If you want to travel without navigating the complex web that is holidaying in a global pandemic, then staycations can be a good alternative. As Covid-19 rules continue to restrict international travel with requirements for vaccinations, PCR tests and complicated paperwork, booking a short break somewhere in the UAE is an easier, albeit less exotic, way to indulge in some relaxation and a welcome change of scenery.
Abu Dhabi's Al Wathba, a Luxury Collection Desert Resort & Spa, offers exactly that.
Set in the poetic Al Wathba desert, with a sprawling infinity pool that merges into sandy vistas, plus a plethora of activities such as dune-bashing, falconry and archery on the cards, this hotel offers a coveted escape with luxury and isolation aplenty.
The resort is ensconced within Abu Dhabi’s Al Wathba South desert, about 35 minutes from Mussaffah and a few kilometres past the Sheikh Zayed Heritage Festival site and Al Wathba Palace.
While there is no off-roading involved to get there, we almost missed the signpost indicating the turn from one bylane to the other. On following the correct sandy road, we reached the majestic gates of our heritage destination easily enough.
Covid-19 safety measures meant we had to self-park our car, but our luggage was seen to promptly and we then had a swift check-in, only partly delayed because of our indecisiveness on which activity to partake in on what day.
Expect sand, sand and more sand. The beauty of this heritage property is that it feels as though you’re miles away from civilisation. The fact the resort design is inspired by that of a Bedouin village – all Arabesque accessories and a warren of hexagonal courtyards that belie its sprawling size – adds to the feeling of luxe isolation.
The safety measures
The resort has appointed a dedicated health and safety executive who ensures the property adheres to all government-stipulated regulations, as well as oversees sanitisation measures in the rooms, restaurants, spa and pool area. Each room is sealed after sanitisation, so guests feel secure upon checking in and accessing their room for the first time. Throughout the resort, sunbeds and cabanas are cleaned after each use.
The hotel has three room categories – superior, suites and villas. All the one, two and three-bedroom villas come with a private pool, while large families can opt to stay in a self-contained gated compound that comprises one one-bedroom villa, two two-bedroom villas, one three-bedroom villa and a majlis.
The one-bed villa we stayed in reflects the Arabesque touches that can be found across the property, from mashrabiya screens and fanous lanterns to intricate tapestries and a thatch-effect ceiling. The living area is divided into a lounge, dining nook and fully functioning kitchen.
The highlight is the expansive patio, complete with loungers, a seating area and a curtained cabana, all encircling the plunge pool – also infinity-style and overlooking the teeming-with-life desert.
Staff play a big part in making this a luxury resort, with their prompt demeanour and happy-to-serve attitude. At Saray Spa and Bait Al Hanine, where breakfast is served, the staff are at once friendly, knowledgeable and discreet.
Whether or not you’re staying in a villa, catch at least one sunset by the main swimming pool that extends out into the desert. In keeping with the heritage resort vibes, the pool area is surrounded by date palms and large clay pots that beautifully frame the sandy vista.
Elsewhere, Saray Spa – contained within its own compound beyond the reception – is a real treat. Divided into mirroring male and female sections, the spa offers both hot and cold therapy chambers, with each side fitted out with a warm Himalayan salt crystal room, a snow cave, two plunge pools – with freezing and scorching water – a sauna, hammam and steam room, and finally a chamber that allows you to replicate the ice bucket challenge, if you so dare.
For me, it was therapeutic luxury at its best, as was – somewhat paradoxically – the Desert Crawler dune-bashing experience.
The resort has three restaurants – Bait Al Hanine for breakfast and Middle Eastern fare, open from 7am to 11pm; the Italian Terra Secca that serves lunch and dinner from noon to 11pm; and Al Mesayan that’s open on weekends from 4pm to 11pm, and serves bar bites and beverages.
The usual suspects such as breads, sausages and eggs aside, the breakfast menu is replete with healthy dishes that offer interesting flavour combinations. The morning booster (wild rice, avocado, spinach, asparagus, steamed tofu and pumpkin seeds) and grain and berry (organic quinoa, dried berries, arugula, cherry tomatoes and pine nuts) are delicious and will leave you feeling energised for any activity you might have signed up for.
Where you must indulge is the Middle Eastern menu at Bait Al Hanine, which serves a masterful Jordanian lamb mansaf (Dh120) and crunchy kunafa (Dh55).
Highs and lows
The private plunge pool in our villa was at once a luxe treat and a shudder fest (at least for squeamish guests such as myself), given the moths – dead and alive – floating in and around it, particularly late at night, when we deemed it too late to call housekeeping. But the desert vistas right before us more than made up for this little niggle, as did the clear-water Jacuzzi in the spa.
Don't forget to check out Desert Waves, the resort's artificial surfing machine. But head here after the sun sets, both to avoid the boisterous crowds and to enjoy the experience by moonlight. It’s open until 8pm.
If it’s a luxury heritage resort experience that you’re looking for away from the bright city lights, Abu Dhabi's Al Wathba ticks all the boxes.
Check-in is from 3pm, check-out is at noon and overnight stays start from Dh750 ($205) a night on weekdays, excluding taxes.
Al Wathba, a Luxury Collection Resort & Spa, Abu Dhabi; marriott.com