How this Emirati turned his 100-year-old mountain home into UAE’s most charming Airbnb

Waleed Khamis Al Abdouli's labour of love offers authentic Emirati experience in the unfailing company of nature



By Mazhar Farooqui; Visuals by M Sajjad

Published: Thu 16 Jun 2022, 4:18 PM

Last updated: Fri 17 Jun 2022, 1:42 PM

Waleed Khamis Al Abdouli moved out of his ancestral home in 2015. But he couldn’t really move on. His thoughts kept wandering back to his 100-year-old mud-walled house in Tayibbah village set amidst the rugged Hajjar mountains of Fujairah.

This is where he grew up and spent most of his adult life. “I remember how our place would resonate with laughter. It pained me to see it suddenly go quiet and languish in obscurity,” the Emirati recalled. “I had two choices — wallow in the memories of the house or do something to preserve it.”

The father of three, who works with the UAE’s armed forces, chose the latter. He dipped into his life’s savings to transform the two-storied accommodation into a charming mountain abode now known as the Al Qala Lodge.

Opened just four years ago, the unpretentious retreat is already a big hit among tourists and staycationers thirsting for an authentic Emirati experience in the unfailing company of nature. It’s hard to miss the place as you drive past Fujairah’s Masafi market. The lodge has a portrait of the UAE’s founding father Sheikh Zayed painted on its front, and sits next to the Flag Fort which has also been conceptualised and built by Al Abdouli.

You are unlikely to find Flag Fort in a tourist guide book but this hidden gem is worth visiting as it has some great spots for Instagram pictures. Al Abdouli welcomed us ceremoniously with Gahwa coffee — the traditional Arab drink — when we showed up at Al Qala Lodge after an hour-and-a-half-long drive from Dubai.

Walking around the picturesque time-warp house seems like stepping back into history. Adding to the old world charm are majlis-style settings, carved wood beds, vintage home décor and wind towers that have defied the vagaries of nature.

The two-bedroom property, which can comfortably accommodate six adults, is also perhaps the UAE’s only Airbnb with a thatched roof — a rare and treasured design feature that keeps the building cool in summer and warm in winter.

“I haven’t kept count of how much I’ve spent but it’s fair to say that I have exhausted all my savings. Thankfully, it’s worth it. This is still a work in progress as I am planning to build two more rooms.” Al Abdouli said he wouldn’t have been able to restore the century-old house to its original glory without the support of his family. “They backed me to the hilt, particularly my wife Hajjar Khalifa.”

He waved a hand around the large living room. “All these Arabic lanterns, Persian rugs and ceramic pots you see here are Hajjar’s idea. She got these period-accurate things so that our guests could have a true immersive experience of how our forefathers lived in the past.”

The bedrooms have retro black-and-white television sets and rotary dial phones. The television works. The phones don’t.

“You can’t call room service using those phones,” Al Abdouli said laughingly before hastening to add, “but why would anyone call room service? We don’t have it here.”

“We wanted to keep it as real as possible. That explains the window air conditioners. Some guests said they made too much noise so we put a split AC as well, ” he said. Average daily rentals hover around Dh1,400.

Al Abdouli said his village was abandoned after residents took advantage of a national housing scheme and moved to new settlements a few years ago.

“Most homes here turned into cattle barns. Our place also remained neglected for years. I coordinated with government bodies and got a road extended to the village. Around the same time, I started renovating the house and constructing the Flag Fort,” Al Abdouli said as we climbed a set of stairs leading to a rooftop terrace where guests can hold a barbeque while enjoying uninterrupted mountain views.

They can also visit an adjacent small rooftop farm and cool off in a private plunge pool. A few steps away from the lodge is the Flag Fort, a mud walled structure entirely dedicated to the UAE flag which flutters atop the building along with the flags of all seven emirates.

Inside is a picture gallery featuring Emiratis who have taken the UAE flag to extraordinary heights. Among them were astronaut Hazzaa Al Mansoori who carried the UAE Flag to space and global adventurer Saeed Al Memari, the first Emirati to raise the UAE flag on the tallest peak on each of the seven continents. “I am proud of my Emirati identity and the Flag Fort is my humble tribute to the nation. Sometime back the ruler of Fujairah visited the Flag Fort and appreciated my efforts. It was a proud moment for me.”

Far removed from the hustle and bustle of city life, the area is also home to the famed Tayyibah hiking trail, regarded as one of the best in the county. “Our lodge is very popular with hikers,” said Al Abdouli. “It’s just the sort of place one would want to relax at after a gruelling trek: traditional, unsophisticated, warm and welcoming.”

mazhar@khaleejtimes.com


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