Ras Al Khaimah
It’s the emirate you’ve never heard of, and a welcome antidote to the showmanship and excesses of Dubai – for now at least. The northernmost emirate, Ras Al Khaimah, is only 40 minutes by car from Dubai international airport, and is quickly emerging as an open tourist destination for the savvy traveller.
Unlike in Dubai, genuine Emirati culture is still highly visible. There are several mosques worth seeing, from the ornate Sheik Zayed in the Corniche region to the traditional Mohammad Bin Salem mosque, built from coral and beach rock. Other highlights are the working date farms and the historic Dhaya fort, built in the 19th century on prehistoric ruins.
The refurbished national museum of Ras Al Khaimah will teach you everything you need to know about the emirate’s history (although in summer you could be lured to just about any attraction with the promise of decent AC).
The 1,235-acre Al Wadi nature reserve is far from the sparse sandpit I expected. Amid the shrubs there are free-roaming camels, sand gazelles, mountain gazelles, hares, foxes and the rare Arabian oryx, no longer a vulnerable species thanks to a successful breeding programme. You can try to spot one of 43 roaming the reserve on a Disneyfied Bedouin oasis camp evening (with camel rides, belly dancing and Henna tattoos). Or for a less contrived experience admire the view of the watering hole with a sundowner in hand on the Farmhouse terrace at the Ritz-Carlton Al Wadi. There’s also plenty for eco-tourists — near the Corniche region and accessible by kayak are lush mangrove swamps full of flamingos and other shore birds.
For luxury travellers, there are the newly rebranded Ritz-Carlton hotels (both are former Banyan Tree resorts re-launching in November). At Al Wadi there are 101 tented villas with enormous private pools and Bedouin-luxe interiors, plus dune-riding, falconry and guided nature walks. There’s also a beach hotel with similarly spectacular facilities.
The only question is whether RaK can retain its identity. There are a few red flags that the Dubai model is being replicated — namely a gaudy winter-themed water park, a man-made island and ‘the world’s longest’ zip line.
Happily for now, it conjures up childhood memories of that city before the skyscrapers; nostalgia for paying a few dirhams to squeeze onto an ‘abra’ to cross the creek and eating a schwarma dripping with garlic sauce on the streets of the gold souks.