x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

When fitness isn't a last resort at Bab al Shams

Rosemary Behan has rise early and avoid the buffet to get into the fitness regime at this luxury resort, but still leaves feeling pampered.

Tom Woolf, the founder of the PTX, leads a "pool recovery session" during an Ultimate Wellness Retreat at the Jumeirah Bab Al Shams Desert Resort & Spa near Dubai. Randi Sokoloff for The National
Tom Woolf, the founder of the PTX, leads a "pool recovery session" during an Ultimate Wellness Retreat at the Jumeirah Bab Al Shams Desert Resort & Spa near Dubai. Randi Sokoloff for The National

The breakfast buffet laid out in the waiting area at Bab Al Shams isn't for us. I'm here on day one of "The Ultimate Wellness Retreat" and dodging buffets will be one of the main challenges over the course of the next three days: not for us the croissants, doughnuts or even toast that the other guests tuck into with oblivion. Instead, it will be "superfoods", a grass-green powder made from plant extracts added to water, fruit juices, soups, salads and more fruit, all the way.

Before we get started, we're given a friendly introduction by Tom Woolf, the founder of PTX Performance Training, a Dubai-based company which has recently partnered with Jumeirah to offer boot camp-style holidays to UAE residents. A formidably lean 33-year-old ex-professional rugby player, Tom introduces his "no excuses" philosophy to us with unexpected charm and personality, emphasising the "quality, intensity, functionality and fun" of workouts and expounding upon the "great diet con" and the importance of rest to performance. So far, so good, although our small group is slightly daunted by the programme, which features a thrice-daily "PTX Power Hour" and 6am starts.

Our first workout is an hour's worth of circuit training on a roof terrace at the far end of the resort. It's less difficult than I had imagined and I'm left feeling slightly disappointed by the limited time on each station, although I'm told that the idea is to build up gradually. "You will hurt by the end of this," Tom promises. I'm tempted by the smell of fries cooking in the restaurant below, but we're all offered copious cold towels, chilled water, Juice Master's Ultimate Green Superfood and fruit before some free time to rest. The green concoction tastes slightly odd and seaweed-like, but the list of ingredients, comprising chlorophyll, enzymes and "tens of thousands of phytonutrients" promises to work wonders.

Lunch is a roasted plum tomato soup, a salad of roasted butternut squash, red peppers and mixed greens in a sesame and pumpkin seed dressing and a delicious beetroot and carrot juice. After lunch, as promised, is more rest time followed by another "Power Hour" at 4.30pm (with all of this exercise, it's a good thing that meals are light). This one is faster and more intense and we enjoy more individual attention from our three trainers as we perform our press-ups, step-ups, skipping and jogs around the roof. Charlie Keenan is a Scottish ex-professional rugby player and Natalie Hawker is a young, tanned yoga teacher and ex-dancer: both are very personable and give positive encouragement.

Friday night's dinner of tom yum soup and salad, accompanied by a fresh pineapple, pear and ginger juice, isn't quite enough to satisfy the two Lebanese women in our group, who disappear off to the open-air Al Hadeerah restaurant to enjoy an evening of buffets and bellydancing. Part of me wants to join them, although it's obvious that to get the most out of the programme you need to follow it. So I obey the shrill wake-up call the following morning, and although it's a struggle to leave the comfort of my room at 6am, I override my urge to sink back down into the sumptuous beds and haul myself up and into my gym gear. I'm still virtually comatose when we start the sunrise yoga and meditation session, but it's not completely necessary to have your eyes open and it's is a great way to wake up. "Yes!" says Natalie as she leads the class through each move and sunrise begins to break over the lawn. "That's lovely!" Her choice of music - Ram Singh singing Har Har Gobinde - is also spot on.

By 7.45am we are all fully awake and on a light jog out of the resort - that is, everyone apart from the Lebanese women who, perhaps because of the previous night's buffet, can only bear to walk. We run towards Endurance Village and back over some sand dunes, my fellow group members discussing training for the RAK Half Marathon in February. Then it's straight into another "Power Hour". Tom pushes us harder this time, making sure all our techniques are correct. "Good form," he tells me as I perform my squats, "I like those." Towards the end of each buzzer he claps, pushing us all to perform to the limit. Unlike in any normal circuit class, having a smaller group makes you work harder because you are being watched and pushed individually. The circuit station, on a roof terrace, is private and gives great views of the surrounding desert and a nice breeze, but it felt a little cramped when the whole group was participating and not entirely fit for purpose: certainly in summer, an indoor alternative would be needed.

What I'm most impressed by is the menu: in terms of quality of ingredients and variety, it couldn't have been better. Every day offers completely different juices, soups, salads and dressings, with just about enough protein; there's no added sugar or salt. This is important as I'm on a shortened version of the usual programme, which is seven days and six nights; a lesser menu would soon become repetitive. Today's lunch is courgette soup and chicken breast salad and a pineapple, lemon, strawberry and banana juice.

By the time the third of the second day's "Power Hours" finishes at 5.30pm, I ache all over, but in a good way. It's as if a lean, lithe, fit body is bursting to escape and it's clear that the trainers know exactly what they are doing. We are all then taken into the swimming pool for a "pool recovery session", which involves gentle exercises to stretch the muscles. It's surreal watching the sun set over the dunes with tourists on camels and relaxing on sunbeds, but it's also very soothing. What better time and place for a fitness retreat than winter in the desert? Before dinner that night - warm beetroot velouté and baked salmon with rice - I look in the mirror and notice that my skin is shining.

It's a strangely liberating feeling, I realise, to come away to a resort for the weekend and not stuff yourself with rich foods and soft drinks. On my way to our final 6am sun salutation, I pass a group of European tourists who have clearly been up all night by the pool. They don't look twice when we set out our mats beside the swimming pool and we don't look at them: instead, we're uplifted by the view of the empty pool and the dramatic sunrise.

One more day, one more healthy lunch and three more "Power Hours" later and my jeans are feeling baggier and I'm feeling stronger, mentally clearer and somewhat pampered. It's not a bad result for a long weekend.


Places on the Ultimate Wellness Retreat start from Dh9,000 per person per week, based on two sharing. The package includes accommodation, meals, a personal assessment, daily group and one-to-one fitness sessions, daily yoga classes and the use of resort facilities, including Wi-Fi (www.ptxdubai.com; 050 254 7431).