The ochre-coloured concrete exterior of the hotel seems at first rather stark, but the welcome was softened when we were welcomed by three or four South-east Asian staff who smiled as they unloaded 11 pieces of luggage from our boot. We walked up a long, straight covered walkway into the main building, where we were delighted by the interiors - high ceilings, dark woods, latticing and metal lanterns at every turn. Our check-in was done as we sat on sofas in reception, rather than at a desk, and we were glad of cold towels and hibiscus tea after the two-and-a-half-hour drive from Abu Dhabi.
The hotel is situated in Wadi Khadeja, a protected enclave in Ras al Khaimah. The desert reserve is 10 minutes from exit 109 off the Emirates Road heading north. The approach to the hotel takes you on a quiet, winding sealed road through small farms and valleys full of ghaf trees.
The hotel has only been open six months, and it was very quiet when I visited with a friend at the end of May. We were never alone at breakfast or dinner, but the Samar Lounge, a lovely ground-floor bar, was empty on both nights and at the rooftop Moon Bar there were only two other guests when we sat out under the stars. Still, I don't mind empty hotels since it generally means less disturbance and better service, and this was definitely the case here. The spa seemed busier, and it had its own vibe with staff from Thailand and China.
There are 101 villas in three types; ours was a one-bedroom Al Khaimah tented pool villa, middle-of-the-range in terms of price but a massive 253 square metres when you include the vast private decked terrace at the back. From the outside the villas aren't hugely impressive, resembling wooden conservatories on stilts, but inside ours was spectacular. It felt like being in a large, opulent tent in the desert, with flowing canopied ceilings, a giant bed, endless pretty lanterns and a whole wing containing a designer bathroom.
Impeccable. Check-in was smooth and faultless, buggies arrived quickly when asked for, rooms were cleaned and turned down at unobtrusive times and there was never any disturbance from the staff, who were thoroughly gracious and helpful. Service in the restaurants was swift and assured.
There are two main restaurants, Saffron, specialising in Thai food, and Al Waha, serving Arabic and international cuisine. My favourite was Saffron - it overlooks a small valley with a water-hole where animals including gazelle and Arabian oryx gather and inside there are tables on an ornate four-poster platform. I loved the grilled aubergine salad (Dh50), the tom yum goong (Dh42), the lamb loin yellow curry with tofu and ginger (Dh85) and the tapioca and coconut pudding (Dh28). At Al Waha, the Lebanese shorba (Dh40) and the sumac and chilli grilled lamb chops (Dh140) were heavenly.
The Rainforest hydrotherapy spa and 90-minute Balinese spa session, which includes a 60-minute massage (Dh462): from the foot bath to the selection of incense to the oil ("spirit" was a blend of almond oil and ylang ylang) to the massage itself, the experience was dreamy. I also loved seeing the two resident owls at the on-site falconry centre, and the pool at our villa, which was a very good size with no shallow sections.
The view from our villa was disappointing, particularly when compared to other resorts such as Dubai's Al Maha or Abu Dhabi's Qasr al Sarab. From our terrace we could see nothing more than the back of a sand dune. There were also loud suction noises coming from our pool, which slightly intruded into the peace when using the terrace - but we could still just about hear the variety of wild birds outside. Some guests in the Al Rimal villas have complained of a lack of privacy on their pool terraces, which can be overlooked.
A great new retreat, good for a romantic getaway or a girls' spa weekend. You won't be overwhelmed, but that's part of the appeal.
Al Rimal deluxe pool villas start from Dh2,343 per night; Al Khaimah tented pool villas cost from Dh2,893, including tax and breakfast. Until September 28, get three nights for the price of two, including use of the Rainforest and a choice of dining, massage, golf or falcon show experiences. Banyan Tree Al Wadi, Ras al Khaimah (www.banyantree.com; 07 206 7777).