Sharjah reinvents Khorfakkan and Kalba

For those not in the know, Sharjah’s East Coast has been reinventing itself, with billions of dirhams of investment and a vision to maximise its natural advantages. In the process, the emirate of Sharjah has built two entertaining and activity-infused destinations both for residents and tourists, around central concepts of watersports, nature and conservation of wildlife as well as heritage.

Khorfakkan Beach is now a redesigned 3-km stretch of beach with high-quality public amenities, a range of outdoor activities and a variety of dining options. A mere-45 minutes from Sharjah through Al Sidrah Tunnel, it is more accessible than ever before and home to a manmade waterfall, a Grecian amphitheatre (nothing like this exists in the UAE!), a revitalised souq-museum, a brand-new and beautiful observatory, watersports and much, much more.

The East Coast city of Kalba, on the other hand, has received five billion dirhams worth of investment all on its own and has emerged with the luxury Kingfisher Retreat set amidst a biodiverse environment, flanked by kayaking in untouched mangroves and an unparalleled animal conservation attraction, a must visit for kids and adults alike.  

Invited by Sharjah Commerce and Tourism Development Authority as the first media fam trip for 2021, we have an opportunity to look into all these developments taking shape over different phases of the pandemic. Our first day is dedicated to Khor Fakkan and in the light of recent developments, it is a very busy day indeed.

Starting with a glimpse of history to get a sense of place, our tour guide Moza Al Naqbi and SCTDA employees Halima and Abdulla Al Naqbi take us to the remodelled and refurbished Khorfakkan Souq Sharq.

Sharq is the ancient heart of Khorfakkan, the marketplace as it was years ago. Even in the high temperatures of summer, though, we are comfortable in this souq as it is covered in an air conditioned environment for most part. Apart from this, the souq-museum is a colourful reminder of what life in Khorfakkan was like, with everything from barbershops, bakeries and pearl shops to homes, school and apothecary brought back to life in different chambers. The attention to detail is remarkable: the fish shop smells of dry fish, the pearl shop has little weighing scales left askew with a few pearls as if the pearl trader is still working on them and a bedroom plays granny’s lullaby’s in loop as she puts her grandchild to sleep. We top our museum trip with tea, Arabic coffee and traditional snacks in a café in the souq.

The next stop is the redone Khorfakkan Beach. This 3-kilometre crescent-shaped beach hosts endless choices for fun in the water, from fishing and diving to parasailing and kayaking. It is one of the most popular Sharjah tourist places and weekend getaways in the UAE, with activities for every kind of traveller. Locals love to take a day trip here for a pleasant change from Sharjah weather. Lined with palm trees and facing glittering waters, the sand makes a great playground for adults and children with swing sets and football goalposts.

Explore the water with a relaxing swim or with boat and jet ski rentals, available in the huts near the centre of the corniche. Deeper into the water, there are several fishing spots to make a big catch. You can also choose from sailing, scuba diving, or snorkeling near Shark Island, which is just a short boat ride from the beach.

On one end of the Khorfakkan beach is the Oceanic Resort and Spa, our abode for the night. We hear rumours of a new property in Khorfakkan, one with jetskis, parasailing and ziplines – but cannot reveal more than this at this point. Hint: expect a luxury boutique operator that exists in the Heart of Sharjah. We can say no more.

From Khorfakkan Beach we head to the obvious attraction that we have been looking at every time we are on the road – it’s huge so it’s hard to miss - Khorfakkan Amphitheater and Waterfall. Inspired by Roman architecture, Khorfakkan Amphitheater is rapidly becoming a celebrated local landmark. The newly built amphitheatre covers over 1,700 sqm and can accommodate over 3,500 spectators. It was designed with a state-of-the-art cooling system, making it the ideal out-door venue for upcoming events. Although we are not permitted to enter the amphitheatre, we are told that is to be open for general admission, and ideal for concerts, Mice events, meetings and maybe even a wedding.

A magnificent 45m-high waterfall cascades down next to the amphitheatre. Although the waterfall is man-made, it was carved out of natural rock and is often illuminated at night. The structure was built with viewing windows at the top, which are sometimes open to the public. From there, visitors can watch water flow down the rock.

Heading toward Khorfakkan on the new Sharjah – Khorfakkan highway opens up a vista of the beautiful Al Rafisah Dam. People who know Khorfakkan well will be pleasantly surprised at the new and upgraded Al Rafisah Dam. Originally built in the 1980s, the dam now has a new visitor centre and rest area. With travel time from Sharjah to Khorfakkan now reduced to 45 minutes, more visitors come to enjoy a view of the sandstone mountain range looming over a pure azure reservoir with its accompanying tranquil green landscape and man-made waterfall, perfect for nature lovers and outdoors enthusiasts. With boating facilities in place, it is a great place to spend some time in, and not just a break from driving.

There is a rest area, a mosque, outdoor play areas for children, a parking lot and supermarket as well as a popular restaurant with lake view. Part of the redevelopment has restored the nearby Wadi Shea Fortress and the surrounding old plantations. A kilometre-long walkway, fringed with palm trees, circumventing the dam, wends its way along the mountain’s edge, through the plantations up to the fort.

For panoramic views of the city head up to Al Rabi Tower, which also marks the start and end of a stunning hiking trail overlooking Khorfakkan and the bay. The tower is a historical monument built in 1915 as part of a defence network for Khorfakkan. Hikers can follow a well-marked trail that zigzags up to a 395m summit with panoramic views. This trail is often referred to as a beginner’s hike, however, be sure to take plenty of water and snacks and wear shoes suitable for rocky terrain.

If views attract you, then a visit to the newly built Al Suhub Resthouse is a must. The highest point in Khorfakkan naturally offers a charming panoramic view of the city, while enjoying a selection of treats in the Cloud lounge. A mountain-side rest stop that lies 600 meters above sea level, Al Suhub Resthouse is a concept with hospitality at its core, offering a comfortable place for weary travellers to take a break and disconnect or reconnect.

Last but not the least, watersports, including fishing, scuba diving and snorkelling, motorised and non-motorised water sports, including paddling, windsurfing and fly boarding are popular.  Banana boat rides are popular with kids. The Al Majaz Waterfront in particular hosts summer activities for kids with dedicated children’s areas. Off the coast of the Khorfakkan public beach, Shark Island is an underwater marvel for everyone who enjoys snorkeling, scuba diving and swimming. Sea anemones and turtles are a treat for snorkellers, while divers flock here for the beautiful rock formations teeming with moray eels, rays and Arabian angelfish. If you prefer to stay on the surface, take a kayak out to spot schools of fish from above the clear waters. The waters of the east coast, particularly in the Khorfakkan area, is full of big game fish like marlin, sailfish, dorado and yellowfin tuna. Meanwhile, the Arabian Gulf shelters game fish such as kingfish, barracuda and trevally.

Kalba is likely the most ecologically friendly tourism destination in the UAE, with opportunities to go wildlife spotting while trekking, kayaking, as well as scuba diving. Through its swamps, salt marshes, and mudflats, the reserve serves as a refuge for a wide range of rare avian and aquatic life. Endangered green sea turtles find Al Qurm Natural Reserve an ideal breeding ground for laying their eggs along the shores of the reserve’s mangroves.

Boasting a total built-up area of 17,000 sqm, the Kalba Waterfront is positioned along the serene Kalba lagoon, and is being designed as a one-stop destination for shopping in a mall with 82 shops, dining with breath-taking natural views and a variety of entertainment including a play zone for children. A short drive away is the Al Hefaiyah Mountain Conservation Centre, a reminder of Kalba’s ecological foundation.

Al Hefaiyah Mountain Conservation Centre, spread over 12 sqkm in the Khor Kalba area is home to 30 native mountain and desert species. With successful wildlife conservation measures, this Kalba centre hosts various species native to the desert habitat. It is also one of the only parks in Sharjah with indoor exhibits, featuring snakes, lizards, hedgehogs and scorpions. Larger landscaped enclosures are dedicated to the Arabian leopard, wolf, tahr and caracal or desert lynx.

For a family experience, a guided tour works best as children are encouraged to ask questions while the tour guides take you through the entire centre. There are wildlife puzzles to solve, stationery bikes that tell you whether you are as slow as a tortoise or as fast as a leopard and little wooden stools to bring younger kids closer to the exhibits. After your tour, make sure to head to Kingfisher Retreat, one of the most luxurious nature retreats in the UAE for an overnight stay in the lap of a mangrove conservation area or a pristine lunch.

The Kingfisher Retreat, a luxurious boutique eco-retreat Shurooq inaugurated in April 2019, operates under the Sharjah Collection brand by Shurooq – a trio of ecotourism destinations that bring Sharjah’s vast natural diversity to UAE residents as well as tourists from around the world and is managed by ‘Mysk by Shaza’.

Home to 20 luxury tents and located near Kalba’s protected mangrove reserve, The Kingfisher Retreat is part of the Kalba Eco-tourism Project.