Al Maha Desert Resort & Spa Dubai review – Hotel Insider

Two decades since it opened, the resort that helped bring Dubai’s Desert Conservation Reserve into existence offers unrivalled wildlife spotting and endless sunset views

In 1999, Al Maha Desert Resort and Spa opened in the Dubai desert, inclusive of plans for a 27-square-kilometre conservation area designed to preserve and protect the natural environment, fauna and flora. Within the conservation reserve, the rehabilitation and revegetation project began with the planting of more than 7,000 indigenous trees and shrubs, and re-introducing 70 Arabian oryx.

During its formative years, Al Maha’s management carried out major environmental audits of the land in which the resort stood, identifying endangered species and rapidly disappearing habitats. Armed with this information, the resort assisted in submitting proposals to authorities regarding the formation of a formal national park.

Dubai's Desert Conservation Reserve accounts for 5 per cent of the emirate's landmass. Courtesy Al Maha / Gerry O'Leary
Dubai's Desert Conservation Reserve accounts for 5 per cent of the emirate's landmass. Courtesy Al Maha / Gerry O'Leary

In 2003, the Dubai Government, with sponsorship from Emirates Airlines, created the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve. Today, this 225-square-kilometre stretch of land constitutes nearly 5 per cent of Dubai’s total land surface area, and remains home to only one desert resort.

Twenty two years after it first opened, Al Maha Desert Resort, a Luxury Collection Hotel, is now part of the Marriott International group and continues to offer guests a nature-centric haven, in what is possibly the last remaining pristine desert landscape in Dubai.

The National went along for a first-hand look.

The welcome

Guests are welcomed into the Arabian-style lobby through solid wooden doors for a swift check-in. 
Guests are welcomed into the Arabian-style lobby through solid wooden doors for a swift check-in. Hayley Skirka / The National

Crossing into Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve, guests need to stop at a rather nondescript cabin where a security guard will check names and reservations. The guard on duty is unsmiling and brisk, and barks that we shouldn't litter, go off-roading or exceed speed limit signs as we make our way to the resort.

Instructions received, we wind through the dunes as it's about an eight-kilometre drive to the resort. On the way, we pass a gleaming red Ferrari, which seems befitting given the resort’s luxury-loving fans; former cricketer and celebrity TV star Andrew “Freddie” Flintoff has previously raved about staying here.

Arriving at the hotel is a much more pleasant experience. Passing through two dune-shaped stone walls, a short drive brings you to the entrance lobby, where staff wait by the shaded water fountain to welcome guests and receive any luggage.

Because of Covid-19 regulations, valet parking is suspended, but self-parking spaces are a few minutes walk away.

We're served an Arabian-inspired welcome drink and check-in is completed swiftly in one of the socially distanced alcoves of the hotel lobby. Before long, we're on the back of a golf cart being chauffer-driven to our tented villa.

The neighbourhood

Located 45 minutes from Dubai, on the road to Al Ain, if seclusion is what you seek from a staycation, then Al Maha Desert Resort is one of the best spots in the country.

Crossing into Dubai's Desert Conservation Area, you’ll have more than 200 kilometres of untouched desert dunes at your feet, making social distancing rather easy. And the fact that there's not a lot else in the area simply serves to make your desert experience all the more authentic.

The safety measures

As a Marriott property, the hotel follows the brand's "Commitment to Clean" programme, which includes reduced interaction between staff and guests, and enhanced cleaning protocols using hospital-grade disinfectants.

Before we enter the hotel lobby, our temperatures are checked and this is repeated at several points during our stay. Clear social distancing reminders are set up in public areas, and all tables and seating areas are spaced well apart. The restaurants offer menus via scannable QR codes and staff wear face masks at all times.

Inside our suite we find some handy face masks and disinfecting wipes.

One of the best things about this place is that if you really want an isolated stay, you can easily spend your entire visit in your private villa and want for nothing. With your own swimming pool, outdoor dining space where meals can be served and a sunset viewing platform, it would be easy to hideaway here, only interacting with the friendly gazelles that occasionally pop in to say hello.

The room

There are 42 suites at the resort, all of which have a private pool. We’re staying in a one-bedroom Bedouin Suite, which is a single-level tented villa with an entrance hall, bedroom and lounge space, outdoor dining area and a huge separate bathroom.

Spacious and well-equipped, the suites have super-king-sized beds, chaise lounges, writing desks, wooden furniture and several Arabian-inspired accessories.

The two-bedroom Royal and Emirates suites, and the three-bedroom Presidential Suite, have a similar set up, but with larger pools, additional bedrooms, private kitchens and even quarters for your staff.

The service

Friendly and polite, staff are also discreet, allowing guests to feel entirely relaxed as they settle into their stay.

Activity staff are knowledgable about the surrounding desert area, and happy to share their expertise with guests during dune drives, camel treks and nature walks.

Housekeeping happens without intrusion, with turn-down services coinciding with moments when guests have left the suite to dine, visit the spa or take part in an activity.

The scene

The main pool at Al Maha appears as if an oasis in the middle of the desert. 
The main pool at Al Maha appears as if an oasis in the middle of the desert. Hayley Skirka / The National

One of few child-free hotels in the UAE, this desert haven is all about relaxation and connecting with nature. Luxurious suites honour the Bedouin lifestyle, while also making you feel like you could easily be an Arabian princess (or prince) as you lounge in your very own temperature-controlled desert oasis overlooking endless dunes.

Nature is all around; spotting gazelles while you meander to dinner or sunbathe on your deck becomes almost commonplace.

The main pool is akin to a glistening watering hole in the midst of the desert, and it's also where guests can find the Timeless Spa and the state-of-the-art fitness centre.

Two desert activities are offered complimentary with full-board stays and you can pick from falconry, nature walks, camel treks, a wildlife drive or the sundowner experience. We tried the latter and it comes highly recommended if you want to enjoy golden hour atop a sand dune in the heart of Dubai without a skyscraper in sight.

The food

Breakfast at Al Diwaan at Al Maha Desert Resort & Spa in Dubai. Courtesy Al Maha / Facebook
Breakfast at Al Diwaan at Al Maha Desert Resort & Spa in Dubai. Courtesy Al Maha / Facebook

All-day dining restaurant Al Diwaan offers indoor and alfresco seating and is a refined affair, with white tablecloths, waistcoated waiters and silver ice buckets. Despite this, the absence of strict dress codes coupled with a desert backdrop keeps things nicely relaxed.

Upstairs, Hajar Terrace Bar is designed for enjoying a beverage while taking in the resort views, but sadly this was closed on our visit because of Covid-19 regulations. In-suite or deck dining is another option, and is ideal if you're trying to minimise your contact with others.

The dinner menu at Al Diwaan spans a wide-selection of meat and fish dishes, as well as some Arabian specialities. Most stays are full-board, so prices are not listed on the menus. We began with the salmon carpaccio, which was thinly sliced and perfectly fresh. The seven-hour braised lamb shank fell off the bone, as we hoped it would, and the Bedouin platter with mahi-mahi fish, grilled jumbo prawns, rice and grilled vegetables was delicious.

Breakfast in Al Diwaan is also memorable, with beautifully-served egg dishes, pancakes, healthy options, fruit platters, pastries and more on the menu.

Highs and lows

A poolside visitor at Al Maha Desert Resort & Spa.
A poolside visitor at Al Maha Desert Resort & Spa. Hayley Skirka / The National

Being in Dubai and being entirely surrounded by nature is something of a novelty given how much the city has developed, and Al Maha makes the most of this unique highlight. It's nice to see that sustainability and nature remain at the forefront of operations and this is noticeable via the free-roaming wildlife, the solar-lit pathways, on-site water purifying facilities and in-room compostable coffee capsules.

The place is also incredibly private, making it a great option for those seeking an isolation staycation.

While it won't be popular with everyone, the no-children-under-10 policy really does help ensure that lazy days in your private pool are not interrupted by the din of screaming children floating across the dunes.

On a downside, if you're planning to spend more than a couple of days here, the lack of dining options could become a low.

The insider tip

The Sundowner experience is well worth a trip into the dunes. 
The sundowner experience is well worth a trip into the dunes. Hayley Skirka / The National

The sundowner experience, while seasonal, is definitely worth doing if you can. After being driven deep into the desert with a spot of easy dune-bashing en-route, guides offer your choice of beverages and then allow guests to find a spot atop one of the many dunes.

As the sun drifts from the sky you can simply sit back and take in the sunset with your someone special. The lighting and the setting are incredible, making it a great place to get some good photographs of your time in the Dubai desert.

The bottom line

A selection of desert activities are offered complimentary to full-board guests to allow visitors to get properly acquainted with the desert landscapes. 
A selection of desert activities are offered complimentary to full-board guests. Courtesy Al Maha

Full-board stays start from Dh4,361 per night, including three meals and two activities, but excluding taxes and beverages.

Free cancellation is available up to five days prior to arrival.

Check-in time is from 2pm and standard checkout time is noon.

Al Maha, a Luxury Collection Desert Resort & Spa, Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve, Dubai - Al Ain Road; 04 832 9900; www.marriott.com

This review was conducted at the invitation of the hotel during the global coronavirus pandemic. It reflects hotel standards during this time, services may change in the future.

Updated: May 2, 2021 01:50 PM

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