Why Ras Al Khaimah?
The Gulf's rich heritage can be hard to grasp in its glimmering metropolises. On the ground and in the grit of Ras Al Khaimah, culture is very much alive - well loved and well lived at the camel track, where motorists race 4x4s beside camels controlled by robot jockeys, and in the mountains, where people celebrate weddings by flinging swords in the air.
Ras Al Khaimah is not glamorous. It's an antidote to the modern Gulf city, at peace with an identity where Gulf culture is not consigned to museums or books but found in alleyways between mud brick buildings and cafes, where grizzled pearl divers enjoy retirement sipping saccharine tea and playing dominoes.
People in Ras Al Khaimah take pride in their hospitality and, more often than not, will ask you to join in and make yourself at home.
A comfortable bed
Head north to the mountain village of Dhaya and stay at the Emirati-owned Dhaya Rest House. The 14-room hotel is in a 2,000-tree palm orchard at the foot of the Dhaya Fort where the Qawasim fought the British in the 19th century. It's about 30 minutes from downtown on Al Rams Road. Rooms cost from Dh200 for a single (07 266 3888).
The Banyan Tree Al Wadi has deluxe pool villas from Dh1,700 a night, breakfast inclusive, for non-refundable early bookings. The desert hotel has guided walks, archery, horse riding, bike rides and falconry courses (07 206 7777).
The Hilton has three downtown hotels and the recently opened Waldorf Astoria, located on the sea south of the city beside the 18-hole Al Hamra Golf Club. Rooms start from Dh1,000 a night for a king-bed room or Dh750 with advance order, nonrefundable purchase without breakfast. The 346-room Waldorf Astoria has a 350-metre private beach. Call the Waldorf Astoria (07 203 5555) or the Hilton Ras Al Khaimah (07 228 8889).
Find your feet
Start at the creek market area east of Old-RAK Bridge by the Pearl Roundabout. The land around the HSBC bank was once the dhow-building yard of Mohammed Bu Haji and, in the area's one-storey shops, you can find pigeons, clay shisha pipes, domed fishing nets and curved blades used to cut palm husks.
The city's last metalsmiths are here, crafting swords, khanjar daggers and the short-bladed axes carried by the Shehhuh tribe. After you've grabbed a pomegranate-topped ice cream sundae at the city's most popular parlour, Ashook, wander over to the RAK museum, housed in the 19th-century Qawasim fort. Follow the road, turn left at the waterfront and, when you reach Malik Al Karak cafeteria, the city's most popular place for a cuppa, cut left into Kuwaiti Street for some shopping.
Meet the locals
Traditional Cafe has served shisha since 1973 when it was first established upon the orders of the late RAK ruler, Sheikh Saqr bin Mohammed. Better shishia is found elsewhere, but the fresh lemon-mint juice (Dh10) makes up for it, while the views from this open-air, palm-frond covered cafe are the best in the city. It's just a few hundred meters from the downtown Hilton hotel. Women and mixed groups use private family rooms on the water; dress conservatively.
The city's best shisha is found at Al Dar Cafe on the Old Corniche. Its excellent beverage selection - Vimto, the UAE's drink-of-choice (Dh12), karkade iced hibiscus tea (Dh12), or a milky cardamom and saffron tea (Dh6) - make it an after-work hangout.
Book a table
You could book a table. Or you could live like a true RAKster and enjoy some Emirati takeaway to eat outdoors or in the comfort of your car, surrounded by sand dunes or mountains. For breakfast, grab a Dh12 breakfast combo from Asayel King of Juices (sweet balalet noodles, Emirati chabab pancakes, a boiled egg, Kiri cheese, jam and butter) and drive out to the camel track for Friday races that run from October to March at 7am.
For lunch, head south to the abandoned pearling village of Jazirat Al Hamra, four kilometres south-west of the E311 roundabout on the E11 motorway. Start your explorations at Cava Zabia (the Shabiat Cafe) with a Dh2.50 paratha sandwich. Processed cheese spread, hot sauce and spicy crisps wrapped in a flaky paratha sandwich are a quintessential Khaleeji favourite.
If you insist on a table, scour the Al Nakheel district adjacent to the downtown Hilton. Bottomless vegetarian tali - a selection of curries, yogurt, rice and fresh bread - is served at Pure Veg and The Vegetarian Restaurant on Al Muntasir Road for Dh10.
Restaurants outside hotels usually close between 3pm and 7pm.
There are shopping malls that claim to be Arabian souqs. And then there's Kuwaiti Street, a modern-day market of sequinned dresses, golden wedding jewellery, cloak shops and Iranian grocers where stack of frankincense balance precariously against boxes of rock salt, falcon hoods and miswak twigs used to clean teeth. This is the best place to have a traditional dress or kandura made and the best place to buy an inflatable camel.
What to avoid
Legend has it that a ravenous ghost donkey roams RAK in the afternoon, and will gobble up anyone foolish enough to venture out into midday sun. There is wisdom in the tale and RAK sleeps from about 3pm until asr prayers, or later. The city's at its best at night and it's not unusual to see picnickers at 2am.
Women should expect stares and perhaps marriage proposals. This isn't Dubai; modest dress is a must.
The Hajar Mountains are easily accessible, even in a saloon car. Wadi Al Baih is just 10 minutes from the downtown and Wadi Haqeel, slightly farther north-east, still has the remnants of kilns that made it a centre for commercial pottery production in the late Islamic period.
Be warned: paved roads are not always an option.
RAK is not at the end of the world. It's an hour from Dubai Airport to downtown and two and a half hours from Abu Dhabi on the 311 and 611 motorways. Direct buses from Dubai and Sharjah take two hours; one-way tickets cost Dh25.