Having grown-up, lived and worked in London, its energy pulsed through my veins. But even the citified need respite from urban environments, as I sought weekend refuge in the countryside or coast, letting nature, air and ocean fill my lungs and soul. In Dubai, while there’s coast, there’s little in the way of greenery, and so when I dream of escape I turn to the desert – the undulations of the dunes offering the same spatial tonic for the soul.
On my most recent quest to escape skyscrapers, I visit Al Wathba, A Luxury Collection Desert Resort & Spa, in the outer districts of Abu Dhabi. Comfortably sprawled across lots of sand, the fortress-designed property is part of the Marriott family, and echoes the intimate, natural vibe found at one of the UAE’s other Luxury Collection properties, Al Maha.
Inspired by classical dwellings, it has an Arabian settlement feel to it – all archways and alcoves, with low-rise villas and apartments built around an intricate labyrinth of outdoor ‘corridors’ leading from one sandstone building to the next. Buggies deftly navigate the narrow alleyways as we whisper ‘breathe in’ as we’re ferried around the resort.
It’s not a big resort, but its maze-like layout affords it a sense of space. You never quite know where you are, but I like that sense of discovery at every turn.
Our villa is set in its own courtyard, with palm and frangipani trees saluting our arrival. The villa is 125sqm of well-utilised indoor/outdoor space and more room than we need, with a fully-equipped kitchen and private dining room ideal for entertaining had we brought family or friends. It’s also perfect for a game (or 10) or hide and seek. Configured to take best advantage of the tawny desert vistas, the views from the lounge, bedroom, pool and terrace all bleed into the horizon.
It’s a hot weekend, pushing 40 degrees, so the not-so-little plunge pool serves as welcome respite. The sun-drenched terrace puts the daybed and loungers out of bounds, but come sunset, we happily rest after hours of swimming.
Before dinner, we stroll to the outskirts of the resort with Darlington, the Al Wathba’s resident bird expert, and spend an hour making friends with Obelix the owl and Charlie the hawk. We watch and learn how to fly Maverick the Peregrine falcon – my four-year-old learning to train ‘the fastest animal on earth’. It’s pretty magical watching his agility, as he soars through the sky, then hurtles landward, only to change direction at the last second.
When we retire to the villa, we each stake our claim on a corner of the suite – my daughter in the bedroom, my husband at the desk in the sitting room, and me taking full advantage of the deep oval bathtub, drenching myself in earthy-scented Amouage scents. Happiness all round.
In the morning, we rise early to visit the stables, where Rocky the pony steals our heart. My daughter rides him round the grounds, before learning how to wash and groom him with the stable team.
There are only two restaurants currently open, so we have breakfast in the same place we had dinner, Mediterranean restaurant Terra Secca. The terrace is, naturally, cooler in the morning, with dappled sunlight bouncing off the sandstone walls as we fuel up on pastries, wild rice and tofu salad and Nutella pancakes. Come night, the resident horses are welcomed into the adjoining field, where Cappuccino, Rocky and Russell sniff out apples from our pockets, enjoying nature’s interlude as we feed them before tucking into our own star-lit dinner of pizza, Gambas and burrata.
The pool – ahhh, the beautiful pool – is ours and only ours in the morning, beating other visitors to an early swim. It’s a clever design with shaded and shallow corners perfect for younger children, with a huge Jacuzzi, pool bar and stone-built cabanas dotted round the outside that invite the breeze. In slight contrast to the natural charm of the hotel, there’s also a FlowRider surf machine that proves the ultimate playground for the hotel’s teen guests, but it’s tucked away around a corner so doesn’t intrude on the overall serenity.
Birdsong and soft Arabian music gently pumped out of inconspicuous speakers provide the backing track of our weekend, which anchors the experience all the more in Arabia. Oversized urns, lanterns, mirrors and wood carvings also give cultural reference points, as does The Spice Library perfumery in reception, where we learn about the origins of amber, patchouli and rose.
It’s these little subtleties that give Al Wathba its sense of place, and back in the room, an ornate table inlaid with gold leaf, hand-embroidered pouffes, beautiful carved-wood wardrobes and bamboo rafters give it a further arcadian and homely feel that echo the sentiments of Arabian culture.
I visit the Saray Spa before we leave, a colonnade of fountains guarding the entrance. The space is deeply calming. The meandering corridors hide away 11 treatment rooms, a Hammam, sauna, steam room, crystal salt room, hot and cold plunge pools, and a Snow Cave that reaches -10 degrees for those inclined. Instead, I succumb to a 75-minute Al Wathba Signature Massage, emerging to crown it ‘one of the best I’ve ever had’.
Al Wathba may not be as deep in the desert as, say, Al Maha, but it offers all the respite one could need from an out-of-city escape – its pared-back luxury the jewel in its crown.
They say that the journey should always be part of the adventure, and on the drive home, we spot Al Wathba Endurance Village and the Heritage Village (Abu Dhabi’s version of Global Village, I’m told) just minutes from the resort, and promise that when we visit next, we’ll factor in a cultural intermission en route to see and learn more about the Emirates.
As desert dunes make way for highway, and Dubai’s monolithic landscape looms into view, I appreciate all the more the beauty of having places like Al Wathba on our doorstep and the richness of such a contrasting and extraordinary experience. How lucky we are.
WHAT: One Bedroom Villa
WHERE: Al Wathba, a Luxury Collection Desert Resort & Spa, Abu Dhabi
TEL: +971 2 204 4444