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Googled Image

Googled Image

About 8 kilometers east from the Holy city of Makkah, cradled in a low-lying valley, lies the incredible city of tents called Mina. What’s even more incredible is that this city only comes to life for 4-5 days during Hajj and then lays deserted for the rest of the year.

It was in this city that Prophet Ibrahim (known also Abraham, peace be upon him) spent the night before he was set to carry out an order by God to slaughter his son. As Prophet Ibrahim prepared to slaughter Ismaeel, God instructed him to sacrifice a sheep instead. Muslims around the world slaughter sheep, cows and camels to feed the poor marking Prophet Ibrahim’s supreme sacrifice.

Preparing for Mina? Leave Everything Behind.

We were all back in the state of Ihram by 8 AM. Looking out of my 4th floor hotel window earlier after the Fajr prayers, I watched the streets as they fill up with pilgrims, all leaving for Mina. Every male pilgrim wore only two pieces of white, unstitched cloth. More like towels, really. It looked as if the entire city of Makkah was in Ihram. Such an incredible site it was!

Leaving the our room to meet the group in the hotel lobby, our group leader took one look at the small suitcases that we were dragging behind us and said, “There’s no space for that; bring a small bag containing bare necessities.”

“But these are bare necessities!” I protested. I mean, we’re going to stay in Mina for three whole days. Plus, I’m the sort of traveler that would pack my kitchen sink if I could. How could I possibly fit all my important stuff in one small bag?

“No, that’s too big. No space.” His final word.

We marched back in the room, opened our suitcases (each of us had one small suitcase), and reevaluated what our bare necessities were. This is the time when you are reminded that nobody really cares about your possessions, that you have no choice but to leave almost everything behind. It was a tough decision, specially for ladies because there are so many things that we need on a daily basis.

So What Do I Bring?

When we reemerged from our room, each one of us had only a bag pack. The following list is mainly for the ladies. My bag contained:

  • 1 change of clothes
  • 1 extra abaya and scarf
  • toiletries (unscented soap, toothpaste, toothbrush, comb, hair clip, safety pins, unscented/0 alcohol-containing deodorant, unscented/non-alchoholic wipes, small tissue packets, hand sanitizer)
  • Two hooks with suction at the back
  • 1 small towel
  • 1 box of Smint
  • pills (most women need to take pills in order to delay the period so as not to miss any Hajj ritual and prayer), paracetamol, vitamin C tablets, and analgesic cream.
  • my diary and pen
  • dua list/book, Hajj ritual printouts, a small Qur’an
  • phone charger
  • a folding hand fan (came out VERY handy)
  • a small umbrella that folds and fits easily in the bag (this also came out VERY handy)
  • flip-flops for the loo (however, since I chose to wear washable, slingback crocs shoes for hajj, I was able to leave the flip-flops behind. This turned out to be a very wise decision)
  • underwear/liners
  • phone and mp3 (yes, I bought one in which I downloaded several Hajj related lectures)

I had two lightweight, cotton abayas made: one in beige while another in light grey. Since I’ve read that it could get pretty hot in Mina and that there could also be a lot of walking to be done under the sun, it’s best to avoid the traditional black colored abaya. And it turned out to be a good decision. I also bought ready-made scarves that I can easily pull over my head instead of the long, pashmina types that I usually wear.

Underneath my abaya, I wore the lightest cotton shirt I could find and loose cotton pants.  These kept me comfortable during my stay. Despite of all these light clothes and abaya choices that I made, I still ended up having prickly heat rashes all over my body.

Rewinding to the hotel earlier today, our bus was late, and it turned out that our group was one of the last ones to leave Makkah. While we were ready at 8 AM, it wasn’t until 2 PM that we reached Mina. Did I mention Mina is only 8 kilometers away from Makkah? It took us about two hours to reach the tent because of the traffic.

So What Was Mina Like?

It’s like a huge maze. An extremely crowded and complicated maze. There were tents as far as my eyes could see. There were people everywhere I looked. It was overwhelming.

Walking towards our tents.

Walking towards our tents.

Our bus stopped in front of maktab number 116. Tents are divided into large groups, called maktabs, each representing the country its pilgrims flew in from. Ever since we got our hajj documents and visas back, we had been told that ours will be maktab number 2, which is a stone-throw away from the Jamarat pillars (another place that we need to visit as part of the hajj ritual). I looked around; no Jamarat in sight. I looked up and saw a big UAE flag perched up high on one of the tents. It appeared like two group of tents were allocated for UAE. Across the road from us was India’s maktab number 45. It appeared like a dozen groups of tents were allocated for Indian pilgrims, that’s how many they are in number, masha’Allah!

The UAE maktab’s gate was manned by a uniformed guard. He would keep the gates closed and check each pilgrim’s ID before allowing him or her through. This wasn’t the case for India, as I’d been observing. Pilgrims seemed to freely come and go as they please in the Indian tents.

As soon as I entered the gate, there was a fridge on the right side that contained water bottles and juice packs. There was a coffee and iced-tea dispenser on a table. The cold coffee was not only very good, it was probably what gave my body the energy I needed to stay sane and calm in Mina.

To my left was a small stall manned by a young man selling Mobily sim cards. We purchased phone credits from him.

Past the sim cards and cold coffee, there were several rows of tents separated by tiny alleys. Green carpet, that looked and felt like soft grass, lined all pathways. Stickers were posted on the walls at the beginning of each alley. These stickers told us the tent numbers as well as the hajj agent’s name. A few steps ahead were the men and ladies’ bathrooms and ablution areas.

Our group’s tent turned out to be located on the second row to the left. There was a fridge containing water and juice every few feet. I spotted my tent. To my relief, Masood’s was right across from mine.

How Does a Tent Look From Inside?

While this is how it looks for the majority of pilgrims…

Photo credit: http://adrenaline-junkie-nd.blogspot.ae/

this was what it looked for us:

inside ladies tent in mina

Alhumdulillah. Compared to the majority of pilgrims, the Emarati tents seemed like luxury rooms. There were twenty pilgrims in each tent, and notice how the walls were solidly built (not the usual teflon ones), and comfortable sofa beds were provided for us. And we had free wi-fi connection.

Since we were last to arrive in Mina, all the sofa beds were taken. Mom and I settled for the last two remaining ones that were near the door, away from the air conditioner vent. Each of us were provided with a blanket, a pillow, and a thin white sheet to spread on the sofa bed.

Our group leader was right; there absolutely was no space for an extra bag, let alone a suitcase.

It was hot inside the tent and I started perspiring almost immediately. The air-conditioner vents (there were two) were both facing away from me. I looked around and timidly smiled at the Emirati ladies around me. They were also speaking Arabic, making mom and I feel like new kids in the school where everyone already knew each other.

Lunch was served shortly after we arrived: huge, round plates of warm chicken biryani. Five of us shared from one plate. It’s customary for several pilgrims to eat from one plate or tray, emulating what Prophet Mohammed (may peace be upon him) and his companions had done. The reason behind this is to encourage closeness and humbleness,  and obliterate any feelings of superiority. Truth be told, however, I felt awkward at first. Here I was, sharing a meal so intimately with these strangers. I was careful with eating the rice that was immediately in front of me, and when the chicken piece closest to me was finished, I felt shy to reach to the middle and get some more.

Two ladies were serving our tent. They brought the food, fruits, and drinks. They cleaned up for us. They waited for us to tell them if we needed anything, like more water or tea. They were a mother and daughter team. I was like, “Subhan’Allah, I had no idea one could get help during Hajj!”

I went out to explore more after lunch and also to find out where my mother-in-law and sister-in-law were. Their tent was about fifty feet from mine, and they had been provided with two electric fans as well. You see, the fact that women needed to keep the doors closed at all times (hijab purposes) made the room very suffocating.

I asked Masood to request for an electric fan for my tent. He was told that they will do their best to procure one for me. In the meantime, I managed with my foldable, handheld fan.

Do not expect clean bathrooms unless you’ve taken the VIP package.

Friends and relatives who’d been to hajj tell me to leave all my bathroom-related qualms (aka nakhrey, in Urdu) behind for this journey. “Do not expect clean bathrooms fragrant with pine or lavender,” they warned me. “Be glad you have a bathroom to use.” One aunt told me, “Bring hooks with you to hang your scarf or towel. I had no place to hang my scarf so I gave it to the lady waiting next in line to hold and she left with my scarf while I was still inside the bathroom.”

All their warnings were true. I’d seen the common bathrooms outside our maktab and I could smell them three kilometers away. Two hours prior to each prayer, there’d be a serpentine queue, and you only get 10 seconds before someone will start to violently bang on the door for you to hurry up.

Fortunately for us in the Emarati tents, there were enough number of bathrooms. There was still a queue but mostly an hour or so before prayer times, but my turn would usually come within 15 minutes. The worst time was before Fajr. The prayer was at 4:30 AM or so but I was already in the queue at 3 AM. My turn came at 5 AM because some of the sisters decided to take a morning shower. Luckily, this was a one-time issue.

Also, our bathrooms had a dedicated cleaning lady, abundant rolls of toilet paper, hand wash, dust bins, and hooks behind the door to hang our clothes on. The bathrooms were always clean. And this, ladies and gentleman, made us feel as if we were staying in a luxury resort.

There is nothing much to do the entire day, which is a test on how one chooses to spend his or her time. 

The prayers were shortened and there were no specific hajj rituals, so we basically just had to spend the entire day in the tent. I noticed that the only time women ever left the tent was when they had to go to the bathroom. And they almost always went as a group.

Men, on the other hand, were walking about the area, drinking coffee, chit-chatting and making new friends, going out the main gate and inspecting the surrounding tents. I was also envious of the fact that they did not need to keep their doors closed so that fresh air circulated in their tents.

Initially, my mom and I assumed that nobody spoke Urdu/Hindi or English. Turned out, when they started to talk with me, that majority of the women in my tent were professional women who held high positions in their respective jobs, masha’Allah. I was genuinely impressed! The sister sitting next to me is currently doing her PhD in Abu Dhabi and works in the Department of Public Health. She’s the one I had the most fun and interesting conversations with. She and her husband were such down-to-earth and lovely people, masha’Allah. Another sister, the one sitting across me, is the head of HR department.

I spent most of my time reading my dua book and going through my extensive dua list. I had printed a 50-page dua book, because trust me, you’ll forget so many duas that you had intended to make prior to the journey. I spent a large amount of time reading the Qur’an – like reading really slowly and paying attention to the words.

The hour after meals was spent socializing with the women in my tent, getting to know them better. Two elder women were from Hyderabad, India. They got married to Emiratis at a very young age, thereby permanently moving to the UAE.

It’s extremely crucial to avoid idle gossiping whilst in Mina. It was extremely tempting to just sit and chat with these lovely ladies and you wouldn’t even notice the time pass by! I took it as a blessing that I couldn’t understand their language otherwise how is it possible to be spending an entire day in a room with 19 other women and not participate in the conversation? So while they chatted, I read.

Unlike the ladies in my tent, I went out frequently to get some fresh air. I would give Masood a call and we’d meet outside our tents and then go for a quick stroll to the coffee machine.

The toughest part for me was spending the night. The women had removed their abayas but it was still quite suffocating inside the tent. I had absolutely no idea how the women slept so soundly because I kept tossing and turning, the sofa bed feeling hot against my back. I looked at their sleeping forms and prayed that I would be blessed with a good night’s sleep. I’d put in my earphones and listened to the lectures I’d downloaded. Sometime in the middle of the night, I quietly crept out to take a cold shower. This helped me sleep for 2 hours and then it was time for Fajr prayers.

Coming Up Next …

The next two nights in Mina, sitting on the roadside with my father and sister in the middle of the night, difficult times for some of my companions, and about how the last day was the most special one.

Disclaimer:
Hajj is as much a personal journey as it is spiritual. No two pilgrims share the exact experiences. The Hajj Journal series on this blog reflects my journey from Abu Dhabi to Makkah in October 2014. These stories depict the pilgrimage trip as how it really transpired: day-to-day accounts of the rituals, the hardships, and lessons learned. By sharing the hardships we faced, I intend not to complain but to show you the real picture of Hajj as it happened. It is my experience that when preparing for this Holy journey, I spent hours looking for and reading personal accounts online and learn from these pilgrims. I craved for real information on what goes through a person’s mind during the rituals of Hajj. I hope, insha’Allah, that those of you planning to go on Hajj will find these posts beneficial. 

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2

baitmisk

 

This quaint Lebanese restaurant is located in the Fisherman’s Harbour in Jumeira 1, a place that is a pain to locate for those who are unfamiliar with the area, such us ourselves. But the food is totally worth the drive!

Bait Misk opened sometime late last year, although I have never heard or read about it until two weeks ago. But then Dubai is home to a gazillion restaurants, with probably a dozen new ones opening up each month. It’s hard to keep track!

I came to know about Bait Misk whilst searching online for a good Lebanese restaurant. My newly wed sister and her husband came for a short trip and we wanted them to try something different. The pictures and reviews on the restaurant’s Facebook page look promising so we decided to give it a try.

The Ambiance:

The building that houses Bait Misk is called the Gourmet Souq. Bait Misk shares this building with three other restaurants, all of them colorful and gorgeously decorated. Bait Misk appears to be like an Arabian tent from within, complete with brick walls, a few pieces of antiques, and lamps.

We made dinner reservation for 11 people on a Sunday evening and requested for an outdoor seating arrangement. The weather was delightfully pleasant, and while waiting for our guests, Masood and I explored the quaint harbour and the parked yachts that were swaying with the water.

I would definitely suggest this place for a romantic date, preferably during sunset.

The Service:

From the moment we arrived at Bait Misk until the time that we left, completely satiated and happy, the staff treated us like VIP guests. I could not find a fault with regard to service. Everyone was polite, courteous, smiling, and knowledgeable.

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I would like to specially mention this gentleman who was in charge of your table. His name is Ali and he’s simply the best. Everyone at the table appreciated his polite and friendly manners. He knew the food very well and made excellent suggestions. He made us feel like we’re guests at his home.

Thank you so much, Ali!

The Food:

I can only say this: The food served at Bait Misk is the best we’ve had in the UAE. Everything was served warm, fresh, and flavorful. Everyone at the table were highly satisfied with the meal. I highly recommend the following:

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Fattoush – Cucumber and tomato salad, fresh herbs, olive oil, vinegar, pomegranate sauce, and toasted Arabic bread. AED 24

Hummus – Velvety puree of freshly boiled chickpeas and tahina sauce. AED 22

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Chicken Wings – Grilled chicken wings brushed with coriander, lemon and garlic sauce. AED 26

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Grilled Hamour Fillet – Marinated in lemon and garlic and then charcoal grilled. Served with melt-in-your-mouth mashed potato and assorted grilled vegetables. AED 79

Now, while I normally do not purchase or order the endangered hamour, I had to make an exception here for my seafood-loving mother. I was disappointed to learn that Bait Misk does not serve any other kind of fish.

Not shown in the pictures (but you must order when you visit):

Grilled Lamb Chops – AED 75

Shish Taouk – Chicken cubes marinated in garlic and lemon. AED 59

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Fresh fruit platter, AED 24

Mouhalabiyah – Classic Arabic milk, sugar and rosewater pudding. AED 22

Umm Ali – Puff pastry with fresh milk, raisin and pistachio. AED 24

Kunafa bil Jiben – Kunafa dough with white sweet cheese and pistachio. AED 24

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Halawa bin Jaben – Rolls of sweet cheese with pistachio and sugar syrup. AED 24

I must say that although I am not fond of desserts, Bait Misk has awaken my sweet tooth. Everything was so delicious!

Bait Misk

If you’re craving for some good and authentic Arabic food, then head straight to this restaurant. There wasn’t a dish that we did not like. The bread, by the way, arrived fresh from the oven (both white and brown types). They also give you garlic paste and chili paste, but the grilled meat is flavorful enough to not require these condiments.

Lots of free parking available, which is a plus.

Cons: The place is difficult to locate. The water (from Spain) is overpriced.

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Bait Misk
Fishing Harbour, Jumeira 1
Opening Hours: 9 AM – 11:30 PM
Phone: (04) 343 7332

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23

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“…the redness had seeped from the day and night was arranging herself around us. Cooling things down, staining and dyeing the evening purple and blue black.”

    —Sue Monk Kidd, The Secret Life of Bees

These past few days were one of the most relaxing times we have had this year. Our boss surprised us all with a generous two-week holiday, and since it was literally a surprise we had not planned anything at all. “What are we going to do?!” I panicked out of excitement. Fortunately, Masood, being the calm person that he is, immediately devised exciting plans for us. “How about we upgrade your operating system to Yosemite during the holidays?” he sweetly suggested, “and we could also go shopping for that new orthopedic mattress you keep telling me about.”

I stared hard at him, giving him the I-won’t-be-cooking-any-of-your-favorite-dishes-for-the-next-ten-years look. He laughed and told me that there was indeed a surprise in store for me. He whisked us away on a weekend getaway where I had a private pool all to myself, something I’d been dropping hints about for a year or two now.

Getting there consisted of riding three different modes of transportation, but it’s really just 2 hours away from home.

banyan tree boat

The Banyan Tree Beach Resort in Ras al Khaimah is about 80 kilometers from my home. That is roughly 50 miles. This reminds me of Fox News presenter who, quite seriously, suggested that the missing AirAsia flight QZ8501 may have disappeared because the pilots used metric, rather than imperial, measurement systems.

While Masood thought that the directions provided to us were ridiculously easy to follow, I still took out the GPS device, just in case. Halfway through our trip and the device was still trying to search for the resort. We did finally reach our landmark, the Al Hamrah Golf Club, and were supposed to take the first right, which Masood did. I looked at the map again: it says turn right into the parking area. I glanced up and saw that the parking sign was posted on the next right turn. “This is the wrong way,” I said. “Is it? Let me ask that fellow over there for directions,” said Masood. “Oh, but there’s no need. I know for a fact that we need to take that next road,” I mentally pat my back for being good with directions.

Masood drove into the next road and we came face-to-face with a dead-end. “Um, this is weird,” I quickly tried to cover-up my blunder, “I do suppose we can ask that guy there. I’m sure the direction on the website isn’t updated.”

The first right turn immediately after the Golf Club building was the correct one. Masood had been right, but I did not need to remind him that. This parking area was right next to the water and there’s a jetty a few steps away. The nice guy told us we’re at the right place, welcomed us with a smile, and told us to park our car. He then spoke into his handheld transceiver. A couple of minutes later a boat came to pick us up. I silently enjoyed the cool breeze ruffling my hijab and the plush, luxurious seats of the boat as we sailed across the ocean. The entire boat ride was over in 4 minutes.

banyan tree ras al khaimah reception

Those weren’t our bags. We had one small suitcase in which I had carefully packed my hijab-friendly swimwear (which was what I wore most whilst on this resort), four sets of clothes (of which I only used one), a couple of books (which I did not get around to reading), and my laptop (because I was on call during the weekend, in case something came up at work, and it did).

Check-in was a breeze, although the reception was quite … um, quaint … so that the nice lady at the counter was talking to us from behind the giant silver Christmas tree that occupied most of the floor. We were given warm towels and a glass of cool hibiscus juice while we wait.

We then rode a golf cart which made me feel like royalty, albeit briefly since our room arrived in less than 2 minutes.

golf cart

Ever heard of glamping? It’s going camping but with glamour so that there’s no tent to pitch, no sleeping bag to unroll, and no fire to build. This resort is a glamping experience. 

The luxurious tent from the side of the road.

Banyan tree resort in ras al khaimah review

There are roof to floor glass windows instead of walls which allows all the natural light in, giving the interiors a lovely golden glow from the setting sun. I was immediately drawn to the pool. The website says “plunge pool” and, to be frank, I had assumed it to be an extra large bathtub. The pool turned out to be larger. The water is about 5 feet deep so diving is not possible (nor allowed; there’s a sign that says so) but hey, one can swim in it. The staff was taking his sweet time showing us the room and its amenities when all I wanted was for him to leave so I can jump into the heated pool.

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A four poster bed occupies most of the space in the room. Under normal circumstances, I would have immediately jumped into the bed to check how comfortable it is, but this time I was distracted. In fact, by the time I did climb into bed it was almost midnight.

And I staked my claim on the right side of the bed because then I can watch some TV without the drapes obstructing my view, not that I actually watched TV. It was more like switching channels for 15 minutes and then turning it off. Masood has strategically been assigned the left side of the bed because it’s closer to the air-conditioner’s control panel.

It had been a cold night. By the time I got out of the pool and showered, my nose and toes were like ice cubes so we turned the air-conditioner off. Sometime during the night, however, I woke up perspiring so I asked Masood to turn it back on. One of the several things about Masood that makes him awesome is that he never, ever complains when I ask him to do something even when it meant waking him up from a deep sleep. Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night, thirsty. And speaking of thirsty, we’d been married for quite sometime now and I just realized that the water bottle has always been on his side table. Always. And though I could easily exert a little effort and reach out across his side to grab the bottle, I’ve always asked him for it. Always. He has not complained even once. And then, there were a few nights over the years when we’d stay at some places during our travels where the bathrooms were located in another room. I would wake him up in the middle of the night and ask him to wait just outside the bathroom door. The need to use a bathroom having huge windows with lots of trees outside (specifically when it’s the middle of the night) in a foreign land  scares me. This is why there’s a ban on me watching horror flicks or movies involving brutal murder scenes.

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banyan tree resort bed

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Masood had to go back to the parking lot because I forgot my laptop in the car. While he was away, I took more pictures and surveyed the area. The pool isn’t completely private; it faces the beach. Hence the need for a burkini. And although there were people in the nearby villas/tents, I did not hear or see them during my entire stay. I did see a couple walk down the beach twice, but they kept to the area near their villa.

resort with private pool in the uae

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Banyan Tree Beach Resort in Ras Al Khaimah is safe and clean. Despite it being peak season, we did not feel like the resort was crowded because the villas are spaced nicely to give privacy. And the staff is polite, courteous, and unobtrusive.

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I had to spend a couple of hours for work that evening, which I did whilst lying in that cabana with a laptop, facing the pool with its blue light on making the water appear like jelly, and a cup of jasmine-infused green tea (without sugar, of course) on the side table. The fresh breeze from the ocean was caressing my hair. It’s been quite sometime since I’ve had the privacy to let my hair down and enjoy the ocean breeze.

I finished work and jumped into the pool. Dinner had to be ordered in the room because Masood failed to pull me out of the water. I came here to relax and enjoy, not spend time dressing for dinner in a fancy restaurant. Food came in a huge picnic basket, which was a cute touch. We had corn-fed chicken (which meant that the meat was certainly delicious but weighed a quarter of what a regular chicken would) with steamed vegetables, potato mint soup, and fresh homemade bread.

The following morning, I insisted on having an early breakfast so that I’ll have more time for swimming before we checkout. Waking Masood up at 7 am for breakfast is not for the faint of heart. He can get agitated, brutal, and vicious. But when I request kindly and sweetly, he gives in. Always. May Allah bless him.

The breakfast place is impressive, facing an infinity pool and the clear blue ocean. The buffet, while not as massive as the other 5-star resorts, has a decent selection. The food’s presentation is excellent and so is the taste. 

breakfast at banyan tree resort

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pancakes with mascarpone cheese and fruit

scrambled egg

waffles

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I highly recommend the Banyan Tree Beach Resort in Ras Al Khaimah for a relaxing and private getaway. For those who can afford to indulge further, there is a great spa in the resort. There are also activities you can book, such as a private BBQ on an island, sunset cruise, yoga, jet-skiing, parasailing, etc.

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Banyan Tree Resort, in Ras Al Khaimah, was quite a lovely treat for me. I returned home with happy, achy muscles. In fact, I have been so chirpy and blissful lately that I’ve spent the next few days on a baking frenzy, spending hours in the kitchen preparing food that Masood loves. Tomorrow, I’m making him pizza. From scratch. As in I’m starting with flour.

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