Five fantastic hotels within driving distance of Dubai
The United Arab Emirates are home to some of the world's best hotels and resorts. From ultra-luxe to desert chic, from party penthouses to resorts that look like mirages appearing out of the desert haze, you have pretty much everything you need to avoid getting too upset about staying on home turf this summer. I'm a big fan of hitting the road and heading to a hotel for a night, even if it's just a 15-minute drive down the street. And with 2020 being the "summer of staycations", I've pulled together a list of some of my favourite hotels that you can drive to from Dubai. At the risk of being overly optimistic and in the hope that the border will open sooner rather than later, I've included a couple in Oman to make our road trips international border-crossing excursions. All distances and times are based on a starting point of Jumeriah Beach. Jump in the car, or bookmark for later. Let's go!
Qasr Al Sarab Resort by Anantara, Abu Dhabi - 3-3.5 hours, 309 km
If you love the desert, then prepare to fall in love with the arrival at this spectacular resort. This was one of the first road trips I made from Dubai, and it still remains one of my favourites. It's a fairly easy - if not slightly monotonous - drive from Dubai to Qasr Al Sarab. In the simplest of terms, you head for Abu Dhabi, turn left, and then drive two hours down a straight road towards the Liwa Oasis. But when you arrive at the resort's main entrance gate the real magic starts to happen. A smooth ribbon of tarmac unfurls before you, meandering through the undulating, ever-shifting sands leading you to the resort, tidily tucked away within the dunes. It's other-worldly, with the sharp blue of the sky bringing out every possible colour in the sand, and all traces of electricity cables and other urban clumsiness cleverly hidden somewhere beneath the surface. By the time you reach this part of the vast Rub' Al Khali, or Empty Quarter, you're only a few kilometres from the border with Saudi Arabia. This is seriously remote desert. Arriving at the resort is like arriving on the set of Aladdin, with the buildings rising out of the desert like an imaginary oasis. In the daytime it's all sunshine and swaying palms; at night, cool breezes and lamplight. The rooms bring the colours of the desert inside, with wood carvings and lanterns giving a nudge to the Arabian Nights dreamscape outside. You can ride camels, horses and fat bikes, drink cocktails by the pool, indulge in an evening of Bedouin-style dining, have a Spa treatment made from Arabian dates and coffee. But for me, the true magic of this place is the dunes, and the incredible views you have of this ocean of golden, wave-like sand from the peaks of the highest ones. It's a slog to get to the top. The sand is incredibly fine and will get everywhere - you'll keep finding it in your shoes for as long as you own them - and for every step you take up, you slide at least half a step back. Take water too - even in winter, you'll get hot. But whatever you do, do not miss climbing the highest dune you can find at sunset. And do it again at sunrise. You will thank yourself forever.
Al Maha Desert Resort and Spa, Dubai - 45 minutes, 66 km
Surprisingly close to the city but feeling like a million miles away sit the 42 luxury tents of Al Maha Desert Resort and Spa in the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve. Another one for desert lovers, with the added bonus of being home to herds of endangered Arabian Oryx and friendly little gazelles who wander at will. Al Maha was the first property of its type in Dubai, and is still unsurpassed (with prices to match - it's a special occasion kind of place rather than a "what shall we do this weekend?" destination). On the way to our tent I asked the buggy driver if he thought we might be lucky enough to see one of the elusive oryxes during our stay. These creatures were hunted to extinction in the wild, and have now been brought back to life thanks to captive breeding programmes. They're relatives of cows, with extraordinarily long, pointed horns. "There's one," said the buggy driver, pointing about one metre from the side of the vehicle at a sleepy oryx snoozing in the shade of a tree. Our tent was also visited by a little gazelle who came for a nosy, than promptly trotted away on his almost impossibly delicate little hooves. Al Maha is a very special place, and its "tents" are the stuff of desert fantasies - and all come equipped with private plunge pool. It's not the remotest desert and the dunes don't reach the heights of those in the Empty Quarter, but the feeling of isolation is real, and a 4WD drive into the dunes at sunset for sundowners (you can also go by camel should you be so inclined) is a must. There's an easel and pencils in your tent for when the urge hits to capture the desert views for posterity, and if art isn't your strong suit, you're guaranteed to leave with a camera roll full of great pics. It's pretty near impossible to take a bad photo with surroundings this special.
Jumeirah Dar Al Masyaf, Dubai - 20 minutes, 13km
It took me five years of living in Dubai to venture out for a stay at any of the Jumeirah hotels strung along Jumeirah beach. And after recently staycationing at Jumeirah Dar Al Masyaf, I'm seriously asking myself why. I'd expected it to be nice, but I hadn't expected it to be quite so truly, fantastically, superbly nice. You enter the resort through the almost outrageously ornate, but somehow still tasteful, Al Qasr, having followed the golden horse statues galloping up the driveway. You're guided through the hotel to the complex's series of canals, where you board a small abra boat, modelled on those that bob back-and-forth from one side of Dubai Creek to the other (one of the best deals in the city at just AED1 per Creek crossing - you can see more here), and arrive at your "summer house" by water. It's not Venice, but it is very special indeed, and gives you that giddy summer hols feeling before you even set foot in your room. Guest rooms are grouped together in "summer houses", effectively large two-storey villas divided into multiple self-contained rooms and spread out around semi-private pools, topped by traditional-style Arabian wind towers. The resort is spread out along a particularly beautiful part of Jumeirah beach, with turquoise waters and the Burj Al Arab standing guard at one end. At times you'd be forgiven for thinking you're in Bali or Thailand - the landscaping is the lushest I've seen anywhere in the country, with bulbuls singing in the trees and families of peacocks majestically strutting their stuff in the shade of palms. Our stay being during pandemic times, we chose to skip the beachside swimming pool which already had a handful of people in it, and walk to the larger main pool for more socially-distanced space. On the way a friendly buggy driver stopped us, asked if we wanted a lift, and when we told her we were heading to the pool, told us she'd take us to the prettiest and most secluded pool on the property. Five minutes later we were following a trail of red parasols to a quiet space free of other guests with perfectly chilled water (we need to chill our pools in Dubai otherwise we might boil rather than swim), shaded by tall palms and frangipani trees. The hotel industry over-uses the word sanctuary, but Dar Al Masyaf is a sanctuary in the truest sense of the word, providing refuge from the ongoing madness of 2020 in a lush space where a cold beer by the pool on a 24-hour stay felt as refreshing and rejuvenating as it's possible to get right now. And another bonus - all guests staying at the hotel get free entry to the Wild Wadi waterpark (usually priced at a fairly hefty AED299, or USD81, for adults), just a short buggy ride away. I was tricked into going on the terrifying Jumeirah Sceirah by my friends (Me: "Is this the one where a trapdoor opens underneath your feet and you plunge, screaming, into the unknown?" My friends: "No, that's in Abu Dhabi". They lied.) and in this age of commonplace, daily fear, doing something absolutely terrifying somehow makes you feel better about everything else.
The Chedi, Muscat - 5 hours 30 minutes, 483 km
Dubai-dwellers speak of The Chedi Muscat in whispered, almost hallowed tones. If you say you're going to Muscat, the response will more often than not be "Chedi?", said with a raised eyebrow and a serious look that says yes, you have made the right choice. You can fly, and a quick hop over the Hajar Mountains to the other side of the Arabian Peninsula should take you less than an hour. But if you're not tight for time, a drive to Muscat makes for a pretty good road trip. Check the status of the border crossings before you head out as some are open to GCC residents only (currently, due to Coronavirus, all UAE-Oman borders are closed), and make sure you have Oman insurance for your car or you'll be turned back at the border. Having crossed all those bridges, off you go. The drive takes you through rugged mountain landscape on the UAE side, before crossing into lowland desert on the Omani side where you pass small palm oases and rocky wadi beds. You could stop in the coastal town of Sohar, famous (actually, not even remotely famous) for its spectacular mosque which you can read about in an upcoming post. But if you want to enjoy as much of your time as possible in the resort itself, press on. The Chedi has a slightly odd location, with a new high-rise somehow inconceivably being built next to it, but once you enter the high, white walls and settle into this seaside oasis of lush green, tinkling fountains and singing birds, everything outside is immediately forgotten. The resort is full of clean, white lines complemented by towering palms, contemporary Arabian arches, cool running water everywhere, and beautiful contrasts of light and shadow that made me want to photograph everything. It's on the beach, but with the beauty of the gardens and the 103-metre swimming pool, imaginatively named "The Long Pool" (it's the longest in the Middle East, apparently), I barely even noticed it. Breakfast on the balcony is a delight, as is lunch by the pool and an evening G&T from the complimentary mini-bar complete with full-size decanted spirits, best enjoyed lounging in bathrobe. The Chedi's bathrobes are made of a cotton that is at once so cosy yet heat-deflecting that we bought two from the rather excellent gift shop - perfect lockdown wear as I've practically been living in mine these past months. People say you never need to leave the Chedi while you're in Muscat, but being insatiably curious about everything, everywhere, we went out to the souqs and the mosque. There's really something special about coming back again though, sinking into a comfy armchair in the Arabian courtyard, and watching as the sky changes colour, sundowner in hand, and the water features bubble and splash around you in this ridiculously romantic setting.
Anantara Al Jabal Al Akhdar Resort, 6 hours 30 minutes, 509 km
The most serious road trip of the lot here, and quite an adventure. You could fly to Muscat and drive the two and a half hours from there, but if you're up for a little more adventure, make a real road trip of it. A word of caution though - we managed to drive across the Wajajah border crossing without passing immigration (a long story - we drove past the window, there was no one there, we kept going, only to be returned again from the Oman side, which added a good chunk of time to our journey), so make sure that you get your papers stamped, even if it looks like you can just drive straight through. This feels like a proper road trip, but that's not to say the trip is entirely a delight - for long stretches of the road on the Omani side of the border you need to keep your wits about you. On a road with a speed limit of 120 kph, people dash out in an attempt to cross all four lanes without having to resort to the pedestrian bridges erected at fairly regular intervals along the highway. If it gets a bit stressful, stop at any of the big Omani supermarkets - they always seem to be full of great (if somewhat kitsch) bargains, and I've picked up flower vases and beautiful trays for a song. Once you start approaching the mountains, the scenery changes dramatically and the drive starts to get really interesting. Jebel Akhdar, the peak of which Anantara Al Jabal Al Akhdar sits atop, rises up to 2,980m with a climate that is suited to growing walnuts, pomegranates and the blooms from which much of the famous Omani rose water is made. It also means that you have to take your car up a steep, mountainous road and a 4WD is required - there's a checkpoint at the bottom, and if you don't have a suitable vehicle, you won't be allowed up. You can always leave your car at the bottom and have the hotel pick you up if you prefer to enjoy the drive as a passenger. The resort is perched on the edge of cliffs, and one of the best viewpoints is called Diana's Point, commemorating the six hours she spent here with Prince Charles in November 1986, when he painted the scenery in watercolours and she, apparently, "read a book". The resort's Cliff Pool Villas do exactly what the name suggests, with extraordinary infinity-edge plunge pools perched on the clifftop looking onto jaw-dropping views deep down in the valley below. This is one of those resorts where you really want to spend as much time in your villa as possible. Room-service on the terrace is a must - why eat indoors when you can dine here gazing at these views? And there's weather up here. Sunshine and clouds and rain showers that alternate by the hour - and those infinity pools are just as perfect in the rain as they are in the sun. Leave the curtains open when you retire to your fantastically comfy bed for the night, and let the sunrise wake you. The views are magnificent, and may even entice you to crawl out of bed to witness the scene from your pool, even at this early hour.