Wed, Oct 17, 2007 - Page 13 News List

Sheikdoms with less glitter can still shine

Away from the hustle and bustle, glitz and glamour of Dubai and Abu Dhabi, the United Arab Emirates' other sheikdoms offer vacationers a wealth of cultural discoveries off the beaten trail

By Austin Considine  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , NEW YORK

The Sharjah Biennial 8, which ended in June, is the largest art event in the Arab world.

PHOTOS: AGENCIES

These days, you would have to live under a rock to not know about the glittery booming emirates of Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Artificial islands shaped like a map of the world, a second Louvre under way, the world's tallest building under construction: The list of strange and superlative associations goes on and on.

But the United Arab Emirates - made up of seven small federated sheikdoms - is greater than the sum of its two superstars. Two of the lesser known emirates - Ras al-Khaymah and Umm al-Qaywayn - are still well off the international tourist trail. For now, Ras al-Khaymah, on the border with Oman, is probably best known among adventure travelers for its rugged excursions into the Hajar Mountains. Umm al-Qaywayn, about an hour's drive northeast of Dubai, is early in the process of revamping, Dubai-style, with plans for a US$3.3 billion, 809-hectare resort and residential marina.

The three other emirates -- Ajman, Fujayrah and Sharjah - make for intriguing and very doable overnight visits or day-trips from frenzied Dubai and Abu Dhabi.

SHARJAH

Sharjah is the most conservative of the seven emirates. For starters, it is completely dry. There is also no smoking of sheeshas (hookahs), and public dress codes, particularly for women, are more strictly observed, though Western-style swimwear is acceptable on private beaches.

It is a good place to get a taste of the emirates' cultural history. And its private resorts, like the Radisson SAS (www.sharjah. radissonsas.com; rates from about US$265) and the Coral Beach Club (www.coral-international.com/beach resort; rates from US$217), are peaceful contrasts to the pounding techno and revelry in places like the Madinat Jumeirah in Dubai.

First settled during the Bronze Age, Sharjah is the cultural capital of the emirates. And there is no better place to see this than in the Heritage Area of Sharjah City. At the mouth of the Khaled Lagoon, the Heritage Area is juxtaposed against an emerging skyline of modern architecture. It is the site of Sharjah's walled city, dating back some 200 years, and has been under restoration since the mid-1990s.

For US$4, visitors can see all the sites in the complex, including al-Hisn (the Fort), built in 1820; the Maritime Museum, and the calligraphy museum, which showcases new and antique parchments, scrolls and finely etched and embossed ceramics.

The Islamic Museum is dedicated to Islamic beliefs, customs and history, with an array of exhibitions that include Mughal Empire armor, 10th-century Khorasan ceramics and coins from the first Islamic dynasty, the Umayyads. This museum is currently closed, but is scheduled to relocate in a new palatial facility nearby in December.

Farther up Corniche Road is the Arts Area, site of the Sharjah Art Museum, which claims to be the largest gallery in the Middle East. In addition to traveling exhibitions, the museum has a permanent collection of works by Orientalist painters like David Roberts, Ludwig Deutsch and Walter Tyndale.

The Sharjah Museum for Arabic Contemporary Art showcases artists like the Dubai-based photographer and video artist Mohammed Kazem and the feminist Syrian painter Sarah Ayoub Agha. Across the street, peek into the studio spaces and galleries dedicated to local artists and artisans around the inner courtyard of the Sharjah Art Institute.

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