From living like royalty in the depths of the desert to relaxing on your own private beach: Why it pays to explore the lesser known Emirate, Ras Al Khaimah

  • Ras Al Khaimah is situated in the UAE and just 40-minute drive from Dubai
  • It offers visitors the chance to stay in both the desert or down by the beach
  • Banyan Tree offers ultimate luxury with pool villas and romantic hideaways

Does it get any better than waking up with a dip in your own private pool before leisurely cycling down a winding desert track to breakfast? For me, that's pretty idyllic.

And it's exactly how I spent three wonderful mornings recently. Having never been to a desert before, I was a little apprehensive about what to expect - would it be too hot? Would the humidity be overwhelming? Would it really feel like a holiday with all the dry dunes around?

However, when I arrived at the Banyan Tree Al Wadi resort in Ras Al Khaimah (RAK) late one night I immediately felt relaxed and like I was a million miles away from the stress and hubbub of home.

Banyan Tree's Al Wadi resort in Ras Al Khaimah is a luxurious and tranquil haven in the Wadi Khadeeja desert

Banyan Tree's Al Wadi resort in Ras Al Khaimah is a luxurious and tranquil haven in the Wadi Khadeeja desert

The Al Khaimah Tented Pool Villa is the grandest on offer at Banyan Tree's Al Wadi resort and has its own pool

The Al Khaimah Tented Pool Villa is the grandest on offer at Banyan Tree's Al Wadi resort and has its own pool

In need of some soul-searching, and sunshine, I jetted off to one of the lesser-known Emirates to see what the up-and-coming tourist destination has to offer.

I flew into Dubai (a six hour and 50 minute flight from London Heathrow) and after just a 45 minute drive to RAK, arrived at the Banyan Tree's 500-hectare, 101-villa resort, which is nestled in the heart of the Wadi Khadeeja desert.

While it was too late, and dark, to truly appreciate my desert surroundings upon my arrival, I couldn't have been happier to have been greeted by my very own spacious boudoir-style tent-top villa. 

After a long day of travelling, I was ready to flop into bed and get some much-needed shut-eye.

However, the pool villa was so delightful I couldn't help but want to stay awake to try and explore all it had to offer and really make the most of it. 

The Al Khaimah Tented Pool Villa is the grandest on offer at Al Wadi, and costs from £366 per night. I can truly say it's worth every penny, though.

From the huge standalone bathtub and walk-in rainforest shower, to the sprawling kingsize bed and ambient mood-lighting, it felt like my very own slice of heaven. 

The tent-top style villas are large and spacious and although open plan, the long, sweeping curtains do allow privacy between the bathroom, bedroom and entrance area. I was able to walk from room-to-room as the floor lighting glimmered beneath my toes and the tranquil spa-like music played out above me.

After a restful night's sleep, I was excited about starting my day with a hearty breakfast - and what better way to arrive at the dining hall than by bicycle? 

Each of the villas at Al Wadi come with his 'n' hers bicycles, perfect for zipping down to the restaurant or exploring the desert surroundings. 

I'm not normally an avid cyclist but it was such a world away from my normal commute that leisurely cycling on my basket-fronted bike along a dusty old desert track was really rather exhilarating.

The Banyan Tree resorts in RAK are truly luxurious and utterly romantic, with four poster beds in every villa

The Banyan Tree resorts in RAK are truly luxurious and utterly romantic, with four poster beds in every villa

The Banyan Tree's beach resort in RAK allows visitors to relax in their own 'on-the-beach' sunbathing pods

The Banyan Tree's beach resort in RAK allows visitors to relax in their own 'on-the-beach' sunbathing pods

However, I appreciate it may not be for everyone, and for those who prefer to take a more relaxed approach, there is an excellent golf buggy service at the resort - with staff able to collect and drop you off at the drop of a hat.

Breakfast at Al Wadi is not to be sniffed at either - from the option of juicing your own fresh juice to a vast selection of both Arabic and continental options, there's plenty of choice for everyone.

I chose to take mine on the outdoor terrace - and since the resort is situated within a nature reserve - I sat and enjoyed my loose leaf green tea and fresh eggs while watching birds of all variety chirp in the trees around me.

Banyan Tree Al Wadi describes itself as a 'privileged sanctuary' and an 'oasis of peace' and it certainly lives up to expectations. 

While the Banyan Tree group owns more than 34 resorts and hotels from Thailand to Hong Kong, Al Wadi - which opened in January 2010 - is the first in the desert.

It aims to offer an enjoyable and relaxing experience for all parties - from young and old couples to families and business types. Each day, there are a host of activities available from which guests can choose to take part in as many or as little as they feel.

I enjoyed the 'owl feeding experience' and falcon show - both of which are included in the overnight stay package - and was able to feed and get up close to the resort's six owls before watching the falcons spectacularly catch their pray during a training session.

Afterwards, I was able to relax in the 'Rainforest spa'. That's the thing about Al Wadi - one minute you can be taking part in an activity you would never encounter in your normal day-to-day life, while the next you can be living like royalty and relaxing in the 16-room state-of-the-art hydrothermal spa.

Guests can enjoy breakfast overlooking the infinity pool and the Arabian Gulf during a stay at the beach resort

Guests can enjoy breakfast overlooking the infinity pool and the Arabian Gulf during a stay at the beach resort

Situated on a private beach overlooking the Arabian Gulf, Banyan Tree's beach complex is truly luxurious

Situated on a private beach overlooking the Arabian Gulf, Banyan Tree's beach complex is truly luxurious

The 'rainforest trail experience' is quite something. Almost set out like a spa 'assault course', you go from one experience to another. 

Designed to heighten your senses and maximise the benefits for your body, you tend to go from hot experiences (sauna and steam rooms) to spine-tingling cold sensations (the ice room, drop bucket shower, cold foot pool) and back again.

After trying out all the different rooms on offer - I counted at least six steam rooms, two different types of sauna and a number of quirky shower experiences - you end up in the 'vitality pool'. The pool alone features even more relaxation points including Jacuzzis and body jets and is surrounded by special 'heat loungers' where you can gather your thoughts with a bottle of fresh water.

It's certainly a great way to spend an afternoon if you are in need of some time away from the hustle and bustle of life.

Feeling utterly relaxed, I was able to retreat to my villa for some more R&R before venturing out for an authentic 'desert camp experience'. Situated just a ten-minute drive from Al Wadi, the Basata Camp is really rather something different.

Arriving as the sun was setting, I was welcomed with a local coffee before enjoying a camel ride around the dunes. Guests are then able to kick back on the spread of cushions and blankets placed on the desert floor and tuck into an Arabian banquet while watching a host of entertainment - from belly dancing to traditional Arabic performances.

Falcon-training at the Banyan Tree Al Wadi resort
Sheba Palace

There are a host of activities on offer in Ras Al Khaimah, including watching falcon-training at the Banyan Tree Al Wadi resort (left) and day trips to the Sheba Palace (right), Dhaya Fort and the Jebel Jais Mountains

The camp runs every single night of the week, and while the evening I spent there had only a handful of people present, I'm told it can easily accommodate more than 200. The desert camp is just one of a number of activities on offer at RAK, with other top attractions including visits to Sheba Palace, Dhaya Fort and the Jebel Jais Mountains.

Rich in history, it was fun to hike up to see the remains of Sheba Palace and explore where royalty once spent their summers - the 16th-century palace used to cater for the ruler of Julphar and is the only construction of its type from that period that has been preserved in the UAE.

Just a short drive away, in the village of Shimal, is Dhaya Fort - a strategic military fortification that played a major role in the history of the UAE. The fort overlooks the village of Shimal, also the location of a significant archaeological site. Nearby, remarkable gold pieces that were hung around the neck were found in long narrow tombs from about 4,000 to 3,300 years ago.

Sadly, the day I was out exploring was the day the heavens decided to open - so my hike up to the Jebel Jais Mountains had to be abandoned due to safety reasons posed by the thunder and lightning. It was a shame, as I'm told the view is quite something, not to mention unlucky since locals tell me RAK only gets six days of rain a year.

Since my afternoon activity was rained off, I decided to seek refuge at Banyan Tree's other complex in RAK - the beach resort. Situated on a private beach overlooking the Arabian Gulf, this complex is smaller than Al Wadi - with 32 canopied villas - but all come with a private pool and beachfront view. 

It's a shame it was so wet during my March stay, as the villa would be the perfect setting on a sunny day - you can open the large French sliding doors and wander out onto the patio and down a small granite path to your very own 'on the beach' loungers.

The Al Wadi resort boasts a luxurious spa which comes complete with its own Jacuzzi and 'rainforest trail'

The Al Wadi resort boasts a luxurious spa which comes complete with its own Jacuzzi and 'rainforest trail'

The restaurant at Banyan Tree's beach resort overlooks a large infinity pool with views out towards the ocean

The restaurant at Banyan Tree's beach resort overlooks a large infinity pool with views out towards the ocean

It is all very fancy - and romantic - and while the villa itself is slightly smaller than the one at Al Wadi - it is still just as luxurious, with a large four-poster bed, sprawling lounge area and rainforest shower. It is hard to choose which resort I preferred, in fact almost impossible, and I can only recommend staying at both during a trip to RAK.

Staff say it's rather common for guests to spend a few nights in the desert before enjoying a longer stay down on the beachfront and I can see why - you really get the best of both worlds. The facilities at both resorts are available to all guests too, no matter which complex you are staying at - with a regular shuttle from the beach to Al Wadi allowing you to go between as you please. 

'TOP OF THE TENT': ABOUT RAK

Ras Al Khaimah, which means 'top of the tent', is the fourth largest Emirate of the UAE and borders Oman, Umm Al Quwain and Fujairah.

It boasts a long, sandy coastline and the waters of the Arabian Gulf, as well as a spectacular mountain range in the form of the Ru'us Al Jibal Mountains, which is part of the Hajar Mountains.

Formed more than 70 million years ago, the mountain range incorporates Jebel Jais, which at 1,930m is not only the highest peak in Ras Al Khaimah but in the entire UAE.

The Emirate is also famous for its palm gardens and fertile grounds, which have provided food and shelter in the region for many centuries. The red sands of the desert cover the rest of the Emirate.

The city of Ras Al Khaimah is the capital of the Emirate and is divided into two parts by a natural creek. RAK City is the old part and mainly consists of government departments, residential neighborhoods and markets. The other half of the city is Al Nakheel which has more of a mix of commercial, administrative and residencies.

Al Hamra and Al Marjan Island in the south of the emirate are mixed developments of residential and tourist facilities.

Ras Al Khaimah is popular with western tourists since it receives year-round sunshine, little rainfall and nearly perfect winter temperatures. It enjoys a moderate, cool and refreshing climate for eight months of the year between October and May, with high temperatures expected for the remaining four months.

While there would be no better place to soak up some sunshine on a warm day than at the beach resort villa, I was not to be in luck with the weather and so made the most of the spa facilities.

While Al Wadi offers the 'rainforest trail experience', the beach resort boasts a number of spa treatment rooms where guests can indulge in a massage, facial or beauty treatment. Each 'room' is in its very own luxurious beachside lodge, with floor-to-ceiling windows allowing you to look out at the stunning view as you relax.

Staff at the spa - and in fact the entire Banyan Tree resort - were extremely helpful and accommodating, and seemed to delight in making sure every need was taken care of. I opted for the Earth Body Massage- a 60-minute full body treatment designed to achieve a full body balance.

It was utterly relaxing and I can see why it is one of the more popular treatments at the spa - I came away feeling unbelievably relaxed, not only from the massage itself but also the laid-back, indulgent setting and the hot ginger tea I was given to sip in the 30-minute 'post treatment quiet time' you are allowed to enjoy.

After so much relaxation, I had somehow managed to work up quite an appetite and so booked myself onto one of the resorts bespoke cooking classes. A relatively new activity on offer at Banyan Tree's beach resort, the experience allows you a one-on-one class with head chef Nugraha, who has worked at top restaurants around the world.

He taught me how to whip up the perfect warm nicoise tuna and gnocchi salad - and I learnt hints and tips which I will be sure to whip out to impress friends at my next feeble attempt of a dinner party. Nugraha was very friendly, and the class extremely enjoyable.

Afterwards, I got to enjoy my dish in the main restaurant - where a full menu is also on offer. While there are a wide range of appealing dishes available, I can heartily recommend the perfectly-cooked rib-eye steak served with chunky chips . 

Retreating to my villa full and satisfied, I hoped as I dozed off in my four-poster bed that I'd awake to some sunshine for my final morning in RAK.

And I couldn't have wished for more - I arose from my slumber on my last day as sunlight poured through the villa curtains. It was a real treat to pad down to the beach, still in my pyjamas, and feel the sun's warm rays on my face. 

Guests can relax on the four-poster sunbathing loungers which overlook the desert at the Al Wadi complex

Guests can relax on the four-poster sunbathing loungers which overlook the desert at the Al Wadi complex

I was still able to enjoy the sunshine when I went for breakfast too, since the main restaurant boasts plenty of outdoor seating on a terrace which overlooks the bay. As I sipped my fresh juice and tea, and enjoyed a full English breakfast, I really did not want to leave.

While it may have been the end of my trip, I left feeling utterly relaxed and with great memories - not to mention a newfound love for the Banyan Group. For anyone considering a trip to the UAE or for those in search of some winter sunshine and serious R&R, I can fully recommend a trip to RAK.

It may not have as many tourist attractions or as much culture as other holiday hotspots, but it is an Emirate which is truly on the rise and not to be overlooked. 

TRAVEL FACTS

Banyan Tree Ras Al Khaimah. Prices for an Al Rimal Pool Villa - inclusive of breakfast - at Banyan Tree Al Wadi start from £366 (AED1900) and are subject to a 10 per cent service charge and £4 (AED20) charge in Tourism ‎Fees.

For more information about Ras Al Khaimah, visit:http://ift.tt/15zhv0t

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