No shame in that: the northernmost nibble of the United Arab Emirates, right at the mouth of the Arabian Gulf, was an important trading port in the 10th century, but has long since lapsed into sleepy obscurity. Now, though, its star is on the rise, at least for a certain breed of winter sun-seeker.
Though it’s only 65 miles from Dubai, Ras Al Khaimah (RAK for short) feels like a world away. Or perhaps that should read “two decades back” — both in terms of development and of price.
Dubai’s economy, knocked by the credit crunch, is now roaring ahead again. The prestige projects are back (the Taj Arabia, a copy of the Taj Mahal but four times bigger), the traffic jams are enormous, the atmosphere is pressure-cooker urban. Not to everyone’s taste, then — but we still like the convenience of a seven-hour flight to guaranteed sunshine. Enter RAK, where the thermometer is stuck in the mid-20s from October to March. It has 40 miles of coastline edged with white-coral sand, a sparkling blue sea, red desert, a handful of hotels and hardly anything else.
In August, a Waldorf Astoria opened, the first resort here to square up against the best Dubai has to offer. Its launch attracted little publicity, but, since October, its 346 rooms have by and large been occupied, helped along by word of mouth and social media.
Tour operators are rubbing their hands with glee: they’ve found an alternative Dubai, with a smidgen of its predecessor’s razzmatazz wrapped up in an agreeably simpler lifestyle.
Not that RAK is without statement architecture. The Waldorf Astoria cost nearly £1bn and was based on the Alhambra, in Spain. It resembles it, in the way a police Identikit picture looks like a human being — ie, not a lot. Inside, though, it’s rather nice. Public spaces are airy and glamorous, with marble and art-deco touches. The bedrooms are understated, without a gold tap in sight. The focus is unashamedly fly-and-flop, so the resort does sunbathing well, too. The family pool is lined with oversized cabanas and has a swim-up bar, while the adults-only infinity pool aims for a Miami vibe — RAK ain’t quite South Beach, but it’s a decent place to loll. The best bit is the beach, where most guests while away their days, stirring only for meals. There are 10 dining options, from Arabian meze to American grills; a two-course dinner starts at about £25.
RAK has two more hotels worth a try. Couples will love the 32-room Banyan Tree Ras Al Khaimah Beach, a sexy hideaway nearby. Its 32 villas are dotted along a crescent of sand, and are what Bedouin tents might have looked like if Dior had been in charge of the mood boards, with four-posters, canopied ceilings and a soundtrack of waves. One drawback is the limited spa.
For full-on pampering, try its sister property, Al Wadi, a short drive away in a 250-acre nature reserve. It has a huge Asian-inspired hydrotherapy centre, with a menu of rubs and scrubs. Oryxes nibble at the grounds between its 101 villas. The sheikh’s old racehorses are stabled here, if you’d like a gallop in the dunes. Archery and bike trails are also present, but, disappointingly, while some villas have them, there’s no main pool.
And beyond the hotels? Well, you come for sun, not culture. You could go riding in the desert and hiking in the beautiful Hajar Mountains. There is one must-do trip, though — the camel races. No admission charges or souvenirs, just the thrill of an authentic experience.
I was one of only seven foreigners. The locals didn’t speak English, but they smiled hellos. The camels, draped in colourful blankets, looked romantic. Then they started to run, and they looked comical.
In 2005, child jockeys were replaced by robots. The result is Star Wars meets Wacky Races, as robot-mounted camels charge around the five-mile course followed by men in 4x4s, running the riders by remote control. It was chaos… and brilliant.
Full story available at The Sunday Times.