Every city needs a quick getaway spot, even global centers for tourism. Parisians head for the lakes and beaches of southern France, Hong Kongers ferry to Macau for quick gambling fixes, Bostonians head for the cape to be seen and sun, and the people of Dubai escape the city for…the desert? Yes, the desert.
Indeed, the desert seems an unlikely place in which to unwind and be pampered, but a resort just outside of Dubai has perfected the art of luxuriously stranding its guests among the dunes. Al Maha, a desert-resort situated on a conservation reserve, outclasses much of its Dubai counterparts in the hospitality industry, which is no small feat. The property provides exclusively personal villas with private pools overlooking the unique wildlife sanctuary as well as all-inclusive dining and excursions. Al Maha Desert Resort & Spa lends a paradisial quality and adventurous spirit to a land known as the empty quarter.
The Arabian oryx was the impetus behind the creation of the desert reserve that surrounds Al Maha. After being hunted to extinction in the wild, the oryx was reintroduced to the deserts of Arabia in the late nineties. Al Maha Desert Resort is built around this large oryx refuge, and its name (Al Maha) even means oryx in Arabic. The majestic beast resembles a unicorn in profile, and it is not uncommon to have one creep up to your outdoor breakfast table and stare you and your fruit plate down. Though the Arabian oryx seems ubiquitous on the Al Maha grounds, less than a thousand exist in the wild worldwide.
Interaction with these and other desert wildlife is the hallmark of the Al Maha experience. Oryx, gazelles, foxes, sand cats, and falcons all lurk just beyond each villa’s epic back porch. The oryx and gazelles frequently creep onto the property to take advantage of the shady groves. The creatures behave very comfortably around humans, so close encounters take place constantly. This is the most fascinating facet of the Al Maha experience. Sharing living space with such beautiful and strange desert creatures is memorable.
Al Maha Desert Resort & Spa is located just a short drive (40 miles south-east) from the Burj Khalifa anchored downtown area. After passing through Dubai and the empty desert, the road turns off into the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve which surrounds Al Maha.
Each guestroom at Al Maha Desert Resort is a spacious villa with a private pool looking out towards a stunning sea of unbroken sand. Fashioned after Bedouin tents, the villas provide an air of adventure with art easels for drawing and sweet nocs for peeping at creeping desert animals. The villas are extremely private and lounging in the cooled private pool under the hot sun feels absolutely perfect.
The entry level Bedouin suites start at around $800 per day, and that includes all meals and two daily excursions for two individuals. Obviously quite steep, but when you factor in free breakfast, lunch, a five course dinner, and two desert activities, the oppressive looking price looks much more rational.
The most expensive villa is the presidential suite. With 5,700 square feet of living space and private residential quarters for a guests’ private staff, it is a different world entirely. Originally, the presidential suite served as a private residence for the Dubai royal family, but when the property changed hands from Emirates to Starwood, there were some changes. The nightly rate for the presidential suite is over $10,000 per night.
Believe it or not, there is quite a bit of cool stuff to do in the desert. Since temperatures skyrocket during the afternoon, all activities take place during the morning and early evening. While it may come with some apprehension to sign up for an extremely early falconry course or dune bashing adventure, rising early is the best way to beat the desert heat. Also, the afternoon provides plenty of down time to nap, swim, and receive spa treatments.
Dune Bashing is perhaps the most exhilarating Al Maha activity. In a Toyota 4×4 SUV, one of the resort’s expert dune bashers (most of which come from South Africa like my awesome guide Warren) will take you out on the dunes. The ride includes stomach to mouth vertical drops and some serious sand drifting around invisible corners. Not for the feint at heart, the experience is adrenaline fueled mayhem on wheels. The Al Maha guides encourage breakfast to be consumed after the morning tear through the dunes, lest your scrambled eggs appear in an unnecessary sequel.
Falconry is bird and man coming together for sport. Once a sport for the nobles, the Bedouin also used domesticated falcons and hawks in the desert to hunt for small animals. Ancient records of falconry stretch back almost three-thousand years, all the way to Babylonian times. At Al Maha, falconry is taught in the early morning by guides. Many of the birds are kept in air conditioned rooms during the hottest hours of the day. Al Maha has all types of birds, including a goofball owl.
(An aside regarding falconry: Supposedly, the Jumeriah group hires falcon masters at its properties, which include Burj al Arab, Madinat Jumeriah, Jumeriah Beach resort, and Zabeel Saray to send out birds of prey in the morning that hunt and scare off all the smaller birds. This, in turn, minimizes bird droppings on these properties. I was unable to substantiate this claim.)
Aside from falconry and dune bashing, hotel guests can also take part in horse riding, nature walks, camel safaris, and wildlife drives. One of the most popular excursions is the evening camel safari. A guide takes a group of guests out into the desert on camel-back to watch the sun slowly set over the dunes. Since Al Maha resort is all about pampering its guests, champagne and snacks are provided. Of course, riding camels is quite different than riding a horse, most notably when getting on and off. Camels are very tall, so climbing onto a camels back is done while they are lying down. Once they stand up though, it can be a little disconcerting. Just keep leaning back. Camels are a huge part of Arab culture, so getting to know the oddball desert beasts is part of the experience. In nearby Abu Dhabi, there are even camel beauty contests.
To ride the horses at Al Maha, guests must be very experienced on horseback. Arab horses are notoriously strong and boast too much power for inexperienced desert riders. Many of the horses are gifts from the Sheikh himself, such as Mogambo (right) – the stud of the stable. Even if you are unqualified to ride the speedy steeds, it is worth stopping by the stables to interact with the gorgeous Arab horses.
There is a very good reason that Al Maha Desert Resort and Spa is ranked second out of over four hundred hotels in Dubai on Tripadvisor. It is simply a breathtaking place to visit. Between the excellent meals, desert wildlife experiences, and undeniably epic pool views from each villa, everything about the property is amazing. It exceeds expectations and provides excitement in the most unlikely of places.
All photography by Justin Delaney
Support for this program was partially provided by DTCM, with no limits on editorial or photographic content.