Exclusive first review of Bab Al Shams, Dubai's oldest desert resort - Hotel Insider

The now entirely reimagined five-star, dune-surrounded getaway was the first of its kind to open in the emirate nearly 20 years ago

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As Dubai’s original desert resort, Bab Al Shams has something of a legendary place in the city’s history. Mention it to anyone who has lived here for a while and there’s a good chance they’ll have a memory of the resort or even a story to share about it.

For me, it was where I took my parents on their very first visit to Dubai, about 14 years ago. We didn’t stay, but enjoyed dinner and a horse-filled Arabian show amid the surrounding sand dunes. For one of my friends, it’s where she spent her first wedding anniversary and for another, it’s where she delivered the news of her first baby to her in-laws.

Now, 19 years after it first opened, the resort has been transformed into the first property from Kerzner International’s new Rare Finds collection. Bab Al Shams, A Rare Finds Desert Resort, has reopened to the public after a 10-month closure and The National was invited for the exclusive first media review. Here's what we discovered …

The welcome

Turning off Al Qudra Road into the resort, there is a noticeable change of pace almost immediately as the road beings to curve along a sand-lined border backed by lanterns, trees, shrubs and colourful flowers. Perhaps it's because I'm so engrossed in this transition that I miss the turn-off for the hotel — although a few other guests later share that they also did the same thing. Worry not, it's an easy circle back around to reach the double-height wooden gates at the entrance of the Arabian fort-style hotel.

Bab Al Shams's new Rare Finds sunset-inspired logo adorns the top of the tower-like entrance, where I soon find valet staff who are quick to take my car and luggage. Stepping inside the hotel, there's no grand lobby in sight. Instead, it feels very much like entering someone's luxurious home, with low ceilings, intimate seating and a cosy central sofa area where guests are offered tea and dates as they wait to check-in.

The neighbourhood

Inside Al Marmoum Desert Conservation Reserve, Bab Al Shams is housed in the first unfenced nature reserve in the UAE, part of Saih Al Salam desert. It's near the popular Al Qudra cycling track and is reachable in a little over an hour's drive from Abu Dhabi or about 45 minutes from Dubai.

Checking in here brings a feeling of escape from the city, and the team have plenty of experience in sourcing the best nearby dune driving destinations, hidden man-made lakes and untouched semi-desert landscapes. Equestrian fans might be interested to learn that Dubai Endurance City is right next to the resort. This purpose-built development facilitates endurance racing for horses, and hosts regular events during the winter months. There's also a petrol station at Last Exit, only a five-minute drive from the resort, which proved rather handy when my petrol light flashed orange as I departed.

The room

More than half of the hotel's 115 guest rooms and suites are currently open for reservation and interest is reportedly high, with the hotel reporting a constant stream of reservations for the weeks and months following the reopening. I'm staying in a Terrace Desert View Room on the ground floor, and it's beautifully designed in a delicate palette of creams, brushed golds and mild browns peppered with pops of ochre and teal. Anyone who has stayed here before will instantly notice how much brighter the rooms appear. A king-size bed with a velvet headboard takes centre stage, illuminated by pendant-style lighting. A round table and two plush armchairs sit in front of a mirrored TV unit — and there’s also a small majlis area underneath a window with views of the terrace.

An imposing cream and brown leather-studded minibar cabinet illuminates when the doors open to reveal tea and coffee-making facilities, glassware and a well-stocked fridge. There’s plenty of storage space with a wardrobe and inbuilt drawers, as well as a tiled and mirrored alcove by the front door that’s ideal for sliding suitcases into.

The rooms were entirely reconstructed during the hotel’s renovation, and the exposed wooden ceiling beams are inlaid with spotlights, while air-conditioning units have been concealed behind mashrabiya-patterned panels. A ceiling fan with palm-shaped blades adds a modern tropical touch. The bathrooms have also changed substantially. They're now fitted out in cream tiling with mother-of-pearl and brushed gold accents, and the old bathtubs have been replaced with walk-in showers.

Wooden and glass doors lead out to a small terrace where there's a shaded bench area as well as a table and chairs placed to make the most of the room's sweeping desert vistas. There’s also a tiny garden filled with greenery. Unfortunately, the terrace isn't overly private with nothing separating one garden from the next, which means I don’t really get to make the most of mine as the neighbours seem to be on theirs every time I step outside. Hopefully, as the topiary grows, it will offer a bit more seclusion.

The service

Staff are welcoming and friendly, greeting guests every time they pass by them on the property. Staff members that were previously employed at Bab Al Shams before the hotel changed hands to Kerzner International were given the option of retaining their job, meaning a large majority of staff already have a wealth of knowledge about the resort. In the hotel’s restaurants, staff are knowledgeable and enthusiastic — with special mention to Mohamed Ferjani, the enigmatic Egyptian chef heading up Al Hadheerah.

Check-in is a little slow, but given that I'm staying on day one of the hotel’s opening, I’ll put that down to teething problems.

The scene

Dubai’s original desert escape very much still fulfils the same function it always has, offering a place where guests can escape the hub of the city and reconnect with the magic of the Arabian dunes. Its location in Al Marmoon means it has unrivalled access to untouched deserts and man-made wetlands thriving with wildlife. A brand-new experience centre at the resort offers a place where guests can find out all they need to know about the myriad activities on offer — with everything from horseriding, fat biking and desert drives to hot-air balloons.

Entirely family-friendly, the resort has three swimming pools, including a separate one geared towards children. There’s a well-equipped kids' club, and an outdoor playground with timber slides, swings and climbing frames. A lawn area offers games such as croquet and cornhole, and is a good space for children to run around, as are the surrounding desert dunes.

Every day before sunset, guests are invited to gather for complimentary falconry displays, archery and camel rides — activities that are a big hit with children and adults alike.

As part of its Rare Finds DNA, there's an emphasis on allowing travellers to connect with the destination. During our stay, we're treated to an entertaining deep dive into the history of Emirati coffee from talented guides at MyDeleel, a tour guiding company in Dubai offering authentic Emirati experiences to visitors.

The food

The all-day dining restaurant has been transformed into Zala, offering a distinctly Mediterranean theme via its warm terracotta and bright turquoise colour palette, and the variety of cuisine available at breakfast, lunch and dinner. The breakfast buffet has a fantastic spread with cereals, fresh fruit, pastries, hot dishes, live manakeesh and egg stations, and an Emirati honey bar. There’s also a choice of gluten-free, vegan, vegetarian and non-dairy options.

Ya Hala cigar bar is a cosy space for those seeking Cuban delights and the Lobby Lounge is a stunning alcohol-free bar that takes up the central area of the main building. Natural light floods this indoor-outdoor bar where mixologists serve a wide menu of carefully crafted mixed drinks using premium ingredients and specially sourced alcohol-free drinks. I try a passion fruit martini and I'm impressed.

Guests seeking to truly indulge in all things Arabia can head to Al Hadheerah for dinner. A short distance by golf buggy or via a flame-lit desert walk from the resort, this open-air dining experience serves a nightly feast (Dh399 on weekdays, Dh499 on weekends).

The experience starts with a wander through a small souq — where traders sell pashminas, sand art and souvenirs. In the market-style culinary area is one of most extensive buffet spreads I've seen. There's everything from seven-hour-cooked lamb ouzi, biryani and Umm Ali inspired by the chef’s grandmother’s recipe, to live cooking stations whipping up mixed grills, freshly baked bread, Moroccan tagine and Turkish gyros. There’s also a small vegan corner, an endless parade of salads and a few vegetarian dishes.

The dining space has been redesigned in a modern Arabian style with intricately carved wood and rich hues. While guests dine, they're treated to a nightly show featuring talented musicians, dancers and performers showcasing elements of Arabian entertainment from across the Gulf and beyond. It's quite an experience, and is open to both hotel guests and non-guests.

In the very near future, Bab Al Shams will open Awna, a pan-Asian restaurant that has impressive sunset views. This will be followed by the launch of a yet-to-be-named, double-level dining concept, which will take over the space that formerly housed Masala, an Indian restaurant, with more details to come soon.

Highs and lows

For an escape to nature that's less than an hour outside the city, Bab Al Shams is hard to beat. Extensive new upgrades expel spaces that were looking a little tired, replacing them with an inviting, modern Arabian aesthetic. Guests still feel as if they are in an Arabian resort, but the nuances are a lot more subtle than some other desert getaways offer and the play of sunlight on some of the surfaces are nothing short of beautiful. There's also a host of amazing experiences on offer.

The terraces outside the guest rooms could be a bit more private, and noise carries easily through the resort, especially after dark or in the stillness of daybreak. Thankfully, it's not the type of resort that attracts a high percentage of noisy revellers.

The insider tip

Equestrian fans should book a horse-riding experience for the chance to roam the dunes on a bespoke excursion on top of a retired Arabian racehorse.

The verdict

One of Dubai’s hideaway stalwarts is still a fantastic place for a weekend getaway, a chance to reconnect with the desert and a family-friendly escape. Preserving its original Arabian fort design, the new Bab Al Shams resort pairs authenticity with understated elegance and a twist of sophistication.

The bottom line

Stays at Bab Al Shams start from Dh1,170 per night, including breakfast but excluding taxes; www.babalshams.com

This review was conducted at the invitation of the hotel

Updated: February 16, 2023, 10:52 AM