Leave the action and altitude of Dubai city centre and experience a luxury oasis of calm in the Arabian desert next time you’re there.
With Dubai one of the most significant hubs for air travellers around the world its surprising that more don’t spend a little time exploring beyond the high-rise glitz of the ever-changing city skyline that constantly seeks to touch the stars; when a few nights under the stars in the desert could put you in touch with your inner self – and the life of the Bedouins!
We’re not suggesting for one minute that you rough it in the blazing heat and arid wastes of the Arabian Desert but that you languish in the luxury afforded by Sheikh Ahmed bin Saeed Al Maktoum’s resort of Al Maha, less than an hour’s drive from the city.
Sheikh Ahmed, who coincidentally owns the Emirates airline that may well have brought you to Al Maha’s door, has recreated the luxurious tented accommodation more often found in Africa but with significantly more style and luxury than you’re likely to find in the neighbouring continent.
The buildings are all rough rendered blockwork, cleverly disguised as Bedouin tents from the outside and fantastically appointed inside – from the tented ceilings, colourful rugs, huge beds, coral tiled bathrooms and liberally distributed rare antiques and artwork (the most significant collection in Dubai) that make you feel more like a Bedouin King than one of his retainers.
Speaking of ‘retainers’, the staff are ever helpful and attentive and ever-ready to run you around the resort in buggies, should a leisurely stroll prove too much.
The resort itself has been created as an oasis in the Arabian desert with views towards the Hajar Mountains, on a site seeded with thousands of trees that have matured to encapsulate the main buildings, accommodation, walkways and literally thousands of indigenous and migratory birds who now call it home.
Our private transfer from the airport whisks us to the gates of the 225 sq.km. Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve (at 5% of Dubai’s total land area it’s one of the largest reserves in the Gulf) where we are checked through and pass on to the Al Maha resort, along gravel roads that lead us to a cluster of trees and tented buildings on the horizon.
We complete a courteous and welcoming check-in within the Arabian styled main reception area of Al Maha and in no time at all are trundling in a buggy to our Bedouin suite.
It’s not often that we’re really impressed by first appearances but entering our suite is a real joy.
The main room is spacious, its presentation thoughtful and elegant with double chaise longue, coffee table with sweet pastries and dates waiting; binoculars and an easel and crayons for the artistically inclined who may wish to draw the desert that stretches to the horizon through a glass wall in front of us, equipped with sliding fly screens that open onto a private deck and our own infinity plunge pool.
With the exception of drinks, our stay at Al Maha is all inclusive – in terms of breakfast, lunch, dinner, teas and coffees, snacks and nibbles in the lounge and sherry (!) in the suite, along with various activities and pursuits to tempt you away from your sumptuous accommodation. You can also stay on a B&B basis with all other elements booked separately.
The activities include, exhilarating dune driving by 4×4 in the expert hands of one of the Al Maha guides; horse riding through the dunes on some fine Arab-cross horses from Al Maha’s own stables; wildlife drive or walk to view the Oryx, Gazelle, reptiles and birdlife that abound in this restocked reserve; falconry displays that explain the practices of this Arab hunting tradition using several captive hawks; archery or sun-downer camel-train rides topped off by a glass or two of bubbly as the sun sinks behind the resort.
These are usually conducted in the chill of the morning or the cool of the evening and although a five o’clock early morning wake-up call might startle you initially it means that you’ve got the rest of the day to languish by your own pool, sunbathe on your deck or wander around the main building with its library, shop and coffee lounge. Whereas accommodation in most hotels and resorts is simply a place to lay your head whilst you explore your surroundings, at Al Maha your suite with its deck and pool could easily become home and certainly a sanctuary from daily pressures.
If it all gets too much for you there’s a substantial Spa area with its own sizeable pool, relaxing lounge area and private single and double treatment rooms.
Inevitably you’ll end up heading for the restaurant, which offers set menus for each of the meals with a variety of choices to suit most palates. You can choose to seat yourself inside the main cavernous dining room, outside under either tented awning or perhaps the stars in the evening.
In many all-inclusive resorts volume is never an issue but quality often is. The quality and quantity of food at Al Maha is outstanding. Whilst breakfast and lunch are attractive but not necessarily imaginative, this didn’t concern us as we didn’t really want to enter into gastronomic events during the daytime. We did, however, enjoy some beautifully fresh and fragrantly prepared Sea Bream for lunch with chilled couscous and sautéed spinach on one occasion and salmon cake and tiger prawns followed by tasty deserts on another – so perhaps we weren’t that conservative after all!.
If you sit outside you’ll become intimate with the birdlife, as Red-vented and White-cheeked Bulbulls and numerous other smaller birds compete with you for your bread basket – but it saves you from eating it.
We chose to save ourselves for the evenings and although we were offered private dining on our own suite deck or out in the dunes, elected to dine under the stars at the main building.
Cherrie, I think, can only take so much of my exclusive company!
Our decision to reserve our appetites for the evening was fully justified, as countless amuse bouches, starters and inter-course delicacies turned our simple choices into a comprehensive theatre of tastes.
On one evening we pre-ordered the Sri Lankan selection and actually had the foresight to avoid any starters as the array of curry dishes was sufficient to keep us occupied for an hour or so.
Another evening saw us attempt to dine simply with just a choice of foie gras followed by filet steak but we were again immersed in a selection of little samplers of exquisite tastes between our chosen courses.
A baked oyster arrived first with a potato, dill and cheese foam sauce. The foie gras was beautiful, with small slivers of goose liver decorated with wisps of salad and a delicate chanterelle puree dressing. A small chilli and cheese risotto disappeared, despite our resolve, to be followed by a small mandarin sorbet prior to the filet.
Filet is generally a good bet if the chef is up to cooking it properly and this chef, Piotr Kamieniczny (whose name is far more complicated than his cuisine) has the lightest of touches with his preparation, cooking and presentation that we have ever experienced – especially important for something as simple as filet should be.
The meat, from Argentina, was open grained and served as two slices similar in size to a cereal bar; infused with the most delicate and almost ‘invisible’ flavours imparted by the seasoning and cooking process that dispensed entirely with the temptation to smother it in hideously strong sauces that many chefs delight in but instead was signed with a flourish of chocolate jus beside it on the plate.
Obviously food and taste is so subjective but occasionally your taste buds and food choices come together in perfect harmony to create memorable dining. We couldn’t praise Piotr’s art enough, to the extent that he visited our table to thank us for the comments we’d conveyed with our waiter.
Despite our protestations of being unable to eat anything else he asked us to allow him to prepare a dessert that he promised would be light.
True to his word Piotr sent us a simple but elegant dish of crumbled meringue, raspberries, chocolate flakes and foam of yoghurt, which despite sounding elaborate was wonderful – and extremely light.
Whilst the continuous supply of dishes was often mesmerising the only truly eye-watering aspect of dining at Al Maha is the cost of alcoholic drinks, (if you enjoy a reasonable amount and quality of intake), which even seem to have eclipsed some of the most opulent of places we’ve had the pleasure to stay in.
We walked back along the lantern lit pathways (strangely, not yet solar powered, despite some heavier plant being supplemented by solar) that could have been in the grounds of any luxury hotel, until we glanced to our sides towards the endless panorama of open star-lit desert.
Whilst we might have originally naively thought, before arriving here, that we were to enjoy a more authentic Bedouin encampment staffed by robe-clad locals, Al Maha recognises that this austere and Spartan existence is not for the modern luxury traveller and has catered admirably for their every need with an eclectic mix of nationalities and creature comforts.
With our environmental background the gas-lit open flame torches at the restaurant seem at odds with the eco intent and practices of the nature reserve and Al Maha as the first conservation eco-resort in Dubai; together with the liberal use of water (although an admirable 94% is recycled through treatment plants and used for irrigation) which assumes limitless resources that may in fact be finite – but overall we were impressed by the thoughtfulness of virtually every aspect of the design and layout and both the Reserve and Al Maha continue to set environmental standards in Dubai that are recognised and awarded worldwide.
Our reservations are few and minor, compared with the outstanding experience that is Al Maha.
No expense has been spared in presenting a wonderful alternative to simply chasing altitude or action in the big city of Dubai.
It’s not often that you can find such a great place to chill so close to a metro centre that is also one of the world’s great aviation hubs. This top-notch resort is difficult to beat and one to repeat!
Stay at Al Maha and you may well find that Dubai no longer becomes a transit hub for you but a main destination for your get-away-from-it-all break.
You can contact Al Maha on this link directly through their website and although owned by Emirates Group, Al Maha is managed by the Starwood Collection of Luxury Hotels & Resorts
who will probably handle your enquiries or booking.