Dreamy Dubai desert escapes range from road trips along sand-swept highways to Liwa Oasis at the edge of the Empty Quarter to stays at romantic desert resorts set amidst dramatic dunes and date palms an easy drive from Dubai.
The desert really is on Dubai‘s doorstep. Just drive half an hour out of Dubai and you’ll see your first roaming camel heading for a lush oases. So when you need to get out of the city and away from the gridlocked traffic and towering skyscrapers, dreamy Dubai desert escapes are easy to do.
And 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.
Locals and expats 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.
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 an exclusive desert resort.
These are our recommendations for dreamy Dubai desert escapes, the city getaways we loved to do during our eight years living in the United Arab Emirates.
Dreamy Dubai Desert Escapes
Road Trip to the Liwa Oasis and Edge of the Empty Quarter
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 just for fun.
We’re in the Liwa Oasis within the Liwa Desert in the emirate of Abu Dhabi, around 100 kilometres south of the capital in Al Gharbia region. We’ve driven here from Dubai, some 380 kilometres by road (270kms as the crow flies), through some of the most stunning undulating apricot and taupe-coloured sand dunes we’ve ever seen.
In the UAE, the Liwa desert is is considered to be the real desert. This is explorer Wilfred Thesiger’s Arabia.
Here in the Liwa, 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 crystallised 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 Desert 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 though.
Where to Stay in the Liwa Desert
Anantara Qasr al Sarab Desert Resort
Inspired by a desert castle, the luxurious five-star Qasr Al Sarab epitomises a dreamy desert escape. Beautiful big rooms are decorated in earthy tones with Oriental lanterns, tribal kilims and studded wooden chests, and bathrooms have deep baths and rain showers. The rooms have either covered balconies with nooks with cushion covered seats or private terraces with sunbeds, dining rooms and in some cases plunge pools. Wherever you look there are panoramic views of the stupendous sand dunes. There’s a stunning outdoor pool, surrounded by palm trees, and the spa has an authentic hammam. Activities include desert walks, camel treks, horse riding,dune bashing, archery, and mountain biking, and there’s a kid’s club.
Book Anantara Qasr al Sarab Desert Resort online with our booking partner Booking.com.
When we used to trek out here updating the Lonely Planet guides, the Liwa Hotel in the settlement of Mezairaa was the only hotel in the Liwa Oasis, aside from a dumpy government guest house, and remains a favourite of locals and expats looking for good value accommodation over luxury. While the decor of the rooms may be dated, the lounge bar has a rather charming retro feel about it. The views aren’t as impressive as the Anantara’s, but it’s just a short drive through the Rub Al Khali desert to the world’s highest dunes. There’s a restaurant serving Arabic cuisine and international food and a good-sized swimming pool, gym, tennis courts, and free Wi-Fi.
Book the Liwa Hotel online with our booking partner Booking.com.
Romantic Desert Resorts Near Dubai
One of the best things about Dubai is that the desert is at its doorstep and Dubai has two dreamy desert escapes less than hour from the city, the fort-like Bab Al Shams Desert Resort and Spa and the luxurious, exclusive and incredibly romantic Al Maha Desert Resort and Spa.
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.
Book Bab Al Shams Desert Resort and Spa online with our booking partner Booking.com.
Al Maha Desert Resort and Spa
An equally dreamlike desert experience can be had at Al Maha Desert Resort andSpa, part of the Luxury Collection, which is even more romantic and exclusive and offers more privacy than Bab Al Shams. Children and visitors are not allowed.
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.
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 also offers a larger range of activities compared to Bab Al Shams, and most are included in the price. There are falconry displays, desert safaris and horse rides, but we were particularly fond of the sunset camel ride where we were rewarded for our efforts with champagne and strawberries as we watched the sun go down over the jaw-dropping dunes.
An eco-tourism resort, Al Maha is actually set within 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. We loved the wildlife and nature drives, led by knowledgeable DDCR rangers, which allow you to see oryx and gazelles up close.
Book Al Maha Desert Resort and Spa online with our booking partner Booking.com.
Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve (DDCR)
The Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve (DDCR) was actually the first national park in the UAE. Once a massive camel farm, comprising approximately 5 percent of the Dubai emirate’s land area or 225 square kilometres, the land was bought in 1993 by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum.
Having visited South Africa and been inspired by the national parks and wildlife sanctuaries, the Sheikh, now the Ruler of Dubai, decided that the emirate needed its own reserve to protect indigenous species. Since then, the DDCR has planted over 6,000 trees to replace those that the camels had grazed on, along with an array of native shrubs and grasses to regenerate the land and promote biodiversity.
The greatest achievement of the DDCR has been saving the Arabian oryx, which was close to extinction when the park was established in 2003. Now, there are well over 100 at the DDCR. While you can experience the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve when you stay at Al Maha you no longer have to check into the property to do so.
These days, there are a number of ways to experience the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve including a hot air balloon ride, wildlife drives, falcon experiences, camel treks, night safaris, and romantic dinners at Bedouin-style camps. Many of these give you the opportunity to see the Arabian oryx.
Book a tour to Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve through our tour partner Viator.
Scenic Short Self-Drive Desert Routes
Although it’s wonderful to do a road trip all the way out to Liwa Oasis, it’s not absolutely necessary to do so to experience the desert, especially if you’re in Dubai on a budget or you’re short on time on a Dubai stopover.
Some splendid sand and postcard vistas of camels crossing the desert can be experienced less than an hour’s drive out of Dubai. If your time or budget doesn’t allow for a dreamy Dubai desert escape to a luxury resort, then the least you can do is hire a car, grab a map, and take a drive, even if it’s just for the day.
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.
You can 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.
If time allows, spend a night or two in the green desert city. There are plenty of things to see and do in Al Ain, from exploring the splendid forts and fascinating museums to ambling the shady paths through the date palm oases and visiting the livestock and camel markets.
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 out to the desert then you can do one of the UAE’s most popular tours, a ‘desert safari’, 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. 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.
Book a Dubai Desert Safari through our tour partner Viator.
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