An Island of luxury in a sea of desert: Al Maha Desert Resort in Dubai

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.

The Villas
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.

Cockpit Chronicles: St. Elmos Fire, Falcons and Segway-ing through Paris

Rich, the relief co-pilot, looked over my shoulder and pointed to the radar.

“Looks like you’re painting some weather there.” He said.

I looked down, noting the sea of green ahead.

“It doesn’t have much vertical to it.” I replied, which meant the clouds hadn’t developed into anything that would produce much in the way of bumps.

“I think it’s just heavy rain.” I said.

After flying around Hurricane Ike and Hanna, it was nice to get away from the Caribbean weather by escaping to France. Sure, there may be some specks of yellow among the green Rich had pointed out, but this was no real thunderstorm from what I could see.

Soon we entered the clouds from above. The sunrise we had been enjoying was gone now and the cockpit was a bit darker. As we descended towards 20,000 feet, St. Elmos fire began to sparkle on the front windshield. This phenomenon looks like lightning, but it’s actually static discharges occurring right on the glass just in front of our faces.

Rich grabbed my camera to film the scene. [Video after the jump]

As we approached Paris on the arrival, we broke out long enough to see the sun trying to peek above the cloud layer. Moments later we flew through a few small build-ups. This weather was hardly painting on the radar, yet these were some powerful little clouds. The airplane bumped and shook for the next ten minutes causing Rich to give up with the camera. He couldn’t film much longer anyway, since we were about to reach the 10,000 foot sterile period.

Checking in on the radio behind us was a U.S. Airways flight that was beginning to pick up the same ride conditions we had. Since I was working the radios, I gave a quick pilot report about the moderate turbulence we had just flown through, hoping the U.S. Airways flight might do a better job avoiding it than we did.

It turned out Rich made a good call. The green weather with specks of yellow turned out to be rougher than anything I’d ever experienced in Europe. Fortunately we were through it by the time we reached 10,000 feet.

Captain Frank finished off the approach with a nice landing at Charles de Gaulle.

We talked about our plans as we rode the bus into the city.

I’ve always wanted to do it. Maybe this was the layover to give it a try. The reflective vests and helmet makes you look so goofy. Could I get past that? I mean, it is a form of transportation, and I do like gadgets. But I wasn’t sure I’d be able to convince Rich to join me.

Of course I’m talking about taking a tour of Paris on a Segway. City Segway Tours offers as many as three of these tours a day during the summer with the rides tapering off as winter approaches. So I would have to do it on what would likely be my last Paris trip, number 17, of the year.

At 70 Euros, it doesn’t come cheap, but amazingly Rich really wanted to give it a try. He’s a bit of an adventurous type, who’s currently heavily involved in his new hobby of beekeeping. Since touring around Paris on a Segway wasn’t something he’d done yet, it didn’t take much to convince him.

Fat Tire had an opening on their 6:30 p.m. tour, so Rich and I had some time to roam around the city. I told Rich that Grant Martin, the editor of Gadling who normally resides in Michigan, was just a few miles from the hotel playing a competitive game of Frisbee at the Cité Universitaire.

We had some time to kill and we agreed that it’d be interesting to see what was involved in a competitive Frisbee game, so we walked over to the park where he and his girlfriend had met up with his sister and some others for a game.

It was apparently the nicest day of the summer according to the local media with warm 70+ degree temperatures, perfect for hanging out in a park and I suppose ideal weather for a Frisbee match.

Unfortunately, we wouldn’t see a real Frisbee match, since a local falconer was out flying two of his birds at the field. It gave Rich a good opportunity to take the pictures below while I shot some video.

Grant trying to determine if this bird would be using the field for the rest of the day…

The falcon unexpectedly took off after a kid ran towards it. (See video below)

We agreed to meet up with Grant and the ladies later that evening if we survived our Segway experience.

We met Lisa at Fat Tire Bike Tours and City Segway Tours at their office near the Eiffel Tower and she immediately made us sign away any rights and agree to pay for any damage we may do to the machines. That didn’t dissuade us, so we took the next step and picked out helmets before joining the five other riders.

Our guide, Dana, was an enthusiastic American who was rather adept at Segwaying through Paris. She gave us a good thirty minutes of instruction on how to operate the Segway.

Before we knew it, we were all getting comfortable with the motions needed to step on, move, turn and most importantly, stop Dean Kamen’s amazing little invention. The tour takes four hours and covers the major sites of Paris. Rich and I had seen these landmarks before, but we couldn’t stop grinning.

In just a few minutes we completely forgot just how dorky we looked on the Segway and we began enjoying the freedom it provided.

Our concerns with the €70 per person had been put to rest almost immediately. This was worth it.

It’s easy to underestimate just how fast 12 miles an hour is, until you’re on a Segway. We flew through the parks, mostly at a comfortable 1/2 speed, occasionally ‘opening it up’ a bit to feel the wind blow through our hair while demonstrating our prowess to the other riders.

I struck up a conversation with one of the riders who had his new camera damaged a few days earlier. He wondered if I might forward him some pictures and video, and I told him I was writing this up for a blog, and I could at least sen
d him a link.

Much to my surprise he was a fan of Gadling and he was pretty sure he’d read a Cockpit Chronicles. Or at least he thought.

So I vowed to send him this story–a post I’m sure he’ll remember, if only because he was actually there.

Dana gave everyone the option of stopping for a drink and an appetizer at a café, or simply taking a rest break at a Creperie/Bistro so we could spend more time running around the city.

Everyone decided to keep the rest break short and continue our tour as we were really enjoying the zippy little wheels. I was amazed that battery life wasn’t an issue even though we were almost constantly moving for the four hours. These machines never seemed to slow down.

For a novice, riding a Segway is almost more demanding than a bike tour, since your feet and calf muscles aren’t used to the corrections and weight-shifting required to speed up and slow down.

I was able to balance the device, even while shooting video along the way. I may regret this, but I’ll go ahead and share the video:

I know I’ve recommended the Fat Tire Bike tour of Paris and Versailles in the past, but you just might have to forgo those, and give the Segway a try. No one in our group regretted it.

We met up with Grant and his girlfriend over at the Latin Quarter at almost 11 p.m. Grant’s sister Chi twisted her ankle playing Frisbee and couldn’t join us for drinks and dessert. I would have enjoyed talking with her–to get her viewpoint on what it’s like as an expat living in Paris for the past few years. I guess I’ll just have to keep reading her blog. Here’s the day from her perspective along with some great pictures of the Falcon demonstration.

We’re no longer flying to Paris for the winter, so it’s time to bid farewell to this amazing city. It was more expensive this year than in years past, but far more memorable, too.

Now it’s back to the Caracas, Miami, and who knows what other trips we’ll see this winter. Stay tuned…

Cockpit Chronicles takes you along on some of Kent’s trips as an international co-pilot on the Boeing 757 and 767 based in Boston.