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.

Photo of the Day (07.19.10)

I don’t get people who don’t like the beach. You know those people. All they do is complain about how they hate that sand gets all over them and that there’s nothing to do. Sure, we all hate when we take a bite of our sandwich and encounter than unmistakable crunch of sand mixed in with the turkey, but that’s a small price to pay for a day wearing next to nothing, swimming in the ocean and frolicking the same way we did as kids.

Where else can you bury your friends up to their necks, ogle scantily clad sunbathers and laugh when some kid gets blind-sided by a wave? That’s why I love this beach shot by Flickr user (and NileGuide staffer) AlexiUeltzen. The beach is for jumping and laughing and being free. Just make sure that you have someone rub lotion on your back. It’s the smart (and erotic) thing to do.

Have a photo of some beach shenanigans? Or some awesome photos from your travels? Submit your best travel images to Gadling’s Flickr group right now and we might use it for a future Photo of the Day.

18 more great spots for hikers

Most hikers agree: the best way to really learn about a place is to experience it by walking or climbing. It inspired us here at Gadling to take a look in February at the world’s best hikes. There were so many great spots, in fact, we decided to follow it up today with 18 more. This collection of treasured, world-class hikes offers a variety of unforgettable experiences, and promises surprising personal growth with each one. Some have level terrain, while others climb soaring elevations. For the beginner and experienced hiker, there’s something for everyone in each location. Take a look at our picks below.

Pembrokeshire Coast, Wales
The most westerly spot in Wales, this mostly level, cliffside Pembrokeshire Coast trail provides contrasting colors – and inspiration. Along this hike you teeter precariously next to aggressive waves slamming into somber, 50 foot black slate cliffs. But the sun and magical clouds impishly create frequent rainbows that playfully coax you away from the dark edge and into meadows. Take the path that dips down into Abereiddy Bay, where you confront shiny black shale and sand. Stay in St. David’s, and see the 7th Century stone cathedral.

Zion, Utah, USA
Zion’s wide range of hikes provides level, valley floor walks, or climbs amidst soaring, majestic rock formations. The Emerald Pools hike is an ideal, beginner’s one-mile walk. An intermediate path to Scout’s Lookout provides a gradual cliff face climb using switchbacks. At Scout’s lookout, a hiker’s decision awaits…There is a deceptively easy, one-mile path which continues up to Angel’s Landing. While other hikes are more physically strenuous, this one can stretch the psyche and nerve of even the most experienced hiker. Precarious, thousand foot drops appear within inches of your feet. The only way to get to (and from) Angel’s Landing, is by holding onto chains – bolted into the rock. Not for the faint-hearted, Angel’s Landing is perhaps the most popular destination hike in the park.

Swanage, Dorset, England
An easy weekend break from London via train, Swanage lies nestled into England’s southeast tip. Here, an established, old-resort charm defines this historic town; however, hikers are treated to an otherwise hidden assortment of eclectic sites that give multiple complexities to the town’s personality. Stay in a B&B, and take the Durlston Castle path past a fascinating, out-of-place Victorian folly. Nearby, is the stalwart Anvil Point lighthouse. The scenic path turns inland, and seemingly out of nowhere, you find yourself seeking refuge at a place that makes a lot of sense – a huge pub. Complete with live music, here you’ll find the best pint you ever tasted. The public bus back to town comes by every hour or two.

Sossusvlei, Namibia
A four hour drive from Windhoek, Sossusvlei is the place on earth that seems most like another planet. Home to some of the world’s tallest sand dunes, these dramatic red shapes offer visitors unique visual inspiration set against the blazing sky. Climbing the steep dunes is a challenge for both kids and experienced hikers. Soaring sand ridges appear fragile, but sand grains quickly collect and form angles – banishing your footprints into obscurity. It’s tempting to get lost in all the redness – sit midway up a dune on its ridge, push it down and watch it form over you; you become part of this land. Constant wind and sun encourage dehydration, so your guide should bring plenty of water.

Black Forest, Germany
A well-traveled path meanders through this unforgettable forest that feels like home. Its magical embrace encourages the hiker in a patriarchal, protective way – enticing and beckoning you into the extended forest family. Stay at a B&B in Buhl (we like the Neusatz Pension Linz). After breakfast, head out through vineyards into the Schwarzvald toward the 13th century Windeck Castle. It’s hard to leave the forest’s embrace when you finally reach the castle clearing…do take time to have lunch at the castle and tour the ruins. Just don’t linger too long. The forest’s character changes on the way back. The woods’ earlier warmth evolves into a spooky, shadowy world that questions a hiker’s resolve. After all, this is where the Grimm’s Fairy Tales took place…

Antrim Coast, North Ireland
Across the North Channel from Scotland, Giant’s Causeway provides a shoreline hike amidst a vast collection of geometric, stone columns with an almost spiritual quality. A magnificent study in uniform, artistic rock formations, this “columnar jointing” illustrates how the earth’s magma designs its own ethereal architecture. These structures influence a hiker toward a heavenly, Gothic viewpoint. Stay at Smuggler’s Inn – an easy, 45 minute car ride from Belfast. If it’s summer and not windy, hike across the breath-taking Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge.

Captiva Island, Florida
Captiva Island is the prettiest beach hike we have ever found. Take a good hat, and before the sun gets intense, ride the tram from the Village to Captiva’s northernmost point. Head south along this other-world, barrier island in the Gulf of Mexico. You’ll share this pristine shoreline with some of the world’s most interesting birds, dolphins and seashells. As you inhale this special sea air, somehow you understand why yoga becomes so important. Continue to the “Mucky Duck” along the beach for a traditional fish and chips lunch, then take the loop back through the island cottages.

— The above was written by Kris Myers, Seed contributor.

Continental Divide Trail, Colorado
Running over 3100 miles, the Continental Divide offers one of the most breathtaking hikes one will ever take in their life, here in the United States. When hiking this trail one will get the feeling of a life journey, see the epiphany in the hike itself, the divide, between the mountains and two states, like ones journey through life. With the average hike taking roughly six months to complete the entire trail this is a life feat, not a day in the park. This is on the list of the top ten hikes for those who are on a life journey, ready to conquer the world, define who they are, and take on the world.

Rock Bridge State Park, Columbia MO

Rock Bridge was chosen out of pure experience, and good old memories. This state park is located in the heart of Columbia, Missouri and has been deemed a state park, there for saving it from becoming victim to economic growth and real estate expansion. The park sits on what is called Devils Ice box, which a famous cave, that all of the local schools venture out during science class for field trips, teaching students about the caves and for short expeditions through the park and cave.

Every year, the local high school will bring their students out for a day of orientation. Where they will be given a map, a compass, and a bottle of water, leaving them to go from check point to check point. This is where my hiking experience with the state park comes from, and has offered many memories, and education experiences. This is a park for the whole family, from bat caves to water springs, to miles of nature trails.

Horseshoe Bend, Spirit Lake, Iowa
When you are up north, roughly 12- 15 miles from the NW Iowa/Minnesota border, visit the Iowa Great Lakes and go hiking through Horseshoe Bend. How often can you go hiking through the woods, and come out and see the beach and freshwater lakes? This is a very diverse area and a lot of fun to visit, great for hiking and camping, fishing and swimming, great for a family vacation.

Superior Hiking Trail, Duluth, Minnesota
The Superior Hiking Trail is accessible at many points along the way — and getting on this relatively young trail (conceived in the mid-1980s) is definitely worth it. The 210-mile path extends through wilderness north of Duluth, Minnesota, to the Canadian border; a 40-mile extension is in the works. With knockout views of Lake Superior, the path draws 50,000 people a year, some of whom glimpse bear and moose. (Allow three weeks for the whole trail.

James Dilley Preserve, Laguna Beach, California

For a nice early morning or afternoon hike, you can venture out for a nice “circle track” hike through James Dilley Preserve, located on roughly 3 miles through Laguna beach trail and Barbara’s lake, with an elevation of around 300 + feet. This is a great hike for those looking for a naturalistic and challenging hike to add to your morning or afternoon exercise routine. This trail is going to be your one opportunity to see one of two natural Laguna Beach lakes. Canyon Trial is part of this loop hike, and this is a great workout routine addition.

Grandfather Mountain, North Carolina
Grandfather Mountain is a privately owned mountain that has been protected by the owners, and yet shared at the same time. It is a family affair for sure. With several different things to do, and one of them happens to be hiking, on many of their trails, throughout the park, and the Mountain. Some of the mountains offer back trails, which offer cool, Spring like temperatures, offering wonderful and refreshing hiking weather. The mountain offers the opportunity to go across a mile long swinging bridge, see a 360 scenic view of the area, and is a natural habitat for several different endangered species giving you the unique opportunity to see them in their own element and homes.

Mount Scott, Oregon
A five-mile round trip on Mount Scott, the highest peak in Oregon’s Crater Lake National Park, offers breathtaking views of the country’s deepest lake, formed by volcanic eruption 7,000 years ago. Along the way, you’ll step past 400-year-old whitebark pines, hardy high-elevation survivors. The view of Crater Lake is so stunning it will appear on Oregon’s commemorative quarter, starting in June. This hike isn’t for the fainthearted; you’ll gain 1,500 feet in 2.5 miles of climbing. But the 360-degree views of the lake, the Klamath Basin, and California’s distant Mount Shasta make it a great destination.

The Kerry Way Walking Trail, Ireland

The Kerry Way is a walking holiday which meanders through beautiful Ireland’s largest peninsula, Iveragh and has been called Ireland’s finest walking route. Walking or hiking through the Kerry Way’s 135 mile waymarked trail is primarily inland taking you through river valleys, gouged out by glaciers of the last ice age but with sections giving superb coastal views. You follow a coastline full of inlets and bays, beautiful sandy beaches and unforgiving cliffs.

You will enjoy the hospitality and warmth of the towns and villages of South Kerry which developed here throughout the ages. Glenbeigh – Cahirciveen – Waterville – Caherdaniel, Derrynane – Sneem – Kenmare and Killarney. You walk past the rich archaeological remains which tell the story of the people who lived in the Kingdom of Kerry down through the years and you will marvel at the flora and fauna which changes around each turn in the trail.

North Country National Scenic Trail
The North Country National Scenic Trail links scenic, natural, historic, and cultural areas in seven northern states(New York, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, North Dakota). The approximately four thousand mile long trail includes a variety of hikes from easy walking to challenging treks. When completed, through the efforts of many people, the trail will become the longest continuous hiking trail in the United States. From the Missouri River in North Dakota to the shores of Lake Champlain in New York, the trail allows hikers to experience a variety of features, from clear-flowing streams, to thick Northern woods, from vast prairies to clean lakes.

Topanga State Park Trek, Los Angeles, CA

Topanga State Park begins in Pacific Palisades at the end of Los Liones Drive, just north of Sunset Boulevard. Leave the car in the parking lot at the end of the street. From there, follow the trail up to East Topanga Fire Road and follow that to the turnoff for the Parker Mesa Overlook.Switchbacks and steep hill climbs characterize the first two miles of this hike. With an elevation gain of about 1,300 feet, the hike is definitely a tougher climb. But you’ll get rewarded as you gaze out from your vantage point atop the bluff. Enjoy a picnic lunch or relax on a bench while taking in the overlook.

— The above was written by iCatching Content, Seed contributor.

Need more inspiration to get outside? Keep reading!

Photo of the Day (12-30-09)

With the end of 2009 approaching, this photo by tammystaats seems perfect. Are we walking towards or away from something or someone? Isn’t the traveler’s answer that we are doing both?

I love the footprints of these four people. Even though they started out further away from each other, they look as if they are merging the more that this group walks into the distance. The blue sky, white clouds and the crests of these dunes offer the suggestion of infinite possibilty. Bravo!

If you have a shot that captures the infinite possibility of the traveler, send it our way at Gadling’s Flickr photo pool. It might be chosen as a Photo of the Day.

*This photo was tagged Colorado, so I am assuming these are at the Great Sand Dunes National Park.

Photo of the Day (11.14.09)

Nothing makes a more beautiful photo than rolling sand dunes at sunset. Having recently experienced the tranquil oasis of Huacachina in Peru, I now fully appreciate the dry, natural beauty of the world’s deserts.

This particular photo was taken in Tunisia but expert photographer kellinasf. The warm colors and grooved textures of the sand contrast so well with the cool blue sky. The grooved dune side in the left shadow also adds to the photo’s richness, don’t you think?

If you have some great travel shots you’d like to share, be sure to upload them to the Gadling pool on Flickr. We might just pick one as our Photo of the Day!