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Perfect peace in the dunes: Al Maha Desert Resort and Spa

February 17, 2019

The view over private infinity pool into the desert

As I swim in our private infinity pool on the edge of the desert, it brings home, vividly, the luxury of water to people who lived in this terrain in the recent past. The delicious feeling of the slightly warm liquid on my skin, rippling and sparkling, soothing and cleansing. Even a camel skin pouch filled with clean, crisp water from a well or oasis would have been treasured. To douse yourself, all over, must have been something unimaginable.

I thought that being the Al Maha resort would give me a sense of the life of a wealthy oligarch or entrepreneur, staying in a private lodge, with every whim catered for.  And it was true that every detail had been thought of so we wanted for nothing. But it’s the connection with nature, the desert and the history of the U.A.E. that transcends the deep fluffy towels, soft sweet rutab dates with gold leaf or the enormous rain shower.

tent like building in front of an infinity pool

The roof of our room is shaped like a tent with corded seams, the doors look out over an uninterrupted view of the dunes to the distant Hajar mountains. As I swim, small birds flit inside the open doors to peck at our dish of Arabic sweets, an Arabian mountain gazelle tip-toes up to the edge of the decking on its spindly legs and holds my gaze with its soft, brown eyes, and a small butterfly, taking a break from pollinating the fire bush, dips to the surface of the pool to catch a few drops of moisture.  The pulsating coo of pigeons blends with the chirping of sparrows and cheeky red-vented bulbuls. Occasionally a quail darts from one bush to another across the sand.

After driving down a rickety track through the dunes, our welcome to Al Maha had been with cool towels. Then we were ferried by buggies down winding paths flanked by bubbling streams in small channels, based on the falaj system of irrigation, to our secluded lodges where we want to hide away forever.

lights around a dinner setting in the desert

Image credit: The Luxury Collection

people sitting around a dining table on cushions in the desert at night

Image credit: The Luxury Collection

The promise of a special dinner lures us away from the blissful tranquillity of our rooms.  Four wheel drives take us through the darkness until we arrive at a small camp. Storm lamps flicker on long low tables edged with large cushions. Although there is a bit of generated light at the perimeter where cooks prep our food and turn lamb on a spit, we are reliant on candlelight giving a sense of low tech life once more; constellations of stars are bright and easily visible when we raise our heads to the clear sky. The sound of our conversations is the only thing that pierces the silent darkness. Once the temperatures drop, we head back to sink into the comfort of our enormous bed with the smoothest cotton sheets (300 thread count – that you can buy).

The faintest glow of pink on the horizon wakes us and, after a cup of tea made with fresh milk from the fridge, we head out into the dark, early morning. By the time we pace our way down a steep dune underneath the main building, the fiery orb of the sun is starting to rise rapidly. Three falcons arrive and we watch as each one swoops at 300 kilometres an hour above our heads to catch its reward of fresh meat.

Owl flying watched by a circle of people

Image credit: The Luxury Collection

Falconry is an art developed over centuries and Bedouins captured the migratory birds, used them to hunt for precious meat, and then released them back into the wild to resume their journey before the hot summer temperatures (which would kill them). Air-conditioning means they can be kept all year round now. The discipline of training your bird is a highly valued skill, as are falcons these days. There are falcon souks (shops) in the U.A.E. and birds can command prices as high as 100,000 aed. I often see a couple of falcons perched out in the early morning sun in a garden near me and it’s quite common to see a family going out for the day with a bird sitting in between the front seats.

The final bird we meet is a Pharaoh eagle-owl called Oscar who, we’re told, has more emotional intelligence than falcons. Her grumpy squawks and belligerence endears her to us all; as she flies from post to post she catches my face with her wing feathers. Her long distance sight is extraordinary but short distance rather lacking (much like myself these days).

Our breakfast table is laid on the terrace above with a view of the desert, naturally. There’s a small buffet inside and we can select from a menu too. The waiting staff bring the orders from all fifteen of us at the same time – my eggs Benedict is excellent, the sauce creamy and piquant, the poached egg perfectly cooked.

Our next event is a desert drive and our ranger Courtney keeps up a steady commentary of fascinating information about the conservation area as he steers our Land Cruiser slowly around the track. No dune bashing here and we stick to a trail so that we disturb the environment as little as possible. The Desert Conservation area was first established as a National Park by Sheikh Zayed as he saw that, with rapid modernisation, some things were being lost. The Arabian Oryx – the national animal of the UAE – was down to just 40 beasts and almost extinct.  This area of 225 square kilometres, which is about 5% of the whole country, was cordoned off to protect it.

Courtney explains how delicately balanced the desert is and if one thing is removed it has a huge impact on everything else which is why the preservation programme is ongoing and very finely tuned. I’d been a bit sceptical about a luxury development in the middle of this (as they are usually very intrusive and resource heavy) but Al Maha operates with as little impact as possible including a water recycling and filtration system that links the animal drinking pools with the grey waste water, and solar panels placed discreetly around the resort.

I keep up a stream of questions, ‘what’s that bird?’, what’s that plant?’ how about the water table?’ which Courtney is happy to answer with in-depth knowledge. We learn about ‘Sodom’s apple’, a plant that’s always intrigued me when I spot it growing on waste ground near our house as it’s always surrounded by bees. The flowers are round, pink and could be tempting to travellers in the desert but it’s very poisonous; as are the vipers that come out at night – the seventh deadliest venomous snake in the world.

Arbian oryx in the desert

rangers in the desert in front of four wheel drives

Our excellent guides

Courtney tells us about the components of sand and why there are different colours. He explains that the lighter sand is made of silica and the red sand of iron oxide particles so when you are driving off-road the red areas will support you better and you’re less likely to sink. We stop for a group photo and KP takes great delight in testing this out for himself (and then with others) by comparing how easy is it to walk on the two types. “It works you know…”

This slow immersion in the desert works wonders for leaving the frenetic pace of life behind and when we return to our room for a couple of hours it is further balm for the body and soul. Moving between standing at the easel, tracing the outline of the ragged branches of the plants in pencil on paper, investigating distant movement with the binoculars (all provided) and languishing in the pool or sun lounger with a book is bliss.

As we pack up to leave, reluctantly, our friend the gazelle wanders to the front door as if to say goodbye.

The white starched white linen and shining cutlery of the lunch table stretches out under a canvas awning to shade us from the midday sun while we look out across the desert. The food draws on local ingredients and is elegantly presented. I hate ‘posh’ food that pairs flavours or techniques for show but this is not like that at all. There is a little beetroot amuse-bouche and a palate cleanser (a sphere of mango sorbet on ice) but it just feels like we are being spoiled rather than something to impress. Juicy sweet Omani prawns perch in a yoghurt tahini dressing dusted with sharp sumac; my dainty pink lamb cutlets rest in a swirl of camel milk and cauliflower sauce; a circle of saffron jelly cubes surrounds globes of Arabian coffee panna cotta, a pistachio sable and fig chutney bringing more favourites of the Middle East.

Driving back into Dubai, the soft ochre and red tones of the desert turning to gleaming blue glass and shining grey metal, it really is like leaving another world and another era behind.

The next day at home, the wind whipped up, the sky went opaque and heavy spots of rain started to colour the patio. As a long-term resident of the desert, I took my cup of tea out into the garden to smell the sharp, green scent of water on parched earth and to feel some of the moisture on my skin. But I also thought of those people who lived their lives among the sand dunes as I turned my face to the sky.

infinity pool overlooking the desert

I took all the photographs except the three I’ve credited (to The Luxury Collection). I was invited (with KP) for this trip of a lifetime by The Luxury Collection and Al Maha, organised by Foodiva

Find out more: Al Maha Desert Resort and Spa, The Luxury Collection, Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve

Read more about our weekend: Dubai Confidential 

As a destination in itself or as a complete getaway from Dubai, Al Maha is a really special place.

a view of private infinity pool and desert at Al Maha Desert resort and spa

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16 Comments leave one →
  1. Tricia permalink
    February 17, 2019 4:20 pm

    Lovely informative post Sally with great photos. Al Maha is one of my absolute favourite places in the UAE.

    • February 18, 2019 11:09 am

      Thanks Tricia. I never realised just how special it is.

  2. February 17, 2019 4:37 pm

    Great post 😁

  3. wellwornsuitcase permalink
    February 17, 2019 9:34 pm

    This all seems so very elegant and luxurious, I love that room and that meal. What an interesting place!

    • February 18, 2019 11:10 am

      Seriously bliss and so in harmony with the surroundings in look and in sustainability. Love your blog name btw.

  4. February 18, 2019 1:45 am

    Thank you so much for a glimpse into this exotic and wonderful world. I love that your words and photos take me to places I will probably never see, I feel strangely comforted, wiser and more worldly for your posts. Thank you

    • February 18, 2019 11:11 am

      Really appreciate your kind comment. I think there are so many ‘top ten things to do’ posts out there. I wanted to convey how it made me feel.

  5. February 18, 2019 5:54 am

    The hotel looks so luxurious and elegant! I would love to stay here for at least a day. 🙂
    The food looks fabulous too. I wonder how the vegetarian options here are. Would you have any idea?

    • February 18, 2019 11:12 am

      Good point. My neighbour at lunch (and for dinner) was vegan. They gave her loads of delicious options to choose from and she was very happy.

  6. crasterkipper permalink
    February 18, 2019 8:20 am

    It looks absolutely beautiful and reminds me of the smells of the desert, Arabic hospitality, & the luxuries of the UAE.

    • February 18, 2019 11:12 am

      It was totally immersive – really connected with the subtle beauty of the desert.

  7. February 18, 2019 10:58 am

    Wow! 😊

  8. February 18, 2019 3:12 pm

    What an incredible resort to visit, looks beautiful. Your photos are amazing. So interesting to learn about the history and experience the natural areas of the UAE.

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  1. An Epicurean Journey in the UAE with Foodiva and The Luxury Collection - FoodeMag dxb

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