Luxury holidays in the UAE aren’t just for adults, as Sarah Gamboni discovers on this family-friendly stay at Ras Al-Khaimah resort in the Al Wadi Desert. Wildlife encounters, spa sessions and starlit dining are just the start at this chic desert retreat, which promises the perfect weekend escape from Dubai.
No matter how much you love your new home, as an expat there comes a time in those first few weeks when you wonder what the heck you’ve gotten yourself in for. I should know: this ain’t my first rodeo. And when you throw in a firecracker of a nine-month-old who’s clingier than a barnacle at present, this mama came very close to cracking it recently. Luckily for all of us, Simon picked up on the vibe that I was not-so-subtly putting down, and booked a last-minute escape from Dubai.
And so, last Friday we set off for a weekend getaway in Ras al-Khaimah, the northernmost emirate in the UAE. Within half an hour’s drive, Dubai’s Blade Runner-esque streetscapes give way to the beige landscapes of Sharjah, and soon after that it’s sand as far as the eye can see.
Here in Ras al-Khaimah’s Al Wadi Desert, the sands take on a rich terracotta hue, swirling and sweeping across the road in whorls. We spy our first wild camel wandering along the side of the road, lean and proud, with a coiffured tuft of dark hair on the top of its head. Our lives in Dubai can seem like a bit of a bubble, what with the turquoise water views and cushioned existence, so for me this is the first real nudge that we are somewhere very far from home.
The next reminder comes as we pull into The Ritz-Carlton Ras Al Khaimah, a luxe desert hideaway in the heart of Al Wadi Nature Reserve. We’re led down a colonnaded breezeway to the lobby, a sun-drenched space of lanterns and lounges surrounding a 300-year-old Spanish olive tree. After check-in, where they don’t blink an eye at our grubby, watermelon-covered bub, we’re whisked away in a golf cart to our villa.
There are 101 villas scattered throughout the resort, each with its own pool overlooking the nature reserve. Inside, carved wooden panels, lanterns and swathes of fabric draped from the ceiling give the impression that we’re staying in a Bedouin tent, albeit one with a bathroom as big as an inner-city apartment.
I leave Simon and Francesca splashing in the sapphire-blue pool while I jump on a retro bicycle and pedal up to the spa for a massage. While I’m away, Simon takes Francesca to see the hotel’s menagerie of camels, horses, gazelles and Arabian oryx, a majestic white antelope with tall, ramrod-straight antlers.
Dinner that night is an Arabian barbecue under the stars. We feast on a banquet of dips, pickles and salads; pastries filled with salty cheese and cinnamon-spiced lamb; tagines of chicken and vegetables; and smoky, chargrilled skewers of lamb, chicken and prawns. At AED249 per person (around AU$80), including free-flowing wine, it’s an absolute steal. In a life before Francesca, Simon and I would have sat outside for hours and made a serious dent in the bar, but tonight we’re one of the first families to leave, heading back to the villa for another swim and a soak in the oversized bathtub.
For couples looking for a weekend getaway from Dubai, you’d be hard pressed to find a more romantic escape, but for such a luxurious stay, The Ritz-Carlton Ras Al Khaimah is surprisingly family friendly, with camel rides, falcon shows and a kids’ club providing endless distractions. We see children of all ages out with their parents on bikes, and each of the villas has two couches that could double as kids’ beds, plus ample room for a cot. The staff has set up a cot for Francesca, which she uses for all of an hour before clambering into our king-size bed.
At 6am, our little water babe is flapping her arms furiously, telling us that she’s ready for her first swim of the day. Outside, steam rises off the water, birds flit and chirp in the trees, and the dunes are hidden by a thick blanket of mist. It’s not often we’re grateful for Francesca’s early-morning wake-up calls, but today it feels like we’ve been let in on a secret.
It also means that we’re one of the first tables at breakfast. Simon fills his plate with every pastry, cake and loaf imaginable, while I zero in on the Arabian fare: spinach fatayer pastries, dollops of hummus and labneh, thumb-sized sojouk sausages, a hardboiled egg and pita bread. As someone who’s never been big on breakfast, this mezze-style spread is right up my alley. Francesca picks like a bird at her fruit, yoghurt and croissant, before falling asleep in my arms.
After pausing to hold a blindfolded falcon outside the restaurant, it’s Simon’s turn to head to the spa while Francesca and I have another swim. Then it’s time to check out of our desert digs and return to Dubai.
It’s been just 24 hours since we set out from home, but this UAE minibreak has left us all feeling refreshed and recharged – a perfect reminder of why we embarked on this adventure in the first place.