Who needs to hit the airport for a holiday? Explore Dubai.
Al Maha was conceived as an Arabian take on the African safari experience. Barely 45 minutes from Dubai, the setting is emphatic; banked dunes and shrub-dotted plains that fade pink in the late afternoon sun. It is a snapshot of the desert existence, complete with indigenous plants and local fauna. During daylight hours, Arabian oryx gather at watering holes and sand gazelle seek the shade of ghaf trees. In the cool of night, the likes of red fox, wild cat and horned viper hunt jerboa, gerbil and Arabian hare.
Al Maha is a retreat in the proper sense of the word, and several times removed from life in Dubai and in any other UAE town. It begins with a little brown sign on the Al Ain road – easily missed – and a slip road that peters out into sand. From here, a track leads to the perimeter fence of the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve, which covers 5 per cent of the emirate’s landmass. At the gate, guests are obliged to hand over their cars. Your welcoming committee is a field guide (invariably South African), who swings up in a Land Cruiser before whisking you off into the desert proper, pointing out a basking monitor lizard here, a distant camel there.
Ten minutes into the drive another perimeter fence looms, this one marking the boundary of Al Maha itself, which sits within 225sqkm of carefully nurtured desert. Before long, the resort’s 42 suites hove into view, ranged across a long, sandy escarpment and carefully spaced for privacy. By the time you stroll into the refreshingly understated lobby, the sense of ‘retreat’ is well and truly ensconced – and the views are nothing short of exhilarating.
Despite impressive eco- credentials, Al Maha does everything in its power to cater for the tastes of wealth. (It has eye-watering room rates to live up to, after all). Sail-like shades give each of the suites the appearance of a low-slung tent, sympathetic to the surroundings, though interiors are akin to top-end hotels and strewn with regional antiques, from traditional copperwork and weaponry, to gorgeous teak and rosewood chests.
The added touches are what make the difference: a decanter of fine sherry, refilled daily; binoculars and field guide; easel, paper and pastels, should you come over all creative (you’ll be tempted, even if the last time you picked up crayons was to colour by numbers). The highlight is a large, private infinity pool with distant views across the plain. Pick up your binoculars and you’ll spot wandering herds of gazelle and oryx – though mind the latter; they have a skittish disposition and a taste for pool water.
It would be easy to spend your time at Al Maha slung out by the pool, or face down in a treatment room (it has a beautiful Timeless Spa), but there’s a busy schedule to fulfil. Afternoon safari drives, sunset camel treks, horse riding, sand skiing, falconry and archery all await. The dawn nature walk is a must; the desert is at its most serene at this time of day, while the tracks of snakes, gerbils, spiders, and any other number of desert critters, are still fresh in the sand. It does mean booking a wake-up call for 5am, though the thought of dosing by the pool for the rest of the morning will provide ample motivation.
Inevitably, there are minor gripes. The ‘Champagne’ on the sunset camel trek is Jacob’s Creek; one or two of the field guides could do with lessons in delivery; and the carbon footprint of some of the international dishes at the restaurant is at odds with the resort’s otherwise laudable eco-efforts (which include long-term conservation work and the use of solar energy to power parts of the resort). Note, too, that children under the age of 12 are not permitted to stay.
Bab Al Shams
Al Maha is a hard act to follow, but Bab Al Shams does have the advantage of a more attainable price tag. First up, don’t entertain visions of a similarly pristine desert setting; climb the wall of sand that serves as a perimeter to Bab Al Shams, and the mark of mankind is evident in all directions. This is secondary desert, if you like.
With that disappointment out of the way, there’s very little else to complain about. The swimming pool is stunning, the usual luxury facilities are on hand throughout (including a kids’ club), and the faux-fort architecture is strangely fitting, complete with hidden corridors and secret stairwells. Guest rooms – each of which opens directly onto the sands – follow the five-star template, though with an added element of rustic charm: Persian rugs, dark-wood furniture, four-poster beds and the like. What’s more, Bab Al Shams is home to Al Hadheerah, which Time Out considers to be the best restaurant in Dubai for sampling Emirati food. Activities include falconry, horse riding, archery, camel rides and 4x4 drives – though if you’re an outdoorsy type and desert shenanigans are your thing, Al Maha is the better treat. Start saving now.