Al Maha Desert Resort & Spa: If you think Dubai has sold its soul to over-development, then Al Maha Desert Resort & Spa will be a pleasant surprise. The resort sits in the desert, around 45 minutes from Dubai, and is an oasis of luxuriously appointed Bedouin-style bungalows overlooking an infinite sea of undulating dunes and ghaf trees.
The property is nestled smack-bang in the middle of the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve, which became an official member of the International Union for Conservation of Nature since its successful reintroduction of the Arabian oryx, a spiky-horned beast that was extinct in the wild until a few years ago. To date, there are around 200 oryx roaming the resort, along with gazelles and a variety of other native critters like the rare sand cat (though they are near impossible to spot), the Arabian red fox, gerbils and even Ethiopian hedgehogs.
Most of the immense 225 sq km protected desert is off-limits to the public unless accompanied by a few select Dubai-based tour operators, which makes staying at Al Maha all the more exclusive. While the eye-watering prices may be out of reach to most, it’s worth every dirham as the resort’s privileged position means guests can witness the breathtaking sight of wildlife meandering around the dunes from the comfort of their own private infinity pool. Each of the 42 suites comes equipped with every luxurious whim under the sun – from a decanter of fine sherry to an art easel, oversized bathtubs and authentic Arabian decor.
But the real reason to visit is to witness oryxes and frolicking gazelles grazing so close to the surrounding vegetation that you can practically hear them chewing. There’s ample opportunity to explore the rest of the desert reserve – game park style – with Land Cruiser drives, wildlife walks, desert camel treks and falconry displays. When darkness sweeps over the desert and guests dine under the stars, the sight of gazelles drinking from a nearby waterhole will make you never want to stay in a run-of-the- mill resort again.
Al Maha Desort Resort & Spa (www.emirateshotelsresorts.com/al-maha/en; 04 303 4222) is on the Dubai-Al Ain highway (E66).
Sir Bani Yas Island: It may be home to the swanky five-star Anantara Desert Islands Resort & Spa, but the real attraction of this island off the coast of Abu Dhabi is the unbelievable amount of wildlife it is home to. Sir Bani Yas has morphed into a veritable Galapagos of the Middle East, with so many animals frolicking freely, it’s as though Noah’s Ark was shipwrecked nearby. The island was originally the private retreat and royal nature reserve of Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the former ruler of Abu Dhabi and president of the UAE. Today, it is one of eight natural islands to be redeveloped according to the Tourism Development & Investment Company’s (TDIC) Desert Islands destination project.
Though it’s not possible to visit Sir Bani Yas without staying at the resort, it’s truly one of the UAE’s most pristine wildlife reserves. Guests staying at the 64-room Anantara have exclusive access to all 87 sq km of the island, which is home to rare creatures such as a herd of around 400 free-roaming oryxes – the largest herd in the world – gazelles and a truly wondrous array of exotic species include giraffes, flamingoes, hyenas and cheetahs. There are even plans to eventually remove the fences that divide the different species, so that predators can hunt for weaker animals – thus forming a natural ecosystem.
The island truly is a haven for establishing a birdlife ecosystem, with more than 2.5 million plants and trees planted by developers. Developing it as an eco-tourist destination was always on the cards, with renewable energy, wind turbines and solar panels all earmarked for the resort. The master developers have also pledged to plant a mangrove seedling every time a guest stays at the resort.
Guests can explore these thriving mangroves in a guided kayak tour and take in the natural habitat of marine species like flying fish, or go snorkelling in the surrounding sea (there are plans to open a dive centre), home to turtles and dugongs (large marine mammals like sea cows). In a bid to preserve the island’s ecosystem, guests can only explore the grounds on guided tours, but there’s certainly enough organised fun to maximise the island’s natural elements, like a desert and wildlife safari, hiking on the world’s largest salt dome hilltops and mountain biking.
Anantara Desert Islands Resort and Spa (www.desertislands.anantara.com; 02 801 5400). Boats to Sir Bani Yas run from the Jebel Dhanna pier (about 210km to the west of Abu Dhabi) and seaplane flights are available from Abu Dhabi airport (both available only to hotel guests).
Ras al-Jinz Scientific & Visitor Centre
Just a few hours drive from Muscat, Ras al-Jinz is home to one of the world’s largest nesting sites for the green sea turtle. Around 30,000 turtles nest in this protected reserve each year, and if yosu want to get a closer look at these prehistoric-looking creatures, this is the place to go.
Anyone can join one of the guided turtle watching tours organised from this centre, which is located a few hundred metres from the nesting beaches – but a handy aspect of this research centre is that it also functions as a hotel. You wouldn’t guess it by looking at the strangely shaped building, but there are 13 luxurious rooms inside. The nightly tours can finish as late as midnight, and morning tours begin before dawn so it’s ideal to bag yourself a night’s stay at this eco-resort, which employs local Omanis and has created a sustainable source of income for neighbouring communities (handicrafts made in the Sharkiyah region are sold in the gift store, while Sambuk restaurant serves fresh fish bought from Omani fishermen).
The building itself is quite an ecological feat; architecturally designed to prevent light from reaching the beach and the nearby mountains. Female turtles won’t emerge from the Indian Ocean when there are any signs of light, while baby turtles actually follow the greatest source of light – so anything lighter than the open horizon might muddle their sense of direction and have them scrambling the opposite way to the sea. The tours are a fascinating way to learn more about the life of these nomadic sea creatures; small groups trudge down to the beach to watch turtles laying their eggs and digging their sandy nests.
The centre is also due to open a museum detailing everything there is to know about the green turtle. The best time to visit is during the nesting season from June to September.
Ras al-Jinz (www.rasaljinz.org; 96 55 0606) is located 390km from Muscat. Take the coastal highway from Muscat to Sur. The route to Ras al-Jinz is well signposted.