RAK rocks: the new kid on the UAE tourist block

Exploring Ras al Khaimah


Mention you’re going to the UAE and people will naturally assume you mean Dubai, or maybe Abu Dhabi. But since 2010, Ras al Khaimah — or RAK as it’s more commonly known — has been quietly building a name as a very serious tourist alternative.

And not without justification. Unlike the big two, RAK’s natural treasures, peacefully empty roads, and a markedly lower price point, has made it the emirate of choice for those in the know, all less than an hour’s drive from Dubai.

There are fascinating surprises in store for visitors too: the star exhibit in the National Museum of Ras al Khaimah, is a 700-year-old Jewish tombstone, discovered by local tribesmen in 1970.

The headstone of a man inscribed as ‘David, son of Moses. May he be remembered in the world to come and may his soul rest in Eden’, it was hewed from local limestone — adding a layer of provenance to this region’s Jewish heritage, and, perhaps, even greater significance to RAKs trading history as one of the ancient ports of Julfar.

Maybe David was a visiting merchant, or possibly a wealthy local trader, either way, this is solid proof of a Jewish presence.

The museum is itself a piece of RAKs 7,000 years of inhabited history. A former fort, turned palace, turned prison, this ancient two storey structure was built using chunks of coral blocks that still keep it cool in summer, yet warm during winter. I climb the wind tower, a remarkable example of ancient air conditioning, where its open side panels catch a breeze and channel it down below.

Ras al Khaimah translates as ‘top of the tent’ signifying its position as the UAE’s northern-most Emirate. The Hajjar mountains form a natural border with Oman to the north, the sprawling Al Wadi desert with its vast sand dunes lies to the southeast, while the warm waters of the Arabian Gulf lap a 40-mile coast of pristine white sand beaches, mangroves, and salt flats.

RAK’s coast also provides a seafront home to most of the world’s luxury resort brands, while the impressive Al Hamra Waterfront Marina has bars and restaurants offering plenty of live entertainment. Water taxis service the surrounding hotels, so it’s easy to join in with the local nightlife scene.

And there’s still plenty of room for the natural habitat to flourish. The mangroves and salt flats are home to birdlife including reef heron and pink flamingos, who are more than happy to feed on the fresh fish buffet served up daily by the Gulf.

It’s well worth venturing away from the coast too though. The jagged peaks of the Hajjar mountains are just 45 minutes’ drive from the city and the Jebel Jais Adventure Park, atop the highest mountain in the UAE, is RAK’s jewel in the crown. I’ve got myself a front row seat — well, more like a front row harness really — suspended horizontally, facing down, with my arms behind me, at the launch point of Jais Flight, officially, the World’s longest zip line.

Stretching almost two miles between mountain peaks, 1,680 metres above sea level, an almost three-minute flight feels like a lifetime as I reach over 60mph, my helmet Go Pro capturing every sensational moment of it.

Despite the initial terror of my last ride, I feel the urge to zip some more, and the Jais Sky Tour is a network of six traditional zipline routes ranging from 300 metres to over 1,000 metres.

The Jais Sledder is Jebel’s newest ride, an eight-minute toboggan rail coaster sliding down almost 2,000 metres of dips and turns at speeds of up to 25mph: I must confess to reaching for the brakes frequently.

If you’d prefer to explore at a more sedate pace, there is a network of signposted hiking trails to venture out all around the mountain, with routes for beginners up to hardcore trekkers.

I hike one accompanied by my guide Fadi, a man who knows these trails like the back of his hand. He should, after all, he helped create them! Standing there up at the summit of Jebel, the views across the Hajar range are quite magnificent.

For another memorable adventure, the giant dunes of Al Wadi are just a short drive away, and where you’ll find some classic desert Kodak moments. Who can resist the opportunity to dune bash in a 4x4, ride a camel or an Arabian horse and even enjoy a fully tented Bedouin feast experience surrounding by endless sand?

There are frequent trip excursions available to buy at all the resorts, but for something special, the Al Wadi Equestrian Centre at Ritz Carlton has an exclusive berth in the desert. A 1,200-acre protected nature reserve with its own Arabian horses and camels, it offers guided desert riding experiences for all ages.

I have my own Lawrence of Arabia moment on a horse atop a giant dune just as the sun is setting. They also breed and protect herds of oryx and gazelle and run jeeps deep into the reserve to watch the unmissable sight of these beautiful animals feeding, many with just-born calves.

If it’s history which tempts you, RAK has no shortage of authentic places to visit. There are four sites that are currently on Unesco’s World Heritage Cultural Tentative List: Julfar, Shimal, Dhayah Fort and Al Jazirah Al Hamra.

The last outpost of the local Qawasim tribe, Dhayah Fort was besieged by the British army for three days in 1819 before finally surrendering. The only complete hill fort left in the UAE and dating back to the Bronze Age, it’s a silent sentinel atop a 70-metre hill, and easily visited on your way to Jebel Jais Mountain.

I climb 240 stone steps to get to the summit, but the reward is jaw-dropping views across the mountains on one side and the Arabian Gulf on the other.

Al Jazirah Al Hamra was once an affluent pearl fishing village that had stood for centuries before it was abandoned in 1968 following the collapse of the pearling industry. It represents a rare insight into the architecture of these historic villages and contains a mosque, watch towers, and various houses ranging from simple dwellings to the grander courtyard residences of the pearl merchants.

Reflecting RAK’s pearling heritage, there is still one strictly controlled pearl farming operation you can visit, combining a pleasant cruise out past the mangrove islands to the offshore farm where you’ll get an insight into pearling history, how pearls are created and how they are graded. Naturally, you’ll also get the opportunity to buy some if the mood takes you.

If you do feel the urge to visit the big two, Abu Dhabi is only a two-hour drive away and it’s an hour to Dubai, but Ras Al Khaimah’s beautiful natural assets makes it a serious contender for a luxury UAE holiday without the hassle of traffic and hullabaloo of its high-profile fellow emirates. It seems to me that David was really on to something 700 years ago.

Getting There

Various airlines fly direct from the UK to Dubai, including BA and Emirates, with return fares from around £450. Ras Al Khaimah is one hour’s drive from the international airport.

For more information on RAK, accommodation and activities, go to

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