“This is it,” says my friend Bakr, pulling off the trucking highway onto a nondescript dirt road. “I think.” I am dubious, but shortly afterwards he pulls into a discreet parking lot where our field guide Darryn is waiting to transfer us for refreshing welcome drinks.
From the reception building, we are whisked by golf cart to our private villa. Modelled on a Bedouin tent the villa may be, but it is a far more opulent version: French doors open out onto the deck of a private pool overlooking the desert. From here to the horizon it’s all sand, dotted with a few gazelles in the distance.
The Al Maha experience is not just about pampering. It is also designed to entertain and educate, perhaps in an attempt to extend the average stay. The initially welcoming seclusion could easily turn to boredom, depending on your tolerance level for relaxing spa and pool days. Mine is half a day, so the inclusion of two activities per night’s stay suits me perfectly.
Bakr and I enter into negotiations to determine our activities, starting with the afternoon wildlife drive. Darryn loads us into his four wheel drive and shows off his expert dune driving skills, as the flat, creamy sand vista near the resort slowly gives way to red, rippled dunes. Gazelles roam in small herds, trotting delicately up the midway dunes, but it is the Arabian oryx – which look like knights ready to joust – that get our attention. Al Maha has been instrumental in the reintroduction of these species to this area. In the Dubai Desert Conservation area, the oryx population has gone from near-extinction to around 300 animals – the largest free-roaming herd in Arabia. Al Maha is also home to Rüppell’s fox, the Arabian red fox, and the Ethiopian hedgehog – though today, on our visit, they appear to be in hiding.
The camel handlers, Shahzab and Tahir, hail from Pakistan. “In my country, if I saw a camel I would run away,” laughs Shahzab. Tahir looks like he still might
After some rough ups and downs, we stop in a sufficiently remote location to admire the desert. The wind whips the top of the red dunes, pushing cascades of sand over the lips of each sandy wave. These are the shifting dunes in motion.
As day turns to evening, we dress for dinner and stroll along the lantern-lit path towards the Al Diwaan restaurant. There is a full carpet of stars on display as we breathe in the surprisingly cool desert air. At the restaurant we take seats on a deck that overlooks a large expanse of desert. The meal is delicious, but can’t compete with the night sky.
A sound sleep later we are back on the deck, sipping morning lattes. This vista changes each hour with the position of the sun, and the weak morning light washes the desert back to its beige roots, the flora around the restaurant dazzlingly green in contrast.
Darryn is back with us this morning, teaching us the finer skills of archery. We strap on protective arm guards to make us look the part, and then fail to hit the target, despite Darryn’s patient instructions. I am impressed with his ability to refrain from rolling his eyes as our arrows skim across the ground. It turns out archery is far harder than it looks.
The rest of the day is filled with pool and spa relaxation, leaving us so languid that we lazily order room service for a late lunch. As the sun shifts into the golden mantle of late afternoon we see two men in traditional kandouras leading a line of camels into the clearing below our villa. The camel handlers, Shahzab and Tahir, hail from Pakistan. “In my country, if I saw a camel I would run away,” laughs Shahzab. Tahir looks like he still might.
The camels are our transport into the desert for sundowners. Shahzab singles out the larger guests to ride solo, and I am pleased the consequences of my overeating on this trip are not yet evident. We scramble onto the back of our beast of burden, which immediately lurches to its feet and attempts to run off. Luckily the camels are roped so we don’t get far. When everyone’s ready, the camels plod into the dunes where we dismount and collect glasses of champagne. We disperse, guests wandering off in pairs to their own private sand dunes to watch the sun sink. We utter a collective sigh of contentment as the orange orb lowers itself into the horizon.
After another feast under the stars, Bakr makes a daring suggestion. We turn off the lights in the villa, leaving only the underwater pool lights glimmering in the night. Goosebumps rising across our bodies, we slide into the water, just slightly warmer than the chilled air. The only sounds are the lapping of the pool as we drift on our backs, looking at the sky. This is a moment of perfection.
Our final activity requires a morning wake up call. Bleary-eyed, we locate our hero Darryn, who directs us to the coffee supplies. We drive back into the desert for a stroll through a copse of Ghaf Trees, sustained by an underground water reservoir. The sun peeks between the trunks as we track lizards, birds and foxes through their prints in the sand.
Before we know it, we are reluctantly packing to leave. Our own tracks have already disappeared from the desert. It’s time for us to do the same.
Al Maha Desert Resort and Spa, Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve, Dubai
+971 4 832 9900; starwoodhotels.com