Skyscrapers, man-made islands shaped like curvaceous palm trees and enough shopping and entertainment hubs to last you a lifetimeThis 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 fard 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, fog greeted 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 Jaishalf, 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 faÃ§ade 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 dÃ©cor 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 dÃ©cor 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 assimiliate 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 (batata bil kizbara and sautÃ©ed 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.
There are no direct flights to RAK. You will have to land in Dubai, Abu Dhabi or Sharjah. IndiGo to Dubai is the cheapest (from approx. â‚¹6,000 one way). RAK is 90km (approx. 1h) from Dubai Airport, 65km (approx. 45m) from Sharjah Airport and 225km (approx. 2h) from Abu Dhabi airport. Both taxis and buses ply to RAK.
Where to Stay
Waldorf Astoria (from AED 975 for two, taxes extra). It has 346 rooms. There is a choice from Kings Classic Room (AED 975 for two, taxes extra) to King Deluxe Room (AED 1,075 for two, plus taxes). Suites range from King Junior Suite (AED 1,275 with taxes extra) to Royal Suite (AED 5,975, taxes extra). See waldorfastoria3.hilton.com.
Hilton Al Hamra Beach & Golf Resort (from AED 599 for two, plus taxes). The different rooms are King Accessible Guest Room (AED 599, taxes extra), Two King Bed Junior Suite (AED 1,199, taxes extra), Presidential Suite (AED 2,599, taxes extra) with a private rooftop terrace. You can visit www3.hilton.com.
The Cove Rotana Resort (from AED 800 for two, taxes extra) see more at rotana.com.
Where to Eat
At Waldorf Astoria: Azure (Mediterranean), Marjan (authentic middle-eastern) and Qasr Al Bahar (multi-cuisine). At Hilton Al Hamra: Samakmak (seafood) and Al Jazeera (Lebanese). At The Cove Rotana Resort: Al Fanar (authentic Emirati), Basilico (Mediterranean). For dessert, Ashuk Ice Cream is the place to go to.
What to See & Do
>Enjoy the 360° view at the historical Dhayah Fort and the panoramic Jebel Jais peak.
>Masjid Muhammad Bin Salem Al Qasimi mosque is definitely worth a visit.
>The 1.8km walk along the Corniche Al Qawasim by the sea offers a beautiful vista and has many restaurants.
>Both the vegetable and fish markets are places to experience the local flavours.
>The Saqr Park is a good place for a family picnic. It makes for a perfect green walk.
>If you’re into ziplining, Jebel Jais is the place to go to. It is probably the largest zipline in the UAE.
>The Seawings Urban Experience gives a 45-minute aerial tour of RAK. See seawings.ae
>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. Costs AED 80.
>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.