Luxury desert escapes in the UAE
The five-star, family-friendly Bab Al Shams resort is set among the dunes on the outskirts of Dubai. (Paul Williams/Getty)
The UAE may be synonymous with the glamour of Abu Dhabi and Dubai, but there are equally alluring Arabic adventures to be found outside the major cities.
Al Maha Desert Resort, Dubai
Around 65km southeast of Dubai lies the luxurious and romantic desert oasis of Al Maha, a collection of 42 private villas nestled among orange-hued sand dunes and lush date palms. The unique resort sits on the protected Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve, the UAE’s largest natural heritage park, which makes up 5% of the country. Each Bedouin-inspired villa comes with its own private deck and infinity pool, and if you get up to watch the sunrise (it is worth the early start) you may find yourself sharing the water with sprightly gazelles who wander past for a drink. Each guest is assigned a guide who can arrange camel treks, flora and fauna tours, and dune bashing (an adrenaline-fuelled 4x4 experience over steep sand hills). Al Diwaan, the resort’s a la carte restaurant, serves both Arabic mezze and international fine dining dishes (all meals are included) on a rustic terrace that overlooks the vast desert landscape. To ensure the tranquillity, the resort is an adults-only affair.
Six Senses Zighy Bay, Musundam
Musandam, the Omani tip of the peninsula that sits closer to the UAE than Oman, is a sparsely populated rocky terrain, but its remote location makes for an excellent hideaway. Six Senses Zighy Bay is a five star eco-retreat, hidden on a thin coastline behind a steep mountain range that is only accessible by 4x4 (the hotel also offers pickups from Dubai if you do not want to face the 2.5 hour drive). Six Senses is renowned for its commitment to sustainable luxury, and their Zighy Bay resort has more than 100 environmental policies and initiatives, including helping to build local schools, using no bottled water and offsetting its carbon emissions. The Omani-style resort uses local stone, palm leaves and bamboo in its luxury private villas and flint-lined infinity pools, and offers a staggering array of activities. From private dining on rocky outcrops to yoga classes, wine tasting to sunset cruises – the only limit here is your imagination, and your wallet.
Bab Al Shams, Dubai
If you want a taste of Arabic hospitality but do not want to scrimp on comfort, then a weekend at Bab Al Shams is a perfect choice. The five-star, family-friendly resort is set among the dunes on the outskirts of Dubai, and its rustic, low-slung architecture hides shady courtyards and tempting azure pools, all designed to offer privacy and shelter from the sun. The hotel’s name means “gateway to the sun”, and its desert location is a magical setting for sunrise and sunset tours. Make sure you try its Arabic restaurant, Al Hadheerah, where traditional live music, belly dancers and henna painters entertain as you dine. If you fancy something even more romantic, the hotel can prepare a bespoke meal for two under the stars. The resort also has plenty of children’s activities on offer.
Desert Islands by Anantara, Abu Dhabi
Located 250km south of Abu Dhabi on Sir Bani Yas island, formerly the private estate of the UAE’s founder Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan, Desert Islands by Anantara consists of a wildlife conservation area, a five-star hotel, a riding stables complex and a water sports centre. The emphasis is on outdoor activities, such as kayaking through mangroves, learning to scuba dive in the Arabian Gulf and mountain biking the rough terrain. Guests can also take wildlife tours to see native oryx and gazelles as well as imported cheetahs and giraffes. And after all that exertion, hit the rather wonderful spa for Bedouin-inspired treatments such as the signature “Sands of Time” treatment, which uses a unique sand compress.
Qasr Al Sarab by Anantara, Abu Dhabi
Nowhere in the UAE are the desert dunes more beautiful or timeless than in the vast Liwa Desert, which separates the UAE from Saudi Arabia. And perched on the edge of the desert is the luxury resort Qasr Al Sarab by Anantara, around 165km south of Abu Dhabi. Choose between a room, suite or tented villa (inspired by Bedouin encampments) – all of which have overwhelming views over the majestic desert. The dunes can rise up to 25m and are some of the highest in the world. Dine at one of four restaurants, including a Middle Eastern eatery and a steakhouse, or sip sundowners on the roof terrace. The hotel is even attempting to become more sustainable by planting its own organic garden, despite the desert location. To learn more about Emirati culture, try your hand at a traditional cooking class, watch a falcon display or give archery a go. The hotel can also arrange tours to local date and camel farms to see how Emiratis still live off the land.
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