Ras al Khaimah, UAE
Here is a flashback to some work I did in Ras al Khaimah. (pronounced Ras AL KAYMA). And yes, it is a real place, and no, it is not in Iraq!!
Ras Al Khaimah is primarily referred to as RAK in UAE and is one of the northern emirates. There are seven emirates in total in the UAE. Abu Dhabi, the capital, Dubai, Sharjah, Ras Al Khaimah, Fujairah, Umm Al Quwain, and Ajman.
Ras al Khaimah is the 4th largest of all the emirates and was once referred to as the breadbasket of the Emirates due to its fertile farming land. It is one hour north of Dubai by car, or you can fly in on a charter flight from Europe and Russia at certain times in the year as well. But ideally, you need to fly to Dubai and hire a car to get there as public transport is a bit lacking right now.
I had the pleasure of living and working in Ras al Khaimah for many years. It was where I sharpened my travel writing skills. It was also when I took on a role in RAK Investment Authority to extol the virtues of Ras al Khaimah. I promoted it as an alternative to Dubai for ex-pats, locals, and tourists considering visiting, living, working, and/or investing in the UAE.
I thoroughly enjoyed my time there, largely because I enjoyed the culture of the place. The fact it was quite unspoiled, and I still felt that I was living and working in my Arabian adventure appealed to me. Something that I think is largely missing from the Dubai experience these days.
Today Ras al Khaimah offers visitors more choices in hotels and things to do than ever before. The activities in Ras al Khaimah have all developed over time. From water sports, golf to mountain adventures and everything in between.
I don't know if I could necessarily say it's cheaper than Dubai anymore, but there are several activities you can only do in Ras al Khaimah which are unique to this emirate. Weather permitting, of course, 4x4 exploring, camping, mountain bike riding, climbing, or hiking; plus, my favorite weekend activities include dolphin sighting and snorkeling in Musandam.
You hear a lot about pearl farming in the UAE, but so far as I know, the only farm today lies just off-shore from RAK, north of the village of Al Rams in the Arabian Gulf. Al Suwaidi Pearls has been developed over many years in a partnership with Japanese skill and local passion in the calm unpolluted waters of RAK. I know how gorgeous these pearls are because I have two special pieces myself. These days RAK has a pearl farm, museum, and shop open to visitors.
Then there are many cultural sites dotted all around the city of Ras Al Khaimah. Some of which are hard to find, but a trip to Dhayah Fort in the Al Rams area in the cool of the late afternoon is a must. Also, in the Al Rams area, you will find one of the last remaining dhow building yards of the UAE. All the work is largely done by hand, and these days I believe the orders are for racing dhows rather than fishing boats.
A visit to the National Museum of Ras Al Khaimah will reveal a story of an ancient city through its rare artifacts and fascinating exhibits. I particularly like the old canon guns parked out the front. Allegedly a keep-sake from circa 1819 when the British Forces battled with Ras Al Khaimah over the Straits of Hormuz in the Arabian Gulf. The Al Qassims were quite brilliant mariners and ruled the coastline for many years.
Another activity I always thought would be great fun is canoeing around the waterways to check out the mangroves and the other coastal wetland areas home to the migrating European and African birds. Migratory birds fly hundreds and thousands of kilometers to the UAE from across the world to find a suitable habitat to feed, breed and raise their young. In the Autumn, large flocks of birds murmurate overhead and color the evening sky a feathery black as the thousands of species of small and big-sized waders such as plovers, stints, snipes, sandpipers, godwits, curlews, whimbrels, turnstones, and ruffs crisis cross the coastline on their way to their traditional nesting sites.
It is much easier to stumble across some wandering camels and tree-climbing goats in Ras al Khaimah than in any other emirate. It is good advice to watch out for them on back roads as the camels can unexpectedly appear on your path searching for grazing.
Ras al Khaimah also has a camel-racing track. Visitors are very welcome during the winter racing season, which stretches from September to April and is usually on in the early morning of a Friday or Saturday. Al Sawan Camel Track is a local secret, so you have to ask around to find it. Camping and 4x4 driving are also popular activities in the desert hinterland or the mountains, but it is recommended to camp with a group. There is the usual local wildlife to watch out for as rocky crevices are a favorite hiding space.
If you want to get the best out of Ras Al Khaimah on the next visit, you need to get behind the wheel and drive around.
There are several archaeological sites dotted all across the Al Hajar Mountains of RAK. I was lucky enough to find and explore some of them when I worked with an archaeologist who was documenting the abandoned settlement of Sili back in 2008. Situated in a dry Wadi, evidence suggests that individuals lived in the community up until approximately a generation ago, as recently as 30 years ago. The exodus from the community seems to correspond with the construction of new housing, complete with municipal water supply, electricity, and schools constructed with the first oil revenues. It appears that a number of RAK communities decided to take the same approach in those days. As beautiful as the mountains are, it would have been a hard life living there.
At least two of the original houses at Sili have been renovated in the past few years, evidence that the properties are not as abandoned as you think and that families are still returning to the community, if only for weekends. So I would caution restraint as you don't want to be accused of breaking into someone's home. Many of the doors of the houses are locked, and many of the courtyards appear to have been abandoned only recently. Unfortunately, a few of the structures show signs of neglect, but they still offer some great photo moments.
From experience, I can tell you that a few wrong turns can lead to some fantastic discoveries in RAK. If you want to feel like you have discovered an Arab secret, check out Ras al Khaimah.