The new breed of camps, clubs and lodges redefining the desert experience
'I wanted to create an alternative for locals, tourists and residents where you can enjoy great food in a more upscale way,' says Stephanie Danial
After 10 years of taking family and friends to desert camps she felt were mediocre, Stephanie Danial decided to create her own. Sonara is part desert camp, part beach club – complete with live music, DJs and a relaxing vibe. Nobody will force you to watch the falcon show and if you don’t fancy the camel ride, you can scrap that, too. Sonara is predominantly a luxury dining concept in the desert, where Frenchwoman Danial has transformed a stretch of sand inside the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve into a two-part hideaway. While it retains all the traditional aspects that we have come to expect of a desert camp, it is also private, cosy and, most of all, modern. Each group has their own tent to relax in when they enter the camp, and greeted with welcome drinks and snacks – tortilla chips, guacamole and olives. Nothing here is predictable.
We tried all the desert camps and they’re all very touristic. You’ve done it once and the excitement to do it again [isn’t there], so I wanted to create an alternative for locals, tourists and residents where you can enjoy great food in a more upscale way.
In keeping with the times, the retreat is eco-friendly, meeting the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve’s strict legislation. Only a handful of companies are permitted to operate in the area, which is now a protected reserve for dozens of species of flora and fauna across more than 220 square kilometres. Solar panels, fair-trade or upcycled furniture and no single-use plastics are among Sonara’s sustainable features. It is one of several camps now moving away from destructive activities such as dune bashing, aiming instead to give guests all the authenticity with none of the negative consequences.
The bathrooms are spacious and stocked with luxury soaps and mini towels – hotel touches, but in a posh Portaloo. There is not a single red cushion in sight and the live music varies from the classical Arabian oud to a saxophonist. As the evening wears on, the pace quickens, with funky tunes to accompany dinner. This is where Danial has taken the desert camp concept and turned it on its head. Guests dine at tables beautifully adorned with bamboo and rope barasti around the edges, and plush linen to rival top-end restaurants. This can be a romantic location (and is fast becoming a popular marriage proposal site), the perfect party spot or even a family-friendly destination. A children’s cinema entertains young ones while their parents eat. In addition, there is an in-house astronomer, and activities include a fire show, falconry, archery, football, sandboarding and volleyball.
Launched in November, Sonara follows in the footsteps of Nara Desert Escape, a bespoke overnight camp that opened two years ago. The newer concept has a capacity of 100, but feels far from cramped. “We want each person to have their own lounge and space and don’t want it to be crowded,” Danial says.
“We tried all the desert camps and they’re all very touristic. You’ve done it once and the excitement to do it again [isn’t there], so I wanted to create an alternative for locals, tourists and residents where you can enjoy great food in a more upscale way.
“We want to respect the desert and the traditions here; we just want to do it with a bit more taste, good-quality food and service.” Food has a traditional feel with a European twist, with the camp’s French chef taking on dishes such as mixed grills and fattoush.
Platinum Heritage, one of the first camps given permission to offer tours in the reserve, has truly brought luxury to the concept. It offers a variety of tours, including drives around several routes in the reserve in an open-top, vintage Land Rover, or a high-end Range Rover. On the camp’s Platinum and Royal experiences, there is no floor seating in sight; the falcon show is enjoyed from luxury leather sofas; and the a la carte four-course dinner is served in private pods, around an artificial oasis that also helps support local wildlife.
While the food at Platinum Heritage stays true to the Middle Eastern theme, influences from African game reserves also creep in. The camp has not let go of the old favourites, either. Guests can enjoy the evening’s fire show from the comfort of a cosy shisha lounge after dinner, to the relaxing sounds of Arabic music.
The desert camp is not for everyone, and new lodges around Dubai and Sharjah are offering ways to diversify the traditional experience. In Hatta, Damani Lodges and Sedr Trailers are nestled in the Hajar mountain range, beside the Hatta Dam. With numerous activities on offer, including archery and kayaking, the destination, now known as Hatta National Park, allows visitors to immerse themselves in the area’s natural surroundings, while enjoying less predictable activities.
Over in Sharjah, Al Badayer Oasis, designed as a classic Bedouin village, is nestled in the red dunes of the Dubai-Sharjah border. The lodge offers 21 rooms and 10 luxury tents. Activities and experiences have Emirati Bedouin themes and include sunrise coffee on the dunes, camel riding, henna painting, a oud performance, falcon show or bonfire experience, and a movie under the stars. There is even a mosque on the grounds that is not only used by guests, but open to all.
Al Badayer’s partner property, Al Faya, offers only five rooms. A converted petrol station, the property is unique and boutique – its own history is a significant draw. The lodge is near the expansive archaeological site of Mleiha, where further desert activities are available.
These remodelled camps and lodges offer a new way to take in the country’s natural landscapes. They are also helping remould perceptions of the UAE as a travel destination built solely around beaches and malls, and attracting new types of visitors – adventure travellers and nature lovers.
Even falconry has evolved. Peter Bergh, founder of falconry tour company Royal Shaheen, takes the predatory birds up to fly from hot-air balloons, a unique and hugely technical operation. He has expanded the concept but has retained the essence of the 7,500-year-old tradition. Unlike in many camps, he does not allow petting or interfering with the solitary birds, which ensures they remain focused on hunting and out of harm’s way.
Adam McEwan, founder of Platinum Heritage, sees a positive shift happening, with visitors increasingly looking for a more thoughtful experience. Though the practice of dune bashing thrives, he says: “Over the past few years in general, people have become more environmentally conscious and we have seen this shift in thinking influence the tourism industry as sustainable travel has grown in popularity. Nowadays, there are more people who want to make a positive difference when they travel and, as a result, they have become more aware of the tour operators they support.”
He says companies such as Platinum Heritage have a responsibility to educate tourists on better ways to travel.
“As a desert safaris operator, it’s extremely important for us to promote ethical animal tourism,” he says. One part of the company’s ecological mission is offering free tours to schoolchildren to teach them about conservation.
The amount of tourist attractions in the UAE has increased as the country welcomes a growing number of visitors, and desert camps in various forms remain a pivotal part of that. Luxurious or authentic, they will remain at the heart of the UAE experience.
Updated: March 10, 2020 07:36 PM