“Wow, it’s hot”, I said the split second we exited Dubai International Airport. Despite the increasingly warm and humid summer we were having back home in New York, I wasn’t prepared for 103 degrees (F.) after roughly 13 hours on an air-conditioned flight.
Dubai had been one of those cities I had always anticipated visiting and here I was on a trip I hadn’t even expected to be on. Unfortunately, my visit to Dubai was shortlived (until a day trip later in the week) and we eagerly hopped into a car that would take us to Ras Al Khaimah, approximately 45-70 minutes from Dubai International Airport depending on your specific destination.
It was only two months prior to this trip that I had even heard of Ras Al Khaimah, one of the seven emirates of the UAE that is often overshadowed by widely popular emirates like Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Now home to several hotels (three Hilton), Ras Al Khaimah is beginning to become a stand-out UAE destination, thriving especially in the area of adventure sports tourism.
Thanks to an innovation challenge sponsored by George Washington University and the Ras Al Khaimah Tourism Development Authority, a partner from my graduate program and I not only landed the opportunity to visit this thriving emirate – but had done significant research on the area prior to our trip. And yet, it wasn’t until we had spent a few days experiencing all that Ras Al Khaimah has to offer that we fully began to appreciate the authentic attributes that separate it from other emirates.
Spend a Day in the Arabian Desert
Pictures are great – but until you visit in person you’ll never comprehend just how visually stunning (and a bit paralyzing) it is to stand amongst bright, rolling sand dunes that seem to stretch on for miles. But this scene is worth more than a photo op, and there are a variety of immersive experiences to really make the most of your time in the desert.
- Dune Bashing
Not for the faint of heart, dune bashing takes you on a rocky ride over the dunes. For those traveling solo or with a new group of friends, nothing brings people together more than dramatically slamming around a van with semi-deflated wheels as you take in the views. Despite the slow speed, dune bashing can be slightly nausea-inducing especially for those with weak stomachs or those who regularly experience car sickness, so visitors should limit their liquid intake beforehand.
- The Falcon Show at The Ritz-Carlton, Ras Al Khaimah, Al Wadi
Falconry is actually a valued sport and custom within the United Arab Emirates, and it isn’t rare to come across a local who owns one of the country’s national birds. This show, which takes place daily at the luxurious Ritz Carlton Al Wadi provides spectators with the chances to learn about this naturalized bird as well as the Desert Eagle Owl and Barn Owl; but also provides visitors the opportunity to hold and take a close-up look at these gorgeous animals. But be prepared as these birds are a bit heavier than they appear.
Unfortunately, we were unable to fit sandboarding in our schedule; but this popular activity is perfect for those seeking an action-packed adrenaline rush during their visit to the desert which, due to the area’s climate, can be enjoyed year round.
- Feasting in the Desert
Included with many desert adventure packages is a BBQ dinner or an authentic buffet at Bedouin Oasis Camp. Unfortunately, we were limited on time and didn’t get to take part in this experience, where guests can often also enjoy belly dancing, musicians, and receive henna tattoos; but we did get to stroll the property which is stunning in its own right.
- Camel Views
A friend of mine mentioned during our trip that when you travel you realize “how much is the same but different.” As we drove past sand dunes adorned with camels, I couldn’t help but be reminded of driving past the green countryside in other counties, adorned with cows. Camel rides are also common when visiting the desert, but be sure to watch out for the tell-tale signs of a camel in distress or inadequate facilities.
Explore the Heritage Sites
- Dhayah Fort
The area surrounding Dhayah Fort dates has apparently been settled since the third millennium BC, and now provides a mild hike, scenic views, and a piece of history. Throughout the years, Dhayah Fort has been used as both a settlement and a defense post – and is now one of the most popular historic sites in RAK.
- Al Jazirat Al Hamra: The Ghost Town
For history lovers, Al Jazirat Al Hamra provides an eerie forgotten piece of history. What once was a bustling community founded by a handful of tribes, eventually becoming home to 2,000 people, before finally eventually abandoned due to tribal conflict and frequent sandstorms. The ruins and remains of the town’s buildings are a photographer’s dream and a great way to get a feel of the past.
Head Into the Mountains
While many visitors head to Jebel Jais to take part in adventure sports, the area is also a prime location for photographers or travelers seeking out-of-this-world views. Viewing Deck Part, which is compromised of seven viewing decks provides views not only of the mountain range but also of the Arabian Gulf and the Al Hajar Mountain valleys. And if you’re able to catch the sunset, I highly recommend it.
I promise that zip lining 1.7 miles on your stomach like Superman is nowhere near as scary as it sounds – but definitely adrenaline-inducing and mind-blowing. What starts off as a millisecond of fear quickly turns to amazement as you take in the view of Jebel Jais. Once you land at the base, you’ll be re-hooked to a second, standard sit-position zip line that will take you down to the landing base. Be sure to book this activity in advanced as it does book out and is not one to be missed.
The Jebel Jais Via Ferrata combines hiking, climbing, and three zip lines with the spectacular view of Ras al Khaimah’s stunning mountain range. The Via Ferrata tour is approximately four hours long and ideal for thrillseekers.
How do I travel around Ras al Khaimah?
While there is limited bus service to a couple of locations to and from the vicinity of Ras al Khaimah (as seen here), the primary form of transportation around RAK will be by taxi or rental car. Unfortunately, this region does not yet have the infrastructure for a full-fledged public transportation system. Thankfully, many tours from Ras al Khaimah include public transportation and will pick you up directly from your resort.
What should I wear while visiting Ras al Khaimah?
Technically, there are laws regarding dress though many aren’t strictly enforced. That being said, I believe that when traveling it is best to respect the culture of which you are immersing yourself in. You may also find yourself stopped in certain public locations, such as shopping malls, if what you are wearing is too revealing. During my trip, I primarily wore short sleeve t-shirts and loose-fitting, lightweight pants. However, while at the resort, guests did wear bikini bathing suits to the pool, and shorts around the hotel. In general, both men and women should try to keep their shoulders and knees covered when out and about. Religious sites, such as mosques, may require a women’s hair to be covered and even more modest attire. In general, when choosing what to wear, ask yourself two questions:
- Am I comfortable? Remember that when visiting during the warmer months, that loose-fitting clothing will not only be more appropriate but a lot more comfortable. Try to wear fabrics that breathe and will not cause you to overheat.
- Will the locals be comfortable? You are in no way expected to dress in full abaya or anything, but there are ways to be comfortable yourself while also showing respect to the local customs.
When is the best time to visit?
Coming from New York, I was not used to the heat of Ras al Khaimah (around 103 degrees Fahrenheit in late September). December-March is probably the most comfortable months to visit in terms of temperature, if you’ve not spent much time in this part of the world.
What is the cuisine in Ras al Khaimah?
The cuisine of Ras al Khaimah is incredibly diverse – restaurants range from Arabian to Syrian to Chinese to Indian. Similar to Dubai, RAK is pretty westernized, so places like Popeyes, McDonald’s, PF Changs, etc. are incredibly commonplace – but for the best and most authentic experience, I recommend just strolling and stopping at one of the many mom-and-pop style restaurants. We did and had some exceptional meals that were often large enough to bring back to the hotel for later.
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