Midway through a set of stomach crunches, camels start to appear over the dunes in front of us. By the time our workout – an excruciating concoction of leg raises, planks and mountain climbers specifically targeting the core – is over, there are at least 20 of the animals watching on. Grazing on tufts of grass, they seem as unimpressed by our efforts as our trainer, the self-dubbed “Coach Marco”.
We are in the middle of the desert in Ras Al Khaimah, at the Alma Retreat. That’s “retreat” in the purest sense of the word – a place you go to get away from it all; a getaway focused on overall well-being – rather than a retreat that follows the luxury, five-star, UAE-specific tradition. When you have lived here for long enough, it’s easy to forget that there’s a difference.
Alma is a decidedly simple affair. A total of 15 cabins, attractively designed in a jaunty shade of turquoise that calls to mind the architecture of Greek islands, sits on a stretch of desert. Inside the cabins, there's not much room for manoeuvre, but there are cleverly considered design touches – open-air bathrooms out back where you can stand under a rain shower while looking up at the stars; Alma-branded bars of soap crafted in the UAE from camel's milk; and organic amenities that are in line with the overall ethos of the brand.
We had arrived the previous afternoon. Google Maps had deposited us on a dusty track in the middle of nowhere, and there were various wrong turns and heated discussions before we spotted the distinctive blue roofs of our destination. The retreat is located adjacent to the more traditional Bedouin Oasis desert camp – complete with camel rides, dune buggies and ubiquitous red-and-black majlis seating – but Alma exists as the direct antithesis of this. It’s a new way to experience the desert and reconnect with nature (and yourself, for the more spiritually inclined), without the usual clichés and quad bikes.
The afternoon's activities start with a gruelling circuit class, courtesy of Marco, followed by an hour of yoga. I'm no great yogi, but there is a moment when it all starts to fall into place. Midway through our practice, as we move into warrior pose, Diana, our softly spoken instructor, tells us to look out over our index fingers into the horizon. The sun is slowly setting over the dunes ahead, casting a warm orange hue over the sand. The silence is absolute.
The effects of the afternoon’s exertions are eased by a pre-dinner stint in the sweat tent, which promises to help flush out toxins and relax our aching muscles. This Bedouin-style take on the traditional sauna sees us sprawled out on oversized floor cushions in a darkened tent lit only by flickering tea lights, with a mound of heated rocks in the centre and the desert sand beneath our feet. We are joined by Coach Marco and indulge in an impromptu chat about Italian politics, but it becomes increasingly difficult to compose cohesive sentences as I settle into a state of complete relaxation. And that, ultimately, is what we are here for.
Alma is the brainchild of Sarah Arnold, a warm, smiling German expat whose entrepreneurial spirit is matched only by her capacity to conjure up new ideas mid-sentence. She set out to create a place where like-minded people could meet, kick-start a healthier lifestyle, or just get away from the city, taking a couple of days out to do something good for both their body and their mind.
"Having lived in the UAE for nine years, with weekly business travel to Africa, I noticed that stress and imbalance really made me depressive," Arnold tells me. "I went to nature and yoga retreats in India, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Europe and the United States, but just couldn't find anything in the region that could counterbalance a fast-paced city life with a nature-focused, back-to-source feeling. Everything in the UAE is big, fast, luxurious and glamorous… the idea was to create something that countered that. Something small, intimate and community-oriented – with a focus on the heart, mind and body."
Alma’s weekend retreats are designed as a holistic wellness experience – in addition to the fitness and yoga, there are art classes, and the food on offer is all gluten- and dairy-free. Breakfast consists of hearty servings of handmade guacamole, served with gluten-free toast, as well as oats flavoured with raw cocoa and topped with fresh fruit; the coffee and tea are organic; lunch is a perfectly seasoned quinoa salad; and dinner is barbecued chicken and grilled vegetables.
Guests can opt for various meal options, including a juice fast, raw food, vegan, low-carb or portion-controlled menus, but the premise is that everything is healthy, nutritious and, wherever possible, organic. Meals are taken in a communal area at the far end of the camp. The space is purposefully rustic – worn Persian-style carpets cover the floor, furniture is crafted from colourful pieces of reclaimed wood and seating consists of majlis-style floor cushions in Alma’s signature shade of blue. One side of the structure is entirely open to the elements and offers expansive views of the desert from a new perspective. Simple decorative elements, such as fresh flowers, vie for space with board games, books and mounds of organic tea bags. Dinner is a laid-back affair followed by a heated game of Taboo before we settle around a bonfire for some late-night stargazing. We all trail off to bed before midnight, aware that we have an early start – sunrise yoga followed by another torture session, which turns out to be a core workout in front of an unexpected audience of unimpressed camels.
Once this is out of the way, there is a lot of free time, which is perfect for those who want to lie in the sun and soak up some rays, or who are courageous enough to brave the ice bath, but I find myself getting hot and restless. Arnold has partnered with the Bedouin Oasis Camp and Al Wadi Desert Resort in Ras Al Khaimah to offer a host of off-site activities, including archery, horse riding and falconry shows, and I wish that I had had the foresight to book something in advance.
With a maximum capacity of 30 people (at a push), the whole retreat experience is designed to be individualistic and intimate, but things get almost uncomfortably intimate that afternoon, during an art class held by Dubai's Soul Dance & Art Centre. In an attempt to get us to relax and feel more comfortable with other members of the group, the workshop begins with an exercise that involves walking around the room aimlessly until the tutor claps her hands; we then have to make eye contact with the person closest to us, and continue looking them straight in the eye until she claps her hands again. It's awkward and involves a lot of uncomfortable giggling, but it does serve as an icebreaker of sorts. Once we have become sufficiently acquainted with our fellow "artists", we sit in a circle and are given two pieces of blank paper. We are instructed to draw lines on them, letting our hands mindlessly map out patterns. Next, we examine the abstract patterns we have drawn and try to find recognisable shapes and forms within them.
I am not in any way artistically inclined, and yet I inadvertently find myself having fun. I find Donald Duck, a mountain range, a Christmas tree, a fish and a host of other hidden shapes in my mindless doodles. I’m so into it that I end up lying on my stomach, like a child, hogging the coloured crayons and furiously colouring in my (admittedly also childlike) designs. And that’s the thing about the whole Alma experience – it’s only really effective if you fully embrace it.
Alma will run week-long, four- and three-day, and weekend all-inclusive retreats, from November 30. These include the Creative Retreat, the Yoga/Mind Retreat and the Body Balance Retreat; www.iamalma.com