Treats and retreats

Youíve been told about hotels in the desert ó those oases of luxury ó but donít know which one to visitÖ This festive season, Khaleej Times gives you a peek into some of the best properties in and around the UAE

To many people the desert is an inhospitable place filled with searing heat, harsh winds, rocky wadis and endless sand. To others itís just an empty space. But to some itís a place for which they save a portion of their monthly salary in order to experience a genuine oasis of Arabia.

And at this time of year many people are looking towards escaping the city for a Christmas or New Yearís Eve break ó even if it means digging a little deeper into those hard-earned dirhams... but once youíve decided to take a break into the desert, a big question looms on the horizon like a dirt devil dancing over a mirage ó where do you go?

Recent years have witnessed a healthy expansion in the desert retreat market, meaning the discerning Gulf-based vacationer has a wealth of choices.

To ensure that you visit the desert retreat thatís right for you, weíve done the legwork to bring you the lowdown on the Top Eight desert retreats in the UAE and Oman. The criteria was simple; they had to be in or near an area of deserted land; not literally in the middle of the Empty Quarter ó although one property can actually claim that title ó but out there, away from the city, in a place that offers tranquillity, relief and relaxation, whilst not forgetting to maintain certain standards that most travellers expect, and seek.

Whilst some prices are on the higher side, donít forget to factor in your savings on airfares, along with putting a price on your time ó spending two hours travelling compared to two days surely has a large value? You donít sit in the office each week without putting a value on your time, so shouldnít you think the same way for your holiday planning?

Whichever hotel you choose, we hope you have a fantastic time and be sure to tell us your thoughts on our Facebook page (www.facebook.com/khaleejtimes) ó Compiled by Charlie R Neyra

Al Maha Desert Resort & Spa

Review:

This is one hotel that everyone who has ever lived the expat life in Dubai should experience. It just gets it right. On every level. The rooms are impeccable. Privacy is assured. The fully inclusive price is hefty, but there are no hidden charges. And oryx roam freely around the property, even drinking from your private plunge pool. To top it all off, itís only a 45-minute drive from downtown Dubai.

Need to know: Oryx can easily be seen at Al Maha, even if you never leave the room

Hotel best for: Romance and high flyers

Dining highlight: The charming, safari-lodge style Al Diwaan restaurant

To spa or not to spa? Definitely visit the beautiful spa

Website/booking: As a Starwood hotel, it is very efficient

Finding it: The hotel sign is too close to the exit road, meaning we missed it and had to go round again to access the hotel

Driving time from Dubai Mall (approx.): 45 mins

Room cost *: Dh4590 (at time of going to press)

Contact: www.al-maha.com

Qasr Al Sarab Desert Resort by Anantara

Review:

In the ultimate guide to desert retreats, this hotel is the ultimate desert retreat, in the literal sense. The vast property is set within the majestic sand dunes of the Empty Quarter, giving the most breathtaking views out of any property on these pages. The hotel itself offers standard rooms sitting aside other guest rooms, but for those with deeper pockets, private villas are available. Dune-bashing is a must.

Need to know: Great for Abu Dhabi residents

Hotel best for: Adventurous types and those able to stay two nights

Dining highlight: The poolside Ghadeer restaurant is stunning

To spa or not to spa? Definitely spa: be massaged whilst enjoying the dunes

Website/booking: Very slick

Finding it: Follow the directions you are sent very closely or wrong turns await

Driving time from Dubai Mall (approx.): This is the major downside. The journey time is around 4.5 hours from Downtown Dubai, assuming you obey speed limits

Room cost *: Dh1670 + 16% fees (at time of going to press)

Contact: www.qasralsarab.anantara.com

Banyan Tree Al Wadi

Review:

This is the new kid on the block and for such a young upstart, itís done incredibly well. The hotel is a classic retreat, tucked away in the rich red dunes of the RAK desert, but it is complemented by a beach resort, thereby offering the best of both worlds. The villa rooms are hard to beat, kitted out with the latest tech, although not being able to pull the curtains back was annoying. The private pools are the biggest out of any hotel visited.

Need to know: A main pool is currently under construction

Hotel best for: Romance and nature-lovers

Dining highlight: Go Thai at Saffron restaurant

To spa or not to spa? Definitely spa. Try the Rainforest experience.

Website/booking: Good, not great

Finding it: Not too easy. No clear map on the website. Signs could be better

Driving time from Dubai Mall (approx.): 1hr 20 mins

Room cost *: Dh1705 (at time of going to press)

Contact: www.banyantree.com/en/al_wadi

Bab Al Shams

Review:

This desert retreat that most people have stayed at is popular because itís good at what it does, and it doesnít charge the Earth (barring peak rates). Whilst it is in the desert, the feel of the property is much closer to a regular hotel, based as it is on the design of a desert fort. The rooms are comfortable, but dark, yet the design means the resort stays cool even in the summer. The highlight is the massive pool and rooftop bar.

Need to know: Many people visit just for the unique dining experience (below)

Hotel best for: Quick breaks from Dubai

Dining highlight: The Arabic dinner at Al Hadheerah needs to be experienced

To spa or not to spa? Maybe spa, but you could save it for one in Dubai

Website/booking: Easy to use

Finding it: There is a map, but it is in the Contact Us section for some reason. With the map, it is very easy to locate the hotel

Driving time from Dubai Mall (approx.): 45 mins

Room cost *: Dh2550 (at time of going to press)

Contact: www.meydanhotels.com/babalshams

Desert Islands by Anantara

Review:

Getting away from it takes on a whole new slant at this retreat. Itís located on a remote island off the coast of Abu Dhabi, which is partly a game reserve for rare species that were once common to the Arabian Peninsula. Whilst the natural environment feels somewhat manmade due to the irrigation, it is still impressive (replete with giraffe and cheetah). The hotel is not as impressive as it needs to be to justify the long journey, featuring a simple design based around a communal pool.

Need to know: If visiting, aim to stay two nights minimum

Hotel best for: Families

Dining highlight: Seafood night at The Palm

To spa or not to spa? There are better activities on the island

Website/booking: Quite slow, but informative

Finding it: The directions were wrong, leading to a 45-minute detour. Check the route with the hotel before departing. It needs to be updated on the website.

Driving time from Dubai Mall (approx.): 5 hrs (including a boat journey, followed by a bus journey across the island)

Room cost *: Dh1550 + 16% fees (at time of going to press)

Contact: desertislands.anantara.com

Desert Palm

Review:

The justification for Desert Palm being part of this list is that you can escape the city and find tranquillity at this property, even if it isnít near to a desert. (Having the word Ďdesertí in its title is somewhat misleading.) But, regardless, it is still a great place to relax, whilst being the closest of the Top Eight to the city. The rooms are elegant, modern, with superb tech, featuring the most comfortable beds on the list.

Need to know: The Desert Palm sits by the Desert Palm Polo Estate, therefore offering green views rather than rolling sand dunes

Hotel best for: People short on time

Dining highlight: Eat in style at Rare restaurant

To spa or not to spa? Spend your time soaking in the roomís large bathtub

Website/booking: Very quick with the best map seen out of all hotels tested

Finding it: Simple

Driving time from Dubai Mall (approx.): 25 mins

Room cost *: Dh1138 (at time of going to press)

Contact: www.desertpalm.peraquum.com

Hatta Fort

Review:

Although the price is higher over Christmas, this hotel is usually the cheapest option being a four-star, not five-star, property. Take slightly lowered expectations and you should enjoy it; there is a rustic, old school charm to the Hatta Fort Hotel, but the food is still good and the drinks still cold. The rooms are big, but not full of the mod cons youíd expect at the top end hotels. Enjoy it for its character and the fresh mountain air.

Need to know: Bring your passport if taking the road that passes through Oman

Hotel best for: Outdoors enthusiasts and romantics

Dining highlight: Good food at Jeema restaurant

To spa or not to spa? No, go for a walk around the property

Website/booking: Efficient and quick

Finding it: Very good maps on the website; easy to find

Driving time from Dubai Mall (approx.): 1 hr 20 mins

Room cost *: Dh2209 for the Christmas Package (at time of going to press)

Contact: www.hattaforthotel.com

Six Senses Zighy Bay (Oman)

Review:

The dramatic mountains that surround the tiny bay in which the resort is based make you feel like you are protected from the outside world, cut off from the rat race, totally away from reality. Location is enough to sell this property, but the rooms are a draw, featuring private plunge pools and an Earthy, almost organic design.

Need to know: The best way to enter is attached to a paraglider

Hotel best for: True escape artists

Dining highlight: Breakfast at the Zighy bar is unbeatable

To spa or not to spa? Definitely spa, especially if colour therapist Katrina Valente is available to soothe away your worries

Website/booking: Very good

Finding it: Be prepared for the tarmac turning to gravel, but stay with it, you are on the right road. There could be a few more signs along the way once into Oman.

Driving time from Dubai Mall (approx.): 1hr 45 mins

Room cost *: Dh5400 (at time of going to press)

Contact: www.sixsenses.com/sixsenseszighybay

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