I’m on a dusty airfield in the middle of the desert. The sun is high in the sky, the weather is oppressive and the landscape is bleak. This is probably the last place I’d describe as a holiday destination, but here I am, on holiday.
Welcome to Ras Al Khaimah or, more specifically welcome to Jazira Aviation Club on the Al Hamra-Al Jazira Road. I’m here to entrust a complete stranger with my life; or, in less dramatic terms, take a microlight tour of the city. I find Captain Amir inside his small office, sitting behind his desk, busying himself with whatever pilots do when they’re not flying planes. For the past decade, Captain Amir has been teaching people to fly light aircraft, paragliders and powered parachutes. Sadly, I have neither the time nor money to do any of these, which is why I’m settling for a 30-minute aerial tour of the region.
It occurs to me that the only planes I’ve ever flown in have had reclining seats and in-flight entertainment. In a microlight, however, the only things separating me from an impromptu high-dive into the Arabian Gulf are a seatbelt and a flimsy Perspex door. Luckily, I don’t have too much time to dwell on the risks (which, I might add, are very few): takeoff involves little more than turning on the engine, a few words muttered over the radio, and a brief dash down the runway. Before I know it, we’re very, very high indeed.
When I’m relaxed enough to breathe and open my eyes, a totally new Ras Al Khaimah reveals itself. I’d previously spent a few hours checking out the town by car, but I have to admit I wasn’t particularly impressed. Though I visited the fabled haunted house – a Dhs500 million structure that was abandoned by its owners after just one night on account of all sorts of creepy happenings – and the Corniche, I found it very difficult to get a sense of RAK, which from the ground appears to be little more than a slightly shabby sprawl of buildings. From my new vantage point, however, it becomes obvious that RAK is a fast-developing place with a great deal of potential.
The huge Al Hamra resort is indicative of this – its centrepiece hotel, the lavish Al Hamra Palace Hotel, is scheduled to open in 2011, while the luxury villas and 18-hole golf course are already open for business. From here we circle the new penguin-themed Iceland Water Park, which boasts an elaborate squiggle of slides and even a full-sized underwater football pitch, which even Captain Amir struggles to explain. We then follow the coast, to see a flock of flamingoes rise up in unison to take flight, and further in shore we catch a glimpse of a solitary sea turtle wallowing in the turquoise waters. Captain Amir then banks right over the sprawling Cove Rotana, a Mediterranean-esque village resort carved into the contours of the coastline, towards the Corniche and lush green mangroves, which are far more extensive than they appear from the ground.
We land with as little ceremony as our takeoff. I’m relieved to be back on the ground, but I’m more preoccupied with the prospect of revisiting some of the sites we passed over. The aerial tour is worth taking in its own right, but its real value is how it enables passengers to get a grasp of the city – its high-end hotels, quirky cultural attractions, rich natural offerings and, above all, its burgeoning potential. Right now, RAK is perhaps reminiscent of Dubai several years ago – a juxtaposition of old and new – and while it may not be immediately accessible, it is nonetheless an intriguing place to visit.
RAK Half Marathon
The 2011 marathon, taking place on February 17, marks the event’s fifth anniversary, and it gets more successful every year (with prize money of up to US$25,000, it’s no wonder why). Either way, running the 21km course around Ras Al Khaimah is certainly a cheap way of taking in the sights. www.rakmarathon.org
Need to know
If you’re travelling by car from Dubai, take the E11 (Emirates Road) towards Sharjah; RAK is well signposted. Stay on the E11, which will take you straight into the city. It takes a little over an hour to reach Ras Al Khaimah from Dubai airport.
Where to stay
Cove Rotana This sprawling resort has pools and restaurants galore; expect to pay Dhs750 per night for a standard double room. Umm Al Quwain-Ras Al Khaimah Coast Road, www.rotana.com (07 206 6000).
What to see
Al Jazira Aviation Club
Flights by appointment. Microlight costs Dhs150 for 15 minutes, Dhs275 for 30 minutes and Dhs550 for an hour. Powered parachuting costs the same for 15 and 30 minutes, with one hour priced at Dhs400. Umm Al Quwain-Ras Al Khaimah Road, www.jac-uae.net (07 244 6416).
To find the house, take a right at the KFC roundabout in RAK with the restaurant on your right. Continue down this road until you see the Emirates petrol station on your right. Ras Al Khaimah (no number).
The UAE’s newest watery attraction. To get there from Dubai, keep straight at Exit 119 on the E311, drive towards Emirates Road roundabout. Take the second exit at the roundabout to Al Jazeera Al Hamra/Sharjah. Open daily 10am-7pm. Dhs225 for adults; Dhs175 for under 12s. Emirates Road Roundabout, www.icelandwaterpark.com (800 969 725).
• Regional civilisation can be traced all the way back to 3BC, when the Umm Al Nar people began to build the city that would one day become known as Ras Al Khaimah.
• For centuries, the city that stood where Ras Al Khaimah stands was known as Julfar. It officially became Ras Al Khaimah in the 18th century.
• The British invaded in 1819 and relinquished power in 1821.
• In 1972, after a 51 years of being joined with Sharjah, Ras Al Khaimah officially became part of the United Arab Emirates.