Mary Gostelow in Ras Al Khaimah for AHIC and to try Ritz-Carlton’s two gorgeous new tented resorts

For the first time, the 14th annual Arabian Hotel Investment Conference AHIC – held 17–19 April 2018 – moved from Dubai to another emirate, namely Ras Al Khaimah.

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For the first time, the 14th annual Arabian Hotel Investment Conference AHIC – held 17–19 April 2018 – moved from Dubai to another emirate, namely Ras Al Khaimah. Host partner Ras Al Khaimah Tourism Development Authority built what can best be described as the ultimate air-conditioned tent. It took six weeks to construct and, at 90×30 metres, it was big enough for an auditorium for the 900+ delegates, plus a smaller discussion area and all support, including food and drink and an adjacent majilis, only used for a multitude of royals on day one.

Themed Focus on the Future, relevant sessions included millennials, when Emaar Hospitality Group CEO Olivier Harnisch described his E25 group which continually puts forward a younger viewpoint. But why, asked Jonathan Worsley, AHIC founder and chairman of organiser Bench Events, are millennial brands not already in the region? They will come, said Standard Hotels’ Amar Lalvani, but those brands are perhaps slow to realise the potential of the Middle East, although the 25hours group, now partially owned by Accor, will be opening at Dubai’s WT Centre. Also looking ahead, AHIC this year highlighted Ras Al Khaimah for big growth, not only on Marjan Island; the emirate saw one million tourists in 2017 and is aiming for 3 million by 2025 but there are currently only 5,500 rooms.

Thank goodness for investment in a superb interviewer, BBC Hard Talk’s Stephen Sackur; he came here direct from interviewing Russias foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, in Moscow. Sackur was especially good when talking with Emaars charismatic chairman, Mohamed Alabbar, and with IHG CEO, Keith Barr. He also stirred up an owners’ panel to the extent that RAK Hospitality CEO Yannis Anagnostakis asked why some operators promise a five-star product that turns out to be four-star and that some guests consider three-star (in reply, such operators as Simon Vincent, Hilton, rose to heated defence). Sackurs final task was to introduce wrap-up speaker, Sir Ranulph Fiennes.

The main area of the tent had a massive exhibition area and a golf simulator. Waldorf Astoria Ras Al Khaimah GM, Alan Stocker, made sure the tents ongoing snacks and drinks were always superb. Waldorf Astoria hosted the first-night cocktail event, but pride of place goes to the second night’s desert extravaganza, hosted personally by Marriott President Middle East & Africa, Alex Kyriakidis, at the recently rebranded 101-tented pool-villa Ritz-Carlton Ras Al Khaimah, Al Wadi Desert.

When Ritz-Carlton went into Ras al Khaimah it actually signed two luxury hotels, or rather, two amazing tented camps. The Ritz-Carlton Ras Al Khaimah, Al Wadi Desert is 20 minutes’ drive from the coast in the eternal dunes of Wadi Khajeja, a 500-hectare national park. Arrive, and you go into a covered lobby courtyard dominated by a 300-year-old olive tree. The property’s owner, HH Sheikh Ahmed bin Saud bin Saqr Al Qasimi, specifically wanted a tree from Spain and this one, with its original soil and a horticultural ‘nanny’, was brought by ship through the Suez Canal, a three-month voyage in all.

On my visit, I passed by the olive tree, I went on through to the open approach with not one but two 24/7 gyms on my left, breakfast room on my right and, 270 metres ahead beyond a long decorative pool, an Emirati tower on a hillock. A buggy with a falcon’s face painted on the front took me to villa 515, which was an extremely generous 240 square metres. This particular villa, one of 31 in this 101-total property, is like an extended figure-eight. Around the walls are no fewer than 31 blinds, only three of which are automatic (the others need pulling down at night, up in the morning).

The bathtub occupies a central place in my tent. Lie in it and look – thanks to cleverly angled mirrors – around your entire space and out to the 12-metre heated pool, sunk into the sand. In the morning, gazelles flitted around the sand-dunes beyond. I went down the five wood steps outside my front door and took one of my two pale blue city-bikes for a spin to see The Farmhouse terrace restaurant, where I will dine next visit. Next time, too, I will try the Rainforest water experiences and have a massage.

Amit Arora is GM of this and the equally stunning beach-set Ritz-Carlton Ras Al Khaimah, Al Hamra Beach and guests, like him, can shuttle between here and the Al Hamra property. But stay here, up in the desert, and it is all-inclusive, apart from alcohol. You get all meals and your choice of one activity a day. Falconry is on that menu and I met the bird, a lovely tame female who appeared, despite a leather hood over her head, to be quite content with her life as one of the many attractions at this luxury tented-camp hotel. I must comment, by the way, on its space. I am told the hotel was almost full last night but I only saw half a dozen other guests the entire time. Perhaps the tents are so addictive most just stay put.

Ritz-Carlton’s other tented beauty in this emirate is The Ritz-Carlton Ras Al Khaimah, Al Hamra Beach. This merely has 31 luxury tented villas on a narrow L-shaped man-made promontory off Ras Al Khaimah. It was reopened only two months ago and already it is understandably popular as a weekend retreat for people in Dubai, just under an hour’s drive away. Expats and locals, adult couples and family groups alike flock here to get away from reality. Once you arrive at the resort’s air-conditioned welcome post, you are given the option of continuing to your tent by buggy, to save time, or, more romantically, by boat.

GM Amit Arora told me how, during over a year of closure, the brand’s stamp was put on the place. All the tents were upgraded and, right at the far end of the L-shaped land, six more villas (not tented) were added. Four of these are spa rooms – I had a soothing and muscle-relaxing Thai massage in Sky – and the other two are cardio and fitness, Technogym and open 24/7. Next visit I will also fit in a workout with Miss Ukraine, the fitness instructor (yes, this resort has everything, including a full-scale Ritz Kids facility).

The main eating and drinking venue is the indoor-out Shore House. I lunched out on the deck, enjoying not only a local salad, with spinach leaves and dates, but also the service. All the 100-strong team wear the same gear – white shirts and royal blue trousers with nifty white sun-beating hats – so they can ‘do’ anything as required. There is a lot of flexibility in this entire operation. I wanted, for instance, to dine in my tent. The stylish marquetry table was covered, shower-cap style, with a fitted linen cloth and my burrata and penne pesto would do credit to any establishment in Italy.

In the morning, I really admired the breakfast buffet’s healthy stuff, with lots of yoghurts, cereals and great bread. Then, before leaving, I had a first: it was cactus-planting time. The cactus had been in my tent all night and somehow it and I had not been in too close contact. Now, with a pair of thick gloves on, and watched by some of the crew, representing team members from Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, Nigeria, Philippines, Sweden and Ukraine, I had the honour of launching what will be this luxury hotel’s cactus garden. You can, by the way, stay here on an à la carte, half-board or full-board basis. The cactus is extra.

A few practical points. Either resort is under an hour from Dubai’s main airport, which is about the same time that you would need to allow from airport to the end of Dubai’s Palm, and the two Ras Al Khaimah resorts are 20 minutes from each other, with free shuttle. (From either resort to Abu Dhabi is over two hours.)

Mary Gostelow travels over 300 days a year, doing one-night stands in top hotels around the world. Read her daily travelogue, www.girlahead.com

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