It’s been about three and a half years since I moved to the United Arab Emirates, and I’ve rarely ventured outside of Dubai since then. Short of occasional blasts to Yas Marina and a thrash out to the twisty roads around Hatta, I’ve seen very little of the country’s 83,600 square kilometres.
As the whole reason I moved away from my native United Kingdom was to see more of the world, this is clearly unacceptable. The time has come to set out and seek new things, tread the path least trodden, and follow the example of such visionaries as renowned explorer Wilfred Thesiger. Well, sort of. Thesiger spent years hiking across the Rub Al Khali on a camel. I’m only planning a daytrip around the Emirates. And I’ve got something a bit more luxurious in which to do it.
The Bentley Continental GTC was revealed at the tail end of last year. Based on the latest generation GT coupe of 2010, it builds on the success of the convertible first unveiled in 2006. The craftsmen at Bentley headquarters have toiled away to improve virtually all aspects of the car, from its hand-made interior to the improved 6.0-litre W12 engine and the chassis upon which it sits.
This, then, will be my steed for this noble adventure. Together with our trusty photographer Moe, I will attempt to visit each of the seven emirates in a single day, starting at dawn in Dubai and hopefully reaching the Abu Dhabi border before the sun disappears behind the horizon.
The day therefore starts early, and we set off from Dubai Media City at 6.30am, just as the sun starts to struggle into the sky. The new Continental range doesn’t look radically different from the last in pictures, but in the metal, the GTC has much more presence. The lines are sharper, the shoulders more defined, the stance wider and more aggressive. Inside, the quality has dramatically improved. Gone are the cheap, Audi parts bin switches that plagued the old model and in is a state-of-the-art touch screen entertainment system, fine wood veneers and several cows-worth of soft leather. I settle into the driver’s seat, which is harder than I expected, but it sits low and offers a great driving position. A stab of the start button on the transmission tunnel brings the big W12 to life with barely a whisper. Moe slams the boot on his equipment, hops in beside me, and we get underway.
The main Dubai roads are busier than expected, but the traffic is moving quickly enough for us to avoid the rush hour and head north. Despite the relatively chilly temperatures we’ve got the roof down, the seat heaters and neck-warming hot air blower on and the intrusion of blusteriness into the cabin is minimal, largely thanks to the wind deflector installed above the token rear seats.
We stop at the Burj Al Arab for a quick picture, but then it’s down with the roof and onto the E11 Sheikh Zayed Road for a short burst on cruise control into Sharjah. I’ve been rather dismissive of Sharjah in the past. It has a reputation as a more austere place than Dubai: as an industrial city that you travel through to get to somewhere else.
But as we peel off the main road and head towards the Corniche, attractive niches pop up. Statues, sculptures. A little ferris wheel, dwarfed by the tower blocks either side of it. Signs point towards art exhibitions and fascinating architecture surprises you at regular intervals. Although probably the most conservative part of the UAE, Sharjah is fast becoming a cultural destination in the country, with a plethora of museums and souqs. I make a mental note to return and explore more of it.
But there’s no time to hang around. We’re two down on our list of seven emirates, but the first few are all close together. From Sharjah we continue along the coast, heading for the UAE’s smallest emirate, Ajman.
Threading the GTC along the short boulevards and around roundabouts, I’m getting an overriding sense of quality from the car. We talk about Audis being bulletproof in their sturdiness, but Bentley has taken its parent company’s most admirable trait and mixed it with the handcrafting ethos to create something that has a sense of human talent to it, but without the oft-associated creakiness.
It’s not even 9am yet, and we’re already on our third emirate. Ajman means ‘small city’ in Arabic, but it’s been the focus of a concerted effort to grow and modernise in recent times, with plenty of new building and business projects. The economic collapse of 2008 hit it hard, with numerous ventures postponed or cancelled, and as a result there are plenty of deserted construction sites dotted around the city. But as we cruise down the coast there’s plenty of life going on. Joggers puff their way parallel to the waves, and I turn the Bentley into a yard full of fishing boats as we search for a good spot to shoot.
We’re greeted by a group of local Emirati fishermen who insist that we stop and chat over a small cup of hot, sweet tea. They tell us that they meet here every morning to chat, smoke, drink tea and occasionally fish. In the cool morning air, with the sunshine filtering through their makeshift hut, it’s hard to think of a better way to start the day. We’re only a few kilometres away from Dubai, but the pace of life and attitudes here are markedly different, and it’s refreshing. Nevertheless, one enthusiastic local asks if he can have his picture taken with the Bentley and gazes at it longingly while he poses.
My tongue slightly burned from the tea, we bid our goodbyes and get back on the road once more. Three down, four to go >>>