor family members etc etc. The reason for this is to stop landlords letting property which is on land “gifted” by the state for their family’s use only.

Most landlords don’t worry which agent lets their property.  This means that multiple agents are trying to get tenants for exactly the same property – sometimes at different rental prices!  In my short time as a rental agent for an Abu Dhabi company who were trying to get a foothold in Al Ain, I was expected to drive around and physically search for empty properties, then locate the landlord to see if he was willing to rent it out; once done, then I had to go and find a tenant for it!

Not all agents are legally registered.  It is very easy to set up as an illegal lettings agent here, but it’s best to use a legal one.  Those who are “above board” will have your best interests at heart, as they will care about the reputation of their business, so you can count on them to smooth out the whole process for you.  If something goes wrong then you can complain about a legal letting agent to the Municipality, although it should be said that it is seldom necessary, however if you are dealing with someone who is not a registered agent then you have no comeback whatsoever.  The Company I will use next time will be Capital Relocations as they have friendly and helpful English speaking staff who will do all they can to help you settle.

Leases are for 12 months at a time.  The standard lease will be for 12 months and normally it is renewed for the same amount of time each year although I have heard of people negotiating a shorter renewal term if their work contract will end part way through the year.  If you want to leave before the contract ends it is up to you to negotiate this with your landlord, although you can expect to pay at least 2 months’ rent as a penalty.

Rentals are no longer capped.  In Abu Dhabi Emirate rents were capped at 5% per annum for a number of years, however in late 2013 this cap was removed and prices jumped considerably.  After the initial spike it seems that rental prices have settled down to reflect supply and demand.

Maintenance is the responsibility of the landlord.  Despite what it says on the lease document. Not all landlords are prompt at repairing problems so if you have a good one – try to stay where you are!

Some employers provide accommodation.  The upside is that you don’t have to pay agent’s fees, nor have to find a year’s rent up front but the downside is that you have to go where you are put.

Not all employers advance the rental payment to their staff.  A few years ago it was not uncommon for employers to pay the rental on a property found by the employee but those days are all but gone.  Nowadays most get their rental allowance as a monthly payment with their salary; those who have not access to enough cash will have to borrow money from the bank to fund their rental.  It is a good idea to minimise your borrowings as if your employment stops for any reason then the bank loan becomes payable in full the moment your final salary payment hits the bank, which has caused problems for many expats, particularly back in the crash of 2008/9.

Now for some good news; there are some truly amazing villas here available for rent.  Generally room sizes are very much bigger than my home country of Scotland and at the mid-top end of the market here all rooms come with ensuite bathrooms.   Nearly all come with maid’s rooms which are ensuite but often without a window, and they make great camping storage rooms if you don’t have domestic help!

Any further questions?  Please ask them in the comments section.  Good luck with your move and I hope you come to love Al Ain as much as I do!

 

 

 

 

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Sign of The Times

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The times they are a changing.  The shops/stores/workshops in Sanaiya used to all have huge, often garish, brightly coloured signs illuminated by internal fluorescent lighting, but a recent edict from the government has seen a move towards standardization.  Whenever a business trading license is renewed, the owner has three months to upgrade/update his sign.

Throughout history, whenever “progress” is made a little of the old life disappears and many lament its passing.  However the new signs are all lit by LEDs which are far more environmentally friendly and no doubt in time the old banner type signs will be forgotten; Al Ain has a very transient population and many residents in 5-10 years from now will know no different.

So, in a bid to record the “old”, here’s some pictures I took when wandering round Sanaiya yesterday evening.

One of my favourite Indian restaurants – and they deliver to Mehran’s garage, so you can pick up your car and a curry at the same time.  Their Chicken Chachina is truly wonderful!

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Another favourite restaurant, this time Lebanese.  They will deliver all over the area but their restaurant is by Saniaya standards, very comfortable – it’s even got tablecloths and chandeliers!

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The good thing about the old signs for non-arabic speakers (and especially those who cannot read arabic) is that the business name often had a picture of their product, which helped no end in finding them!

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You see I haven’t a clue what this business sells

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nor this one – time I learned more arabic words (and script too)!

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Some of the business names are classic – “Successful Line Machinery Trading Est” – and its got pictures too so at least I know what they sell. If I wanted to kit out an industrial workshop at least I would find the right shop!

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The old signs are very colourful, and this is what has given night-time Sanaiya a “Las Vegas” feel.

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I’ve never been to this restaurant but might just give it a go – if I can find it again (better go before they change their sign)

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There’s plenty of bakeries in Sanaiya too, the recovery truck driver at Mehran’s came in with some amazing Iranian style flat bread last night and he was good enough to share it.  I don’t know if it was from this bakery but there’s quite a few to choose from in this area

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While wandering about I found not one but two branches of the famous “Abdul Azziz” Pakistani Restaurant – very good curry all for about 10aed (£1.70) per head

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The yellow Lipton signs are synonymous with ethnic cafes

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Car part stores are to be found everywhere here

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And car repairers of course.  Car denting anyone?

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and of course my favourite garage/hangout in Sanaiya…

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Here’s a picture of a block with half the signs changed – I know which look I prefer

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I urge anyone who’s brave enough to go down and have a wander about before it’s too late; I felt completely safe, except when wandering down the streets that didn’t have street lighting.  Clad only in black (t-shirt and jeans) I was keenly aware that cars couldn’t see me too well!

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Iftar In Al Ain

We are now in the Holy Month of Ramadan, where Muslims have to fast during the hours of daylight.  At sundown the fast is broken with an Iftar meal and families often gather together to observe this.  Mosques erect large tents in their grounds and provide Iftar meals for the less well off where the food is donated by the local congregations.

Most non-muslim expats take the chance at least once to take Iftar, frequently at hotels, sometimes as the guest of a muslim friend’s family and occasionally at a local restaurant – and this is the option I took with some friends last night.

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We dined at the Heritage Village restaurant in Al Qattara (N24 15.787 E55 44.939), and enjoyed a lovely spread of arabic foods for the princely sum of 75aed.   No need to book as the restaurant is huge and they can cope with large numbers.  It’s just been renovated and has lost some of its rustic charm; though the good news is it now has a/c throughout so it will be a lot more pleasant during the day in the summer.  Outwith Ramadan it is open 24 hours a day and their number is 03 763 0155.  Once the Iftar meal is over you can order from their a la carte menu and there is a good choice of arabic cuisine as well as the western staples of steak and burgers.

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The food is of hotel quality and every night there is a roast – last night it was goat!

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Wishing my Muslim friends Ramadan Kareem (Blessings), may this  Holy month be joyous and blessed for them and their families.

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