When people think of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), a couple of places probably pop to mind. UAE’s capital city of Abu Dhabi and Dubai are modern cities known for luxury shopping and dining, glittering skyscrapers, world class entertainment, and a vibrant nightlife. But there’s a lot more to the United Arab Emirates, including a hidden gem that should be on every traveler’s list.
Located on the Arabian Gulf, Ras Al Khaimah is one of seven Emirates on the Arabian Peninsula that makes up the UAE. The Emirate includes a diverse landscape of beaches, mangrove forests, deserts, and mountains.
With archaeological evidence of life dating back to the 3rd century BC, Ras Al Khaimah provides visitors an opportunity to experience authentic Middle Eastern culture—as well as adventure.
You can rent a car at the Dubai Airport and drive to Ras Al Khaimah, or you can hop aboard a nine-passenger Cessna caravan from Dubai Creek. It’s just a 45-minute flight away. Once you get there, welcome to a brave new world. It’s an Emirate that most of you have never even heard about.
You’ll arrive on Al Marjan Island, but don’t let the name fool you. Al Marjan Island is not one island—it’s actually an archipelago consisting of four man-made islands.
One of the best ways to see all ten-and-a-half-square-miles of it, is by seaplane, where you’ll get a bird’s-eye view of the white sand beaches—as well as the resorts, spas, marinas, and lagoons that dot the islands.
About an hour outside of Al Marjan Island, you can bike to a region called Dhayah. Now why would you go there? I’ll give you a little hint: it starts with the number 242. That’s the number of steps you’ll climb to reach the top of Dhayah Fort—a key part of military history in the United Arab Emirates.
The original fort dates back to the 16th century—and so do some of the steps. Historians believe that the fort was built under Al Qassimi, the ruling family of that time.
Its hilltop position made it the ideal strategic location to watch the waters for invaders from the Gulf. Today, it’s one of the best places for visitors to take in the views of the ocean, mountains, and date farms—all in one place.
If climbing those steps isn’t enough for you, you can head out to Jebel Jais, in the Hajar Mountains. At 6300 feet, it’s the highest peak in the United Arab Emirates. It’s a great place for a hike, a bike ride, or a high altitude picnic.
But if you’re up for more of an adventure, check out the Jebel Jais Via Ferrata. It’s a combination of walking, scrambling, climbing, and the opportunity to use three zip lines.
The first two zip lines, both under 200 feet long, are a warmup for the third—a nearly 1,000-foot cable ride at 25 miles per hour—roughly 40 stories above the ground.
But if that’s still not enough to get your heart pumping, how about mountain biking? You can rent bikes from Showka Bicycles, and its guides will take you out to ride on miles and miles of uninterrupted single tracks.
You can also rent a bike in town and ride along the corniche—two-and-a-half miles of parks, restaurants, and shops right along the water. At the end, you’ll find the Ras Al Khaimah International Marine Sports Club.
Maritime History at the Bin Majid Museum
The club sits on a quiet lagoon, and is a perfect place to learn to sail or to do some kayaking. Once you’re out there, it’s almost surreal. The water is very calm, and you’ll be able to see a mosque and three miles of mangroves.
With its location near the top of the Arabian Peninsula, Ras Al Khaimah has a rich maritime history as a port and fishing city, dating back to ancient times. Today, that history and culture is preserved in the Bin Majid Museum, which is named after 15th-century navigator, author, and cartographer Ahmad ibn Mājid.
Nasar bin Hasan Alkas, whose family hails from one of Ras Al Khaimah’s sea tribes, has archived and curated hundreds of artifacts, some dating back to the 1600s, to showcase Ras Al Khaimah’s seaside heritage.
If you’re lucky, you might catch some locals engaged in the art of traditional net-making. Fishing is still important today.
Cooking with Fresh Fish
One of the best places to experience the local fishing culture is the Ras Al Khaimah fish market. The fish come there—right off the boats—and are auctioned off to shops, markets, and restaurants.
It’s a favorite place for locals and chefs. So I met up with chef Thorsten Beermann from the Hilton Ras Al Khaimah Resort and Spa to pick out some fish that I could take back to the hotel for a little cooking lesson. He showed me how he makes pan-roasted Black Striped Grouper fillet on tomato ragout, edamame beans, and pomegranate. Want to whip this up at home? Here’s his recipe (keep in mind, this is for one portion):
Pan-Roasted Black Striped Grouper Fillet on Tomato Ragout, Edamame Beans, and Pomegranate
• 250 gm of Black Striped Grouper fillets
• 80 gm of Diced fresh tomatoes
• 60 gm of Edamame Beans (Blanched)
• 60 ml of Fish Stock
• 30 ml of Olive oil
• 20 gm of Butter
• 10 gm of Sugar
• 10 gm of Fresh Pomegranate Kernels OR 10 gm of Fresh Sesame Seeds
• 1 clove Garlic (Chopped)
• Sprig of fresh Thyme
• 5 ml of Pomegranate Molasses
• Pinch of Coriander Salt
• Salt and ground black pepper to season
Clean and fillet the fish and remove the skin, taking care not to damage the flesh. Season it with ground black pepper and coriander salt. Heat olive oil in a heavy and ovenproof skillet and gently pan fry to a golden color on both sides and set aside to rest. Meanwhile, heat the olive oil in another pan. Quickly sautée the chopped garlic and thyme, add the tomatoes, and sautée till slightly soft and de-glaze with half of the fish stock. Season it to taste and set aside. Add the edamame beans into a skillet together with the sugar and butter and the remaining fish stock. Reduce the mixture over low heat until glossy. Finish cooking the fish in a 350 F/ 185 C degree oven for another 8-10 minutes.
Start plating the dish by adding the tomato ragout onto the plate and placing the fish on top. Finish the dish by adding the edamame beans all around the fish. Top the fish with pomegranate molasses, pomegranate kernels, or sesame seeds, and serve.
Horseback Riding & Falconry
Now, if your idea of a trip to the UAE includes the romance of an Arabian Nights adventure, you’ll definitely want to visit the desert. Here you can experience the freedom of riding through the sand on horseback or camel like Lawrence of Arabia.
Or, if you prefer four wheels instead of four legs, how about an ATV ride through the desert or dune bashing with a professionally-trained driver? It’s a whole lot of fun—but make sure you don’t try this at home!
You can also experience the ancient art of falconry.
For a little taste of life—as part of a nomadic tribe—come for dinner and sample the Bedouin cuisine while enjoying an evening of traditional entertainment. Then you can spend a night at a Bedouin oasis, sleeping in a tent under the stars while dreaming about Ras Al Khaimah.
Want to discover more of Peter Greenberg’s Hidden Gems? Check out:
- Hidden Gems of Monaco: High Octane Adventures & Specialty Dishes
- Hidden Gems of Malta: Mediterranean History & Natural Wonders
- Hidden Gems of Wisconsin: Discovering Tribal Lands & Local History
By Peter Greenberg for PeterGreenberg.com