Just outside the city lies a pristine slice of well-preserved desert where wildlife is protected from the modern.
Time Out Dubai staff
In the Emirates’ relentless dash for expansion, concern for environment has too often played second fiddle to development. Huge stretches of coastline have been disfigured, mountain ranges dissected with highways and swathes of the desert turned into a dumping ground for the city’s waste. That’s what makes Al Maha, the region’s only eco-tourist resort, such a precious gem. It was opened with the mission statement that ‘The United Arab Emirates’ rich natural heritage must be protected and preserved and conservation must be made a priority to ensure the preservation of the country’s natural flora and fauna.’ To this end, a perimeter fence was thrown up around 225 square kilometres of desert, ringing in and protecting the natural wildlife and shutting out the litter-buggers, dune-bashers and building companies. Bordered only by Fossil Rock, Jebel Rawdah and a handful of camel farms, this isolated spot is the single largest conservation area in the country.
Driving up to Al Maha, you get the impression the resort may have taken their desire to protect nature a step too far – only one tiny brown sign marks the entrance, befuddling all but the most committed of holidaymakers. Once you’ve located the turnoff and made it inside the resort’s ring-of-steel entrance, you drop off your car with the security guard and a driver ferries you through the desert. As you weave your way through the dunes you’ll pass several flocks of camels who continue to chew, entirely unphased by the daily batch of gawping tourists. Round a sandy turn in the road and suddenly Al Maha swims into view, a low-rise collection of stand-alone chalets staring out over a broad plain dotted with ghaf trees.
Once you’ve been greeted by the boisterous, short-wearing desert guide who’ll be your personal host during your stay, you’ll be golf-buggied over to your chalet, through grassy lanes edged with water features. Hold onto your jaw, because a truly exquisite sight awaits. Through two huge metal-studded doors lies 75 square metres of suite, an enormous, high-walled octagonal space topped in Bedouin tent style with sheets pulled taut around a central pole. A vast bed dominates the living area, flanked by a pair of chaises-longues which bracket a welcome table laden with bouquets of pistachio nuts, almonds and plump dried apricots.
Comforting little touches abound: a decanter of fine sherry is tucked away in a corner, replenished daily for your tippling pleasure. Bottles of Médoc and enough glasses for a party are stowed away in beaten tin boxes, and an easel, paper and box of Pentel pastels are on hand should you be seized by an artistic impulse. If you’re underwhelmed by your bedding just open the pillow menu and pick from five headrest alternatives, which range from the intriguing (‘orthopedic diamond spring’) to the incomprehensible ‘dunlop latex hard foam, non-allergic)’. The barn-sized bathroom has a double bath, walk-in shower and lotions and potions courtesy of Bulgari.
Despite all this unfettered luxury, your room is far from being the main draw of the resort. Open the terrace doors and you’ll feel your heart leap as you stare out across your personal, heated infinity pool and into the depths of the desert. Stretching away to the horizon, it’s punctuated only by a corner of the Hajjar mountain range in the mid-distance: pick up your in-room binoculars and sweep the plain to see bouncing gazelles and frolicking oryxes. This is the true delight of Al Maha – it gives you the opportunity to get a personalised experience of Arabian nature, and with only 30 chalet-fuls of tourists at any one time, your view is never cluttered by fellow guests.
The focus on nature-watching is underlined by the bedside reading supplied to all visitors, a checklist of flora and fauna known to live on site. Truly earnest holidaymakers can wake at 5pm for coffee and muffins in the Library, before being driven out into the heart of the dunes as the sun rises, with a view to uncovering the secrets of the desert.
Accompanied by a knowledgable guide, they seek out cat’s tail, sodom apple and broombush, making a special detour to find clumps of milkwort and desert dandelions. Snake-, jerboa- and Cheesman’s gerbil-tracks criss-cross the desert, and baby mountain gazelles and sand skinks skitter about unconcernedly as you approach. If you can handle the early start it’s a blissful experience. The sands are surprisingly fertile: patches of dune grass spring up overnight if there’s the slightest whiff of water in the air, and the reddish desert’s a world apart from the spoilt sands closer to town. The air thrums with birdsong – according to your twitcher’s guide, a total of 38 species inhabit the area.
Breakfast is taken on the huge communal terrace, equipped with a telescope should you wish to camelspot between courses. Some strong coffee, bircher mueseli and ‘Al Maha’ omelettes filled with smoked salmon, pecan nuts and artichoke hearts will set you up for the day ahead. This can be as relaxed or jampacked as you like – hole up in your private pool and sunbathe on the deck or engage in falconry, archery, horse safaris and sand-skiing. The Jamilah Spa is on hand for your pampering needs – check into one of the his ‘n’ hers treatment rooms and prepare to enter massage heaven. Once you’re done, grab a snack from the ‘fruit room’, a large, shelved space filled with overflowing bowls of every fruit under the sun.
Whatever you do, however, you mustn’t fail to book in for the sunset camel ride. A deservedly popular activity, this brings your fellow guests out of the woodwork: they congregate by a camel train, mount up in a shower of dropped cameras and giggles and set off on a meandering, 20-minute trip into the gathering dark. As the sun makes its final dip below the horizon, the group dismount and are served with chilled champagne and strawberries. After trekking back to base camp, reward yourself with some long, cool drinks on the bar terrace, which juts out over the desert. Later, you can take dinner in the pleasant restaurant whose eurocentric menu is spotted with delicious, souped-up versions of classic Emirati dishes.
A stay at Al Maha is dauntingly expensive, but worth every hard-earned fil. It offers that most elusive of opportunities in the UAE – a totally unique experience, and a real taste of the pre-oil, pre-skyscraper, pre-Landcruiser days of the desert. If you’re tied to Dubai for the summer, it makes an outstanding weekend escape from the hot and bothered city. Normally, suites start at $1,600 (Dhs5,800) per night, but as of May 1 the summer rates kick in, bringing a short break into the realms of the feasible. During May suites start from $1,100 (Dhs4,000) and from June until the end of August you can book in for $950 (Dhs3,500) per night.
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