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Whether you’re booking flights or hotels, you’ll frequently score the best redemption values by looking at the top end of the award chart — think long-haul first or business class and some of the most luxurious hotels out there. When we talk about the new Marriott Bonvoy loyalty program and its top award tier (Category 8), there are three properties that almost invariably get mentioned in the same breath: The St. Regis Maldives, the St. Regis Bora Bora and Al Maha Resort outside of Dubai. These are all legacy SPG properties and consist entirely of suites, giving them an obvious leg up on the competition before you even account for their remote locations.
I recently had the chance to stay at both the St. Regis Maldives and Al Maha as part of a longer, two-week trip through the Middle East and Asia. While the Maldives is a tropical paradise unlike anything I’ve ever seen before, I was fully prepared for the jaw-dropping beauty after reading copious reviews of the property. Though I had high expectations for Al Maha, I was still a little surprised at the degree to which I fell in love with this desert oasis. After my stay, I can firmly say that this property is the best value redemption across the nearly 7,000 hotels and resorts in the Marriott Bonvoy portfolio.
Here are five reasons why I came to that conclusion.
1. Award Rates Are All-Inclusive
As a Category 8 hotel, Al Maha now costs 85,000 Marriott points a night for a standard award. Despite a brief scare earlier this year, Marriott has since confirmed that award reservations at Al Maha do include room and board. This means that every guest, whether paid or on points, is entitled to three complimentary meals and two desert activities per day. This results in several hundred dollars of savings every day.
Some all-inclusive hotels skimp on the food, but that is absolutely not the case here. For each meal you have the option of dining in the main Al Diwan restaurant, overlooking the endless expanse of desert …
Or in the comfort of your own villa.
In-room dining is free of charge, and the menu is almost identical to what you would enjoy in the restaurant. Food was always delivered within 40 minutes (often more quickly), and the quality was incredible. If you want to eat steak for three meals a day here, no one will blink an eye, and it won’t cost you a dime extra. The portion sizes are small but in a healthy way, as it keeps you from over-indulging on complimentary, multi-course meals every couple of hours.
Not only were the meals delicious, but they were far from standard. During our stay we got to try the hotel’s signature Sri Lankan menu, featuring far too much food for two people.
We also got treated to a surprise Valentine’s day set menu, complete with an ice sculpture in the middle of the desert.
The table setting was stunning, with rose petals and a heart shaped box of chocolates.
And the surf ‘n’ turf did not disappoint!
Activities occur at the same time each day, and you’re assigned a personal field guide to help coordinate your experience. Our three-night stay allowed us to choose six activities from the following list:
- Nature walk
- Ghaf tree walk
- Wildlife drive
- Camel trek (watch the sunset and toast with a drink)
- Sundowners (an alternative to the camels, a short drive to watch the sunset)
For an additional 270 AED (~$75) per person you can also do:
- Horse riding
- Desert drive (aka dune bashing)
We did the camel trek our first night at the hotel, and it was certainly a bumpy half-hour ride.
Apparently most hotel guests opt to switch to sundowners after trying the camels once, which we did.
We were up bright and early to watch the falconry show at 7 AM the next day. The field guides put an incredible amount of effort into training their birds, and were able to tell us a lot about the history of falcons in the region.
Dune bashing was so much more fun than I expected. It really felt like the car was going to tip at any moment as we attacked and cornered 30- and 40-foot dunes. This picture was taken after we scaled the last dune of the ride, called “nemesis” by the guides. Note how much taller it is than any of the ones in the background — our guide actually missed the approach the first three times, sending us sliding back down in an exhilarating cloud of dust before we finally made it up.
And with the exception of dune bashing (which we were happy to pay extra for), this was all included in our stay. Alcohol does cost extra, but compare this to a remote hotel like the St. Regis Maldives where you could easily spend $300 on a single meal for two before factoring in drinks. Over a multi-night award stay, the savings rack up very quickly.
I also can’t say enough good things about our field guide, Nathan, who was with us for every activity we did. His personable nature and useful suggestions made our trip much more enjoyable and helped us pick the right activities for us.
2. Ample Award Availability and No Need to Upgrade From “Base Rooms”
If you’re traveling to the Maldives or Bora Bora, you typically want to stay in an overwater villa. Unfortunately, those aren’t typically available using points, instead requiring extra money for the upgrade. In fact, at the St. Regis Maldives, the rooms that are bookable as “standard” awards (garden villas) are the only rooms at the property that don’t have direct water access! There are also only four of them at the hotel, so competition is fierce for these coveted award spaces.
Al Maha, on the other hand, is relatively private with only 42 rooms. Of those, 40 are Bedouin Villas, which is what the property classifies as standard accommodations. If any one of these rooms is available, Marriott’s no blackout dates policy should mean that Al Maha will have award space. As you can see, it’s relatively open.
Unfortunately, we have found examples of dates with a Bedouin Villa available on cash but not using points, which appears to be in violation of the blackout dates policy. We have reached out to Marriott to confirm this discrepancy but haven’t received a response at the time of publication. We’ll be sure to update this guide when we do get something back.
These villas are so stunning that there’s no possible reason to think about upgrading (unless you’re traveling with a family or large group and need the extra space). Each villa includes its own private deck and plunge pool.
The feeling of sleeping in a giant tent in the desert really doesn’t get old.
Unlike the St. Regis Maldives, which splits its overwater villas into “sunset-facing” and “beach-facing,” every villa at Al Maha has sunrise views for which it’s worth waking up early.
3. An Unmatched Amount of Privacy
Even if every room at Al Maha is occupied, there will never be more than about 100 guests at the entire hotel. There are, at all times, about ~150 staff members working on the property. I can’t think of another hotel that has this high of a staff-to-guest ratio.
In the Maldives, eating in one of the hotel’s various restaurants is part of the experience, as they each offer different atmospheres and cuisines. You almost feel like you’re missing something if you stay in your room, but that’s not the case at Al Maha. Enjoying a meal with this view is half the appeal, and we ended up splitting our nine meals almost evenly between in-room dining and eating at the restaurant.
We also took advantage of every opportunity to explore our surroundings, hiking up and down dunes and dragging a blanket out with us to watch the sun set one night. Perched up on this hill, you can’t see anyone else (except some gazelles — more on that later), and you really feel like you’re alone in the desert.
4. Very Easy to Access
Even if you book a free award night at the St. Regis Maldives, there’s no way to avoid paying $695 per person for a round-trip seaplane transfer from Male (MLE). That stings, as a couple is looking at a $1,400 charge to even set foot on the island. Then there’s the issue of finding award availability to the Maldives, a relatively small airport with limited international flight options.
Al Maha, on the other hand, is located about an hour east of Dubai in a desert conservation preserve. As the worldwide hub of Emirates and a popular Middle Eastern destination for other major airlines, there’s no shortage of flight options. And it’s also cheap and easy to get there from the airport. On the way out, we took an $80 Uber, while on the way back the hotel arranged a ~$100 car to take us back. That’s almost 70% cheaper than a two-person trip to the St. Regis Maldives.
(As an aside, Al Maha is located in the middle of a 225 square kilometer desert conservation reserve, granted by royal decree of Sheikh Ahmed bin Saeed Al Maktoum, the chairman of Emirates group. Yes, Emirates the airline owns the land that Al Maha is built on, and has granted Marriott a 20-year lease on the property. Al Maha donates 5% of its annual profit to the conservation effort of the reserve, so you can really feel good about the impact you’re making by staying at this property. During our wildlife drive activity, we learned even more about the hotel’s conservation efforts, the desert biome, local animal species and even the role Sheikh Zayed, founder of the UAE, played in saving the Arabian Oryx from extinction.)
Speaking of wildlife …
5. Impressive Wildlife and Zero Light Pollution
Every review of Al Maha mentions the wildlife that roams freely around the properly — mostly gazelles and Arabian oryxes. Prior to arrival, I had the impression that there were only a handful of them, and you had to get lucky to spot one. I could not have been more wrong.
Walking from our villa to the main building, where the restaurant is and activities meet up, we’d pass anywhere from 5-15 gazelles loafing around. They’re clearly adjusted to humans and treated well, as even the babies would sit there and tilt their heads at us instead of running away. It’s a great incentive to enjoy a quiet walk through the desert, as the less sound you make the more you can see and hear.
The oryxes aren’t as common, but we still saw a few roaming through our backyard, in addition to the bright white herds we could see off in the distance from our pool.
It’s a great reminder of how serene and special this place is, and how far removed you are from the city out here.
Another thing that struck me, which no picture will ever do justice, is how many stars there were in the sky. I thought the Maldives was the most picturesque night sky I’d seen since moving to Shanghai, but the truth is there’s a decent amount of lighting at night to keep people from falling off the jetty and hurting themselves. When the sun goes down at Al Maha it really is a perfectly clear sky, and you can even switch off your pool and deck lights to get the best experience.
I was lucky enough to book my stay at Al Maha when the hotel only cost 60,000 points a night, but even as a Category 8 hotel, I’d be happy to part with 85,000 points or even 100,000 points a night (once peak pricing kicks in) to come back. TPG values 100,000 Marriott points at $800, and I’d say we got almost that much value each day from our food and activities alone, let alone the spectacular desert landscape and spacious villa we enjoyed during out stay.
Know before you go.
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NEW INCREASED OFFER: 60,000 Points
TPG'S BONUS VALUATION*: $1,200
CARD HIGHLIGHTS: 2X points on all travel and dining, points transferrable to over a dozen travel partners
*Bonus value is an estimated value calculated by TPG and not the card issuer. View our latest valuations here.
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