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When planning a special birthday holiday for my partner this year - to the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix - I decided to splash out and treat us to a calming desert experience after the frenetic pace of the city .... and I am so glad I did, it was worth every penny! With my background in zoology I knew all about the plight of the Arabian Oryx and had always had a dream of experiencing the 'real' desert ... I've been to plenty of desert areas in sub-Saharan Africa but never to anywhere on the scale of the sand dunes in Arabia!
The Dubai Desert Conservation area surrounds Al Maha (which is the local name for the Oryx) and the resort has had a protected the area around the hotel for many years now. The resort area is fenced to protect the animals living within it and numbers of both the Arabian Oryx and the Arabian Gazelle have more than doubled since they have been looking after the land. Natural freshwater was found under the desert here, so the authorities decided that fresh water was more valuable than oil in the desert and put a protection order on the land, which they still support to this day. The water is irrigated to fill water holes for wildlife and to water the hundreds of trees and plants which have been grown in the conservation area.
So .... after a two hour drive from Abu Dhabi, the traffic got less and less until we turned off into the sand dunes. As we got closer to Al Maha the dunes got larger and we had our first glimpse of some gazelles. Being warmly welcomed and introduced to our personal guide, Shaz, we were shown to our room .... WOW! Seriously, the square footage of our room and 'garden' were probably bigger than that of my cottage in Suffolk! A huge 4 poster bed looked out past two 'lounge chairs' over our own private pool to the desert floor below.... the bathroom had a very deep tub and a rain shower and the lobby area had a full coffee and tea making facilities. There are lovely touches in all the rooms such as an artists easel with a sketch pad and pastels, binoculars and field guides and thoughtful snacks and reading materials. Outside the wrap around deck provides shade for Al Fresco dining and two very comfy sun loungers by the pool. This is more than a 'plunge pool' you can actually swim in it!
Eager to make the most our short time here, after a leisurely lunch on our deck, surrounded by gazelles and birds (it was like a scene from Snow White! see the video)
We headed out with Shaz in the late afternoon to take a wildlife drive to see the Oryx in the reserve. Than back for a quick change we were taken to some high dunes from where we could look back on the lodge as the sun set with a glass of fizz in hand ... gorgeous. We travelled to the dunes in 'first class' (according to Shaz!), but there is a 'business class' option of riding camels to the sundowner spot!
Next morning, our only full day at Al Maha, we were up very early to walk down below the dining deck of the lodge to experience the falconry display. This was really lovely - it was superb to learn about the ancient desert culture of falconry and the birds themselves were real characters, including Hannibal, a 14 year old Tawny Eagle who likes to hang upside down off his keepers arm, he's described as a 'naughty teenager'! We were then told not to have breakfast before we went on a longer drive on our 'jeep safari' .... we soon found out why!!
Driving over increasingly higher and higher sand dunes, we exited the gates around the Al Maha boundary (all of these fences are manned to stop unwanted visitors!) and were actually in the neighbouring Emirate of Sharjah (Al Maha is in Abu Dhabi Emirate). Sharjah is home to MASSIVE orange sand dunes! As far as you could see were beautiful, wind carved dunes, their patterns rippling to merge into the sky on the horizon. Driving along the edges of the dunes was a bit hair raising I have to say, but we were in the best hands with Shaz who has been driving in the desert for 19 years, but I was thankful he had told us to skip breakfast!! Eventually we stopped and climbed to the top of one of the dunes for a break ... you could hear a pin drop. Hard to believe that there is still life out in this barren wilderness - I wanted to see Jerboas but the closed I got were their little footprints in the sand!
Heading back to Al Maha we were certainly ready for breakfast after a very busy morning and celebrated with a Bloody Mary! The rest of the day was spent lounging in our room, another poolside late lunch before I treated myself to a massage in the beautiful spa. That evening we enjoyed 'happy hour' (which actually lasts 3 hours!) and some cocktails on the bar terrace watching the stars come out to play.
The second (and final) morning I was intending to have a lie in after the fun filled previous day, but getting up to photograph the sunrise, I just wanted to sit and watch the view for ages, so poured myself more tea and sat for a few hours with the binoculars watching the gazelles as they appeared from the early morning mist over the plains ... one of the very tame gazelles who had been hanging around our room even posed for my by the pool! (below)
All too soon it was time to say goodbye to Al Maha as we were driven to Al Ain where I caught up with one of my best friends from Chester Zoo days who I hadn't seen for 16 years! Thank you to the team at Al Maha who were extremely attentive and to our wonderful guide Shaz who was a wealth of knowledge and wonderful fun - we will be back!
Travel With Jules can tailor make your holidays to Al Maha and being just a 45 minute drive from Dubai airport this is a brilliant alternative to a 'Dubai stopover' if, like me, cities are not your thing! I would say you really need about 4 nights here to take everything in and enjoy relaxing but if you are on a stopover why not enjoy a desert experience with 2 nights at Al Maha?
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