Al Maha Desert Resort
Dubai City is magnificent as a playground or a workplace, but escape to the desert for a taste of true Arabia. The slow, majestic forms of the dunes are like an ocean in slow motion and there is far more life than you might imagine. Going for a wander at 5:30 a.m. you see the traces of the night's frenetic activity etched in the sand. We were stunned to discover that even ants leave footprints. There were also signs of beetles, scorpions, hamsters, lizards and several species of snake besides the signature mammals such as gazelle and oryx (Al Maha). In June, the day-time temperature reached 45C. We loved it, if you don't, you should come in January when it is merely in the high twenties. We were surprised by the abundance of birdlife, what on earth do they find to eat? Sit quietly in your private pool and within seconds you will have siskins lining up to drink and collared doves always in faithful pairs. So romantic.
The general manager Arne Silvis and all his team of rangers are South Africans who know a thing or two about trekking, so expert advice is always at hand. there is a good variety of excursions on a regular basis and the staff will arrange more bespoke outings if you have the time. Take the camel train across the dunes at sunset, the atmosphere is magical.
Large and comfortable but a little cluttered. The decor seems too self-consciously traditional Arabian so that the overall effect is slightly too Disneyesque for our taste. Nonetheless, all furniture and fittings were of good quality and in perfect condition. We were pleased that the door seals were very tight so as to be insect proof. The bed was very large and comfortable.
Truly though, the outside was our reason for being here and did not disappoint. The decking area was huge and provided with two very large wooden sun beds on wheels. The whole area is shaded by a vast canopy which makes the villa appear as a large tent. There is also a table and four chairs for dining, which we did every night so enchanting was the ambience, therefore we cannot attest to the service at the in-house restaurants. The temperature controlled pool was fabulous at any time of day.
In the photographs the bathroom looks huge and it contained one of the best baths we have ever enjoyed. We could lie side-by-side in comfort. The toiletries were by Bulgari, which is always a good sign. The water in the shower was scalding hot and it was difficult to get the mixer tap to a comfortable temperature. We assumed this was somehow due to the climate but when we mentioned it to the GM he was surprised and undertook to get it fixed. We didn't stay long enough to find out whether it was.
Wildlife and Activities
It is delightful, if a little disconcerting to arrive at one's front porch after breakfast to find the way barred by a large oryx. They have long, sharp horns so you treat them with respect. The oryx and the smaller gazelle were everywhere, attracted by the lush vegetation maintained within the hotel complex. The hotel is within a National Park so the animals are free to roam. There is therefore a smell of oryx, which is somewhere between goat and cow in the olfactory palette. You get used to it quickly and we didn't find it unpleasant even in the height of summer. Surprisingly there wasn't too much insect life.
Camel rides across the dunes at sunset (about 20 minutes each way) are a daily complimentary activity. You are met at the furthest point by a team of rangers who have driven out in their 4X4s with chilled sparkling wine and fruit kebabs to accompany sundown. If you don't want to ride you can go by car, but the animals are very tame and the pace is easy. It is a fun social event too. Most of us were riding camels for the first time and loving it.
There is also a daily falconry show at 5:30 a.m. At first it seems a hardship to get up so early but the birds are so impressive you soon forget. It would simply be too hot for the birds later in the day and uncomfortable for the audience too in the open. The owl was simply awesome. Handling a falcon was a real treat.
The rooms are all described as suites and consist of detached villas arranged around a roughly circular path. The restaurant and reception facilities are located in a single main block. All villas are arranged so that each has a reasonable view of the desert and the whole affair is on a hillside so the views can be spectacular. Each suite has a private pool and terrace oriented so as to maximise privacy and the view of the desert. We settled for a Bedouin Suite, which is the smallest and perfectly adequate for a couple for three nights. It isn't really a suite though, it is a reasonably large room containing a good sized bed and too much furniture. There were two Chaises Longues taking up a large proportion of the floor space not occupied by the bed. To be fair though, you probably aren't going to spend much time in your room. You will want to be either out enjoying activities, experiencing the desert or cooling off in your pool. Room service dinner on your private terrace is highly recommended. we had visits from numerous curious oryx, adding to the delight.
Everything was very clean, all equipment worked and the suites were well-equipped. We are regular Hyatt stayers so are used to Nespresso machines. Here I was delighted to be provided with a huge choice of coffees instead of the Hyatt's usual 3. Flat-screen TV was large and hidden in a wardrobe on an extending platform., which is where it stayed. Who needs TV in a place like this? There were really thoughtful touches like an artists easel, crayons and paper (in case you feel inspired), binoculars and fly-spray but I would have liked a guide to the birdlife.
Food and Beverage
All rates at Al Maha are full board, including a varied breakfast spread, snacks before every activity, lunch and dinner (room rates also include 2 activities per day per person). Meals can be taken in your suite or the restaurants. The accompanying pictures are of the buffet breakfast, complimentary pre-dinner canapés and the two room-service meals we enjoyed on our terrace.
Breakfast is a fairly sumptuous affair with an excellent mix of local specialities and international dishes. Eggs to order were perfectly poached or scrambled (our preference). As we ate our fill at breakfast, we didn't bother with lunch so can't comment.
The evening canapés were different each day and served with refreshing fruit squashes, hot and cold teas and tissanes and coffee.
Room service was prompt, table set up was quick and very attractive. All the food was excellent. We had a Sri Lankan menu one night and an Arab Meze the other. The food was way more than we needed. We had advised the hotel that one of us had a wheat intolerance and both required dairy-free meals. This was accomodated without difficulty though they still served us butter!
We didn't try any treatments on this visit so can't comment on the quality. The facility itself though is stunningly beautiful. A very wide range of treatments is available with something to suit every taste. The atmosphere is cool and tranquil.
An indoor gym is sufficient for anyone requiring a way to burn off the extra calories consumed during their stay - there's even a rowing machine so no need to pack your running shoes (and no excuses!). Whilst the spa has a sauna, we didn't feel the need to use it - simply lie in the deep heat outside, it's so relaxing and good for the soul.
Outside, the main pool, which is open to all hotel guests but usually only frequented by those using the spa, is very large and right on the fringe of the desert. It is a fabulous place to laze around watching the birds busying about the trees while the oryx gently graze and the timid gazelle scamper about.
In all, Al Maha is a delightful escape from the buzz of Dubai city and is generally very good. The highlight is the surroundings - beautiful dunes and the proximity to the desert wildlife. We felt that the rooms would benefit from more simple decoration, and that the allocation of a host to each guest was unnecessary as we only saw ours once. However, the memory of swimming in a pool with oryx drinking from the other side will stay with us for some time and we would recommend visiting Al Maha for a desert retreat.