x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Holidays close to home

Continuing economic uncertainty around the world has led increasing numbers of people to forgo their annual summer vacations abroad and holiday in the UAE.

The view from the patio from one of the Al Khaimah Tented Pool Villa units at the Banyan Tree Al Wadi resort in Ras al Khaimah.
The view from the patio from one of the Al Khaimah Tented Pool Villa units at the Banyan Tree Al Wadi resort in Ras al Khaimah.

The bags are packed, the hotels are booked and the out-of-office is on. Activities have been planned and routes plotted. Yet having taken time off work, I feel oddly guilty. Because on this holiday, I'm not actually going anywhere. My vacation is going to be a staycation and the closest I will get to a departure will be picking up my friend from the airport. In the two years I've been living in the UAE, I've never known anyone to love holidaying here as much as Lizzie. My oldest friend, she has been to visit three times already and this is her fourth trip. Each and every time, Lizzie returns to the UK tanned and relaxed; too often, my holidays are spent rushing around, leaving me more tired than when I started. So, having resolved not to check work emails and get myself into the holiday mood, it's with a sense of smug delight that I leave the office and meet Lizzie at the airport - not for me the the last-minute panic over passports, visas, money and tickets, the queues at security or the jet lag.

Did I say jet lag? For cost reasons, Lizzie has flown to Abu Dhabi from London with Air France via Paris - a 10-hour trip on the way here and 12 hours on the way back. And that's not counting travel to and from the airport and the two hours at the airport before check-in. Could the timely arrival of a friend from home be the ultimate luxury travel accessory? For friends, too, there are benefits to holidaying in the same place. There's no haggling over taxis in unfamiliar destinations, no getting lost, no porters to tip and no unexpected costs. Instead there is guaranteed sun, shopping, free accommodation and a catch-up on an epic scale.

Our first stop is Qasar Al Sarab, Anantara's new desert resort in Liwa. It's somewhere I'd been meaning to visit for ages but hadn't got round to making time for. We checked in on a Sunday afternoon, making the most of the post-weekend lull, and found that our twin room had been upgraded to a villa. It was complete and unadulterated luxury: two bedrooms, three bathrooms, a large living room, private pool and as good a finish and attention to detail as I've seen anywhere in the world. And here it was, just two hours from Abu Dhabi.

"I feel like an Ottoman princess!" said Lizzie as she tucked into the little treasure chests filled with fruit and backlava. I jumped into the pool. Staring out across the sand dunes and then watching the sunset from the terrace, there was nowhere on earth I would rather have been. At dinner, we realised that we were almost alone in the hotel. There were so few guests that only one restaurant was open. The early summer heat made sitting outside slightly uncomfortable but, though we could have taken a table indoors, we persevered with the terrace, desperate to make the most of what air there was left.

The following morning we rose at five to begin our desert walk at 5.30. At this time of year, it's the only option for actually enjoying the outdoors. Removing our shoes, the sand felt deliciously cool - a reminder of the stark differences in day and night-time temperatures here even in summer. With a Slovakian guide provided by the hotel, we drove to a startlingly green valley - so unexpected it looked like a mirage - and hiked for 30 minutes through the dunes to a lookout over the Rub al Khali, spotting animal tracks and a lone pair of dune-bashers in the distance. I lay down on my back to appreciate the silence, thinking how often we forget the stunning, ever-changing landscape which sits on our doorstep.

After breakfast, it was time for a short nap followed by a visit to the spa. This was a holiday, after all, and sleeping and spa-ing in the middle of the day, followed by a late lunch, seemed like a good way of using up the hottest hours. Liz, on the other hand, sunbathed and then hit the gym for two hours. Just before sunset, it was time for a camel ride - a rather uncomfortable experience thanks to hairdryer-like wind, but Lizzie, who has a higher tolerance for heat, enjoyed it. In our convoy were three other sets of staycationers, including Mario, an Italian-Iranian living in Dubai and his two Italian friends who were on holiday. "It's their first time on a camel, and my first time in Liwa," said Mario, in a tone of voice which suggested he wouldn't need to do this again. He said that reduced summer rates had allowed him to experience hotels which would otherwise be beyond his financial reach. And, with his job in Dubai uncertain, Mario didn't think it was wise to be away from the office for too long. "This is just a long weekend, really," he said, somewhat shame-facedly turning his attention back to his BlackBerry.

After two days in the desert, it was time for a brief stop at my flat in Abu Dhabi before tackling another activity I had long been meaning to try - kayaking in the mangroves. Again, the alarm went off at 5am and we met our guide in the less-than-glamorous car park of the Carrefour on Airport Road just before six. By 10 past, we were out on the water, and within five minutes of boarding our kayaks on a small beach on the eastern side of Abu Dhabi island we spotted a pod of dolphins, including a mother with a baby, not more than 20 metres away. It was a surreal moment of peace despite the background construction noise and being just yards away from the traffic jams on Al Salam Street. Farther along a newly-created channel, we spotted storks, kingfishers and thousands of mud crabs on the edges of the islands. Again, the small islands of Abu Dhabi are destinations few residents bother with, and miss out on.

After the kayaking, though, we had had enough of worthy activities. Off we went to Dubai and the Outlet Mall, where last-season designer clothes are available for a fraction of their original price. As I wasn't spending money on an airfare, what better way to use the money saved thanon updating one's summer wardrobe? We arrived at midday, and first on the list was a new pair of black heels - a nice pair of Marc Jacobs, Dh490, was found within five minutes. Next was a pair of sunglasses - 40 per cent off at Dh510. I narrowly avoided buying a Diane Von Furstenburg bikini for just Dh110, a sixth of the original price, choosing instead a pile of shorts, shirts and T-shirts from Massimo Dutti. There was a final dash to Aldo for some more heels before we left the mall at midnight. (What's the use of a half-hearted effort when you've come all this way?) All up, I'd spent Dh3,000 - no small sum but still less than I'll spend on a summer economy flight to London next month.

We economised after our shopping spree by staying at a friend's apartment in Dubai Marina. Living and working in Abu Dhabi, I rarely get the chance to enjoy Dubai's neighbourhoods, and we could have spent hours at the shisha cafes all around the marina. Instead we decided to explore some nightclubs - again, something I rarely have time to do in any normal week. Zipping around with friends, we were shown a side to the city I hadn't ever experienced properly - wild, luxurious and almost anarchic.

After two nights on my friend's sofa, it was time for more pampering, so we set off for the Banyan Tree Al Wadi, a new hotel in a nature reserve in Ras al Khaimah. It wasn't as smart as Qasr Al Sarab, but it was just as relaxing. Like Anantara, Banyan Tree is a luxury Thai hotel management company making serious forays in the the UAE market. Right now, when such brands are new to the market and not yet well known here, is the perfect time for the cost-conscious staycationer to take advantage. And so we did. Our accommodation - currently available at three nights for the price of two with activities thrown in - was like a luxury tented camp with an enormous terrace and private pool. The interiors were again suitably sumptuous - essential for the long periods spent indoors during summer. Again, because it was mid-week there were few other guests so we had our pick of the restaurants (no need to make a reservation) and activities (falconry? No need to book).

On our first night we had dinner at Saffron restaurant, a self-contained Thai restaurant overlooking a waterhole where Arabian oryx, gazelles and a huge variety of birds gather during the evening. Apart from a group of German hikers who sat outside, we were the only people in the restaurant and had the raised central platform, which was decked out like a four-poster bed, all to ourselves. Not for us the scrum of the dinner buffets, clamouring for a waiter, screaming children or being told to leave your table because others have booked it. When it comes to a holiday, real luxury is peace, time and space. After the meal, we retired to the rooftop Moon Bar, where we sat smoking shisha under the stars. There were just two other guests, so we revelled in the sense of exclusivity.

Also ours for the taking was the hotel's palatial spa, and the brand new hydrotherapy centre, which is reason enough for a visit. A fantastic maze of ice caves, herb-scented steam rooms and mist showers, for two hours I was drenched, steamed, soaked and scrubbed in the so-called "Rainforest". Built entirely indoors, with high domed ceilings, it's the ideal escape from the heat. The idea is to relax and detoxify the body by alternately warming and cooling it: after five minutes in the steam room, for example, I wandered into the "bucket drench" chamber, pulled a cord and was doused in cold water. Then, after a scrub in the sauna, I went into the "affusion shower" and was dreamily discombobulated by its ensemble of cooling mist, large drops of hot and cold water, scent and moving coloured lights. The hydrothermal "circuit" finishes with the cool waters of the main pool and some high-powered water jets, to pummel the last of the stress away. Not bad for Dh70 per hour.

On our last morning, we took an early hike outside the resort around Wadi Khadeja, savouring the silence and attracting the attention only of a herd of oryx grazing among ghaf trees. By 8am it was time to go back indoors and do what any self-respecting summer staycationer would do. We went back to bed. rbehan@thenational.ae