If somebody told you that, in return for 12 hours’ work, you could enjoy a free three-night stay in an exclusive luxury resort, what would you say? We’ll tell you what Time Out says: hell, yes. We’re more than happy to pull on a fetching overall and set to work plastering walls in Zighi Village, the old Omani fishing community that sits a few metres down the beach from Six Senses Hideaway at Zighi Bay (formerly Zighy Bay), the five-star haven named the ‘World’s Leading New Resort’ at November’s World Travel Awards in London.
So why the overalls? ‘One of the agreements we struck with the villagers when building the resort is that we would rebuild their homes,’ says Tara Hammond, the resort’s environmental and social responsibilities officer. ‘Before we began to rebuild the houses, most of them did not have running water or functional sewage systems. And there was damage to the front row of houses [next to the beach] after cyclone Gonu hit in 2008 – broken walls, paint decay.’ The Six Senses team pulled down the houses and began building a new village. And, as part of its community-focused philosophy, Six Senses decided to get guests in on the action.
The Build a Smile package allows guests to stay six nights and only pay for three if they do three days’ work (four hours a day) helping to rebuild the village. Alternatively, guests can stay for eight days, pay for four and do four days’ work, or stay for 10, pay for five and do five days’ work. The package has proved popular – it means guests can both double their stay for free, and feel warm and fuzzy for contributing to improving the locals’ quality of life.
Six Senses’ Martina Hermanns tells us about a couple in their mid-60s who insisted on taking up the Build a Smile package. ‘They loved contributing something to our community,’ she says, describing how they helped to tile floors in two homes. The work offered to guests has been varied, from skills-based tasks such as plumbing, electrics and construction to more general duties like plastering and painting, meaning volunteers of all ages and skill-sets can help out.
Now that all the houses have been built, it’s the more superficial maintenance work that needs doing. So when Time Out turns up ready to get stuck in, we’re given a crash course in plastering before being handed a bucket loaded with sloppy sludge. We spend the next few hours getting as much of the sludge on ourselves as on the wall we’ve been charged with coating.
The Build a Smile package is undoubtedly a good deal, but this is physical labour we’re talking about, and it’s tiring stuff. Standing for hours in air that’s thick with humidity, our wrists sore from the repeated sweeps and swipes required of plastering, we gain a greater empathy for Dubai’s labourers, who complete far more back-breaking tasks in worse conditions (imagine the 45°C heat of a midsummer’s day). Still, there’s a real sense of achievement when we survey our finished work, and then it’s back to the resort for an afternoon of relaxing in our complimentary pool villa, itself built from local materials.
Six Senses Hideaway has been designed to blend in with the natural surroundings; it’s a mock-Omani village, all stone buildings and sandy pathways, set in a secluded bay with the Hajar mountains on one side and the Gulf of Oman lapping at the shore on the other. It’s a breathtaking location, and is one of the main reasons that Six Senses is intent on preserving the nearby community – to say thanks to the locals for sharing it.
If you’re wondering where the villagers are during the rebuild, they all have two houses: one in Zighi Bay, where they stay throughout summer, fishing and farming dates from their plantations; and one in Haffah in the mountains where they’re protected from the winter weather, enabling them to herd goats, collect honey and cultivate the land. The villagers are all living in Haffah until work on Zighi Village is complete.
So how did they feel about having their village rebuilt? ‘They were delighted!’ laughs Hammond. The villagers even helped to design their new homes. ‘The architects came to an agreement with the villagers on the design and style of the houses,’ Hammond tells us. ‘They had to take into account the local environment and conditions, ensuring that all the houses were of a similar style, but with the option for every family to decorate them to their own tastes.’
As well as rebuilding the village, Six Senses hopes to inject life into the local economy by encouraging villagers to grow produce and sell it to the resort for use in its kitchens. The resort already uses fish provided by local fishermen, honey collected from the mountains and free-range eggs from a farmer in Fujairah. Hammond says she is keen to buy from the villagers because ‘it will secure local products on our tables for guests, as well as give the villagers an added source of stable income’. Six Senses also employs 25 men from the village, who work in the kitchens, on security and as drivers, and there are regular recruitment drives in surrounding areas such as Dibba. Future plans include taking local children on eco-tours of the Hideaway to educate them about recycling and sustainable energy sources. The resort already teaches English to the village children once a week, free of charge.
A cynic may see the Build a Smile package as less about do-gooding and more about snagging a few nights of luxury. But we’d argue it’s far more clever than that. It’s a very effective way of showing Six Senses guests just how precious these surroundings are, and is a unique opportunity to involve visitors with the local community and culture. And yes, swanning about in your own private infinity pool after the hard work is done isn’t too shoddy, either.
The Build a Smile package is available until March 31. At the time of going to press, a decision about whether to extend this package into April was yet to be made. Check for updates at www.sixsenses.com/Six-Senses-Hideaway-Zighi-Bay. The resort is a two-hour drive from Dubai – see the website for a location map. Prices start at Dhs3,820 a night for a villa with private pool.