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16 May 2022

The Pearl of the Emirates – why Ras Al-Khaimah is the Persian Gulf’s uncut gem

The Pearl of the Emirates – why Ras Al-Khaimah is the Persian Gulf’s uncut gem

Bilal is a maestro with a shucking knife. With one deft slice, he cleaves open the oyster in his hand to reveal the system of organs inside. On any other day, I’d be reaching for a slice of lemon. But not today.

Instead, I watch closely as Abdulla uses his fingers to prod and probe the innards. Seconds later, a single, radiant pearl rolls out of the shell and into his hand.

Before the United Arab Emirates made its fortune from oil, pearls were this region’s source of wealth. Men from the city of Julfar – now known as Ras Al-Khaimah – trained their whole lives to enter the prestigious yet perilous profession of pearl diving. And here, at the Suwaidi Pearl Farm (AED250/£51 per person; suwaidipearls.ae), I get to see this ancient vocation-cum-art form first-hand.

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 but rapidly-developing area could not 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 of crossroads: on the one side, luxurious relaxation and unforgettable experiences; on the other, white-knuckle thrills in an untouched wilderness loaded with history and ripe for exploration.

This unique blend is made possible by RAK’s impressive geography. Cruising along one desert highway, watched by a caravan of camels, I look left to see the Persian Gulf with its crystal-clear blue waters and white sandy beaches stretching towards the horizon. To my right, staggering mountains rise dramatically into the clouds. Sea, desert and mountains – RAK has taken advantage of all three to create a mix of activities to suit all types of holiday-makers.

I discover one such activity at 1,680m above sea level, atop the Jebel Jais mountain range. The car journey up is quite smooth. My meal at 1484 by Puro, the highest restaurant in the UAE, is delightful (mains from AED60/£12; puro.ae). But soon, I find myself looking down over the rocky canyon beneath me from an observation deck in the clouds.

Before I know it, I’m winched up, feet over bum, hands behind my back and then – with a sudden rush of terror and excitement – I’m flying down the mountain, rapidly accelerating to a top speed of 93mph.

This is the Jais Flight, officially the world’s longest zip wire (from AED300/£61; visitjebeljais.com), located in the heart of the Jebel Jais mountain range. Flying almost three kilometres, I gain an immense appreciation of this unknown Emirate’s sheer, epic beauty as it unfurls beneath me.

Curious to see more of it, 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 set out on a hike of the White Wadi valley, where I learn that much of this region remains uncharted. But with her expert guidance, we make short work of the treacherous rocks and sheer cliff faces, traversing several kilometres while snacking on dates.

As well as pearls, dates were an important resource in ancient Ras Al-Khaimah. Fossilised date seeds have been found throughout the region dating back as far as 4,000 years, and perhaps formed the basis of Ras Al-Khaimah’s impressive trade network, which extended from China in the east to Persia in the west. The story of these sweet fruits comes to life in the National Museum of Ras Al-Khaimah (AED5/£1 per person; rakheritage.rak.ae), where I discover an authentic Madbasa – a room designed for extracting syrup from dates.

The national museum is situated in an old fortress, built in 1891, the year in which Ras Al-Khaimah was attacked by (you-know-who) – the British. Landing off the coast of Al Rams in the north of the city, the British came armed with a huge cannon, with which they besieged the city and bullied its people into a trade treaty.

Ras Al-Khaimah’s last bastion in that campaign, the 3,000-year-old Dhayah Fortress, still sits proudly atop a 63m hill overlooking the city. Having completed my tour the museum, I boldly tackle the 239 steps to the top of this fort, where I discover a view as priceless as any pearl and as sweet as any date.

Peering out over the clay bastions, the scale of modern Ras Al-Khaimah reveals itself, stretching far into the distance. Brand new hotels, including the Waldorf Astoria, Ritz-Carlton and Intercontinental have seized the key real estate along the coast, adding dabs of luxury and swatches of modernism to the region.

But it wasn’t always this way, I discover, as I pay a visit to Al Jazirat Al Hamra, the ruins of the former urban core of this city. The last remaining authentic Emirati town, its Arabesque architecture has been stunningly preserved by the desert climate and, in preparation for the site’s inevitable Unesco status, lovingly restored into an events space. At the time of my visit, the village plays host to RAK Fine Arts Festival.

The most popular building in this ghost town, the house of a rich merchant named Abd Al-Karim, has four iconic wind towers. These, according to Aaesha of the Ras Al-Khaimah National Museum (AED5/£1 per person; rakheritage.rak.ae), were like a form of ancient air conditioning, sending down cool breezes into the property while allowing hot air to escape back into the desert.

Speaking of the desert, that is where I am headed for dinner this evening – although not before a spot of safari. Heading out with Javid – a self-professed animal lover and horse trainer based at the Ritz-Carlton’s private 1,235-acre estate in the Al Wadi desert – I manage to catch a glimpse of a white oryx, a species of antelope native to this part of the Arabian Peninsula.

After offering a bag of feed to one family, I attract the unwanted attention of a dangerous alpha who perhaps feels I’ve come a little too close. He lowers his head to threaten me with his impressive horns, and I promptly step back. Way back – all the way to the jeep, in fact.

After surviving that encounter, I make my way to Sonara, a camp in the heart of the wilderness. After partaking in camel riding, archery and sandboarding, I am whisked away for a dinner unlike any other. Feasting on rich Nile fish, I am beguiled by a live show featuring first a falcon tamer, then a solo saxophonist, and finally a dancing fire-breather.

Unique experiences abound in a place like Ras Al-Khaimah, and whether you are a fearless explorer hunting for something unique, a family looking for fun and relaxation, or you prefer a broad stroke of luxury, you will find all of this – and much, much more.

How to plan your trip

Go to visitrasalkhaimah.com for more information on the destination.

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