I’ve lived in the UAE for more than seven years. I’ve specialized in writing about its hotels and attractions for the same length of time and just this last month, I discovered one of the region’s best kept secrets: organized desert camping.
As a UAE resident, I always thought the whole ‘dune bashing, camel riding, into-the-desert driving’ thing was for tourists. But I was so wrong. Sleeping under the stars in a luxurious (but still affordable) private tent is charming, calming and all round good for the soul.
If a bit of refreshing nature sounds like it’s for you, here are some of the best UAE sleeps that let you savor the outdoors.
Best for: Rustic desert charm
A trip to Arabian Adventures’ Overnight Safari in Dubai includes the standard components you’d expect of a desert experience: dune driving, camel riding, and grilled Arabic food. Yet it weaves these elements together with a touch of luxury, lashings of charm and an overall mood of sunset-filled romance.
At the campsite, dome tents encircle a cosy fire. Gauzy curtains frame a few long wooden tables and staff weave between lanterns with trays of drinks. Then comes the food: fresh mezzeh, grilled meats, more grilled meats and sweet sticky desserts. Sleep is deep here; each tent has a cosy bed and heavy blankets. In the morning, there’s only the sound of birds and a vista of great sweeping dunes.
Covid restrictions have made the whole experience even more luxurious. Only one booking is allowed per car and the campsite itself can be incredibly quiet. Of the 10 tents, we were the only guests.
Best for: All things horses
JA The Resort is massive: spanning three hotels and more than one million square meters, it has plenty of space for nature-related experiences.
Horse lovers can head to the property’s private Equestrian Center. You can have lessons inn impressively spacious 70m by 40m riding arena and there are pony rides for children aged from three up. For those who like their holiday with a dose of Instagramability, the property offers a beautiful Swimming with Horses experience. It’s messy (ocean water meets horse smells and horse hair) but it’s stunning.
If horses aren’t your thing, JA The Resort has Native Bird Aviaries, where they rehab different birds. Plus there’s an indoor-outdoor shooting club, tennis academy, 168-acre sporting facility and 800m-long beach.
Best for: Ultra-luxury landscapes
With rooms priced at around Dh4,000 to Dhs8,000, the idyllic Al Maha Resort is not cheap, but it’s easy to see just why the cost is so high.
Every suite comes with its own private temperature-controlled infinity pool, with views looking out across some 225 sq km of Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve. Binoculars are provided for wildlife for spotting. The interiors are inspired by the romance of old Arabia, with Arabian lanterns, wooden chests, heavy rugs and spacious terraces.
A watering hole near the terrace bar means it’s common to spot wild oryx as you sip your sundowners. If you want to feel even more immersed in nature, there are complimentary camel rides at sunset. The property also offers on-site field guides who will help you spot falcons, eagles, Arabian red foxes, sand fish, Ethiopian hedgehogs and more.
Best for: Kayaking through nature
Abu Dhabi’s Mangrove National Park accounts for about 75 percent of the total mangrove forest in the UAE and it’s here that you’ll find the luxurious Anantara Eastern Mangroves Hotel and Spa. Book into a room with a view of the mangroves (the other option is towards Abu Dhabi’s skyscrapers) or splash out on a suite with a private plunge pool.
In the morning, you can kayak out to explore the mangroves. A guide will talk you through all the wildlife you’re likely to see, including flamingos, fish, foxes, herons and even turtles. The property also offers full moon yoga sessions in cooler temperatures.
Best for: Beachfront relaxation
If you fancy a trip to the Maldives but don’t feel like taking a flight, Zaya Nurai Island is the answer. This beautifully designed property offers boho white-on-white villas with private plunge pools right against an expanse of private beach.
There’s no construction on the horizon and no restaurants to interrupt the view. Getting to Zaya Nurai Island requires a short boat trip from the mainland. Once on the island, guests travel by bicycle, darting between the surf center (Zaya Nurai has its own wave pool) and the Smokin’ Pineapple beach club.
Health-conscious nature lovers will enjoy the new ‘detox staycation’ package, which includes a yoga class, half board, sundown tea rituals and a signature detox bath (from Dh8,500 for two nights, from June to September).
Unlike the Maldives, there’s no snorkeling on offer but the property does have calm ocean waters which are perfect for sunset swims. Book during the week for less intrusion from guests on a day pass.