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14 Nov

Al Bait

  • a version of this article appeared in Travel + Leisure

You don’t usually go to the desert looking for rain. But Sharjah, one of the seven United Arab Emirates, is full of surprises.

At Sharjah Art Foundation, in the emirate’s capital city, I recently visited “Rain Room,” a 2012 installation by the collective Random International that has previously stopped in London and New York. A heavy downpour fell inside a darkened space, but thanks to motion detectors it left me untouched, allowing me to walk slowly and cinematically under a single, moving spotlight. The work, which raises questions about technology, sensation, and climate change, has more than a little in common with Sharjah itself. With its traditional culture and thriving gallery scene, Sharjah challenges assumptions about what an emirate can be.

For years, visitors were hard-pressed to find a decent place to stay. That’s changing with the new Al Bait Sharjah (doubles from $460), a member of Leading Hotels of the World, which has views of gently rocking dhows docked on Sharjah Creek. The 53 guest rooms — spread across four historic houses once owned by prominent local families — come with four-poster beds, goblets brimming with Arabian dates, and access to a custom Mercedes available for chauffeured outings. Follow the alleyways between the interconnected residences to the on-site library and museum of Sharjah history. The hotel’s main restaurant serves dishes like camel, slow-braised for 24 hours. For more local specialties, another restaurant at the hotel serves Emirati fare family style — but the spiced prawns are so good you may not want to share. It’s a perfect example of the many delights the U.A.E. has to offer beyond its shiny cities.