Desert sands are often described as timeless. But what if you could actually turn back time with a trip to the desert? If you could unravel the culture, people and landscapes of what is a rather new destination to world travellers – Ras Al Khaimah (also known as RAK).
The United Arab Emirate state is in sharp contrast to its neighbour Dubai, in that it offers a step-back-in-time experience of the Emirates.
Dubai is brash and soaring towards the 22nd century – never mind sprinting through the 21st. Abu Dhabi is a glittering insight into Arabian life, but Ras Al Khaimah gives visitors a taste of a bygone age.
This is not to suggest for a moment that the state isn’t modern, or doesn’t have the quality of accommodation or variety of attractions to entice travellers – far from it.
As this guide to the best places to go in Ras Al Khaimah highlights however, it is a country of character, one for true immersion into Emirati culture while still enjoying the trappings of a luxury break.
Planning your trip? Take look at these exclusive special offers on luxury packages with Royal Brunei Airlines from £385pp.
Places to go for history
Let’s begin our exploration of travel to RAK by looking at its history and significant historical sites as these provide insight into its people and culture, such as Sheikh Zayed Mosque.
The state’s history dates back more than 7,000 years and there are many places where you can immerse yourself in its stories.
The ruins of Sheba’s Palace, known locally as Qasr Al Zabba, sit on top of a hill overlooking the village of Shamal. Local folklore is divided on its age, some claim that it is thousands of years old, others will tell you it is only 400 to 500-years-old. The legendary Queen of Sheba was not the owner of the palace, and indeed she was long dead before it was ever built. Nevertheless, it is regarded as the oldest palace in the UAE.
The 16th century Dhayah Fort was the scene of fierce fighting between local tribes and British troops in 1819 and was the last place of resistance. Today from its hilltop position there are fabulous views over the traditional towns and mountains that punctuate this area of the Persian Gulf.
The words ghost town have a certain allure – tempting you to learn its history and see the empty shells of a long-lost settlement, and RAK’s Jazirat Al Hamra is a fascinating collection of deserted dwellings.
The town has not been inhabited since 1968 when the local Zaab tribe abandoned the buildings for better living conditions in Abu Dhabi. The town, formed on the pearl farming industry, had been on the decline for many years though – after the collapse of the global pearl market following the economic depression, that came hot on the heels of the Wall Street crash in 1929.
The ruined homes, show common features to other “fishermen houses” in the region and you can see how large pieces of coral and sea shells were mixed with stone and mud to strengthen the walls.
Though some locals believe the area is actually haunted there are no guarantees of the appearance of ghouls. But the empty shells of lives once lived in this corner of the Emirates cast their own eerie spell.
Looking for a little adventure? This Emirati state has a huge range of activities to choose from. Most hotels have a variety of watersports including stand-up paddleboarding, jet-skiing, para-sailing and sailing.
One of the best hotels for this is the Banyan Tree Ras Al Khaimah Beach, due to its vast options.
If you’re looking for other adventures consider the huge selection offered by Challenging Adventure, a company that allows you to do everything from rock climbing to mountain biking, trekking, canyoning and even learning wilderness survival skills. Alternatively for an aerial view of the country’s incredible mountain slopes, take a tour by microlight or gyrocopter.
What’s the point in being in the desert without seizing the opportunity to go wild across all that sand? It’s up to an hour’s drive from state’s main towns and cities until you get deep into the desert and come across its rolling dunes. But once there you have a choice between taking a dune buggy to create your own sand-filled adventure or dune bashing.
Once your driver has released some air from your tyres you’re set for a thrilling race, bouncing across the dunes, as the desert sunset burns yellow, orange, pink, and red across the evocative landscape.
Culture in the desert
The dune bashing adventure is coupled with a chance to sample the Bedouin way of life. You arrive at the Bedouin Oasis Camp just as the sun sets and have the opportunity to sample a number of traditional experiences.
You can get henna body art, take camel rides, see a number of entertainers – belly dancer, fire dancer and a whirling dervish – and sample Arabic food. Yes, it’s touristy, but it avoids being a Disney-esque experience while giving visitors a taste of traditional life in the desert.
This is a country steeped in Arabic culture, and a place where you can discover ancient skills like falconry at the likes of the Banyan Tree Al-Wadi Resort. The hotel has a daily show where visitors are taught about the birds and even get a chance to hold them in gloved hands.
Amid the golden hillsides where ibex roam, caravans of camels also wind their way as visitors enjoy yet more camel rides.
For a chilled escape
A perfect place for a chill out break, not only are there plenty of beaches to flop onto and enjoy days of endless sunshine, but the country also has a penchant for spas.
One of the most elaborate is at the Banyan Tree Al-Wadi, whose Rainforest Spa has an 18-point thermal circuit, including salt and ice grottoes, and a large hydrotherapy pool with muscle easing massage jets.
Where to eat
Meal times offer wonderful opportunities for adventures in traditional Arabian food. One of our favourites was Yemeni restaurant, Maraheb, serving Mandi – a dish of lightly spiced rice, served with chicken, lamb or fish cooked in a tandoor oven. It’s eaten while sat on the floor at the restaurant.
Luxury travellers will find a great selection of dishes at various hotels in the state, including excellent Arabian fare at Al Bahar at the Hilton Ras Al Khaimah, and tasty, well presented Mediterranean food at Cove Rotana Hotel’s Basilico. Also at the Hilton, there’s a meat feast on offer at Brazilian churrascaria restaurant, Pura Vida.
Alcohol is not widely available in the Emirates, but you will find it at hotels, making their restaurants all the more appealing to western diners.
Where to stay
There is an excellent selection of luxury hotels to choose from in RAK including the world’s most popular luxury brands. The most highly rated hotels in the state include the Waldorf Astoria Ras Al Khaimah, Banyan Tree Al-Wadi (a desert retreat) and Banyan Tree Ras Al Khaimah Beach.
But for a great, affordable luxury Ras Al Khaimah hotel try the Hilton Al Hamra for size. This hotel has plenty to entertain all ages, as well as a good selection of restaurants, in the popular Al Hamra area of the state.