Ras al-Khaimah, the Quiet Emirate

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On a blistering day in Ras al-Khaimah, I hiked a small, winding staircase to reach an ancient fort, sun hat no match for the rays that beat down, mercilessly. At the top, I rested my legs and took in the valley below where green date palm farms stretched to meet jagged brown and black mountain crags.

Ras al-Khaimah is the northernmost of the United Arab Emirates. Here, the top attraction isn't a skyscraper or a massive mosque -- it's a dusty hilltop fort, 5,000 years old and reachable not by Maserati but by foot.

Ras al-Khaimah is a two-hour drive -- and a world away -- from the skyscrapers of its neighboring emirate, Dubai, and the glistening white domes of Sheik Zayed Mosque, one of the world's largest, in the national capital of Abu Dhabi.

In the past few years, as the United Arab Emirates bounce back from the global credit crunch, it has been making a push to reinvent itself (its official slogan is "the rising emirate") from a dusty northern outpost to a business and leisure hub more affordable than its glittery neighbors.

Long a favorite with adventure-seekers who pilot their 4x4s through twisting wadis and those looking to experience things like camel racing (October through March), Ras al-Khaimah is now solidifying itself as a destination for mainstream tourists. Its national carrier, Ras al-Khaimah Airways, is offering cheap flights in the region, as well as to and from Britain, and hotel brands like Doubletree and a Waldorf-Astoria, which is set to open this year, are jumping on board.

"When it comes to tourism in Dubai, we found there's a lot of upscale luxury products," said Victor Louis, the chief operating officer of the emirate's government-sponsored Tourism Development Authority. "If you want a value-for-money holiday, it's missing. So we started building that product in R.A.K, developing midscale resorts."

Mr. Louis said there were about one million visitors last year, up from 885,000 in 2011, and he expects 1.2 million in 2013. He noted that beachside hotel rooms in the emirate cost up to 40 percent less than similar rooms in Dubai.

Unlike Dubai and Abu Dhabi, Ras al-Khaimah is not oil-rich and is relying on its rapidly growing tourist infrastructure -- besides hotels, there's a new emphasis on promoting the emirate's ancient sites, rare for a country that celebrates the new and flashy -- to keep pace.

"It has coal quarries and ceramic manufacturing, but when it comes to oil and gas, this is where R.A.K. has to come up with alternatives to grow," Mr. Louis said. "We don't want to be Abu Dhabi, we don't want to be Dubai -- we want to complement both. Our product is different."

Indeed, to come here is to see an authenticity often missing in the flashier emirates. Most visitors to Dubai look at its malls, choked roads and treeless urban sprawl and are quick to dub it "soulless." As the world's tallest building and its massive mosque were erected, the country's history was shunted to the side, skyscrapers and indoor ski slopes more celebrated than old Silk Road trading posts.

But in Ras al-Khaimah, an emirate of camels, date farms and dunes that roll as far as the eye can see, one sees Arabia as it was centuries ago.

For a weekend escape last September, I brought my friend Nadia, a Dubai-based French business consultant who was eager to see, she said, "something more real."

We were met with disbelief by friends who wondered why we would choose the Emirates as the unlikely destination of a historical ramble. But, in fact, Ras al-Khaimah has a very long history. Life here can be traced back to the Umm al-Nar people in the third century B.C. In the 1800s its location on the Strait of Hormuz, bordering Oman and facing present-day Iran, made it an important post on the trade route to India. It was incorporated into the United Arab Emirates in 1972 and watched as, overnight, its oil-soaked neighbors became global business and tourist hubs.

Today, the emirate is home to the Masafi, one of the country's largest water companies, and counts more than 300,000 residents. Arabic is more widely spoken here than any other place I've been in the United Arab Emirates, though it's not necessary for getting around. The emirate has preserved many of its ancient sites -- including the Dhayah Fort, the only remaining dune-top castle in the emirate, from which I gazed at the date farms, and the National Museum of Ras al-Khaimah, housed in the palace of the al Qawasim family, which ruled here in the 18th century.

Nadia and I set off on the 90-minute drive from downtown Dubai through a landscape that began with skyscrapers and turned into vast dune fields as we drove north, stopping once for giant bottles of laban, a thick yogurt drink popular in the Gulf.

As we entered Ras al-Khaimah, there were fewer signs in English. We saw low buildings and men in the traditional floor-length white kanduras strolling on the Corniche, a grass-lined stretch of walking and biking paths. Nadia and I decided to spend an afternoon at the Banyan Tree Resort and Spa, set amid red-clay dunes that roll as far as the eye can see, a 15-minute drive from the city center in the sands of Wadi Khadeja. We wandered the extensive grounds, dotted with trees for shady respite, climbing up and down the dunes as the sand filled our shoes.

The walking and heat fueled our appetites. There's little traditional food in the United Arab Emirates; much of the cuisine comes from elsewhere in the region, namely Lebanon and India, and Ras al-Khaimah is no exception. Mezze, or appetizers, are a must late in the afternoon in the desert, so we hit the hotel's Al Waha (meaning "oasis" in Arabic) restaurant. It's a quiet, airy space with big windows and solicitous service, where each mezze dish was a surprisingly affordable 20 dirham, or about $5.60 at 3.6 dirhams to the dollar. We opened with a yellow lentil soup, followed by kibbe labneh (meatballs in a thick, rich yogurt); squeaky grilled halloumi cheese, a staple of Middle East cuisine; tabbouleh; rakakat, a tasty local cheese fried in phyllo pastry; warm spinach samosa-like fatayer; a creamy hummus; and stuffed vine leaves, all sopped up with basket after basket of warm pita and washed down with tall, icy glasses of bitter lemon juice.

We were interrupted by what looked like an Arabian oryx bounding by outside the window. It kept us company for most of the lunch hour.

"This," Nadia said, "is definitely not Dubai."

We walked it off on another stretch of the resort. At a watering hole, we chased what looked like another oryx, an animal I'd never seen before in overdeveloped Dubai, eventually losing it in the dunes.

Later that night, we strolled the length of the downtown Corniche, with bike paths, restaurants and lawns. It seemed that everyone in Ras al-Khaimah had come there on dates and family picnics. Across the street, lines of men dressed in kanduras danced to loud Arab music in what looked like a wedding celebration.

Nearby, the beautiful Ras al-Khaimah Mosque was illuminated. In October 2012, Sheikh Khalifa, the United Arab Emirates' president, announced plans to build a bigger, $68 million mosque, able to hold more than 28,000 worshipers -- in Ras al-Khaimah. It's a testament to both Ras al-Khaimah's position as the emirate of the future, and its conservatism.

Daylight brought a drive to the Dhayah Fort, in the Al Rams area. We hiked the steep staircase, with its dazzling views of the valley and jagged surrounding mountains. Across from the fort, we found a small rest house attached to a farm of its own. The worker behind the sales counter granted us permission to meander its canopies of trees, sticky dates crunching beneath our feet.

With the afternoon sun blazing, we sought refuge in the national museum, tucked near the Corniche in a low-rise stucco building. It was cool, low-ceilinged and devoid of tourists; Nadia and I had it to ourselves that afternoon. Each room provided a look at Ras al-Khaimah history.

We flashed back to thoughts of Dubai's yachts and beachfront hotels as we scoped out room after room of artifacts left over from centuries of pearl diving, one of the ancient emirate's most prosperous industries; carrying frames once used on camel backs; and pottery dating back to the first century B.C.

Preparing to return to the bustle of Dubai, we sipped drinks at the bar at the Banyan Tree's second Ras al-Khaimah outpost, a smaller beachfront property a 15-minute drive from the dunes accessible only by a short ferry ride. Visitors drank beer and wore bikinis; a popular misconception of the non-Dubai emirates is that they are too conservative for foreign tourists looking to cut loose.

Standing in the water, thoroughly relaxed and buzzing from the day's history lesson, Nadia and I had sunset, sea gulls and -- in the tradition of the emirates and as a sign of Ras al-Khaimah's continued growth -- a horizon dotted with construction cranes.

Getting There

Allow an hour and a half or so for the drive from Dubai to Ras al-Khaimah, owing to traffic and confusing or nonexistent road signs. (Once in Ras al-Khaimah, we would not have gotten by without a navigational system.)

The Banyan Tree al Wadi (971-7-206 -7777; banyantree.com/en/al_adi/) has a nice spa and luxurious, secluded dune-facing rooms starting at 2,883 dirhams, or about $800 at 3.6 dirhams to the dollar. If you're looking to spend a little less, stay elsewhere and make a day of the resort's grounds, restaurants and spa. The Doubletree by Hilton Ras al-Khaimah (971-7-226-0666; doubletree3.hilton.com ), a 20-minute drive from there, has rooms starting from 700 dirhams.

travel

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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