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.
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.
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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.