With just a few days to go until my fourth Christmas in the sun, I never imagined I would be surrounded by a herd of deer. As I entered the enclosure, at least fifteen deer of all ages surrounded me, some with full antlers, other with small stumps - all of them staring up at me as I tried to capture the moment on my camera. They were quick to feed on the tree branches I offered. This situation was all very surreal. But the reality was I hadn’t travelled to the snowy north.

I was a thousand miles away, in Hatta - an exclave of Dubai – for a two-day getaway.

Mark Setchfield

Driving from Dubai through the ever-changing landscape was breathtaking, the scenery changed so much it was hard to keep my eyes on the road, from a towering city skyline to amber, windblown dunes to, finally, the beautiful dark volcanic mountains of Hatta.

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Located about 134km south-east of Dubai city, close to the Omani border, this small village has quite a few different surprises for a peaceful little place relying mainly on tourism and water for its primary economy. Historically, the area grew date palms; the fruits were used as a food source and the trees were used for construction. Now the old houses have been cleared to make way for modern villas, set in orderly streets. New schools and hospitals have been built, public parks have recently opened and a small shopping mall is another of the very visible changes. The dark mountains are now glowing signs of development as strips of neon light flood the night sky.

Those are just a few of the changes taking place as a comprehensive Dh1.3 billion development plan from Dubai Government gets underway. Much of it is aimed at improving the lives of the people who live there, improving infrastructure and providing employment opportunities for local entrepreneurs. Tourism is a win-win – providing work for Hatta residents, and better ways to explore the mountainous getaway for visitors and residents of other parts of the UAE. Expect to see the area around Al Sheraa – a heritage area with a 200-year-old mosque – developed with pathways and places to rest. For those with more energy, the first part of the Hatta Hiking Project opened in spring this year, featuring a 9km trail connecting the key tourism attractions of the town.

JA Hatta Fort Resort
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My home away from the city for the weekend was JA Hatta Fort Resort, one of the oldest hotels in the region, close to the ancient village. The resort, with just 52 rooms, opened in the 1980s and was renovated just over a year ago. The staff has undertaken much of the redesign at the hotel, set against the Al Hajar Mountains, explained Deborah Thompson, the newly appointed general manager.

There’s a definite sense of community in Hatta; the hotel staff – some of who have worked there since it opened, and tell me they consider it home -- are noticeably friendly and welcoming, Deborah addresses them by their first names and I sensed a warm atmosphere. The hotel itself has big plans ahead, including a helipad, within the grounds of the hotel, who those who want to get away to their getaway really fast.

Waiting outside the lobby was a small electric buggy, as Deborah whisked me off to the location of her next big project: A wellness centre. The hotel already has a small spa just for women, but plans are to open a larger space for both sexes.

Hatta Fort Hotel’s greenhouse
Mark Setchfield

Next was the recently completed greenhouse. Walking into the microclimate, I’m overwhelmed by the fresh aroma of lush basil and rocket. Each plant has been grown from seed in six weeks, with irrigation drawn from the ground, and much of it is used by the hotel’s chef. Deborah explained how her team all have hidden skills; she told me how the staff would go from waiting table to tending to their seedlings. Other plans for the resort are the redevelopment of the climbing walls, a new shooting range, a glamping area (to join other camping areas already available in Hatta, should a tent be more your style) and renovation of the second pool area.

The resort also home to a vast animal family, from the aforementioned deer, to peacocks, chickens and over thirty goats, with many of the animals named after the staff’s family members, including Deborah’s daughters. She has requested for some of the animals to be culled to reduce the ever-increasing numbers but the staff are far too attached the animals, so this hasn’t happened.

The rooms are bright and white, with a chalet feel in keeping with the mountain locale, and all rooms overlook the scenery. After a night in one of the biggest beds I have ever seen, I was up early for a quick breakfast then headed out to catch my car to Hatta dam for a couple of hours’ kayaking, having decided against the other popular sport on offer in the area – mountain biking. Built in the 1990s to supply electricity and water, the dam, one of three in Hatta, has become a favorite hiking and watersport destination. Hatta Kayak hires pedal boats and kayaks from 7.30am to 5.30 daily.

The mural on the dam
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When you arrive at the dam, the first thing you will notice is the huge artwork on the spillway. It took German street artist Case MacLain two days to complete the 30m-high mural of the late Shaikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan and the late Shaikh Rashid Bin Saeed Al Maktoum, in a project run by Brand Dubai, in just another example of how Hatta is getting the full force of the tourism-promotion machine. The early sun catches the mural, making it hard to see as the sun reflects off the surface.

Mark Setchfield

From the top of the 330m dam, the water looked a fresh blue colour. I headed down to get my life jacket fitted, carefully stepped into the kayak and with a gentle push, I was off. I haven’t been on a boat for years so I must admit I was a little shaky at first, but the kayak was surprisingly stable. Remembering my paddling technique from my youth days at the rowing club, I set off. I could hear nothing, just the ripple of the water as I pushed the paddle left and right. I stopped and rested for a few minutes, and thought to myself that this has to be a perfect way to start the day. Surround by mountains, gliding over 30m- deep water, getting close to nature - who wouldn’t want to be here?

Feeling confident, I pulled out my phone and managed to catch a heron in full flight as it leapt off the top of the rocks. With my paddling technique in total flow, I headed to the furthest point of the lake, stopping to snap different views from the middle of the dam. Thinking I was alone on the lake, suddenly a powered dingy zipped past me. The lake is patrolled, making sure no one is left stranded. Riding over the waves the boat made, I head back inland - two hours of paddling was beginning to take its toll.

Hatta fort
Mark Setchfield

I stepped out of the kayak and met my driver. Shetty has been working for the hotel for over thirty years and luckily for me, is a Hatta expert. He told me that when he first arrived in Hatta, there was very little there, just a few shops, primary housing, the mosque and the Fort Hotel; the cluster of stores was the village centre where people gathered to trade and socialise. He loves the Hatta way of life, and I could see why it’s relaxed, quiet and peaceful, pollution- and traffic-free. Whether you want an action-packed hiking getaway, a kayaking weekend or a tranquil resort to unwind at – or all three – I say jump in the car and head to Hatta.

5 best things to do in Hatta

HERITAGE VILLAGE

Now restored, the Heritage Village is situated in the heart of the Hajar Mountains. Explore over thirty buildings and get close to the Emirati village way of life. Models, graphics and audio give you an insight to the history of traditional life in the region. Entry is free.

KAYAKING

Open from 7.30am you can head out onto the lake either in a kayak (Dh60, for individuals) or pedal boat (Dh120 for one hour for up to two adults and two children). Get there early. Contact Hatta Kayak on 

056 616 2111.

 

MOUNTAIN BIKING

There are over 50km of trails, divided into different grades to suit all levels and open 24/7. Much like a ski run, they are graded green for beginners, blue for intermediate, red for experienced and black for very skilled riders. Before you set off, download the latest trail map athattamtb.ae.

NATURAL POOLS 

Visiting the natural spring-fed pools among the rocks of the Al Hajar Mountains is probably the one reason you’ve visited Hatta before. This series of pools run through narrow canyons and rocky corridors, bursting with waterfalls and turquoise pools. They get very popular, particularly on Friday afternoons, so arrive early. Guided tours can be arranged can through Hatta Fort Hotel – Shetty knows the best spots to visit the pools.

Accessible for the UAE nationals only.

THE HONEY FESTIVAL 

After a successful first honey festival earlier this year, it’s back for a second edition running from December 27-31. There will be 50 honey producers present, both from the UAE and from overseas, showcasing 12 variations on the sweet stuff. Head to the Heritage Village. Hatta is also home to the Hatta Honey Farm, a local producer with a number of beehives. Although the farm is not open to the public, there is a shop there selling the honey.

Travel facts

Expect to pay around Dh1,000 (plus taxes) per night with breakfast at the Hatta Fort Hotel. Call 04 809 9333. The drive to Hatta is probably the only downside to a visit: The border crossing on E44 is currently closed to non-GCC residents, meaning you’ll have to take a detour around Oman. The best route from Dubai is from E102 (Sharjah-Kalba Road) via E611 (Emirates Road), taking 90 minutes.