My work with the airline Royal Brunei highlighted an unusual travel destination to explore: the Emirate of Ras Al Khaimah in the U.A.E. This article forms part of a project produced in partnership with Royal Brunei, RAKTDA and Ritz Carlton. As ever, as always, I kept the right to write what I like. Now let’s begin!
It’s a curious place, Ras Al Khaimah, with a curiously interesting name.
Swirling desert sands. A coastline awash with mangroves and pearls, and a natural wildlife menu that counts in oryx and flamingos among the compulsory cantankerous camel.
As the northernmost Emirate of the seven that make up the UAE, it’s also the one with the highest mountain peak.
It has spent the last few years building a reputation for adventure sports, luxe family resorts, and a quieter, more nature-based approach to life in the desert than its razzle-dazzle neighbour Dubai.
The world’s longest zip line opened this year to add a headline thrill to the constellation of hiking trails, via ferrata routes and mountain bike paths that thread around the Jebel Jais mountain range. And international giant Ritz-Carlton opened a new hotel, the Al Hamra Beach, while cranes on the coastline indicates more luxe places to sleep to come.
But of course, like most places in the Middle East, life in Ras Al Khaimah has been going on long before mankind decided to throw itself off a mountain top.
Or float their breakfast in a beautiful plunge pool.
Life here dates back 7000 years, give or take, with the nomadic Bedouin ranging through the dunes with camels and quiet fishing villages getting by through diving for pearls and trading with India and beyond.
Conquering forces have come and gone, with various levels of bloodshed.
The flag of the Emirates reflects it all: green for agriculture, white for peace, black for oil and red for, let’s euphemistically say, strength and power, rather than my first guess, blood.
But RAK, as sensible people with a penchant for shorthand say, wears a different identity to its neighbours.
Some customs are shared, some outlooks entwined, but certain others most definitely stand apart.
Each Emirate has a different ruler and with it a different level of interpretation when it comes to political and religious affairs.
RAK sells alcohol and allows women to dress how they like (although it remains a conservative country and it’s wise to cover knees, shoulders and cleavage beyond any hotel resort.)
It also has no oil, a little nugget of information that’s useful to know, as you separate out the identities of countries “in the Middle East.”
So, apart from the geography, why should you visit Ras Al Khaimah?
Well, it’s a great introduction to life in the Middle East and a relaxing base for some sunshine in a quieter, less ostentatious way than Dubai.
Oh yes. And if you fancy throwing yourself off a very tall mountain, it’s got that too.
As usual, I’ll be writing my more colourful pieces here on this blog as well as bringing you up to speed with some recommended hotel reviews.
But first, an overview to help you find your bearings.
I’d recommend you split your time between the three key regions:
Travelling distances are fairly short so you can pic ‘n’ mix from there and still have time to relax.
Clearly, some of the adventure sports aren’t suitable for young children but the country, its travelling distances and the hotels mentioned here are definitely family friendly.
Until you’ve seen those deep-red dunes swirl before your very eyes, you live in danger of thinking it’s all a fancy photo filter.
I’ve you’ve never experienced Bedouin life before, then a trip to reconstructed Bedouin Oasis Camp serves as a bite-sized introduction.
If you have, then it’s still good fun to reconnect with camels, sandboarding, kohl and dune bashing and yet be able to get back to your hotel to sleep.
With the highest mountain in the Emirates in its repertoire, perhaps it was only a matter of time before someone attached metal to rock and set up the world’s largest zip line.
At 1680 metres above sea level, it’s a dizzying 2.83 km long and “jumpers” can reach speeds of up to 160 km/h (the company, Toro Verde, likes to call each jump a flight.”
It’s the pinnacle of the adventure sports available, but by no means the only one.
And if, er, for example, you’re in no mood or no shape for adrenaline-fuelled sports, the views on the way up deserve a visit in and of themselves.
The sharp, white sails of the canopies against a harsh blue sky and towering stratified rock make a striking sight, all teetering above the glimmering Arabian Sea.
When you live on an island, 40 miles of coastline may not sound like much.
But when you’re in a country that’s mainly the desert, that coast becomes a lifeline.
Pristine beaches with soft white sand. Clusters of mangrove swamps where flamingos stand in their comical one-legged way.
And small fishing villages where boats bob and tilt and glisten in the sun.
While RAK does have its own airport, for choice and ease of connection, most people fly in to Dubai. From there it’s a 45 minute drive, which makes it faster than getting into central London from Heathrow on the Piccadilly Line.
(As a side note, Brunei itself is not in the Middle East. It’s sandwiched between Malaysia and the South China Sea and just happens to be the richest country on earth. )
The Boeing 787 Dreamliner flight offers a quieter journey with larger windows that self-tint so you don’t have to argue with your neighbours about whether or not to have the shutter up or down.
Service is friendly and efficient and it’s one of the best value airlines when it comes to price-checking flights into Dubai.
Inflight Royal Brunei photos above from the ever-entertaining Travel Dave UK
It’s worth mentioning that the airline doesn’t serve alcohol (which may also make for a quieter and more restful flight) and screens out certain “adult” material on the in-flight entertainment. Families with young children are allowed to board first and it’s possible to book your seats in advance.
Seats have USB power points and on my six or so flights with them, the staff have always been exceedingly helpful and polite. What’s more, even the Economy seats have a generous 30kg check in luggage.
Travel to London Heathrow
From London Heathrow, the quickest way into the city is on the Heathrow Express which whizzes you in to London Paddington.
Fares start for as little as £5.50 if you book in advance on heathrowexpress.com. Children 15 and under travel for free at all times.
The roads are silky smooth with tarmac and the public transport is next to non-existent. So, hire a car or hire a driver, either through hotel transfers or through a dedicated on-the-ground tour. I’d recommend Safarak for customised tours, especially with Avas as guide.
Driving up towards the mountains, the roads are rather winding but they’re far, far better than driving in Morocco, the Italian coast or the Sierra Nevada in Spain.
International food abounds in RAK, so you’ll need to make a bit of an effort to find some authentic Emirati cuisine.
The Emirates chain Al Fanar claims to be the only traditional restaurant left in Ras Al Khaimah, with segregated family rooms and smoky incense wafting between the cream pillars and carvings.
Expect hummus, flatbreads, tabbouleh and spiced meats and seafood, with honey-sweet baklava and camel and goat’s milk flavoured ice cream.
More about the luscious Ritz Carlton foodie offerings in the dedicated hotel reviews to come.
If I had to sum things up, I’d say conservative but casual and designed to keep you cool.
It is hot in the middle of the day so bring a hat and wear long sleeves and trousers to avoid sunburn and heat stroke. It can cool off in the evening, so a jacket or scarf can come in handy. The temperature doesn’t plummet here as it does in other desert environments so there’s no need for the fleece and down jacket with warm hat and gloves (ahem.)
Obviously, be practical for the adventure sports. Wear nothing loose that will flap up into your face or get caught in the cables and harness. Have gripping, sensible soled shoes and keep the heels for the rest of the trip.
Anything goes in the hotels and resorts but do keep skin to a minimum when roaming around.
Finally, a scarf comes in very handy for protecting yourself against the beautiful but abrasive swirling sand. There’s a reason why this style of dress caught on around here after all…
So there you have it, a bite-sized, nutshell, mixed-metaphor introduction to this northernmost Emirate in the UAE, the one with the curious name.
Yet explore just a little and you’ll realise it’s not so curious after all.
For Ras Al Khaimah translates to mean the one “at the top of the tent.”
The tallest mountain, the northernmost part.
It makes perfect sense to me.
I’ll be back soon with more…
Disclosure: This article forms part of a project produced in partnership with Royal Brunei Airlines, Ras Al Khaimah Tourist Development Authority and Ritz Carlton. Heathrow Express provided complimentary transfers.
As ever, as always, I kept the right to write what I like. Otherwise, what’s the point?!
*At the time of writing. But always, come on, you know this already, always check with your own medical professional before booking and travelling.