Al Marfa, lined by fruit trees, has grown from a village. Its people continue to fish and be connected to the sea
In Abu Dhabi, sometimes you simply want to get away from the feeling of being encircled by steel and stale air. But it's not often that you get to visit and explore the Western Region of the emirate.
Barring a handful of adventurous expatriates - those who bundle into their 4WDs with family and camping equipment and explore the country most weekends - most are happy to head for the bright lights of Dubai or the green gardens of Al Ain.
But the Western Region has much to offer. Particularly the city of Al Marfa. It's easy to reach, being just 160kms west of Abu Dhabi city on the Abu Dhabi-Qatar-Saudi Arabia highway. Drive from Abu Dhabi via Mussafah and Tariff to Al Marfa.
It's easy to drive along the quiet streets of this city with a population of 13,000 and not come across anyone. Or even realise that you are in the middle of a city.
As you drive through the tree-lined streets (reminding you of Al Ain), you come across a mini Corniche and a beautiful, clear Arabian Gulf. Then you notice the clusters of Portakabin structures, leisure boats moored by the sea, lush greenery and a falcon shaped hotel.
What is Al Marfa about? Briefly, it seems to be a village slowly metamorphosing into a city, riding on its most attractive asset - the sea.
"All the people who live here are connected to the sea somehow," reveals Sultan Al Suwaidi, a young coast guard officer sitting inside his Portakabin office set up near the Al Marfa Corniche. They are either fishermen or love fishing as a hobby or use the sea for sports, he says.
Al Suwaidi, a resident of Abu Dhabi, makes the journey between the two cities quite happily because he fell in love with Al Marfa after he was posted here a year ago. He's a keen marine sportsman and loves the city because it provides him with the opportunity to jet ski and boat. Many expatriates park their boats here and come down on weekends to use them, he says.
The water looks unspoilt and clean. However, a clean-up campaign last month at the fishing port yielded hundreds of plastic bags, bottles, foodstuff and even bits of television sets.
But standing on the empty Corniche one weekday morning, watching a lone fisherman tussling with his catch in the clear waters, it's difficult to believe the sea here could have yielded such rubbish.
Al Marfa was originally a fishing village. It started to develop when the late Shaikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan picked the scenic spot to build free houses for UAE nationals.
As the villas sprang up one by one and people moved in, the government set up a four star deluxe property, the Mirfa Hotel. Run by National Corporation of Tourism & Hotels, this opened its doors in May 2003.
Circled by the sea, with a large landscaped garden, the hotel is an ideal retreat. It has a swimming pool, gym, tennis courts and a mini sand golf course. It also plans to buy boats and offer rides to islands near Al Marfa.
Residents, tourists and travellers from Saudi Arabia on their way to Abu Dhabi/Dubai frequent the hotel. Al Marfa is a good starting point to discover the Western Region, points out Ali Salih, manager of the Mirfa Hotel.
"Al Marfa to me is the picture of a perfect resort," says Saleh Al Hammadi, a young UAE national and a keen fisherman. "We have the sea, clean waters and great fishing."
The streets are full of fruit trees and the city is quiet and peaceful, he adds. Al Hammadi works in Sharjah. His family lives in Al Marfa and he visits on weekends. Then he spends most of his time fishing. Al Marfa is famous for good fish, he says. A point echoed by most residents.
Most UAE nationals living here are employed at government offices - the municipality, civil defence, power station - or in the hospital, the few schools and the local campus of the UAE University.
More than 100 vegetable and fruit farms can also be found at Al Marfa. It is also famous for its Al Dhafra Dates factory. (A visit to the factory is only possible with permission).
According to the Abu Dhabi Islands Archaeological Survey (ADIAS) website, the fossil site of Jebel Mimiyah, located close to Al Marfa, has fossils from ancient species of hyena, turtle, crocodile, horse, elephant, catfish and freshwater bivalve shells. These fossils date back six to eight million years ago.
Large rivers then cut through the landscape which had savanna-like grasslands and acacia trees, rather like modern day East Africa, the website says. Today, the landscape is largely sea, sand and greenery. The city boasts a marketplace located on just one short street. This area includes a cooperative, a restaurant, a few shops and an open market for cheap plastic goods.
There might not be much to explore at Al Marfa except the seaside, Mirfa Hotel and marketplace. But it is a great place to spend a quiet weekend. Life is slow here and that's exactly what the residents seem to like most.
If you ask an Al Marfa resident what he likes about the city, pat comes the answer: "The silence and the calm".