The northern Emirate of Ras Al Khaimah is probably not the first place you think of when you plan to visit the United Arab Emirates, but this hidden gem on the Gulf coast is quickly emerging as one of the key cultural destination in the region.
Unlike in neighbouring Dubai where the culture and architecture is very modern, RAK’s relative obscurity has allowed the Emirate to retain much of its traditional Arab and Khaliji heritage. The hotels, although being western brands, have embraced their Arabian architectural roots; the attractions may be suited to foreign visitors, but that doesn’t mean they don’t give an important insight into local Bedouin traditions; and the untouched natural sights are simply spectacular.
Arguably one of the finest hotels in the UAE. the Waldorf Astoria Ras Al Khaimah is nestled at the end of a private road in an enclosed upmarket community, this imposing palace is a sandy yellow beacon that encompasses every vision that visitors could ever have about the mysterious unexplored Arabian lands. The Waldorf has its own 350-metre-long private beach complete with deckchairs and lifeguard, several pools, hideaways where the only sound to be heard is the howling of the wind circling around the rounded walls of the hotel, and 10 floors, each with its own special charm.
The rooms aren’t big, they don’t offer nice views, they are absolutely huge and they host views across the beach and rippling sea that you might not expect when you visit the Middle East. Every aspect of the rooms has been expertly designed to bridge the gap between Arabian heritage and luxury. The walls and carved ceilings have been painted in calming browns and beiges, the five armchairs and sofas ensure that you can’t get tired when you walk from one end of the room to the other (they really are that big!), and the marble balcony is like a postcard picture come to life.
If you can drag yourself away from the splendour and majesty of the Waldorf’s nine restaurants, in-room coffee machine, and 18-hole golf course, then you will get to see why RAK is quickly emerging as a bucket list destination. You might choose to visit the 5-star pink-toned Nubian style villas of Cove Rotana Resort and its Basilico Restaurant, sampling succulent lamb cutlets, cinnamon sorbets and carpaccio salad. Or you could choose to venture a little further away from the comfort of the Waldorf and explore what nature brings to this forgotten Emirate.
You may think that staying in a 5-star hotel is far from a local experience, but you are probably more likely to meet a local Emirati whiling away their weekend in RAK’s hotels than anywhere else in the state. The Rixos Bab Al Bahr is a triplet of pyramid-shaped apartment blocks circled around what is essentially a self-enclosed town; Italian, steak, Thai, French restaurants, nightclubs, pools and bars, a private beach, and a kids’ area make this a unique offering in RAK. No less Arabesque, and just as popular with locals, is the DoubleTree Marjan Island, a villa and apartment-style hotel with “the best Italian restaurant in the UAE” according to the Turkish head chef at the Vespa restaurant. Emiratis are often seen here sampling world cuisines.
Al Marjan Island is a man-made archipelago comprising 4 coral islands shaped like a dolphin, a starfish, and a squid. Although Al Marjan is technically artificial, it looks like it could have risen from the deep like this. As you walk along the narrow roads that run along these islands, pause for a moment, take a deep breath of fresh Gulf air, and just take it all in. Listen to the speedboats roaring past, the rhythmic humming of the wind rushing between the luxurious villas, and the splashing of the sea as it hits the shore. Only in the Gulf can you stand on a dolphin island and look back to the mainland as the sun begins to set behind the mosques and hotels of Ras Al Khaimah.
A short drive outside of central RAK, the Jazirat Al Hamra stands in defiance against the oil boom that has brought extreme wealth to the Emirates, hammering at the door of local Emiratis and reminding them what life was like before the discovery of natural resources. This former fishing village has been covered in a layer of sand, creating an eerie ghost town; it’s almost like the desert is trying to reclaim land that was only ever given to people temporarily. Now the crumbling buildings and simple architecture sits in the middle of reclaimed land, so you have to close your eyes and imagine that you are surrounded by seas filled with traditional fishermen in the dhows, but Al Hamra is impressive nonetheless.
‘RAK’s relative obscurity has allowed the Emirate to retain much of its traditional Arab and Khaliji heritage.’
Can you imagine hundreds of local 16th century soldiers standing in rows, complete with their white kanduras and swords overlooking the coast? When you visit Dhayah Fort, a towering square stone fortification in the mountains surrounding the city that was originally built to defend against a perceived British attack, these images really come to life. Local RAK citizens are proud of their formerly tribal identity; Dhayah and its stunning natural surroundings undoubtedly contributed to protecting the way of life that some Bedouin tribes still live by high in the Jebel Jais mountains.
Ras Al Khaimah is an Emirate of contrasts. At one end of the Sheikhdom you can find endless orange sand dunes for as far as the eyes can see; fine rolling blankets of sand cover the surprisingly smooth roads that twist and wind through the desert like a snake chasing its prey. And camels strip the acacia trees of their leaves, Oryx stand in the thick sand glaring at you as you walk past, and the echoing of pure breed Arabian horses neighing echoes through the otherwise silent air from the Al Wadi Equestrian Centre. This side of RAK is the typical image that most people have of the Arabian Peninsula.
At the other side of the Emirate, near the border with the Sultanate of Oman, the natural environment could not be more different. The sand has been replaced by towering grey mountains and sheer drops; you can zip-line down these at Via Ferrata. Roads become steeper and narrower. And the air becomes thinner as you progress higher and higher. When you finally reach the end of the road in the Jebel Jais mountains, some 1,892 metres above sea level, be prepared to be taken aback by the breath taking (literally!) views out to the Arabian Gulf, down to RAK city, and over the horizon as the sun begins to set, casting an orange hue over the craggy rocks. If you have time bring some food and have a picnic on the edge of a cliff, everyone seems to do it here.
If you can’t get enough of the desert in RAK, and want to experience a little of what Arabia was like before the discovery of oil broke the Emirati national bank account, then you are in luck. The Bedouin Oasis Camp is as close to pre-oil that you can get in the UAE save pitching a camel skin tent in the middle of nowhere. The experience spending the night amongst actual Bedouin people really is something else. Picture the pure desert skies gradually getting darker as the smoke of the barbeque gently fills the air, leaving shadows behind on the sands below. And sit on a cushion as fire breathers, belly dancers, and a whirling dervish demonstrates traditional Arabian entertainment. At the end of the day you can retreat to an authentic Bedouin tent without the distractions of everyday life; no Wi-Fi, no heating, only a small light, a camp bed, and the most basic of bathrooms separated by a sheet of tarpaulin. Imagine the simplicity and what gazing up at the unpolluted night skies can do for the soul.
On a similar vein, surely there is nothing more authentically Arabian than the ancient art of falconry. At the side of a watering hole popular with gazelle, oryx and cranes in the ultra-luxurious Banyan Tree Al Wadi, this historic art form is demonstrated to small groups of people. Experienced animal trainers demonstrate the intelligence and speed of these majestic birds that are highly respected by wealthy Emirati families and Bedouin alike. Watch as meat is swung around in the air and the birds sweep in to catch it and free-flying peregrines, and learn a thing or two about this historic Arabian tradition that has become the synonymous image of the Gulf.
You simply can’t visit this hidden gem on the Gulf coast without exploring the varied and exciting dining options available here, combining local Arabian favourites, Middle Eastern specialities, somewhat unusual dishes, and interesting drinks. Succulent roasted chicken covered in spices, soft yellow and white rice, sweet currants, and bitter raw onions. Does this description alone make your mouth water? If it does, and it should, then a visit to the authentic Emirati restaurant Al Fanar could be in order. As soon as you walk through the heavy wooden doors you will be greeted with the fragrant scent of floral hand wash and spices. Sand coloured walls and oak tables all add to the atmosphere of dining on traditional Emirati food in an authentic Emirati restaurant with real Emirati people. All of the dishes served here use decades-old recipes and only the finest locally sourced ingredients. The head chef, Mohammad, describes the restaurant in one simple sentence: “The only authentic Emirati restaurant in the world.”
RAK is not the easiest Emirate to navigate as there is no public transport, so hiring a tour guide with an off-road car is the best option here. Safarak’s drivers come from all around the world, each offering a unique perspective on life in the UAE. But wherever they come from, the drivers are friendly, welcoming, knowledgeable about the hidden gems in the Emirate, and they care about their guests.
Ras Al Khaimah is a unique and exhilarating addition to the tourism landscape of the Middle East that deserves to be on everyone’s bucket list in 2017. The Emirate doesn’t have the glitz and glamour of neighbouring Dubai, its miniscule airport doesn’t attract hordes of tourists like those in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, and it doesn’t have the overtly western culture that many fellow Gulf States are developing, but what RAK is lacking it certainly makes up for in the spectacular attractions that it does have. What more could anyone ask for? RAK has enough sand dunes at one end to last a lifetime, tall enough mountains to pass the time for a few days at least, and a growing supply of luxury hotels and authentic Middle Eastern restaurants to choose from; there is sure to be something different to discover every time you visit!
Ras Al Khaimah is not a stop off city on the way to somewhere more interesting, it is an end destination, bringing together over 7,000 years of history and more unique experiences than all the other Emirates combined. RAK is beyond a journey.