Being asked to write a review for the Al Maha Desert resort in Dubai came with two small but nonetheless important considerations, which I felt compelled to address before I left the UK. First amongst these was its setting, Dubai. Now, I have no problem in the idea of building garish and over the top paradigm of excess and opulence in a desert per se, in fact I find it quite intriguing how the state and the Dubai Holding Group have project managed the city. It is not on my list of places to visit necessarily, but the Al Maha promised something very different. So we took the road untraveled and ventured onto consideration two, I consulted the oracle that is TripAdvisor. Now to say I am not TripAdvisor’s staunchest supporter is an understatement, however I did see that Al Maha was the top listing for Dubai, no small praise.
Upon landing in Dubai, we hired a car to escape the metropolis and so we saw the various towers and hotels that have been erected at seemingly lightning speed. We drove past “Dubailand” an unfinished behemoth of a theme park; about which, when asked, no one seems to know anything about. It seems that Dubai may be running out of proverbial steam when it comes to excessive development of the desert. Then half way to Al Ain, we turned down a dusty track, through a small gate and were met by a khaki dressed South African guide called Duane, and from this moment nothing was short of perfection. Driving though the first few kilometres of this 250 sq km private reserve, he outlined the activities that we could indulge in during our one night short stay. We could choose two free activities from a list that mixed traditional such as archery, or falconry, and the more modern “4×4 Dune bash” and the suchlike.
Arriving at the resort, it was clear that when Emirates built Al Maha in the 1990s they knew exactly what they were doing. Every suite had its own access and privacy that even before setting foot in one you knew was exceptional. Arriving at reception we were met and introduced to the facilities, nothing was too much trouble and we were encouraged to make full use of all the facilities. The location is simply amazing – if you wanted a holiday reminiscent of all of the classic period Hollywood images of Arabian nights, this would be your setting. The restaurant and bar have a majestic panoramic view of endless sand dunes, the first real desert I have ever seen, despite having been to several! The rooms are based on Bedouin tents and are spread around a few watering holes which make the impression of being in an Oasis that bit more realistic. All are beautifully appointed, dark wood and antiques are mixed with the usual plethora of modern technology, plus the private infinity plunge pool. Sitting there and looking over the desert was one of the most magical if slightly surreal experiences of my life.
The food at the Al Maha was extremely well executed, using top ingredients by a chef who had clearly trained at some of the world’s best restaurants. The first thing we ate was a simple Arabic mezze – it was lunch and I wasn’t that hungry and this beautiful quartet came into view, the finest baba ghanoush I have ever sampled, smoky yet succulent and topped with pomegranate seed. The humus and tabbouleh were sublime, and deep fried balls of spiced mince completed a real “hole in one” at the first time of eating. For dinner, the kitchen pulled out all the stops again. The lobster ravioli was perfect, and the sashimi plate, while unnerving to be eating in a desert, was delicious. We both settled on the Wagyu fillet which was served with a cep emusion and braised onions. It was lovely but I think in fairness I am a bit over Wagyu, especially the fillet. The texture was butter soft but I prefer an aged rib or rump for the flavour. However, this is completely personal and it met with unconditional love from across the table. Desserts were again excellent, a banana and date parfait seemed wholly appropriate for the location and a deconstructed raspberry ripple showed a bit of humour, albeit constrained.
The next morning we took to our 4×4 to partake in a dune bash. In thick mist we drove up and down and round sand dunes until we had pronounced seatbelt rash. This wasn’t quite as exhilarating as I had thought it might be but really I should have gone for the archer or falconry, so it’s my own fault for wanting to decimate the lovely dunes in a off road vehicle! Breakfast was another delight and we gradually found our 12 o’clock check out time rapidly approaching. We quickly investigated the spa area which, being an infrequent spa user, seemed well appointed with the same level of personal and professional staff that exists throughout the resort.
After leaving and upon contemplations, this was one of the finest hotels I have ever stayed in, not just the level of service, food, comfort and location, but for one altogether more ethereal reason. It is not as you would imagine the Dubai of the early 2000s, but instead, offers a real taste of what the state could achieve if it mixed its vibrant traditions with a modicum of modernity, with real taste and sophistication. Al Maha is reason enough to want to drive an hour into the desert.
Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve
PO Box 118887
United Arab Emirates