It’s quite fun, telling people you’re going on holiday to Ras Al Khaimah. With the exception of one Middle Eastern ex-pat, no one knew where I was talking about. Our adventurous reputation was consolidated when the children, four boys aged between three and eight, told everyone they were going to ‘RAK’. Such is the effect of Chinese whispers that this abbreviation meant that for a few hours most of the playground thought we were going to Iraq.
Ras Al Khaimah (top of the tent in Arabic), is the most northerly of the United Arab Emirates, and is a 45-minute drive from Dubai airport. At the moment, that is. Big things are happening in Ras Al Khaimah, and one part of a multi-million-pound government investment in tourism infrastructure is the development of Ras Al Khaimah’s international airport. Rumours abound of a direct route from the UK. With our brood of boys we loved flying with Emirates, not least because you can use the in-flight entertainment system before the plane even takes off.
Locals describe Ras Al Khaimah as the quiet emirate, or less kindly, the dustbowl. Which is a bit pot-and-kettle, but what they really mean is that the emirate has been relatively slow to take up the tourist game compared to glitzy Dubai and Formula 1-friendly Abu Dhabi.
Tourism makes up 5 per cent of Ras Al Khaimah’s revenue (up from 2 per cent in 2012), far less than is generated by its thriving ceramics, cement and pharmaceutical businesses. And it does have a lot of desert. On the drive from the airport you’ll soon run out of fingers and toes to play spot the camel, as my children discovered.
But its asset for holidaymakers is its geography. Shoehorned between the Arabian Gulf and Oman’s stunning, fjord-filled Musandam Peninsula, Ras Al Khaimah is the only emirate with sea, sand and mountain ranges.
So for all the blue-skies fun of Dubai, but with a lower price tag, go to Ras Al Khaimah. A mid-scale resort here can cost up to 40 per cent less than one in the better known emirate, though get in now because prices are rising along with Ras Al Khaimah’s visibility to holidaymakers. A further bonus, at least as far as we were concerned, is the smaller number of tourists, although Ras Al Khaimah offers charter flights from Moscow, and is popular with Russians as a result.
It’s a surreal place, the United Arab Emirates. Its detractors tend to hate it for the reasons that its fans adore it – a very artificial oasis in a vast desert. Ras Al Khaimah, as its slogan has it, is the ‘rising emirate’ – and it’s rising in style.
If you want a shopping fix, or to climb the Burj Khalifa, the world’s highest building, you’re close enough for a day trip. Most of the hotels organise shuttles for free. Or grab a taxi. Petrol works out at just over £1 a gallon, and this has a corresponding effect on taxi fares. But we’d come for a bucket-and-spade break, and happily that’s what RAK is very good at.
The various hotels' all host kids clubs, where most visitors are Russian with Brits a close second. Our kids also hung out with Egyptians, Germans, Swiss and UAE nationals – the latter at the weekend when locals check into hotels to chill. Wherever we went, the atmosphere was positively laid-back compared with frenetic Dubai.
It sounds obvious, but it’s pretty hot here. Our visit was at the beginning of April, and it was regularly 38C. My fair-haired children visibly wilted in the heat, and after we managed to cook an egg on top of a metal bin on our room’s terrace I cancelled a visit to Dhayah Fort on Al Rams Road. The crenelated and dusty remains of a remarkable 5,000-year-old dune-top castle give outstanding views of rolling dunes and date farms, but a trek up in the heat with a three-year-old who still regularly falls asleep face first in his tea was too much.
Instead, we headed to the Ice Land Water Park - day tickets cost £24 for adults and£16 for children. What’s not to like about endless ways to splash and slide in the water alongside scores of realistic looking plastic penguins? There are shaded walkways, air-conditioned cabanas to rent, and a football pitch constantly spritzed with water. My eldest son described how he bounced like a ‘skimming stone, in a good way’ on the Aqua Shute slide. We avoided Friday, the park’s busiest day, and didn’t have to queue for a single ride. Definitely worth a visit, but don’t expect much from the food, which is as plastic as the penguins.
We stayed at the newly opened Rixos Bab Al Bahr, a 655-room hotel on Al Marjan Island, one of a four-strong manmade archipelago. The Rixos hotel is made up of three futuristic-looking pyramids. ‘Ooh, Star Wars!’ as one son put it. Unusually, for this part of the world at least, the Rixos is all-inclusive. The buffet got a bit same-old, same-old (although, excitingly, on our first night we were treated to lobster). Competition is fierce for the sun loungers spread sardine-like alongside the three swimming pools. By 8am towels were spread out to claim space. If you get up late, chances are you’ll miss out. Poolside you’ll notice toned women in heels accompanied by bear-like men wearing swimming trunks far smaller than their glamorous companions’ bikinis (by the way, bikinis are banned on Ras Al Khaimah’s public beaches).
A few minutes’ walk from the Rixos, also on Marjan Island, is the Hilton DoubleTree, which looked good enough for a few days, but a bit limited for a week’s holiday. Across the bay, however, is one of those hotels where reality is firmly held at bay. If our experience was anything to go by, life is lived on a higher plane at the Waldorf Astoria. Ice lollies were delivered to sun loungers in the heat of the day. One of my children broke his swimming goggles, and staff found him another pair within minutes, free of charge. I counted 10 types of bread at the breakfast buffet, and ate mini quiche that melted in the mouth.
The Waldorf Astoria is the shiniest, most expensive hotel in RAK. Built as a showpiece for an unsuccessful bid for the America’s Cup, this palace-like hotel shines with marble, antique furniture and contemporary art. Aged beef in the Lexington Grill hangs in the restaurant, enticing diners from around the UAE and beyond. The hotel has three helicopter pads, apparently regularly in use with Middle Eastern royal families. The centrepiece of the Peacock Alley lobby is a giant clock, engraved with the words from a Bedouin poem: ‘From your homeland travel abroad to find glory’.
My own travels nearly ended in disgrace when I caught my children trying to climb the clock – and my heart stopped for a few seconds when I discovered the clock was made with pure gold and cost £590,000. If you have beautifully behaved, non-climbing, probably older (and female?) children, you might enjoy Banyan Tree Ras Al Khaimah Beach or Banyan Tree Al Wadi. The former is on Marjan Island, offering tent-style villas with small private pools. Al Wadi provides similarly luxe accommodation, but in a desert setting. Both offer privacy, luxury and fine dining, but exclusive in this instance means small – the Banyan Trees are not for those looking for kids’ clubs, laid-on activities and playgrounds.
The Rixos Bab Al Bahr hotel offers several good dining options for families:
We enjoyed Meat Point restaurant, a South American grill offering tapas and delicious meat dishes, as well as live entertainment. Exceptional quality, and although there was no kids’ menu, staff happily organised smaller portions of the main dishes.
Another favourite was Fish Bone for the kind of exceptional seafood they take for granted in this part of the world.
At the authentic Ottoman Turkish Lalezar, we dined on spiced kofta meatballs, smoky houmus and juicy kebabs. Be warned though, you have to book early for any restaurant other than the buffet, or you’ll either get no reservation, or a table at 10.30pm.
To book any of the hotel's restaurants call +00971 7292 0000.
How to get there: Emirates flies to Dubai from £388 return. Rak Al Khaimah is a 45-minute drive from there.