Ras al Khaimah: the adventurer’s emirate
There’s more to the UAE than retail therapy and poolside lounging
Ras al Khaimah translates into English as ‘top of the tent’. Look on a map, you’ll see why: this UAE emirate is perched on a triangular tip of land along the Persian Gulf coastline of the Arabian Peninsula. While RAK (to use the popular local name) isn’t a household name like neighbours Dubai and Abu Dhabi, that’s changing swiftly as tourism continues to grow. And while Dubai is known as the land of ultimate indulgent luxury, Ras al Khaimah is - quite wisely - positioning itself something quite different altogether.
A thrill-seeker’s oasis
Ras al Khaimah is an hour’s drive out of Dubai Airport, and it isn’t long into the journey before all the hyper-modernity is left behind, as the high-rises and cranes give way to swathes of desert dotted with camels. Side note: it’s not just out here in the wild that you’ll find camels - they frequently turn up on menus, too. The taste isn’t that different to beef.
If the wider UAE is best known for high-end shopping and poolside indolence, then RAK is emerging as a destination for curious, active types who are just as comfortable in walking boots as Manolo Blahniks. There are plenty of outdoor activities to get involved in, including scuba diving and kayaking in the mangroves that run along the coastline, where roosting flamingos can be spotted in the summertime.
Up in the stark beauty of the Jebel Jais Mountains, cycling routes and hiking trails are currently being developed - although such activities are something for the winter months, when the heat drops to manageable temperatures. Thrill-seekers should book themselves a spot on the Jebel Jais Flight, which, running an incredible 2.8km across a ravine, is the world’s longest zipline. If that sounds hair-raisingly daring, take comfort in the fact that the first person to trial the zipline was Sheikh Ahmed bin Saqr Al Qasimi, the son of the of Ras al Khaimah’s ruling sheikh.
A touch of indulgence
Alongside the outdoorsy stuff, there’s also plenty of R&R to be enjoyed in RAK, where the fabled Middle Eastern hospitality is to be found everywhere. All the major hotel groups have set up premises here, and the largest, the Waldorf Astoria, is a stunning masterwork in opulence, from the latticework in the foyer to the box of syrup-drenched pastries waiting for you in your room. The traditional food served in Marjan, the restaurant on the hotel’s sixteenth floor, is stupendously good: tahini-rich hummus, spice-rubbed fish and glistening kebabs beached on heaps of rice. In the place of drink, food always takes centre-stage - wherever you go, there’s lots of it. Pack some elasticated trousers if you visit.
Those with the pursestrings for luxury with a ‘wow’ factor should look no further than Ritz Carlton’s Al Wadi Desert property, which opened in 2017 and is the sort of place that is surely destined to become very popular among reclusive A-listers. Hidden away amongst the brush and dunes of the desert, it’s a blissfully tranquil compound of villas located in a 500-hectare nature reserve, each home boasting its own private pool where breakfast is served in floating baskets.
For people who really want to unwind, it doesn’t get much better than the property’s Rainforest Experience, an ultra-modern, hammam-style spa where you make your way through a sequence of hydrotherapy treatments, including a ‘brine cavern’ that blasts you with saltwater steam and a chillout room filled with the scent of lavender. Elsewhere on site, fidgety kids will be kept entertained by participatory falconry displays, something that the native Bedouin have been practising for 2,500 years.
Before arriving in Ras al Khaimah, I had a nagging fear that, beyond the air-conditioned luxury, there would be little authentic Middle Eastern life to explore. I was wrong. The Ras al Khaimah National Museum, though provincial in size, has engaging displays of archaeological finds. And if you can manage its 300 steps in the heat, the eighteenth-century Dhayah Hill Fort gives you sweeping views of the surrounding date farms and mountains. There’s also the strange and eerie Al Jazirat Al Hamra, a ghost town that was abandoned in the ’60s and, yes, is reputedly haunted.
But for a truly fascinating experience, make sure you visit the Suwaidi Pearl Farm, the only one of its kind in the Middle East. A humble, shack-like building out in the shallow waters surrounding Al Rams village, the farm tour takes you on a 6,000-year journey through the history of Arabian pearl diving, to the days when divers would wear tortoiseshell nose-clips and had heavy rocks fastened to one ankle. Tour participants can select an oyster from a tank; maybe, if you’re lucky, yours will produce a pearl.
Then there’s the simple joy of rubbing shoulders with locals in the Gold Souq in Rak City at night, when the temperates have dropped. The shops and stalls here sell everything from sacks of almonds to golden jewellery to freshly baked bread. If you stop to rest at a shisha lounge, locals will undoubtedly make a seat for you at their table. Good luck with contributing to the bill, mind.
Ras al Khaimah is perfect for those who prefer a slower tempo to the gaudy buzz of Dubai and Abu Dhabi, and best for families with kids old enough for the activities.
A note on local laws, though: as in the rest of the UAE, alcohol is permitted in Ras al Khaimah, but only served in hotel bars and other tourist spots. Dress-wise, modesty isn’t enforced but appreciated: visitors should keep their shoulders and legs covered whilst out and about and sitting down for meals. LGBT+ visitors, sadly, have no choice but to be discreet.
If the thought of roasting alive puts many Anglo-Saxons off visiting, bear in mind that RAK, cooled by Persian Gulf breezes, is usually a good 6 or 7 degrees cooler than neighbouring emirates. If you’re looking for a spot of adventure this summer - with just a touch of luxury thrown in along the way - make RAK your destination.
For more information, head to rasalkhaimah.ae/.
Prices at the Waldorf Astoria start from £127 per room per night, based on two adults sharing a room. To book, go to https://waldorfastoria3.hilton.com/en/.
Prices at the Hilton Resort start from £97 per room per night, based on two adults sharing a room. To book, go to https://www3.hilton.com/en/.
Prices at the Ritz Carlton Al Wadi Desert start from £255 per room per night, based on two adults sharing a home. To book, go to http://www.ritzcarlton.com/en/.