Unusual birthday celebrations in Oman & the UAE

After recently helping a friend celebrate a special birthday and with my own celebrations in the not too distant past it started me thinking about all the unique ways that you can celebrate a special occasion in Dubai. You might think this would be an easy task in such a city of excess, however for people interested in something beyond Dubai’s infamous free-flowing champagne brunches and lazy recovery days on the beach, you have to do a bit of research.

If you read this blog regularly you’ll know how much I enjoy spending time outside and being active so I prefer celebrations to be of this ilk rather than the all-you-can-eat all you can drink variety (although of course there is a place for this too, and will do my bit to celebrate others from time to time!) The most memorable birthdays that I have experienced (for myself and others) have been a little more unusual, and I’ve listed some of the best below (within driving distance of Dubai – there have been many more memorable ones further afield!)

1. A live-aboard dhow trip in The Musandam

I arranged a weekend away on a traditional Arabian dhow to celebrate my 30th birthday a few *cough* years ago. There were 16 of us in the end and we hired a dhow from Al Marsa and with a friend who was a dive instructor we arranged for 3 dives on the first day and two on the second. We had to be in Dibba port, Oman, for 9am on the Friday so after a 7am meet in Dubai we drove in convoy to meet the team and set sail. Only around half of the group were divers, so while we explored under the water, the others jumped off the boat and swam, snorkelled and floated, some had taken fishing rods which they put to (not-so) good use, and others just made use of the sun loungers and refreshments on deck. We had a fab day, all meals were provided and we were able to take our own drinks (be careful now though as the border is much more strict and you can’t be seen to be taking alcohol across here). We had opted for the basic package without cabins, only a toilet and outdoor shower hose, so we all slept on mats and blankets together on the deck under the stars. The next day after a couple of dives and more relaxation, we headed back to shore and were back on the mainland by 3pm, perusing Dibba fish market and preparing to head home. This was several years ago now, but from memory, it was around AED 600 for non divers and AED 900 for divers, with all meals and blankets provided – and well worth it!

2. A weekend exploring Snake Canyon

Last year, we went over to Oman to do some canyoning for a weekend. Snake Canyon had been on my bucket list for years, and I decided a birthday would be a good opportunity to explore with friends. Not confident that any of us could lead an excursion (there have been several incidences there so it’s best to go with an expert), I arranged the two-day trip with Oman Trekking Guides, who were absolutely fantastic. The guides were knowledgeable and friendly but didn’t assert themselves too much, so we didn’t feel too ‘supervised’! There were around 12 of us and we drove the long (4 or 5 hour) drive to Wadi Bani Awf on the Thursday night straight from work, staying in the Village Resort Motel (also known as Second Home) to enable us to start the hike early on the Friday morning. You can read more about the trip on my previous post if you’re interested, but it was definitely one of the best weekends I have had; we had a guide take us through the canyon, a lovely BBQ lunch at the end, we stayed the night in traditional Omani huts in the mountain and dinner was made for us, then after a nice big breakfast, we had a lovely hike though the mountains and little villages the next day too with snacks and drinks, and all for around AED 750-800 each.

3. White water rafting at Wadi Adventure

This particular celebration was great as it was only a day trip and didn’t scare off the friends that are not such fans of the great outdoors! Wadi Adventure had only just opened at the time so everyone was keen to try it, and white water rafting seemed to be the most popular choice of all of the activities on offer, so we booked for the Friday lunchtime, and after meeting in the morning for a breakfast, we headed out in convoy to the centre in Al Ain. As a result of it being newly opened, there was hardly anybody there, and so we enjoyed several laps of the ‘river’ circuit – the boat with the most testosterone seeing plenty of people being tipped out, whilst the other boat managed to keep everyone inside (though you’d never have guessed from the shrieking!) After this, we were able to go and use the air park, which was also great fun, even for those with a fear of heights like me! We tackled the zip wire, huge log swing/catapults and completed the highest circuit of wires (even if we did rely on the harness a few times!) As awareness has spread, the park has become more popular so you definitely need to book in advance, but it’s easy to do here.

4. Kayaking and camping on a private island in Abu Dhabi

For a friend’s birthday, she had arranged an overnight kayak trip in the Eastern Mangroves of Abu Dhabi with Noukhada. We could only bring a small bag with our overnight gear and food, a tent and sleeping bag, as we had to take everything with us in dry bags on the kayaks. The rest of the kit was supplied by the company, who we met at the launch site of Anantara’s Eastern Mangroves hotel. they packed the kayaks and age us a quick demo, before guiding us over in our two-man kayaks to a deserted little spit of land in the middle of the mangroves, about an hour’s paddle away. Once there, they helped us set the fire and BBQ our food, but didn’t interfere, leaving us to talk and have a few well-earned beverages and play games. The next day, once we had enjoyed breakfast and packed up, we had a leisurely and fun paddle back to the mainland, where we changed in the hotel before reluctantly driving back to Dubai. The whole experience was really good value at AED 400 each for 8 people or more, and was in easy reach of Dubai so didn’t take the full weekend as most excursions do.

5. Camping and hiking Wadi Damm

After enjoying last year’s birthday weekend in Snake Canyon, I was keen for more of the same this year. I scanned the Oman Off-Road Explorer (and google) for some inspiration on wadis in Oman that were likely to be full of water in April to allow for more of the same waterfall jumping and swimming. Some friends of mine have had a lot of experience in doing these kind of trips and one suggested a trip to Wadi Damm. A similar distance to Snake Canyon, I was unsure if it would be too far for a one-night trip, but everyone seemed keen so we headed out early on Friday morning, meeting at around 6.30am. When we arrived, we trekked up the canyon for a short while to ease ourselves into it, before we headed down and the fun really began with more jumps and slides into the deliciously cold water. There was only one jump that we felt was too high, and unable to see the depth of the pool underneath, we opted to walk around. All of the information and pictures I could find about this wadi really don’t do it justice – it is probably the most beautiful place I have been to in the UAE and Oman. There were waterfalls of all sizes, caves, swim-through’s, and beautiful scenic viewpoints, but it was the main pool that really wowed us, the water flowing over the moss-covered rocks was stunning, and swimming underneath it was amazing. We also got to go inside a dry cave and get up (very) close and personal with the bats living inside, and saw plenty of lizards and even a snake. That night we drove to the top of the canyon to camp, and in the morning attempted to make our way through a water filled cave, until it got to dark and narrow for some of us (about three paces inside!) before settling on exploring the ruins of the old abandoned village of Tanuf and heading home. Not only was it a fantastic weekend, but thanks to the experience and skills of my friends, we didn’t need a guide for this trip either, so aside from the mountain of food we took with us, this one didn’t cost a dirham! If you don’t know anyone like that however, there are plenty of groups now on or Facebook where you can find people with similar interests who arrange these kind of trips regularly.

6. Non-adventuring in the Adventure Centre in Dibba

These trips don’t need to be bursting full of action however, what really makes any excursion special is the people who you share it with. The recent trip I was referring to earlier was for a friend’s 40th and as the temperatures are now too hot to be too active, we had arranged with Absolute Adventures to rent their Adventure Centre in Dibba. This provided one bedroom for the birthday boy and the rest of us fought over the bunk beds in the air-conditioned dorm room. There were 10-12 of us and from memory this was around AED 150-200 each for the accommodation, with all bedding and use of the kitchen, there was also a chilled pool outside (very small but perfect to sit in and chat!) and a barasti majlis area with hammocks and cushions and a huge long table and chairs. Due to heat, we spent most of our time in the pool, except to venture five minutes down the road to Dibba fish market to buy our dinner straight off the boat. With the border becoming strict on brining in alcohol, we hadn’t wanted to risk it, instead we took a detour to the Golden Tulip hotel in Dibba where we enjoyed a few sundowners and even got our fish BBQ’d by the chef, saving us a job!

There are now plenty of options to help people get out of the city and experience more of the UAE and Oman, rather than being confined to the city’s decadent high rises, and hopefully more people will start to see beyond this in the future!