The first stop on our around the world trip included a stay at the luxurious and renowned Al Maha, a Luxury Collection Desert Resort. We were very fortunate to book our stay using points at a highly discounted rate during the Marriott/SPG merger integration this past fall. In this post, we will share a review of Al Maha Resort.
The Al Maha is a resort under the Luxury Collection brand associated with Marriott (formerly SPG). The resort is located about 45-60 minutes from DXB – Dubai Airport nestled on the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve. The resort has 42 suites that are stand-alone tented villas with 5 room types to choose from: Bedouin Suite with a king bed, Bedouin Suite with 2 twin/single beds, the Royal Suite with 2 bedrooms, the Emirates Suite with 2 bedrooms and the Presidential Suite with 3 bedrooms. All suites come with their own temperature controlled private pool, walk-in shower, bathtub, ‘his and ‘hers vanity area, bottles of water, a Nespresso machine, complimentary sherry wine, a stocked mini bar and snacks (for a fee), and an easel to draw the landscape. The property has a smoke free policy and children under the age of 10 are not permitted to stay.
The price varies greatly throughout the year and we have seen the rate for our room, a Bedouin 1 bedroom Suite with 1 king bed range from $1,500CAD per night to $3,500CAD. This rate is a “full board” rate and includes 3 meals per day, 2 desert activities per day, free parking, and access to the fitness center, infinity pool and the steam rooms at the spa).
There is one restaurant on site, Al Diwaan but you can also order room service to enjoy on your terrace. There is also the Hajar Terrace Bar where you can enjoy alcoholic and on-alcoholic beverages between 12:00-22:00.
Why we stayed here:
Having spent a few days in Dubai exploring the city on our last visit, we were looking for a different experience this time and had made a list of desert resort hotels within a 60 minute drive to consider. Initially, we were considering the Ras Al Khaimah and Al Wadi Desert, both Ritz-Carlton resorts bookable with Marriott points at 60,000 points per night. While each of those resorts was similar to the Al Maha, we would incur a lot of expenses for activities and meals, especially since Ritz-Carlton doesn’t offer platinum members free breakfast.
As the Marriott/SPG merger and integration was under way, we were able to secure a reservation using points for a Bedouin Suite at Al Maha by redeeming 66,000 Marriott points per night (22,000 SPG points). This special rate was only available until December 31, 2018 and there was limited availability so we really lucked out. As all the meals and activities were included, we’d save about $500-$700 per day at Al Maha compared to the Ritz-Carlton resorts.
At the time of writing this post, Al Maha had changed the rules so that when you redeem points, it would only be for the room and meals and activities would be billed seperately and paid in AED. Since this was posted, Marriott intervened and points redemptions will once again include meals and activities in addition to the room. After March 2019, Al Maha will be integrated into the Marriott Rewards chart and it is expected to be a category 8, which means about 85,000-100,000 points will be required per night.
Arrival to the airport and taxi to the resort:
We arrived at DXB – Dubai Airport and went to the duty free shop to purchase wine and beer before grabbing an Uber to the resort. Jason got some Heineken and I purchased a bottle of rose since we heard that this was the way to go to avoid very high prices of alcohol at the resort.
We didn’t have a SIM card so we had to use the airport WIFI to call over an Uber. The airport was very busy and the traffic backed up so it was a little confusing to locate our Uber. Once we were in the Uber, it took 45 minutes to get to the resort with most of the trip on the highway and the last 10-15 minutes on a dirt road through the desert. The Uber ride cost about $95CAD which was about $30-$40 cheaper than the price of the hotel’s transportation.
Arrival and check-in:
Once we arrived to the hotel lobby, our bags were transferred to a golf cart for delivery to our villa. We were taken to a small seating area to complete the check-in process and we were offered cold towels and a welcome drink called a refreshing smoothie made with soymilk. They also explained how the meals and activities worked and we were quick to sign-up for the camel ride and the desert drive tour as those are popular and fill up fast. After everything was done, we were taken to our villa by golf cart. We were assigned villa 13 which is one of the closets villas to the front desk and spa and said to have one of the better views.
Our Villa: Bedouin Suite with a King Bed:
Our room was a tented stand-alone villa that maximized privacy and comfort. All the villas face the direction of the sunrise and ours had an obstructed view of it. As we entered the villa, we were slightly underwhelmed by the dark and basic entrance area that had the Nespresso machine, the refreshments, the fridge and a smell deck. We knew that Al Maha’s rooms were a little outdated but the bedroom and bathrooms themselves were impressive and the Arabic décor and quality furnishings fit the theme.
Even if we were very comfortable on our Emirates First Class flight, we were looking forward to sleeping in a real bed and the king sized bed must have been the size of two double beds and had enough pillows to section off a portion of the bed.
The bathroom was very large too and we joked it was almost as large as our condo back home. The bathrooms look a little outdated but are very well-maintained and cleaned. The only thing that was a minor annoyance was the water temperature and how long it took for it to adjust. The toiletries were Bvlgari Thé Vert, like in Emirates First Class.
The suite also has its own private pool and terrace area with two lounger chairs and a dining area for two. We ended up spending a lot of time here just enjoying the view, the pool, and taking advantage of in-room dining. Thankfully, the jetlag made it very easy for us to wake up to watch the sun rising over Oman some 20 kms away. Each rooms comes equipped with a pair of binoculars but you won’t need to look far to spot wildlife. The hotel recommends keeping the door closed at all times to avoid having a bird or gazelle enter your suite. The gazelles are used to people but keep their distance too.
Since this resort is located very far away from anything, all your meals need to be taken onsite, unless you plan an excursion off the resort, but that’s not very common.
We chose to have breakfast at the restaurant on all days for the most options as there is a small buffet area in addition to the a-la-carte options. Each day, we had the spicy eggs with Arabic accompaniments. Since being home, I’ve been making my scrambled eggs with some curry powder and green chilies. We also had lunch at the restaurant and I appreciated their healthy options and got the chicken breast with vegetables one day. It was way too much food as I was served two chicken breasts and with the jetlag, lunch was my most difficult meal to eat at this point of the trip. If there is one downside to eating at the restaurant, it’s the flies; they are relentless even if the staff light candles to keep them away.
While we wanted to try the restaurant for dinner, it gets a lot more formal and so there is a dress code and you need to make a reservation so we just took advantage of in-room dining. We really enjoyed the Arabic mezzes plate and the prawns and the service was impeccable. You cannot leave the food unattended and need to call for it to be picked up ASAP after you’re done due to all the wildlife on site.
In the room, you have light snacks, such as a fruit plate and dates and nuts. You can also pay for snacks out of the mini bar but they’re very expensive. There is also tea, coffee, water, fruits and pastries in the lobby area during the afternoon. Between all the meals and snacks, we were never hungry.
As part of our rate, we were able to sign-up for 2 activities per day to enjoy the Dubai Conservation Reserve. We signed up for the sunset camel trek and the desert drive. We tried to sign-up for the archery lesson but it was full and as much as we were interested in falconry, we wanted to enjoy our pool villa at sunrise.
We enjoyed the desert drive more than we thought we would and highly recommend it. You get to drive around the desert in a Range Rover with a guide who tells you about the wildlife and region. It was during this tour that I realized Oryx were the whiter animals and not the gazelles that hung around the resort. We also got to do the fun maneuvers over the dunes, which reminded me of snowmobiling. We also learned about the Ghaf tree, the national tree of the UAE. As a drought resistant resilient tree, the Ghaf tree is able to thrive in the desert and also offers respite from the heat by about 4 degrees Celsius when you are under it. Our guide told us that the UAE hopes to plant enough Ghaf trees to reduce the overall temperature in the desert to fight the effects of climate change.
Our next activity included a sunset camel ride to a bar in the desert to watch the sunset. As much as it was fun to do this, I am not sure I’d be in a rush to do it again as I suffer from a fear of heights and found it hard to relax. If anything, getting to enjoy the scenery and the peace of the desert was worth it. Some people chose not to come back via camel and he resort called them a Range Rover, FYI. Another thing that was annoying is how the guides say “yalla, yalla!” to get the camels moving and some people on this trek thought it would be fun to say “yalla, yalla!” which got annoying for the 30-40 minute ride back and I secretly hoped their camel would buck them off.
We really enjoyed our stay at Al Maha and felt that we had enough time here to relax and participate in the activities. I think 2-3 full days maximum is a good amount of time for most people. As we talk about our experiences on the trip, this one is at the top of our list for enjoyment and in some ways, we enjoyed it more than the Maldives due to how unique it was. We were so lucky to use points at the rate we did but if we had to pay for this, we probably would due to how spectacular the setting is in the Dubai Conservation Reserve and that we’d get a lot of points for the stay as Marriott Platinum.
For those wanting to experience the desert without spending thousands of dollars per day, you can stay in Dubai city where there is a large inventory of hotel rooms at various price points and book a day trip/tour of the Dubai Conservation Reserve.
- Al Maha, a Luxury Collection Desert Resort: https://www.marriott.com/hotels/travel/dxbam-al-maha-a-luxury-collection-desert-resort-and-spa-dubai/
- Dubai Conservation Reserve: http://www.ddcr.org/en/visits.aspx?Menu=4
- The Telegraph’s List of Best Budget Hotels in Dubai: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/destinations/middle-east/united-arab-emirates/dubai/articles/the-best-cheap-hotels-in-dubai/
Have you ever stayed at a desert resort? Did you enjoy it? Do you change your itinerary to stay where there are deals at aspirational properties to redeem points, or do you go where you want to go and worry about the budget and deals after?