Mention Ras Al Khaimah to your friends and the response is likely to be along the lines of “Ras Al What?”. Most visitors travelling to the UAE head for hedonistic hubs like Dubai and Abu Dhabi; few have heard of the country’s fourth-largest Emirate.

In 2017, the Ras Al Khaimah tourism authority are on an ambitious drive to get over a million visitors to the region – but what’s there for travellers? Lottie Gross went to find out…

Where on Earth is Ras Al Khaimah?

Just an hour north of Dubai on the UAE’s wide highways, Ras Al Khaimah rises gradually out of the orange desert and stretches for around 50km along the coast. It’s the world’s largest cement producer and is home to over 200,000 people who, much like in the rest of the country, come from all over the world for work.

Why should I go?

Without any oil of its own, the region and its eponymous city don’t have the glitzy allure of its neighbouring Emirates and as a destination it feels somewhat disjointed: the city centre, hotels and beaches are all spread out along the coast with little in between – apart from the occasional factory – and the tallest skyscraper is a residential building with just 43 floors.

But that’s exactly where the appeal lies: it’s low key, relaxed and it’s not trying too hard. While Ras Al Khaimah probably doesn’t have enough to entertain you for weeks like Dubai – attractions are a little thin on the ground – it can be a welcome retreat from the big city.

If you’re looking for a more laidback approach to life – including relaxed alcohol laws and free parking everywhere – then this is the place to go. One of the greatest pleasures in Ras Al Khaimah is heading down to a public beach and cracking open a cold beer to watch the sunset.

EFN4W9 Ras al-Khaimah corniche illuminated at dusk. December 17, 2014 in Ras al-Khaimah, UAE

What can I do there?

Beyond the sparkling coastline – where the beaches are a prickly mix of hot sand and broken shells but the water is pleasantly tepid – attractions in Ras Al Khaimah aren’t exactly obvious.

There is, of course, the luxurious side – after all, this is the UAE – with swanky hotels, spas, a couple of malls and watersports on the beach.

But Ras Al Khaimah’s shining star is Jebel Jais, the country’s highest mountain. The drive up the mountain road is dizzying, but when you reach the viewpoint – just short of the 1900m peak – the views through the valley and out to the ocean can be spectacular, providing there’s no haze.

The other Emirate: an introduction to Ras Al Khaimah: Jabal Jais the highest mountain in the UAE.© Creative Family/Shutterstock

There are all manner of hikes through the mountain range, from multi-day treks to just a few hours, and a new via ferrata that scales a sheer cliff face above the road.

Ras Al Khaimah is also home to a few interesting archaeological sites. There’s the Jazirat Al Hamra ghost town – an eerie, crumbling mess of old houses built from coral that was abandoned in the 1960s – and Dhayah Fort. Climb the winding staircase up to the fort for brilliant views over a lush date-palm plantation and out towards the city.

Where should I stay?

Accommodation in Ras Al Khaimah is somewhat sparse compared to its neighbouring Emirates, which means the variety isn’t exactly huge, but you do get more for your budget.

The cheaper 2–3* choices aren’t particularly inspiring: there’s a smattering of basic business hotels in the city centre if you’re strapped for cash. But if you want an entirely different experience you can pitch a tent on pretty much any public beach.

People have also been known to camp at the top of Jebel Jais – opt to pitch up at the viewpoint and you’ll have the next day’s sunrise to yourself, save for a few sure-footed mountain goats.

If you want to splurge, the stunning Waldorf Astoria is a no brainer. Rooms are enormous, there’s a personal concierge service, and the breakfast buffet is a serious feast. You could also try the Banyan Tree Ras Al Khaimah Beach, where each villa has its own private beach.

What’s for dinner?

Come evening time, locals and expats alike head for the Al Qawasim Corniche for a spot of creek-side dining. The pedestrian boulevard, with a parallel jogging track, runs alongside an entirely natural mangrove and has a number of excellent options for eating.

Yansoon’s roof terrace has lovely views over the creek and the kitchen serves deliciously fresh, meaty Gulf prawns at reasonable prices.

Out of the main action is Al Fanar Restaurant, but don’t let its location stop you from visiting. They’re famous for their traditional Emirati cuisine – the machboos samak (fresh fish with rice and a piquant hot sauce) is seriously filling and the camel milk ice cream makes for an interesting dessert.

For something really special, the Waldorf Astoria actually has some of the best restaurants in town. The Lexington Grill does superb steak by the sea, and Marjan – on the sixteenth floor with wonderful coastal views – serves gorgeous Middle Eastern cuisine with a modern twist (try the blackberry hummus).

More low-key is the boulevard along the Mina Al Arab residential complex.

This quiet little walkway along the seafront is lined with cafés and restaurants where local Emiratis can be spotted enjoying a seaside shisha.

Dine at Shake Chilli for superb Indian cuisine, then stroll along the seafront to enjoy the peace before settling in with a shisha at one of the many cafés.

How do I get around?

The other Emirate: an introduction to Ras Al Khaimah: Emirate of Ras Al Khaimah, United Arab Emirates. © Philip Lange/Shutterstock

There’s no metro system in Ras Al Khaimah and the bus network isn’t particularly extensive. As the region’s city centre, hotels and attractions are inconveniently spread out across around 50km or so along the coast, a car is essential.

The city-wide free parking rule does mean, however, that it’s simple to stop wherever you need. If you’d rather not drive, cabs are relatively inexpensive for getting around.

The author flew with Pegasus Airlines, which operates double daily flights from London Stansted and daily flights from London Gatwick with onwards connections to Dubai, from where it’s an hour drive to Ras Al Khaimah. 

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