The United Arab Emirates (UAE) is composed of seven emirates, but when people talk of traveling there, the glistening, towering buildings, man-made islands, and the indulgent lifestyles of Dubai and Abu Dhabi tend to dominate the conversation.
Meanwhile, little is known about Ras al Khaimah. The fourth largest and northernmost of the emirates, Ras Al Khaimah, sometimes abbreviated to RAK, is a dream destination for all types of travelers. Blessed with gorgeous coastlines, beautiful beaches, desert plains, and breathtaking landscapes, RAK is a relatively off-the-grid but up-and-coming destination — and a more adventurous one than its more luxury-focused neighbors.
Ras Al Khaimah, which means “headland of the tent,” is positioned between the Arabian Gulf (also called the Persian Gulf) and the Hajar Mountains. Along with 27 miles of glittering coastline, there are dramatic hilltop forts, windswept deserts where Bedouin roam, date farms on the plains, and a coastal district home to fishermen, pearl drivers, and traders. From beach resorts to the heights of the Hajar Mountains, from cultural excursions in the desert to the world’s longest zip line, whether you’re searching for a sumptuous spa hotel for two or an all-inclusive value getaway for the entire family, RAK has something for everyone.
Built in the 16th century, the castle-like structure of Dhayah Fort is made of mud-brick and is the last remaining hill fort in the UAE. Mostly destroyed by the British during the Battle of Ras Al Khaimah in 1809, it has now been restored and sits perched atop a 230-foot mound, a symbol of independence and a window into the old United Arab Emirates. There are 239 sweat-inducing steps to the top, but the breathtaking views of the surrounding date palm plantations, mountains, and the glistening waters of the Arabian Gulf make it worth the effort.
Ras Al Khaimah City
The Ras Al Khaimah City is the largest city, and capital, of the emirate of Ras al Khaimah. The city is divided by a creek into two parts: the old town in the west and Al Nakheel in the east. Picture a city surrounded by rugged mountains and sprawling deserts, laced with mangroves and lined with golden beaches. Venturing away from the beach resorts, there are several shopping malls to visit, an amusement park (best suited for young children), a water park, and a handful of museums, including the National Museum and the Pearl Museum.
The National Museum
The National Museum of Ras Al Khaimah is housed in a 19th-century fort that was home to the ruling family until the 1960s. Here you will find traditional jewelry and clothing, early Islamic weapons, historical documents and manuscripts, and displays of various archaeological finds, including Neolithic and Islamic-era artifacts excavated from local digs. A historical depiction of the British expedition against RAK in 1809 is on display in the Quwasim Room.
Spread across 40 miles, Ras Al Khaimah’s coastline is dotted with golden beaches and lapped by the warm waters of the Arabian Gulf. Along the shoreline, you’ll find a number of resorts, most with exclusive access to private stretches of sand. If you want more than swimming and sunbathing, most resorts offer a variety of water sports including parasailing, banana and donut boating, stand-up paddleboarding, and even scuba diving and snorkeling.
We stayed at the Hilton Ras Al Khaimah Beach Resort, a five-star resort built within a private bay, with a mile-long stretch of sandy beach and six swimming pools. With rows of sun loungers lined by palm trees, there’s a range of bars and restaurants close by. If you’re not one for simply chilling out all day, there are also water sports such as sea kayaking available to try out, while kids will love learning how to snorkel in the clear waters and building castles in the white sand.
Ras Al Khaimah has a pearl fishing history that dates back thousands of years, and one of the best ways to get an insight into this fascinating industry is to visit the Suwaidi Pearl Farm, located on a floating pontoon offshore of the region’s oldest pearl fishing village, Al Rams. During your visit, you’ll learn the process of pearl diving and have an opportunity to purchase some pearls for yourself, should the fancy take you. If you are fortunate, you’ll have a chance to meet founder Abdulla Al Suwaidi, who opened Suwaidi Pearl Farm in honor of his late grandfather Mohammed, “the last pearl diver” of RAK.
Located in the south of Ras Al Khaimah is Al Jazirah Al Hamra, the only remaining historical pearling village in the Gulf. The town dates from the 16th century, making it one of the oldest and best-preserved coastal villages in the Emirates. The village was inhabited as recently as 1971 but is now completely abandoned. It was left untouched for years before undergoing restoration works and becoming a tourist attraction and film location for such movies as Brad Pitt’s War Machine and Ryan Reynolds’ 6 Underground. The crumbling (some say haunted) ruins include coral-block houses, fortifications, watchtowers, a school, souk, and a village mosque with a distinguished minaret.
There are two golf courses to visit in Ras Al Khaimah. The Al Hamra Golf Club curves around four interconnected open-water lagoons, and is regarded by many as the best 18 holes golf course in the emirate. 11 of the 18 holes at Tower Links Golf Club meander around the mangrove reserve, which provides a natural sanctuary for many aquatic and bird species — the course is considered the most natural golf course in the UAE and an unforgettable experience.
For many, a trip to the UAE is not complete without a bit of “dune bashing,” an adrenaline-charged jeep safari through the rolling sand dunes, usually ending with a visit to a Bedouin camp for food and entertainment under the desert’s starry skies. Most of the camps offer overnight stays, usually in a traditional Bedouin tent, as well as options to visit for meals or activities such as sand boarding, archery, dune safaris, and quad biking.
Sonara Camp Al Wadi in the Al Wadi nature reserve, home to numerous wildlife species including the Arabian oryx, Arabian gazelles, and the Arabian red fox, offers an award-winning sharing menu as well as entertainment including fire shows, interactive owl and hawk demonstrations, and musical performances on the oud, a pear-shaped, short-neck lute considered in Arabia to be the oldest of musical instruments.
RAK is nowadays probably best known for its beaches and its golf courses, but in the eastern part of the emirate are the Hajar mountains, formed over 70 million years ago and home to Jebel Jais, which at over 6,233 feet is the UAE’s highest peak and marks the border with Oman. The mountains are home to mountain goats, shy mountain foxes, and wild cats, as well as a network of hiking trails. The mountains are also home to a variety of adrenaline activities to get your heart rate really racing.
The Jais Sledder is like a rollercoaster, but one in which you control the brakes! You strap into your seat and are winched to the top of the course before hurtling downwards at speeds of up to 25 miles per hour. The speed seems even faster — probably because you are sitting so close to the ground — but if you aren’t too heavy-handed with the brakes, you’ll only take about 8 minutes to cover the mile-long course of hairpin bends.
1484 By Puro
After disembarking from the sledder, we wound our way further up the majestic Hajar mountain range, stopping for lunch at 1484 by Puro, the highest restaurant in the UAE at — yes, you guessed it — 1,484 meters (4,868 feet) above sea level. From the base of the mountain, the 18-mile journey to the top takes about an hour on meandering hairpin roads. There are regular pull-ins so you can stop and admire the views, and the food once you get there is delicious.
Jebel Jais Zip Line
Jebel Jais is also home to the world’s longest zip line. At 1.7 miles long and suspended 5,500 feet in the air, you “fly” at speeds of up to 93 miles per hour above the awe-inspiring scenery of the Jebel Jais mountain range. For a brief moment, you may wonder what has possessed you to attempt the world’s longest zip line (Guinness World Record-certified), but before you’ve had time to think it through, the 3 minutes it takes to hurtle across the vast ravine is done, and you’re slowing down to arrive at the gondola on the other side of the canyon, finished with your ride.
Jais Sky Tour
If neither the sled nor the zip line takes your fancy, then the Jais Sky Tour offers a fun, but slightly less daunting option. The experience takes around 2 hours, working its way through a network of six zip lines covering around 3 miles in total, with plenty of birds-eye views of the Hajar’s peaks and valleys from as high as 4,100 feet.
The Highlander 55
Hiking the Jebel Jais mountains is like no other experience in the region. World-class hikers describe the area as one of the most beautiful globally, with its unique landscapes and views across Oman and the UAE over flourishing date farms, down to the mangroves, and to the shores of the Arabian Gulf.
Annually, in November, the Highlander Ras al Khaimah (part of the Highlander Adventure collection, a global series of long-distance hiking events) takes place. There are two options to choose from: the 55-kilometer (34-mile) 3-day Highlander55 or the 30-kilometer (18.5-mile) 2-day Highlander Experience. We chose the 3-day Highlander55 option.
Carrying rucksacks of around 33 pounds — more than a third of which was water — we started at the foot of Jebel Jais, trekking through a dry river bed, past the occasional isolated village, onwards and ever upwards. 10 miles later, we reached our campsite, near the top of Jebel Jais.
Day 2 was even tougher, and we spent it navigating the rocky ridges of the western side of Jebel Jais, looking down over the sea of Oman, and hiking through the mountains on a donkey trail used by the mountain tribes of Ras Al Khaimah, before finally, 8 hours later, reaching our campsite in a dry wadi. My husband was so exhausted he could only stand mutely by as I erected our tent, and once that was done, he stumbled inside, barely moving till morning.
The final day was 8 miles of undulating rocky trails to the finish line and a well-deserved rest at Bear Grylls Explorers Camp (BGEC), an adventure camp nestled in a gorge in the Hajar Mountains. Rooms at BGEC are converted shipping containers with bunk beds and basic amenities, but after 3 days of tough trekking, we thought it was paradise. Whilst the Highlander is not everyone’s idea of a holiday activity, I can highly recommend it to those who are very fit and looking for a challenge.
Forget everything you think you know about the UAE; Ras Al Khaimah is a world away from, and significantly cheaper than, the skyscraper-choked emirates of Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Instead, you’ll find an outdoorsy destination with mountains, desert, beaches, and culture thrown into the mix. This hidden gem in the Middle East is just starting to get noticed, so be among the first to discover this emerging destination and see the United Arab Emirates in a whole different light.