The United Arab Emirates is one of the Middle East's most peaceful countries – a wealthy and stable hub that's developing at an astonishing pace. It’s a young country, founded only in 1971 as a federation of seven emirates, of which superlative-craving Dubai usually captures all the headlines. Yet, only an hour’s drive from this glamour-city, the northernmost emirate Ras Al Khaimah (short: RAK) connects visitors with a more traditional and authentic Arabian experience.
Nowhere in the country is the landscape more diverse than this beguiling blend of sandy beaches, sprawling lagoons, mangrove forests, desert, hot mineral springs, and date farms, all backed by the mighty massif of the Hajar Mountains. Archaeological evidence reveals that the area has been settled for more than 7000 years and reached a heyday after the 14th century AD as a strategic port, trading town and pottery production centre known as Julfar.
Until recently, Ras Al Khaimah seemed too modest to capitalise on its marvellous assets, but times are a-changing. Especially in the southern part of the emirate, where a new clutch of alluring beachfront hotels and resorts, along with a golf course, a manmade island and the emirate’s first yacht harbour, now vie for a bigger slice of the country’s tourism cake.
With quiet but determined ambition, Ras Al Khaimah is slowly but surely coming into its own. Here are some of the emirate’s top draws.
Jebel Jais Mountain Road
Deep in the Hajar Mountains at 1934m looms Jebel Jais, the highest mountain in the UAE, which, on rare occasions, even wears a tonsure of snow. Since 2015 a spectacular, 30km-long road snakes almost to the top, rewarding drivers with spellbinding views of sculpted escarpments after every bend. Fissured mountain faces shimmering in shades from charcoal to caramel plunge down into deep canyons and fertile wadis (river beds). The road has two lanes going up and one coming down with handy pull-outs along the way. The trip can be done with a regular car and does not require special driving skills.
Ras Al Khaimah is riddled with ancient fortifications, but Dhayah Fort has the distinction of being the only one cradling a mountain top. Already in the 16th century was this prominent spot used to fend off raiders. The stratagem proved successful until 1819 when the fort became the last bastion in the region to fall to British canon attacks. Today, steep but well-built steps lead up to the restored structure which consists of two watchtowers and a crenulated wall wrapped around a courtyard. From such lofty heights the 360-degree view is predictably fabulous and takes in the Gulf, the city centre, the Hajar Mountains and a sprawling date palm plantation at the foot of the hill.
For a quintessential Arabian experience, there’s nothing quite like attending a camel race, a sport deeply ingrained in the Emirati soul. It’s a truly exhilarating sight when dozens of one-humped dromedaries fly out of their pens and onto the dirt track, jostling for position in a lumbering gallop toward the finish line. Fastened to their backs are ‘robot jockeys’ with remote-controlled whips operated by their owners while driving their SUVs on a separate track alongside the animals. Racing season runs from October to April. RAK’s track is near the village of Digdagga.
Jazirat Al Hamra
Future meets past in southern RAK, where the villas and hotel towers of the sparkling Al Hamra development cast their shadow over the ghost village of Jazirat Al Hamra, one of the oldest coastal settlements in the UAE. For centuries, its residents subsided on fishing, pearling and trading but, with modern times encroaching after the discovery of oil, they traded their ancient mud and coral houses for modern digs in the late 1960s. Today about 100 of these crumbling buildings – homes, shops, mosques – bear silent witness to a simpler life.
Khatt Hot Springs
Visiting thermal mineral springs may seem a strange thing to do in the scorching desert, but insiders know that a dip in the sulphur-laced waters in the village of Khatt goes a long way towards soothing the stresses nibbling at your psyche, not to mention aching bones. The springs feed both the spa of the Golden Tulip Khatt Springs Hotel & Spa, a fortress-shaped respite draped over a hillside, and the public Harmony Ayurveda Centre at the bottom of the hill. The latter has two pebble-floored pools – one for men and one for women – along with a long list of massages and other pampering options.
Iceland Water Park
Penguins in the desert? Fret not! The tuxedoed denizens of the polar-themed Iceland Water Park are in no danger of dying from dehydration for one good reason: they’re made of plastic. Still, one can almost hear them cheering on the park’s visitors who scuttle down water slides from tame to terrifying, brave monster waves, get pummelled by a thunderous 40m-high waterfall or drenched by a giant tipping bucket. A fun place for the family to keep cool on a hot day!
RAK National Museum
Thanks to its strategic location near the Strait of Hormuz, Ras Al Khaimah can look back on a particularly colourful history, including attacks by pirates; occupation by the Persians, Portuguese and British; and trading with such far-flung countries as China and India. Coins, pottery, pearls, weapons and other artefacts unearthed in numerous archaeological digs have yielded evidence of all these periods. They are now proudly displayed in the national museum, housed in the beautifully restored fort that served as the residence of RAK’s ruling family from the 1820s until 1964 and later went through stints as a police station and prison.
The majestic Hajar Mountains are the backbone of Ras Al Khaimah. Formed by tectonic uplift some 65 million years ago, this lunar-like landscape tugs fiercely at the hearts of outdoor lovers. The choices to get close and personal are manifold. Plunge over the edge as you abseil into a deep canyon, explore abandoned mountain villages by mountain bike, spend a silent night under the stars in an oasis camp or confront rugged mountain faces on a rock climbing expedition. Several companies, including Challenging Adventure, offer plenty of daredevil experiences.
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