Andy Mossack in his guide to Ras Al Khaimah shows how its growing tourist potential has finally been realised.
I’m not ordinarily a screaming wreck. But when you’re strapped in a horizontal harness, hands behind your back, 6,500 feet up a mountain peak and sliding just under 3 km at over 70 mph, something has to give. Fortunately, my harness didn’t and nearly three minutes later (yes that long) I reached the other side safe and sound. I had just flown the Jais Flight and loved every second of it.
Mention to anyone you’re going to the United Arab Emirates for a holiday, and I guarantee all of them will assume you mean Dubai or Abu Dhabi. But here’s the thing. Since 2010, Ras al Khaimah (or RAK as it’s more commonly known), less than an hour’s drive from Dubai, has been quietly building a name for itself as a very serious alternative. And not without justification. Compared to the big two, RAKs abundance of natural assets, peacefully empty roads and lower prices has made it the Emirate of choice for those in the know.
Ras Al Khaimah translates as ‘top of the tent’ signifying its position as the UAEs northern-most Emirate that makes up part of the Arabian Peninsula. And it’s exactly this natural geography which makes it so different. The Hajjar mountains offer a natural border with Oman to the north, the sprawling Al Wadi desert with its vast sand dunes lies to the southeast, while the warm waters of the Arabian Gulf lap pristine beaches and mangroves along the coast.
I first visited RAK in 2017 and though several major hotel brands were already in place, I sensed enormous potential here. Further resort developments were underway, and they were putting the finishing touches to the Jebel Mountain project atop the UAEs highest peak. A string of spectacular high-altitude adventures that would culminate in the world-record-holding Jais Flight, the World’s longest zip line.
Returning five years later, I was delighted to still find plenty of open space, and little in the way of high-rise concrete and steel. Resort development is using the space to go sideways rather than skywards. So, let’s explore what awaits you on the doorstep here at the top of the tent, in my insider guide to Ras al Khaimah.
This Guide to Ras Al Khaimah has to start on the beach. RAKs 64 kilometres of coastline provides a waterside home for many of the world’s luxury resort brands including Waldorf-Astoria, Ritz-Carlton, Hilton, Doubletree, Rixos, Radisson, and new for 2022, the Intercontinental Mina al Arab. The residential Al Hamra Village development has an impressive Waterfront marina area with bars and restaurants offering plenty of live entertainment. There’s also water taxi access to from the surrounding hotels so if you fancy a night off the reservation you can join in the community nightlife scene.
There’s some extensive renovation and expansion underway which will ultimately provide berthing for superyacht class vessels, a major step forward the emirate. But there’s still plenty of room for the natural habitat to flourish. Dense mangroves and salt flats offer free residence to all kinds of birdlife including pink flamingo and reef heron who are delighted to feed on the all-you-can-eat fish buffet served up daily.
Pearl diving had been a highly lucrative trade for centuries for local tribes and RAK diving prowess was the stuff of legend until cheap competition from the far east put an end to it. However, today Suwaidi operates a strictly controlled pearl-farming operation offshore and regular tours are offered giving you an insight into how pearls are created and how they are graded. Naturally, you’ll also get the opportunity to buy some as well if the mood takes you.
Al Wadi Desert
The next destination in my guide to Ras Al Khaimah is the desert. The giant dunes of Al Wadi, just a short drive out, are where you’ll find those classic desert Kodak moments. Who can resist the opportunity to dune bash in a 4×4, ride a camel or an Arabian horse and even enjoy the full-tented Bedouin feast experience?
There are frequent trip excursions available to buy at all the resorts, but for me, if you want something special, the Ritz-Carlton al Wadi has an exclusive berth in the desert within a 1,200-acre protected nature reserve. The Al Wadi Equestrian Centre has its own Arabian horses, ponies, camels, and falconry and offers desert riding experiences for all ages.
I had my own Lawrence of Arabia moment sitting on a horse atop a giant dune just as the sun was setting. In my head the film music was playing, and goosebumps ran down my arms. They also breed and protect herds of oryx and gazelle and offer guided jeep rides deep into the reserve to watch them feed. They are beautiful animals, and quite often they’ll have just-born calves with them. Unmissable.
And what better way to finish your desert day than having a sundowner farm to table experience at the Farmhouse, the Ritz Carlton’s rustic desert oasis restaurant. Enjoy dinner on the terrace overlooking a lake and try spotting wildlife getting ready to bed down for the night.
Jebel Jais Mountain
The highlight of this guide to Ras Al Khaimah is Jebel Jais. The highest mountain in the UAE and part of the Hajar Mountain range, the activities on offer atop Jebel in the Adventure Park are RAKs jewel in the crown. The Jais Flight is the hero activity, the Guiness record-holding world’s longest zip-line at just under 3 km. All the kit is included, and you can rent a GoPro camera that fits to your helmet to have your flight video to take home with you.
Honestly, the hardest part is being spreadeagled while the horizontal harness is fitted, and the shame of your body weight being transmitted across to the other side! If you feel the urge to zip some more, the Jais Sky Tour is a network of six traditional zipline routes ranging from 300 metres to over 1km. There’s also the two-level ropes and bridge course you can navigate on a frame that seems to be floating in mid-air!
The Jais Sledder, Jebel’s newest ride, is a toboggan rail coaster sliding eight minutes down almost 2,000 m of dips and turns at speeds of up to 40 kph, and there’s the Jais Wings coming soon, the region’s first paragliding experience. If you’re into hiking, there is a network of well-signposted trails to explore all around the mountain, for beginners to hardcore trekkers. I tried one accompanied by my guide Fadi, from Adventurati Outdoor, a man who knows the trails like the back of his hand.
He should, after all, he helped create them! Standing there at the summit of Jebel, the views across the Hajar range were magnificent. Experienced hikers can stay overnight on the mountain at Camp 1770, and experience food cooked by local tribespeople, and indulge in a bit of sunrise yoga.
After all that excitement, you can relax with some excellent food and drink out on the terrace of 1484 by Puro, the highest restaurant in the UAE.
History and UNESCO sites
With over 7,000 years of continuously inhabited history, RAK has no shortage of authentic sites to visit for seekers of the past and has to be included in my guide to Ras Al Khaimah. The best starting point is at the National Museum of Ras al Khaimah in RAK city. Housed in a former fort, turned palace, turned prison, the ancient two storey structure was built using coral blocks which keeps it cool in summer and warm in winter. The galleries are accessed via a central courtyard and take you on a literal journey through time, RAKs past coming to life before your very eyes.
There are four sites that are currently on the UNESCO World Heritage Cultural Tentative List. Julfar, Shimal, Dhayah Fort and Al Jazirah Al Hamra.
The Dhayah Fort is well worth a stop off on your way to Jebel Jais Mountain. The only complete hill fort left in the UAE and dating back to the Bronze Age, it stands like a silent sentinel atop a 70-metre hill adjacent to a date palm plantation oasis. You’ll need to climb 240 stone steps to get to the summit, but you’ll be rewarded with some jaw-dropping views across the mountains to one side and the Arabian Gulf on the other. In 1819 it was the last outpost of the local Qawasim tribe of eight hundred people who were besieged by the British army for three days before finally surrendering.
Al Jazirah Al Hamra was once an affluent pearl fishing village that had stood for centuries before it was abandoned in 1968 after the collapse of the pearling industry. It represents a rare insight into the architecture of these historic villages and contains a mosque, watch towers, and various houses ranging from simple dwellings to the grander courtyard residences of the pearl merchants.
Al Hamra Golf Club has evolved into one of the region’s gems in its relatively short existence. So much so, it has already hosted some major PGA Tour events including the European Challenge Tour three years running and the Ras Al Khaimah Championship in February 2022.
Designed by Peter Harradine, it snakes its way around four giant open water lagoons while always having the Waldorf-Astoria and Ritz Carlton hotels for company. Some five million cubic metres of sand was used in sculpting its gentle rolling contours and the course is a tough test, particularly off the championship tees at 7,325 yards par 72.
But there’s plenty of opportunity for all ages and levels of skill to enjoy a round. It also offers night golf with a composite nine holes lined with floodlights. While this avoids playing under the hot sun, it brings a whole new set of challenges with long shadows and ball flight perception to factor in.
Dubai and Abu Dhabi are the UAEs marquee destinations, and you know what you’re in for there and that’s fine. However, my guide to Ras Al Khaimah’s natural assets offers a serious alternative if you’re seeking a holiday without the hassle of traffic and hullabaloo with only wide-open spaces, mountains, desert, and beaches to worry about. It might be called the top of the tent, but it’s top of my list as far as I’m concerned.
All images (C) RAK Tourism and Andy Mossack
Tell me more about this guide to Ras Al Khaimah
For detailed information on this Guide to Ras Al Khaimah and visiting RAK please visit Ras Al Khaimah Tourism
Ras Al Khaimah is just an hour’s drive from Dubai international airport which is supported by all the major airlines including Emirates and BA.
National Museum of Ras Al Khaimah Entrance fee AED 5 (£1)
Suwaidi Pearl Farm AED 200 (c£44 per person). includes cruise out to the farm and return.
Al Wadi Equestrian Centre Wildlife Feeding at Ritz-Carlton Al Wadi Desert AED 160 (around £35 per person)
Jais Flight Wednesday to Thursday from AED 300 (around £60), Friday to Sunday from AED 360 (around £78). Friday to Sunday AED 315. Prices dependent on time of year.
Sky Tour Wednesday to Thursday from AED 260 (around £56) Friday to Sunday from AED 315 (around £68). Prices dependent on time of year.
Jais Sledder Adult Single Ride – AED 40 (around £9) Three Rides – AED 90 (around £19) Adult + Child Single Ride – AED 60 (around £13) Three Rides – AED 125 (around £27)
18 holes from AED 620 (around £130). Depending on time of year rates will vary.
Where to Stay in this Guide to Ras Al Khaimah
Great family-centric resort with 1.5 kilometres of private beach. Plenty of supervised activities all day and night-time entertainment. The guestrooms are in the main building, but there are also beachside villa suites more suitable for families. Excellent dining options. Three speciality restaurants offering Lebanese, Italian and Churrascaria/Latin cuisine and The Kitchen providing all day buffet dining. There are also beach and pool bars offering food and snacks. There is an all-inclusive option available. Really excellent service and facilities. Highly recommended.
Rixos has pioneered the all-inclusive resort concept in the UAE, a model well-honed from its Turkish origins. This enormous property lies at the entrance to Marjan Island, RAKs main tourist heartbeat. The food offering at Rixos is what sets it apart from the other resorts on Marjan. It is simply spectacular. The sheer number of choices available at Seven Heights, its main buffet restaurant, is staggering.
There are also six other specialty restaurants which are included but need reservations. There’s a kids club, teen club, spa and wellbeing centre, gym, eight swimming pools, private beach, daily tournaments, and a Cirque de Soleil-esqe show every night. The guestrooms are spacious, and very well appointed, particularly the recently refurbished two-bedroom family suites with large wrap around terraces. Highly recommended for families.
Airport Parking and Hotels (APH.com) offers a wide range of parking and overnight hotel stays at all major UK airports. One week of Meet & Greet airport parking at London Heathrow Airport costs from £120 in June 2022. For the latest prices and to book, call 01342 859442 or visit www.aph.com.