These are unusual times, and the state of affairs can change quickly. Please check the latest travel guidance before making your journey. Our writer visited these hotels pre-pandemic.
There’s more to the UAE than gleaming metropolises you know? Beyond Dubai’s towering horizon of look-at-me landmarks and hotels lie rustic retreats nestled between the dunes, eagerly awaiting adventurous guests who yearn to explore the sweeping desert landscapes that stretch away towards the heart of the Arabian Peninsula. Here’s our pick of the best hidden desert resorts, safari camps and hotels in the UAE, including near Dubai and Abu Dhabi.
RAS AL KHAIMAH
The Ritz-Carlton Ras Al Khaimah, Al Wadi Desert
Just north of Dubai, Ras Al Khaimah’s Ritz-Carlton offers guests an elevated spa experience among the dunes. Beyond age-defying Espa facials and spiced oil massages, there’s “The Rainforest”. This hydrothermal suite has 16 stations, among them the “Igloo” with crushed ice body scrubs, a hammam, salted steam room, herbal sauna and pebble foot spa. The gym is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Horse, pony and camel riding lessons are also available, alongside archery, biking, stargazing, bird-spotting and nature tours of Al Wadi’s 1,235-acre protected reserve. After all that, sleeping is easy in luxury Bedouin-inspired villas with private pools and wraparound views of the desert.
Bab Al Shams Desert Resort & Spa
The original Arabian desert retreat, Bab Al Shams opened in 2004, intended as luxury lodgings for Dubai’s equestrian set in Al Qudra, occupied only by stables and racetracks (and now with the addition of cycle paths and man-made lakes). Its name translates as Gateway to the Sun, which makes sense as you watch the sun rise from the comfort of the resort’s infinity pool. By night, stars help navigate the way to Al Hadheerah, one of a handful of restaurants, best described as an experience. Part culinary bazaar, part cultural theatre, Arabian singers croon, drummers dance to a beat of their own and horse and camel riders re-enact historical tales. At weekends, there are even fireworks (babalshams.com).
• The best hotels in Dubai
Al Maha means “The Oryx” and you are likely to spot several at this dreamy resort in the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve. These majestic antelope with white coats and black horn crowns patrol the horizon, while Disney-like gazelles skip right up to the tented suites to sip from the private pools. This boutique retreat has one restaurant and one lounge, both equipped with verandas that capitalise on the views. Daily treats (covered in the room rates) include afternoon tea with strawberries and cream and camel milk smoothies and two activities; choose between archery, camel trekking and nature drives with passionate field guides.
Platinum Heritage Overnight Safari
It can be hard to discern one desert safari from another. Most include dune-bashing with a trained driver in a Toyota Land Cruiser, a buffet in a Bedouin-style camp on Persian rugs, shisha, camel rides, henna tattoos, falconry and, perhaps, a belly dancer. Platinum Heritage has a different agenda. Guests are driven through Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve in vintage open-top Land Rovers, the preferred mode of transport in Fifties Dubai. After dinner, they sleep in traditional Arabian stone dwellings, albeit with comfier bedding, before being gently woken with a gourmet breakfast in time for a sunrise hot air balloon ride.
Overnight desert safari and hot air balloon flight from AED2,100/£420 per person (platinum-heritage.com)
Telal Resort Al Ain
This boutique hotel, ringed by trees and tucked within the peaks of Remah desert, hides two pools, a spa, zip line, sand zorb ball, quad bikes and a restaurant. Once a Bedouin stamping ground, it remains popular with rare antelopes, the Domani, Reem and Arabian oryx. Pretty Al Ain, “The Garden State” is close by and it’s just two hours from Dubai airport, less from Abu Dhabi. The largest villa has four bedrooms, plus a private pool and spa. Authentically Emirati standard rooms have wicker-covered ceilings, elaborately carved furniture and striped, red al sadu weave fabrics. Bring your own nightcaps, as Telal isn’t licensed.
• The best hotels in Abu Dhabi
Anantara Sir Bani Yas Island
Arriving on Sir Bani Yas Island by private plane sets a decadent tone. Seaplanes and boats also service this designated conservation area, earmarked for preservation by the first president of the United Arab Emirates. The Arabian Wildlife Park is occupied by more than 10,000 animals and three Anantara-managed properties; inland, Al Sahel Villas on the sand offers the most authentic safari experience. Wildlife to spy through binoculars includes Arabian oryx, exotic wildcats, giraffes, gazelles and the lesser Egyptian jerboa, which looks like a mouse-sized kangaroo. Daily guided tours are the main draw.
Read the full review: Anantara Sir Bani Yas Island
Qasr Al Sarab Desert Resort by Anantara
Qasr Al Sarab’s castle-like exterior reflects traditional Bedouin forts of yesteryear and its immersive desert experience is spellbinding. Artefacts are plentiful in common areas and hotel thoroughfares, windows and doors have been designed with tradition in mind, while dimly lit lanterns and falaj-style water systems are a nod to days gone by. The sunsets are as incredible as you’ll see anywhere and the changing vistas just as enchanting – it’s easy to see why the producers of Star Wars: The Force Awakens chose to film here.
Arabian Nights Village
The village approach is dramatic, with twin fortress watchtowers emerging from behind a gigantic dune, and then the smell of freshly brewed cardamom-spiced coffee mingling with the woody perfume of bakhoor, the local incense made using hand-me-down recipes. Paths shaped like palms, ambiently lit like Christmas trees by night, weave through clusters of spacious tents and stone rooms, 36 in total, their walls lined with al sadu weave or palm frond latticework. At Al Maqam, guests feed their inner Bedu with meats and Arabian flatbreads after days of camel trekking, quad biking, dune bashing and sand boarding.
Overnight desert experience, inclduing activities, for two adults from AED900/£180 (arabiannightsvillage.com)
Mysk Al Faya Retreat
In the Sixties, a grocery store, clinic and petrol station were built an hour’s drive east of Dubai on a lonely road snaking between mountain and desert deep within Sharjah. Typical of mid-century modern architecture in Britain at the time, the single-storey blocks with steel-framed windows were later abandoned and might have crumbled to dust. But the local authorities had another idea: design firm Anarchitect was commissioned to turn the plot into a five-room boutique retreat, incorporating the original buildings and adding a spa, a pool and a terrace restaurant with atmospheric firepits. The effect is compelling, with one lone rusting BP pump standing in what’s now the lodge’s forecourt as a sculpture and reminder of the region’s past.
Doubles from AED809/£160 per night. Currently, the property is offering buyout bookings (all five rooms) at AED4,043/£800 per night (al-faya-lodge.hotels-sharjah-uae.com)
Contributions by Melinda Healy