Bilal is a maestro with a scaling knife. With a deft slice, he splits the oyster in his hand to reveal the organ system inside. Any other day, I’d have a slice of lemon. But not today.
Instead, I watch intently as Abdulla uses her fingers to prod and probe the insides. Seconds later, a single glowing pearl emerges from the shell and enters her hand.
Before the United Arab Emirates made a fortune from oil, pearls were the wealth of this region. Men from the town of Julfar – now known as Ras Al-Khaimah – have trained their whole lives to enter the prestigious but perilous profession of pearl fishing. And here at Suwaidi Pearl Farm (AED250/£51 pp; suwaidipearls.ae) I get to see this ancient art form and vocation firsthand.
Today, the city of Ras Al-Khaimah (RAK) is one of the seven states of the United Arab Emirates. But, despite being only an hour’s drive north of Dubai, this small, fast-developing area couldn’t be more different from its neighbours.
For while Dubai and Abu Dhabi may have a monopoly on cosmopolitan grandeur, RAK is where intrepid explorers will find perhaps the rarest crossroads: on the one hand, luxurious relaxation and unforgettable experiences; on the other, thrills in an untouched wilderness steeped in history and ready to be explored.
This unique mix is made possible by the impressive geography of RAK. Cruising along a desert highway, guarded by a caravan of camels, I look left to see the Arabian Gulf with its crystal blue waters and white sandy beaches stretching to the horizon. To my right, stunning mountains rise dramatically out of the clouds. Sea, desert and mountain, RAK has taken advantage of all three to create a mix of activities suitable for all types of holidaymakers.
I discover one of these activities at an altitude of 1,680 m, at the top of the mountain range of Jebel Jais. The car ride is pretty smooth. My meal at 1484 by Puro, the highest restaurant in the UAE, was delicious (mains from AED60/£12; puro.ae). But soon, I find myself staring at the rocky canyon below me from an observation deck in the clouds.
Before I know it, I’m winched up, feet on my ass, hands behind my back, and then – with a sudden burst of terror and excitement – I’m hurtling down the mountain, rapidly accelerating to top speed. of 93 mph.
This is the Jais Flight, officially the world’s longest zipline (from AED300/£61; visitjebeljais.com), located in the heart of the Jebel Jais mountain range. Flying nearly two miles, I gain a tremendous appreciation for the pure and epic beauty of this undiscovered emirate as it unfolds beneath me.
Curious to see more, I descend into the heart of the mountain valley to meet Paige, a professional guide for Adventurati Outdoor (from AED250/£50; adventurati-outdoor.com).
Together we embarked on a hike in the White Wadi valley, where I learn that much of this region remains unexplored. But with his expert guidance, we make short work of the treacherous rocks and sheer cliffs, traversing several miles while munching on dates.
In addition to pearls, dates were an important resource in ancient Ras Al-Khaimah. Fossilized date seeds have been found throughout the region for 4,000 years and may have formed the basis of Ras Al-Khaimah’s impressive trading network, which stretched from China east to Persia West. The story of these sweet fruits comes to life at the National Museum of Ras Al-Khaimah (AED5/£1pp; rakheritage.rak.ae), where I discover an authentic Madbasa – a room designed to extract syrup from dates.
The National Museum is located in an old fortress, built in 1891, the year Ras Al-Khaimah was attacked by (you-know-who) – the British. Landing off the coast of Al Rams to the north of the city, the British arrived armed with a huge cannon, with which they besieged the city and intimidated its people into a trade treaty.
Ras Al-Khaimah’s last stronghold in this countryside, the 3,000-year-old Dhayah Fortress still stands proudly atop a 63m hill overlooking the city. After completing my tour of the museum, I boldly tackle the 239 steps to the top of this fort, where I find a sight as priceless as any pearl and as sweet as any date.
Looking over the clay bastions, the scale of modern Ras Al-Khaimah is revealed, stretching out into the distance. New hotels, including the Waldorf Astoria, Ritz-Carlton and Intercontinental, have taken over key real estate along the coast, adding touches of luxury and touches of modernism to the area.
But it has not always been so, I discover, while visiting Al Jazirat Al Hamra, the ruins of the old urban core of this city. Last authentic Emirati city, its arabesque architecture has been surprisingly preserved by the desert climate and, in view of the site’s inevitable Unesco status, lovingly restored into an event space. At the time of my visit, the village hosts the RAK Fine Arts Festival.
The most popular building in this ghost town, the home of a wealthy merchant named Abd Al-Karim, has four iconic wind towers. These, according to Aesha of the Ras Al-Khaimah National Museum (AED5/£1 pp; rakheritage.rak.ae), looked like an ancient form of air conditioning, sending cool breezes through the property while allowing the hot air to escape. back to the desert.
Speaking of the desert, that’s where I’m going to have dinner tonight – but not before a game drive. Riding with Javid – a self-proclaimed animal lover and horse trainer based on the Ritz-Carlton’s 1,235-acre private estate in the Al Wadi desert – I manage to spot a white oryx, a species of antelope native to this part of the Arabian Peninsula.
After giving a bag of food to a family, I get the unwanted attention of a dangerous alpha who may feel like I’m getting a little too close. He lowers his head to threaten me with his impressive horns, and I back away immediately. Way back – to the jeep, actually.
After surviving this encounter, I head to Sonara, a camp deep in the wilderness. After participating in camel riding, archery and sandboarding, I am taken for a dinner like no other. Feasting on rich Nile fish, I am wowed by a live performance featuring first a falcon tamer, then a solo saxophonist, and finally a dancing fire-eater.
Unique experiences abound in a place like Ras Al-Khaimah, and whether you’re an intrepid explorer looking for something unique, a family looking for fun and relaxation, or prefer a wide range of luxury , you’ll find all that – and much, much more.
Visit visitrasalkhaimah.com for more information on the destination.
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