Bab al Shams Resort, Dubai, UAE.

Dreamy Dubai Desert Escapes

You could drive from Dubai to the Liwa Oasis to see stupendous desert dunes or you could just drive an hour out of the city and check in to one of two dreamy Dubai desert escapes. Or just do a drive. The desert really is on Dubai’s doorstep.

The Liwa Oasis

We’re watching a herd of tan and chocolate-coloured camels chewing on desert grasses, dwarfed by the colossal peach-coloured Moreeb Dune (Tal Mireeb in Arabic), which at 287 metres is the largest sand dune in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). During the Liwa Festival, the local Emirati men drive their four-wheel drives up this immense sandy mountain for fun.

We’re in the Liwa Oasis, in the emirate of Abu Dhabi, some 100 kilometres south of the capital in Al Gharbia region, where we’ve driven from Dubai, some 380 kilometres by road (270 as the crow flies), through some of the most stunning undulating apricot and taupe-coloured sand dunes we’ve ever seen.

In the UAE, this is considered to be the real desert. This is explorer Wilfred Thesiger’s Arabia.

In places, the shifting sands stretch across the bitumen road. At times they bury sturdy fences. There’s nothing else to see except the occasional herd of camels or gazelles, small shrubs, and the extraordinary ‘desert roses’, flower-like crystallized gypsum, seemingly ‘blooming’ from the sand.

The Liwa Oasis is the original home of the powerful Bani Yas tribe, whose members include the Al-Nahyan and Maktoum families, now the rulers of Dubai and Abu Dhabi respectively, who lived here until the Al-Nahyans moved their residence from Liwa to Abu Dhabi in 1793. The area has a special place in the hearts of Emiratis.

A string of tiny villages and patchwork of farms and date plantations spread over the 100-kilometre long, fertile arc-shaped Oasis are the southernmost settlements of the UAE. Beyond are the beginnings of the uninhabited Rub’al-Khali, the Empty Quarter, and the Saudi Arabian border, just over 16 kilometres away.

Locals love to come to the Liwa for weekends and holidays to get back to their roots, to kick back in the cool of the oases, to drive their vehicles over the dunes, and to take in the spectacular landscapes.

The Liwa is best experienced on your own wheels so you can stop to take photographs, but it’s a fairly dull four-hour drive from Dubai. The route via Hameem is the most scenic. Once you’re here, it’s worth it. Nothing compares to a desert escape – the drive along sand swept roads, the first sighting of a camel, and the activity of camel spotting that follows. The sun is stronger, the skies are clearer, and the silence is sublime.

One of the best things about Dubai is that the desert is at its doorstep. Although it’s wonderful to visit Liwa, it’s not absolutely necessary. Some splendid sand and postcard vistas of camels crossing the desert can be experienced less than an hour’s drive out of Dubai.

Locals endeavour to get out of the city regularly – there’s nothing like the desert to clear the head – whether it’s for a weekend drive, a spot of camping, or a couple of days relaxing at a desert resort. Just half an hour out of Dubai and you’ll see your first roaming camel heading for a lush oases. Dubai has two dreamy desert escapes less than hour from the city.

Bab Al Shams Desert Resort and Spa

Sprawling Bab Al Shams Desert Resort and Spa is set in palm-shaded gardens overlooking apricot-shaded desert sands. Inspired by a traditional Arabian-style desert fort, its secret stairways, secluded courtyards, and hidden terraces make it wonderfully easy to feel like you could get lost in its labyrinthine layout.

There is a sunken courtyard with fireplace that is lit in the evening, trickling fountains and ponds, and courtyards with shaded banquette seating scattered with cushions that are perfect for curling up with a book, all enchantingly illuminated by candles and lanterns at night.

By day you can sunbathe by the enormous swimming pool, gaze at the desert sands from your sun bed, or enjoy some pampering at the spa. That’s if you can drag yourself away from your room. The spacious rooms are supremely comfortable, decorated in a rustic Arabian style with slate floors, heavy dark wooden furniture, traditional kilims, Moroccan lanterns, and Bedouin antiques. All mod cons like television and DVD/CD player are tucked away within cupboards.

There’s a lovely cushioned nook by the window for relaxing and some rooms come with balconies or garden terraces. The hammam-like bathrooms have henna patterns decorating the terracotta walls and Blooms Dead Sea toiletries, including much-needed sunblock.

While we generally don’t stray far from the swimming pool by day, come late afternoon everyone here turns their attention to the sand dunes beyond the pool where you can take a ride on a camel or watch a falconry display. At dusk, we head to the sprawling rooftop Al Sarab bar (pictured above) where we snag a cosy nook for some sheesha while we savour the sunset and live oud music.

Our full desert experience is completed with an Arabic feast, bellydancing, live Arabic music, and a whirling dervish, at the outdoor Al Hadheerah Desert Restaurant.
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Al Maha Desert Resort and Spa

An equally dreamlike desert experience can be had at Al Maha, which is even more romantic and exclusive. Children and visitors are not allowed. The eco-tourism resort is part of the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve (DDCR). Al Maha is Arabic for oryx and the resort is named after the endangered scimitar-horned oryx, which the DDCR has been breeding successfully as part of its wildlife program.

Al Maha offers much more privacy than Bab Al Shams. The accommodation is in sumptuous stand-alone, tent-roofed suites, each with their own chilled plunge pools that are perfect for a dip with a drink come sunset. From the enormous bedroom and living room there are sublime floor to ceiling views across the pool of the white oryx grazing on desert grass on the spectacular tangerine and copper-coloured sand dunes.

Al Maha also offers a larger range of activities compared to Bab Al Shams, and most are included in the price. In addition to falconry displays and camel rides, there are desert safaris and horse rides.

We loved the wildlife and nature drives, led by knowledgeable DDCR rangers, which allow you to see oryx and gazelles up close. But we were particularly fond of the sunset camel ride where we’re rewarded for our efforts with champagne and strawberries as we watch the sun go down over the jaw-dropping dunes.

There’s no open-air desert restaurant like Bab Al Shams, although there’s a colonial-style dining room and you can also take meals in your suite. Best of all, the resort can organise a candlelit desert picnic under the stars.

If you fancy taking in more dunes than those you can see from the edge of the infinity pool, then float over the Dubai desert in a hot air balloon. (The staff can arrange the experience.) You’ll get a greater appreciation of the myriad colours, forms, and shapes of the sands from your birds-eye-view as you gently fly over the spectacular landscape.

Al Maha Desert Resort and Spa website

Scenic Self-Drive Desert Routes

If your time or budget doesn’t allow for a dreamy desert escape at a luxury resort, then the least you can do is hire a car, grab a map, and take a drive.

Once you get out of Dubai, driving is easy and stress-free, and there are some great roads in excellent condition that pass through splendid desert scenery.

If you don’t have the time to drive to Liwa, then head in the direction of Al Ain where you can stop to marvel at magnificent orange sand dunes on the approach to Al Ain around Shabat.

From Al Ain you can take the Hatta Rd to Shwaib for enormous rust-red dunes dotted with white gazelles.

Alternatively take the Sharjah to Kalba Rd and then Road 149 to Mahafiz where you can gawk at the camel-coloured sands that make camel-spotting a challenge. This good road wends its way through farms set at the foot of softly undulating sand dunes.

A Desert Safari

If you don’t want to drive yourself, do a desert safari with an established tour operator such as Arabian Adventures, which takes you out to a Bedouin-style campsite, although half the fun is getting there.

On the way you can experience some exhilarating, dare-devil ‘dune-bashing’ in a four wheel drive (apparently not as violent on the dunes as it sounds), and once at the camp you can do some sand-boarding and a sunset camel ride, have some henna tattoos, feast on an Arabic buffet under the stars, and enjoy some belly-dancing before returning to Dubai.

It’s also possible to stay overnight, which you need to arrange in advance. As everybody else appears to return to Dubai, staying overnight is a special experience – it’s just you, your camel handler-cum-camp site caretaker, some scorpions (that’s why you’ll sleep on carpets on a high wooden platform), and the silence of the desert at night.

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