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The Al Maha, a Luxury Collection Desert Resort and Spa located just outside of Dubai is one of the aspirational SPG properties that has been on my to-do list for years. The pros: Huge villas with plunge pools plus delicious food and unique desert activities that are included in the price of the points redemption. The cons: Super expensive in both cash and points (though much more reasonable with the current resort promotion) and spotty Wi-Fi.
After a trip from Detroit to Tokyo in Delta One Suites on the A350 and a stop in Singapore to check out the new suites on the A380, I was ready for a little downtime in the desert. The resort was refreshingly different — there were obviously no overwater bungalows like at the St. Regis Maldives or epic safari moments like I’d experienced in Tanzania. Instead, the resort was a blend of an African safari-style camp and Maldivian overwater villas — minus the water!
I was pleasantly surprised to see the wow factor came in a different form: the sprawling reddish desert sands that stretched to infinity from each and every suite at Al Maha and the occasional oryx (fun fact: the oryx is the official logo for Qatar Airlines), camel or gazelle that graced our presence.
For the past several years SPG has run a special points discount promotion for their top resorts and Al Maha has been included. When this year’s version — the Paradise is Closer promo — came out, I knew it was my chance to book, as the promotion offered 35% off select high-end properties including Al Maha.
After seeing a discounted rate of 39,000 Starpoints per night down from the usual 60,000 Starpoints per night, I immediately snagged a Bedouin Suite with full board for two nights. With full-board rates hovering around the $1,700 per night range on my dates, I scored a solid 4.4 cent per point redemption, which is great, since Starpoints typically come in at 2.7 cpm according to my most recent valuations.
Keep in mind that for 39,000 points per night, the stay came with full board (all award rates do)— meaning all meals from room service and the restaurant as well as two activities per day were covered, with the exception of alcoholic beverages. If you’re staying for five nights, you’d get an even better value with SPG’s fifth night free perk on point-redemption stays, which would have actually come out to just 31,200 Starpoints per night.
Unfortunately, I was only able to stay for two nights this time around, but you can still get in on this promotion by booking a room and staying there by March 5, 2018. Some of the best SPG properties are part of it, too — The St. Regis Maldives, the W Koh Samui, the Prince de Galles in Paris and, of course, this resort — so be sure to call the SPG customer contact center to book (1-888-625-4988), as that’s the only way to get this special discounted rate. Stays must be booked and completed by March 5, 2018 in order to be eligible for the reduced rates.
Apparently, there should be bed and breakfast rate plans available when paying in cash, but only if you can find them on the website. After plugging in several different dates, I couldn’t seem to find one, though the reception desk told me they were far and few between and I just needed to search online. However, it’s worth it to do the full board rate, because there are really no restaurants located anywhere near the hotel (it’s in the middle of the desert), the food is excellent and activities are included — more on that later.
Check-In and Lobby
Arriving at Al Maha was a grand sight for a bleary-eyed traveler that had just crisscrossed the globe from the US to Asia to the Middle East in the last 72 hours. Though it was only an hour from Dubai International Airport (DXB), we had to drive almost 20 minutes on a semi-dirt road into the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve.
This is what made staying here so special — being able to relax and recharge in such a picturesque place was just amazing.
Upon entering Al Maha’s beautiful reception area with Bedouin décor I was immediately welcomed with a fresh smoothie and explained how the full board worked. While they were getting my room key, I quickly did a lap around the lobby, which was spacious and chic, with plenty of indoor and outdoor seating and desert views. There was a small gift shop and a bar area with snacks, coffee and water.
The restaurant was downstairs, and the spa was just a short walk away. Key in hand, I boarded an electric golf cart — one of many used to transport guests from the very private suites to the reception area, restaurant and spa — and headed for Suite Eight.
Weaving our way through the resort grounds, I noticed many small deer-like animals roaming the property. The driver told me they were gazelles that freely wander about. “Don’t worry, they won’t harm you,” he said. “But make sure to close your patio doors at night and when you leave the room so one doesn’t wander inside your suite.”
I wasn’t sure if he was serious or not, but I definitely shut my door tight at night just in case, though the gazelles seemed harmless and adorable.
All of the 42 rooms were suites and I was in the most basic, the Bedouin Suite for two people, (the one available using points) — though it was anything but. The Royal and the Emirates suite can sleep four, and the Presidential Suite sleeps six. I was immediately impressed with the suite.
I entered a small hallway that also served as a kitchen and dining area with a water heater, mini-bar, snacks, free wine made from dates, a table with a chair and a mirror and a huge Nespresso machine with enough capsules to last me two weeks.
I loved not having to ration my coffee — after all, I was jet-lagged so numerous Nespresso coffees per day were essential.
The room was fully stocked, with several complimentary water bottles placed all around the room and in the bathroom — they were replenished often. While the mini-bar and snacks weren’t included in the full board, the fruit bowl, dates, nuts and local pastries on the table were.
You could adjust the temperature via a small control panel in the room. Even though it was considered to be the cooler season when I was there, temperatures were still in the mid-90s during the day, so having the air conditioner on was essential.
It felt like some of the rooms I’d stayed in during my various safari adventures, but this one was even nicer and more spacious.
Of course, I had to dive into the inviting bed, covered in plush white sheets. I can say with confidence that it’s one of the largest hotel beds I’d ever seen — I’m 6’7″ and could lay diagonally with both my arms spread out and not touch the edges!
The room also had two bedside tables, three large closets complete with hangers, a safe, bathrobes and slippers; a TV; a work area with a desk, chair and radio; a coffee table; and two day sofas perfect for lounging on.
There were also special little details I loved — an easel with paper, pastels and a drawing pencil, and a pair of Olympus binoculars.
I did try my hand at creating an artistic masterpiece, but should probably just stick to points and miles.
The style and decoration of the room was decidedly Arabian and fit the overall vibe of the resort perfectly: dark wood, large decorative trunks and pottery, patterned Bedouin rugs and gold details. The light-filled room had several sets of doors leading out to a patio with two loungers, a table and chairs, my very own private plunge pool and expansive desert views.
The whole suite felt extremely private — though I knew there were other suites relatively close by, I couldn’t see or hear anyone else.
Though the room had plenty of natural light, there was also a good amount of lighting in the evening. I was able to operate it all via a master switch, which was ideal because I hate running around to find and turn all the switches off.
If you plan to sit outside at night, apply some bug spray, because there may be some desert mosquitoes looming around.
The bathroom was enormous and I was immediately drawn to the bathtub, which definitely passed the TPG tub test.
The rainfall shower also passed my TPG shower test with flying colors. I loved the gold furnishings, though the drain didn’t work so well — desert septic systems probably aren’t the best.
The water pressure was firm, though, which surprised me, and I later found out from hotel staff that it’s taken from underground. There was also a separate toilet area with a bidet, and though it didn’t flush amazingly well, I’ll again chalk it up to being out in the middle of nowhere.
The bathroom was beautiful, though, with a large double sink and mirror.
The shampoo, conditioner, shower gel and lotion came from Cinq Mondes and were fine but nothing special. I did like how the resort included all the extras, like dental and shaving kits, a loofah sponge, bath salts and a sewing kit. There was also a hair dryer.
One of the things I didn’t love about the room was the lack of electrical outlets — note that they were the same as you’d find in the UK so I needed to ask the front desk for a converter, which someone immediately brought over. I did eventually discover one USB charger hidden by the light switches next to the bed, but that wasn’t enough to charge all my gadgets. The Wi-Fi also wasn’t the greatest — it worked but I had to reconnect a few times and it wasn’t super-fast, so don’t expect to download or stream anything here. Still, this isn’t really the place to come if you plan on getting a lot of work done anyway, so I wasn’t too upset about it not being ideal for business travelers.
In general, the rooms, though they were starting to show a little bit of wear, were gorgeous and large, and I felt very relaxed during my stay. I also slept extremely well in the giant bed and loved how the rooms had a neat safari-meets-glamping kind of vibe.
The spa was a beautiful space, decorated like the rest of the resort, with fountains and seating areas for prime relaxation.
I got a deep-tissue massage for 450 AED (~$123) from Leo and it was excellent. My travel companions also got various massages, one being an Ayurvedic massage with oil, for the same price. Book your spa services ahead of time if possible because it fills up quickly. The spa also had a large outdoor pool and an indoor Jacuzzi with giant windows, so it actually felt as if I were sitting outside watching the desert wildlife pass by.
I didn’t spend any time at the resort’s outdoor pool, as I preferred to hang out at my own private pool instead. It did look nice though.
Fun fact: the name of the hotel actually means “oryx” in Arabic. I spotted one lounging around the pool grounds among a few sunbathers when I was passing through.
There was also a sauna, steam room and small gym. I didn’t get a chance to use the fitness room at all, but it looked pretty average.
The gift shop had interesting products, but everything was super expensive — as in $3,000 for a small rug. A better idea would be to head to the souks of Dubai if you really want to shop.
Two activities per day were included with the full board price. Note that if you manage to find a bed-and-breakfast rate only, activities were 250 AED (~$68) per person. I chose falconry, the camel trek and the sundowners tour.
Falconry took place at 6:30am before it got too hot for the birds to fly. The field guides explained the history of falconry before doing a few brief demonstrations that were really interesting to watch. At the end of the lesson, I was able to hold one on my arm for a few moments, which was a really special thing for me since I’m such a big animal lover.
The camel trek was a truly unique experience, though it felt a little long at 25 minutes. I would have been happy to simply get on one for a few minutes and call it a day. The camel ride took place at 3:30pm when it was still really hot out because I also wanted to do the sundowners tour to enjoy the dunes at sunset. In retrospect, I really should have done the 4:45pm camel trek, which includes a brief stop in the dunes to watch the sun go down, as it was much cooler by that time of day.
The sundowners activity was pleasant, though — basically, the resort staff drives you out into the dunes to watch the sunset, where they set up a small bar with snacks and Champagne. The resort itself only had sunrise views, so it was worth heading out a few minutes into the dunes to see the sunset.
Other activities included in the full board were the nature walk, the ghaf tree walk, the wildlife drive and archery. Some that weren’t included were horseback riding and a 4×4 desert drive in the dunes. The additional activities cost 250 AED ($68) per person. I paid for all extras using my SPG Amex because it gives 2X per dollar spent plus 3X per dollar spent I earn for being a 75+ night platinum member. Earning 5X SPG points at a TPG valuation of 2.7 is practically like getting between 10-15% back on my spend.
I was pretty excited to try the drive, and it was really fun for adventurous types. We started in small dunes and later moved up to the larger ones, spinning out and playing in the sand. I felt a little nervous at first, as I was told not to eat anything before the drive, but it ended up being a ton of fun. I also felt really safe in the hands of the drivers and field guides, especially Courtney, who explained he’d had several months of hands-on training before taking guests out on this wild drive.
Food and Beverage
I was slightly apprehensive that the food wouldn’t be the best quality as it was all-inclusive, but everything I ate was fantastic.
The food wasn’t like what you’d find at your average all-inclusive resort buffet, where greedy diners push and shove you to load up their plates with soggy French fries and overcooked pasta. Instead, the dining at the Al Diwaan restaurant was an elegant experience — you were expected to wear closed-toe shoes, long pants and a collared shirt at dinner. Breakfast included a buffet and hot items like eggs to order.
There were plenty of menu options at lunch and dinner, and my group tried a variety of items like lentil soup, a feta-and-spinach salad, lobster, octopus, steak and Indian-style butter chicken. All were delicious and beautifully prepared.
At happy hour and breakfast, there were snacks like pastries and small savory items available in the bar/lobby area.
You could order alcohol at the restaurant or the bar for an additional cost, and even get shisha service out on the balcony.
Enjoying the warm evenings out on the lounge balcony during sunset just eating, drinking and relaxing were the best.
Room service came at no extra cost and was guaranteed to arrive within 45 minutes. One morning when I woke up at 3:00am with jet lag, I ordered eggs, which really hit the spot.
A light lunch of chicken and vegetables with a view of my plunge pool was peaceful and yummy.
Al Maha was a truly memorable property, ideal for anyone looking for something just a little out of the ordinary. The spacious and private suites were comfortable and tranquil, and the Arabian desert has a very special vibe, one I’m so happy to have experienced.
The private plunge pools and inviting bathtubs were the perfect place to relax. The resort would be ideal for honeymooners, solo travelers and families, but if you’re someone who likes a lot of action, partying, fast internet and a variety of restaurants, Al Maha may be too quiet, slow and secluded for you. All in all, I was thrilled to experience a rejuvenating weekend in the desert and can’t wait to return here one day.
Have you ever stayed at Al Maha, a Luxury Collection Desert Resort and Spa, Dubai? Tell us about your experience, below.
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