x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

Al Maha Desert Resort & Spa

The reserve and resort could so easily have been built to feel like a theme park but instead they are authentic and unique.

Suites look like tents but are luxuriously appointed.
Suites look like tents but are luxuriously appointed.

Peter, a South African guide in safari suit, meets us at the reception area - an unpromising makeshift car park close to the junction of the main road and the entrance to the reserve. We leave our car and get into his 4x4 for the 10-minute trip to the resort. He explains the activities: falconry, horse riding (only for those who seriously know how to handle headstrong ponies), camel treks, archery and nature drives. Each guest is entitled to two excursions per day and they are seen as a significant part of the experience; the activities also ensure that you are up at 6am when the desert is at its most inspiring.

The lobby is large and attractive with high, wooden rafters, a library at the side with squishy sofas, newspapers and old Wilfred Thesiger pictures on the wall; among them that of a hawking party and Dubai Creek in 1950. And through the other end is a glimpse of what Al Maha is all about - red sand dunes reaching out to fill the whole horizon, interrupted only by a few trees and the occasional white of an oryx or the subtler tones of the Arabian gazelles.

The reserve stretches over 225 square kilometres and accounts for nearly five per cent of Dubai's total land area. Guests' only neighbours have four legs. The resort would not exist but for the foresight of Sheikh Rashid, the former ruler of Dubai, in the 1960s. Concerned about the rapid disappearance of the region's wildlife, largely due to hunting, he arranged, for herds of the oryx and other species to be captured and removed to the safety of a small wildlife reserve in Arizona, USA, which has a similar climate to Dubai.

Some 35 years later, Sheikh Mohammed, then Crown Prince, organised for 90 offspring of the original Arabian Oryx to be flown over to the newly prepared sanctuary three months before the opening of Al Maha in 1997. Other indigenous species from his own personal breeding and conservation programme were also reintroduced, and 6,200 indigenous trees, shrubs and grasses were planted and aided by underground irrigation. The animals are fed daily to prevent the overgrazing which had originally wiped out much of the natural habitat. More reintroductions and natural breeding have swollen the population to the point that herds of oryx and gazelles are always in sight, and the vegetation, having matured, is now self-seeding.

The average stay is two days, although some clients, mostly Emirati, return every year for two or three weeks to enjoy the remoteness of the desert experience and rarely leave their villa. But otherwise it's a combination of tourists taking in Al Maha as part of a tour of the region or Gulf residents using it as a weekend retreat. With activities being early morning and evening, guests lounge around the spa with its oasis-like fabulous pool and large airy rooms.

From outside the individual villas, or "Bedouin suites", look like tents, but on the inside they are large five-star hotel rooms with fabulous bathrooms, vast double beds, masses of cupboard space, a hallway with a desk perfect for the laptop (internet access is free, easy and fast) and plasma television screens. Best of all is when you step outside the French windows on to the large decked terrace with its own plunge pool and the spectacular views of the desert landscape. You can see why some guests never leave their own bit of the tented encampment.

Staff are warm and friendly but I did wonder how they had failed to notice that the bottom of the pool was thick with sand. The maintenance men came commendably quickly but such was the problem (clearly caused by more than one day's worth of strong winds) that it took them nearly three hours to clean it up. Given that guests can't get into the rooms until 2pm, that effectively meant we lost the whole afternoon - and the only chance on our one night stay - to take advantage of the best thing about the villa.

Surprisingly disappointing. We ordered room service when we arrived and my colleague's sandwich contained cheese rather than the aubergine described in the menu, and the bread was verging on stale. Dinner is a five-course affair with certain set courses and a choice of starter and main; but while everything else about the resort plays to the need for simplicity, it was over-complicated and not authentic Arabian fare. Dishes were heavy and more suited to a gentleman's club in a cold clime than sitting on a veranda under the stars. The breakfast buffet was good though, and lunch was better with a choice of lighter dishes such as meze and salads.

The strong smell of jasmine at night around the villa; staring out across the horizon; the serenity; the surprising loudness of birdsong; the nature drive and discovering that what looked like empty desert was home to tiny creatures such as the spiny-tailed lizard (the dhub) and the Arabian toad-headed agama; the camel trek at sunset; just being there; the spa.

Not being able to lie out on the terrace of our suite on the afternoon that we arrived, and not being confident enough in my rusty equine skills to join my colleague at 6am for a gallop across the open desert - though I did gain some comfort on hearing that an American who claimed he was a strong rider was sent back after five minutes for not being good enough.

Fabulous. The reserve and resort could so easily have been built to feel like a theme park but instead they are authentic and unique. Echoing Africa's leading safari lodges, this is another world: Arabia and the desert as it has always been. Gazing across the great expanse of desert teeming with a full diversity of life in its natural habitat, it is extraordinary to think that Dubai with all its concrete, noise and light, is less than an hour away. A weekend at Al Maha is an aspirin for the soul.

In summer, a Bedouin suite costs from US$880 (Dh3,239) per night, including meals, taxes and activities. It's worth looking out for promotions - in February, rooms were offered at a 60 per cent discount and, until Sept 17, there is a 15 per cent discount and guests staying for two nights get a third complimentary night. Visit www.emirateshotelsresorts.com for details. Al Maha Desert Resort & Spa, near Junction 8, off the E66 (www.al-maha.com; 04 303 4222).