In an effort to explore more of the region that has been my home for three and a half years, I am attempting to visit all seven of the United Arab Emirates in a single day behind the wheel of a Bentley Continental GTC. Accompanying me on the jaunt is Moe, our photographic guru.
We’ve just left emirate number three, Ajman, and so far all them have blended into one big urban sprawl. But after passing the port and Ajman fish market, we get back onto the E11 and continue north. Here the buildings melt away and the landscape gives way to dusty expanses of desert. As sand blasts across the road on a winter wind, I reflect that it might be a good time to put the roof up. The process is almost silent as the canvas hood unfolds itself from the boot compartment, but it does take longer than I expect.
Once the roof is on, the difference in driving environment is markedly different. The only indication that the suede-lined roof above me isn’t metal is the slight rush of wind behind my left ear. Otherwise the insulation of the hood and the double-glazed windows makes the GTC as quiet as you’d expect from a Bentley. Remarkable.
Jutting out into the sea on a peninsula is the main urban area of Umm Al Quwain. It’s far more sparse than any of the emirates we’ve been to thus far, with a small town feel to it. We snap a couple of pictures before heading back to the main road and pushing north. Then we spot a superb photo opportunity. Just off the main road, after the Emirates Motorplex, sits the now disused Umm Al Quwain Airport and a huge abandoned cargo aircraft. The Ilyushin IL-76 was flown to the UAE in 1999 after serving first with the Soviet air force and then commercially in Africa, and it’s never left. It’s sat forlornly by the side of the road, playing host to nesting birds (and mountains of droppings) and a painted advert for a hotel that was never built. It’s an enormous, imposing thing, still with its original Russian flag and markings but its panels flaking paint and rust.
I could have spent all day poking around this decaying hulk, but we have our own powerful icon to pilot. We’re four emirates down, and now continuing North to Ras Al Khaimah. This is one of the most historic emirates in the UAE, with plenty of old forts and settlements to explore, but we’re on a tight schedule. We stop at the coastal town of Al Hamra and a surprisingly modern, if virtually deserted mall. This seems a good place for a spot of lunch and planning the next move.
One greasy burger each consumed, it’s back on the main road and, for the first time, we head inland. RAK is the northern-most emirate, and Oman’s not on our list, so we now have to dash overland towards the east coast and Fujairah. It’s not the most inspired route, mostly following a truck route through a changing desert landscape. The pale dust gives way to reddish sand and then gravelly plains interspersed with wispy trees, mountains looming in the distance ahead of us.
This quiet, straight stretch, free from speed cameras, gives me my first chance to really open up the GTC’s W12. A stamp of the throttle sees the six-speed ZF automatic take its time to realise that it’s action time, before dropping down three gears and gathering pace. The delivery is assured and confident, but there’s no savagery here. Some 567bhp is butlered to all four wheels, and the effect is a swell of acceleration, all calm authority and serious power. Big numbers appear on the speedometer very quickly, but the Bentley feels stable despite a mildly disconcerting lightness to the steering as I make small corrections.
We’re heading for Dibba, a coastal town right at the far north east of the UAE, but first we have to traverse through the mountains on a very fast, sweeping dual carriageway. This is where the GTC feels at its best. I stiffen up the suspension using the touchscreen controls and use that surefooted chassis and big gobs of power to munch up the kilometres. The roads aren’t twisty enough for the Bentley’s weight to become an issue, and before long we spot the Fujairah Cement Factory just outside Dibba, confirming that we’re six emirates down from seven.
The final emirate on our list is Abu Dhabi, but it’s also the furthest away. We’ve dawdled around taking photos and enjoying the scenery a little too much, and now we only have a couple of hours to cover almost half the total distance of our trip. I point the GTC south down the east coast, past the UAE’s oldest mosque at Al Bidyah and continue frustratingly slowly towards Khor Fakkan, stuck behind trucks and tourists on roads too twisting to overtake on. Eventually we arrive in Khor Fakkan and pause to gaze at the huge Costa Favolosa cruise ship moored at the port. This is the sister ship to the recently stricken Costa Concordia and it’s a marvel to us that something so massive could capsize.
No time to dwell though – we carry on down the coast, through Fujairah town and nearby Kalba, and cut inland as Oman approaches once more. The sun is beginning to lower in the sky, and we still have a way to go. Our final destination is the small town of Al Hayer, an unremarkable place save for its position on the Dubai-Al Ain road, just inside the border of the Emirate of Abu Dhabi. If we can get there before sundown, victory will be ours.
But the most challenging roads of the trip stand in our way. Rising back into the mountains is a tight and twisting route that doesn’t sit well with the GTC. For a car of its size it’s impressively agile, but there’s no hiding 2495kg. The brakes work astoundingly well to scrub off speed, but as I pitch it into the first tight right hander there’s a squeal of protest from the tyres. I can feel the suspension trying manfully to keep things in check, but intertia is a cruel beast. Progress is still rapid thanks to the immense power and acceleration (0 to 100kph takes just 4.8s), but I have to slow to a frustratingly slow pace into corners before I can blast out again, flicking up the gears manually using the big levers behind the wheel.
Eventually we drop down over the crests of the hills towards the small town of Shawka and take a short cut left, heading on a single track road through Fili and down towards the road to Madam. Progress is faster here, but still restricted by settlements and speed cameras, but after crossing the Dubai-Hatta road we’re free to let the big W12 hum its way to serious velocities once more. The setting sun shines directly in my eyes as we race it south, flying past villages mostly obscured by thick lines of trees as the landscape changes once more.
The colour of the sky turns pink and then blood red as we reach the Dubai-Al Ain road and revert back to cruise control. Then, with barely minutes remaining, we see the Al Hayer turning. We’ve made it. After 12 hours and some 550km, we’ve covered all seven UAE emirates during daylight, and most remarkably, we both feel great. Despite quite ridiculous seat time neither of us has a hint of back trouble; it seems those hard seats were just the ticket for the GTC. Bentley’s latest creation has seriously impressed us, both with its presence and interior quality, class and comfort, as well as its engineering.
It’s no sports car and fast progress in tight sections of roads can be pained, but otherwise its hugely adept at covering vast distances with style and a minimum of drama, even with the roof down. I have slightly aerated hair as we watch the sun dip behind the dunes, but other than that I’m entirely unruffled. I do, however, have several new places to explore more fully on a future visit. I wonder if the GTC is available again? >>>