When drifting through the lone and level sands of Ras Al Khaimah, one half expects to find two vast and trunkless legs of stone bearing the inscription, “Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!” Among the crumbling ruins you’ll find the legendary Queen of Sheba’s Palace, shrouded in centuries of folklore and intrigue, and the 16th century Dhayah Fort: the only surviving hilltop fort in the UAE. But it isn’t all dust and former glory in Ras Al Khaimah, as luxury hotels and resorts emerge from the golden desert to reclaim this magnificence of old. It isn’t called the rising emirate for nothing.
Ras Al Khaimah owes its riches to a history of pearl farming, and the harvest that occurs naturally in the gulf. Generations ago, men worked tirelessly on dhow boats for months on end, diving from dawn until dusk to find a treasured pearl. The boom of Japanese freshwater pearl farms during the 1930s ground this industry to a halt, leaving ghost towns of fishing villages in its wake.
Visitors can witness the result for themselves in the eerie abandoned pearling port of Jazirat Al Hamra, which is extraordinarily well preserved. Best not to explore this place at night, however: aside from rumoured chance encounters with ghouls or djinns, desert foxes prowl around the empty streets hungry for a midnight snack.
If dereliction and ghost stories aren’t your thing, head to the seaside town of Al Rams further up the coast, where they have begun to revive the pearl farming trade. The recently established RAK Pearl Holding cultures pearls at a much higher yield than previous generations were able, and market them internationally for £160-£3270 per pearl. Visitors to the RAK Pearl Museum can learn all about this rags-to-riches story, and buy souvenir oyster shells in the gift shop, if the pearls prove a little too pricey.
Should you manage to resist the pearl temptation, splash out instead on a room at the extravagant Waldorf Astoria Ras Al Khaimah in the emirate’s namesake capital, Ras Al Khaimah. As the only Waldorf in the entire UAE, this landmark hotel positions Ras Al Khaimah as the most exclusive and luxurious emirate, and it goes without saying that no expense has been spared: the resort includes a luxury spa, 18-hole golf course, and 350m private beach on the glittering Arabian Sea.
Once you’ve had your fill of beachfront luxury, make the pilgrimage inland to Bassata Desert Village and bask in the warmth of the dunes. This rural desert camp is a hub of traditional Arabic entertainment, where guests are invited to join in belly dancing, henna, camel rides, Tanoura, and a spectacular live falcon show. The camp also hosts visitors overnight, so you can enjoy a barbeque dinner with friends and party until the sun comes up.
Anyone looking to combine the splendour of the Waldorf with a remote desert location should make reservations at the Banyan Tree Al Wadi. This luxury spa resort positions itself as ‘an oasis of tranquillity’ in the middle of the desert – the first of its kind in the Middle East. Reminiscent of the majestic tented camps of India, the Banyan Tree comprises 101 villas, 31 with a Bedouin-style tented roof, and each decked out with plush furnishings, Arabic décor, and private pools. The state-of-the-art spa includes Asian-inspired hydrotherapy facilities and opulent treatment rooms, while every treatment includes 30 minutes “˜Calm Time’ to leave you feeling totally Zen.
If you haven’t had a chance yet to experience the region’s famous tradition for raising falcons, the resort boasts the most comprehensive display of falcons, hawks, kestrels, owls, and eagles in the land. Get interactive with these feathered friends on the Falconry Deck, or sit back and enjoy the show. Banyan Tree is also perfectly positioned for desert and mountain safaris, and offers professional guides to highlight the natural heritage of the area. Undulate between wild ghaf trees and racing gazelles, touring the desertscape as it climbs into the rugged Hajar Mountains.
It certainly is hot and dusty in the desert, and before long you may find yourself craving a second oasis. Head into the mountains in the direction of Khatt Springs: a spa village distinguished by its natural hot springs. You can’t miss the landmark Golden Tulip Resort & Spa, which emerges like a surreal fairytale castle from a rocky outcrop. Famed for its award-winning spa facilities and treatments, the Golden Tulip offers everything from spiritual healing with mood lighting and precious stones, to sumptuous baths of camel milk Ã la Cleopatra.
The thermal springs themselves are built into the rock of the landscape, and are open to non-guests for little more than £4. Slip into one of the pools of hot mineral water, which is said to be curative for skin problems, joint pain, nerve pain, and many other ailments. At last, round off the healing process with a virtuous meal of blackened salmon and wasabi mash, with honey-drizzled mint and bitter gourd juice at the hotel’s La Palmeraie Restaurant. Nirvana.
Header image: Dhayah Fort survives as the only hilltop fort in the entire UAE © Patrik Dietrich/iStock/Thinkstock
Have you been to Ras Al Khaimah? What was your experience of the rising emirate? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below.
Written by Elizabeth Gourd