x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

The Cove Rotana, Ras al Khaimah

The Cove Rotana has so nearly got it right, but not quite. However, it is perhaps early days.

Villas with small private pools overlook the lagoon.
Villas with small private pools overlook the lagoon.

Turning off the busy coast road the new Cove Rotana Resort is well hidden behind a high wall. A man blocked the road ahead in the darkness, greeting us with two short blasts of a whistle and a flashing warning rod. Instead of waiting for the oncoming 4x4 to sweep past, I opted to turn right and park my own car before lugging our weekend bags towards reception. Once past the gatekeeper - who cheerfully wished us good evening - and through the archway, the resort opens out, down carefully landscaped terraces in front of you. The pretty collection of traditional Arabic-style villas are dotted along steep lanes which meander down to a lagoon and a long sandy beachfront. Check-in was polite and efficient, and almost before I knew it, we were being packed into a small electric minivan, and zipping towards our room. The driver enthusiastically pointed out the restaurants as we passed and told us where to find the swimming pools and beach facilities the next morning.

Ras al Khaimah is perhaps better known for its huge space-age cement factories than tourist spots. Most guests will probably take one look at cars roaring past and the Danube Building Supplies' warehouse opposite the hotel's entrance and opt to spend their money inside the resort. And that is a pity, because the emirate does offer a few small delights. I say small because one of the exhibits in the nearby National Museum of Ras al Khaimah is a collection of seashells, but, nevertheless, the museum is well worth a visit to find out about the ancient settlements and rich history of the area. Other sites include the Dhayah Fort north of al Rams town, and the tombs and watchtower at Shimal (www.raktourism.com).

A real mishmash. Walking up the hill to breakfast in Cinnamon, one of the resort's restaurants, I joined Emirati families queuing for freshly made pancakes at the buffet bar, and gawped at young Lebanese couples decked out in designer tracksuits and sunglasses. However, the majority of guests at the time I visited were pasty holidaymakers from Russia and Europe on all-inclusive packages.

The bright blue-green walls, red-brick domed ceiling and wishy-washy Arabic-inspired art may not appeal to everyone, but the room felt new, spacious and thoughtfully designed. The mattress and pillows were splendidly plump, great for spending time tucked up in bed watching CNN on the wall-mounted plasma TV screen. But, perhaps, best of all the air con was not set to freezing, so I didn't have to switch it off and put on the jumper I'd packed for just such an eventuality. In short, it was a welcoming and comforting place to recover after the long drive from Abu Dhabi. The room's private balcony had views over the rooftops of the other villas and out to sea.

Efficient and good-humoured. From the whistle-blowing gatekeeper to the waitress keen to give me a tour of the highlights of the international buffet, staff seemed genuinely pleased to be of service. The resort has a very welcoming atmosphere, and the staff were trying so hard to please that when room service failed to replace my bath towel, I did not call reception but made do instead. I had actually left my towels hanging up so they would not be removed, as per the usual instructions regarding environmental awareness, but no such luck.

The Cove Rotana has two main restaurants: Basilico, which has a Mediterranean menu, and Cinnamon, which offers the standard "international buffet" fare for dinner, lunch and breakfast. Neither really blew me away thanks in part to the over-bright lighting and rather cavernous interiors, which meant that neither offered a very intimate atmosphere for evening dining. However, the hotel manager assured me that he was rectifying the problem. In Basilico, I ordered sardines as a appetiser for US$11 (Dh39) which were tasty and served with pleasantly garlicky bread, and a four-cheese pizza at $14 (Dh53), let down by a slightly soggy base. My husband raved about his main course of lamb chops served with roasted tomatoes and rice for $22 (Dh83) - he only very reluctantly let me have a taste. The next night, we ventured to Cinnamon for dinner at about 9pm. Unfortunately, the buffet was past its best: the beef was overcooked and other dishes looked as if they had been left to sit on hotplates for too long. Breakfast at Cinnamon costs $25 (Dh94) per person, lunch is $30 (Dh110) per person and dinner is $37 (Dh138), not including drinks.

Having a massage in one of the cabanas on the beach, listening to the waves while the masseuse adroitly attacked my back and shoulders. Massages cost from $55 (Dh200) for 30 mins in the hotel's neat spa underneath the reception area. Views out to sea without the interruption of building works made a welcome change from Dubai and Abu Dhabi beaches.

The sunbaked, lower reaches of the resort around the sea and lagoon feel cut adrift and barren compared to the green and flowering landscaped areas close to reception and swimming pools. Most of the 74 one, two and three- bedroomed villas - many with their own plunge pool - look out onto a still, if not quite stagnant, lagoon with stepped concrete banks. Coupled with the prospect of a hike back up the hill or flagging down a minivan to escape, there seems little possibility of relief from the heat. I was pleased to be staying up the hill. The "600m of pristine beach" is not as the sandy perfection that this description suggests either. The increasing drop down to the water's edge requires some bathers to hike up and down a mini dune to reach the sunloungers. More worrying: on the two occasions when I visited there was no lifeguard on the beach making it less than ideal for families.

The Sunset bar with its large terrace and comfortable rattan furniture is, rather obviously, a great place to watch the sun go down. I was enjoying the moment until a steel band duo started to mangle a succession of "hits" in very European accents, rather too loudly. As I choked with laughter and tried not to inhale a second peanut, I thought the scene rather summed it up: the Cove Rotana has so nearly got it right, but not quite. However, it is perhaps early days.

Until Sept 15, a double room costs from US$120 (Dh440) per night including taxes and a one-bedroomed villa costs from $329 (Dh1,210) per night including taxes. The Cove Rotana Resort, off the E11 coast road, Ras al Khaimah (www.rotana.com; 07 206 6000).