Skyscrapers, man-made islands shaped like curvaceous palm trees and enough shopping and entertainment hubs to last you a lifetime…This is how I had visualised Ras Al Khaimah (RAK) when I heard about it. Dubai is like that, at least the photographs say so. But surprisingly, RAK, the northernmost emirate of the UAE, turned out to be a quaint emirate with just the right amount of modernity.
There are pristine beaches, undisturbed sand dunes, and under the golden desert sun lie memories of days before oil was struck and hints of Bedouin and Arabic cultures that haven’t been engulfed by the passage of time. And I spent four days in this little emirate, soaking in the breathtaking view from the Dhayah Fort, watching the landscape change colour every minute, and shaking as the bone-chilling wind at the Jebel Jais peak swirled around us.
The fort is inconspicuous, to say the least. We climbed the stairs as the sun set, and at each bend saw the surrounding hills being painted and repainted in a different blend of light and colour. We reached the top, and that’s when it hit us—Dhayah is in the middle of an oasis — a lush land settled in for the past five millenniums.
The British cannons did turn it into a ruin in 1819, but it was restored to become RAK’s only surviving hilltop fort. There’s also an inn with a shop below — my key purchases there included a strawberry-flavoured Fanta, the super-sweet far d variety of dates. and the very dry lulu variety.
Jebel Jais, the tallest peak in the UAE and a part of the Al-Hajar mountain range, is a different story. No lush vegetation, not a tree in sight. As our car drove up the hairpin bends, foggreeted us. Nothing seemed cheerful about the bone-dry bronze-hued surrounding mountains. Here, unlike Dhayah, colour seemed to gradually fade away. Yet, the top was unconventionally beautiful — even panoramic.
With a rich and varied terrain, RAK does manage to offer an experience to remember. And it has started focussing on attracting tourists in a big way quite recently. So, there is a golf resort, a water park and even a man-made archipelago. And the emirate has incorporated its ethnic Arabic and Bedouin cultures into most of its attractions.
Our road trip to RAK had begun from the Dubai International Airport. After about an hour and a half, we had arrived at a place where the roads were relatively empty, the shops spread out and the crowd limited. We had reached Ras Al Khaimah — about the size of India’s National Capital Region, but with only one-eighth of the population.
Getting off the main highway, we found a sprawling structure surrounded by hills in the backdrop, an ocean in the front and a garden all around — Waldorf Astoria.
The Waldorf Astoria is a, well, Waldorf Astoria, which means unmistakable grandeur and breathtaking opulence, but with a local touch. The hotel’s facade resembled a desert castle. There was the spacious teal and cream-themed lobby and a grand clock designed to reflect the hours of Islamic prayer.
The decor was a reflection of the region we were in. There were Arabic-themed paintings such as Kufic Arabic calligraphy next to the Qasr Al Bahar restaurant and the signature Peacock Alley lounge had Arabic-style seating.
The rooms, once again cream and teal-themed, but with elaborate glass chandeliers and patterned carpets, were comfortable. At the Waldorf, we spent a lot of time walking on the beach and hijacking the most secluded of the myriad cabanas.
It has nine restaurants, including the beach facing Qasr Al Bahar, where we had breakfast. The decor at Marjan was contemporary and on our plates were Middle-Eastern delicacies. Azure was the Mediterranean restaurant, mostly al fresco.
We also stayed at the Hilton Al Hamra Beach & Golf Resort which provided access to an 18-hole golf course and offered some lovely villas and suites. The velvet-themed lobby lounge and restaurants such as Al Jazeera (for Lebanese) and Samakmak (for seafood) had a contemporary look and feel.
We also visited the Cove Rotana Resort which had dozens of villas built on a hill overlooking the sea, each with a view more breathtaking than the last and connected with beautiful flower-encased alleyways. How I wished we had stayed there too.
Different hotels, different restaurants and different delicacies, I just couldn’t assimilate enough. There are some unforgettables though — the mixed grill “Arabesque” (many kinds of marinated meats and kebabs with saffron rice) at Waldorf’s Azure was mouthwatering, while their Middle-Eastern restaurant Marjan offered some flavourful cold mezzeh (with hummus in four flavours including blackberry) and hot mezzeh (batatabil kizbara and sautéed chicken liver).
I also enjoyed the breakfast at Waldorf Astoria’s Qasr Al Bahar, where meats such as turkey and gazelle tasted best with the many kinds of cheese—the Syrian paralysis cheese, the Levantine Shanklish cheese and the yogurt cheese, Labneh, to name a few.
At the standalone Emirati restaurant Al Fanar, among RAK’s authentic culinary experiences, we had some amazing Saloona Laham Badaweyah (mutton stew with potato, tomato and dry lemon).
Besides good food, you also find adventure in RAK. A local came to pick us up in a Land Rover, which he also happened to own, and drove us to the edge of the desert. He stopped the vehicle and got off to lower the tyre pressure. Soon enough, we knew what this was about—it was dune-bashing time.
We found ourselves ascending, descending, bouncing, flailing, swerving, zigzagging and seemingly defying gravity across the dunes. Eventually, and without injury, we arrived at the Bedouin Oasis camp.
It replicated the life once led by the nomadic Arab Bedouin tribes but catered to the needs of current times. A stone walkway surrounded by luxurious tents, camel ride and quad biking facilities and a central courtyard area filled with souvenir shops, a shisha smoking tent, henna painters, sand artists and rows of Bedouin-style seating.
And then we were treated to a round of tanoura dance, or sufi whirling. The performer, Mahmoud, whirled, decked with a couple of skirts decorated in LED lights. I got dizzy just looking at him swerve and rotate for minutes on end, as the light formed amazing patterns.
But my favourite attraction at RAK was the Al Wadi Equestrian Adventure Centre. The centre is located among the dunes, but has some exhibits and stables where you can pet a variety of animals.
But more than that, it was meeting the bubbly stable manager, Yasmin Sayyed, that enthused me. She introduced us to her rams, Mr. Me and Mr. Me Me. Whether they were camels, horses, ducks or even the ferocious ibex, Yasmin was their friend.
There were contemporary attractions too — Ice Land Water Park boasted of dozens of ride. Al Marjan is RAK’s own group of artificial islands, much like Dubai’s Palm Islands. It is currently in the midst of many real estate, hospitality and development projects.
And then there was shopping, that too pocket friendly. One market that suited us to perfection was RAK’s traditional bazaar, the Old Souq. Among the three of us, we purchased Turkish coffee, Arabic coffee, date chocolates, dried lemons and an assortment of unpronounceable local spices. Altogether, we had not spent more than AED 50. Nothing beats the pleasure of shopping which is light on your pocket and easy to carry back home.
The New York Times aptly labelled Ras Al Khaimah as the emirate with ‘history, not oil’. And we got our chunk of history at Jazirat Al Hamra—the last of its dwellers abandoned the fishing village in 1968. It has remained uninhabited and untouched ever since.
This withering-away relic may have outlived its initial purpose of being a pearl fishing centre, but now serves a fresh one—a fossil depicting pre-oil life.
The Arabian Peninsula, scorched by the desert sun that made life difficult and agriculture bleak, had its coastline come to the rescue. So, pearl diving and fishing became some of the primary occupations and RAK, with its 64km of coast and islands, was a hotbed. But then oil was found in the early 20th century and by 1968, almost every traditional source of revenue was forgotten.
Earlier, the village was mostly inhabited by the Zaab tribe, which fought alongside the Qawasim tribe (from where today’s ruling family of RAK originates) in resisting the British colonisers.
But that’s only recent history—there’s evidence that shows RAK being home to the Umm al-Nar culture of the third millennia BC, depicted through ancient tombs. The RAK National Museum is the place to see more evidences of this.
- Right next to the Waldorf Astoria, you have the Al Hamra Mall. While we were gawking at the immense discounts, we heard some thumping music. Following the beats, we found two rows of Arabs facing each other and performing a certain ‘dance’.
Everyone had a stick in one hand. They hopped around nonchalantly, and one or two would often break the formation and give the stick a spin. The ayala is performed with so much calm; one might think the dancers are lazy.
- The Bedouin Oasis Camp is where you find sand art in a bottle. Sand coloured in many shades is put into a bottle to create an intricately detailed painting — often of a camel in the evening desert.
- The emirates are known for their flavourful shishas. But lesser known is the dokha tobacco and the medwakh smoking pipe. The former is a traditional Arabic tobacco with a history of over 500 years. A small bottle costs anything between AED 10 to AED 20. The pipe is a slim filter-pipe mostly made of wood and costs about AED 18 to AED 20.
- In the more commercial area of Ras Al Khaimah, we found a dessert parlour called Ashuk Ice Cream. The mango and strawberry Ice (AED 12), had fresh fruits and nuts. The Ashuk Ice Cream, their speciality, is worth a scoop or two as well.