Recently, I had the opportunity to enjoy a one night stay at Al Maha, a Luxury Collection Desert Resort & Spa, Dubai. Located just 65 km and around 1 hour’s drive from Dubai, this Starwood property consists of luxury villas with plunge pools nestled within the confines of the Dubai Desert Reserve protected wildlife area.

I was planning to stopover in Dubai to catch up with an old friend before flying on to Crete.  When the opportunity came up to book Al Maha for us with points, I jumped, as this property has been on my list to try for some time.

Al Maha Desert Resort, Al Diwaan, Dubai, Starwood 28

Al Maha Resort, Duba Desert Conservation Reserve

Booking a stay at Al Maha with points

I booked my stay at Al Maha with 39,000 SPG Starpoints (the equivalent of 78,000 American Express Membership Rewards points, which I’d earned through my AMEX Explorer Card).

While this may seem like an eye-watering number of points to spend on one night’s accommodation, the cost is usually even higher, at 60,000 Starpoints (or 120,000 AMEX points).  I was able to access the cheaper redemption rate through a limited time 35% points discount promotion that Starwood is running this year for their most exclusive resorts.   When booking with cash, nightly rates are typically between $1,500 – $2,000 AUD, depending on the season.

Here are the reasons why an award night at Al Maha is so expensive:

  • It’s an all-suite property where an entry level room is actually a standalone villa, overlooking the desert with a private plunge pool
  • Guests receive three meals per day (dinner, breakfast, and the choice of lunch on the first or second day), as well as a generous afternoon tea spread in the lobby
  • Guests can attend two desert activities each day (choosing from archery, falconry, camel trekking, dune bashing and more).

Overall, I loved my stay at Al Maha, and with all the inclusions, I found it a truly worthwhile use of points!

Travelling to the resort

The Al Maha Resort is located approximately one hour’s drive from Dubai within the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve.  My friend and I travelled from downtown Dubai via Uber.  You could also travel via taxi or Emirates Chauffeur Drive if you’re lucky enough to be travelling to Dubai in Emirates business or first class on Qantas points (I was able to use Emirates Chauffeur Drive on the way back). The resort is notoriously difficult to navigate to using GPS, so guests are asked to contact reception via phone half way through the journey in order to access final directions.

Once you pass the Al Maha gate, it’s a slow drive for ten kilometres or so until you reach the resort.  This final leg of the journey provides a stunning view of the desert, and you’ll be rewarded with the occasional glimpse of the Arabian Oryx, the spear-horned antelope after which ‘Al Maha’ takes its name.

Arrival and welcome

We arrived at the resort at around 11.30 am and were welcomed into the main reception complex which was lavishly decorated with an eclectic mix of Bedouin artfacts and antiques. The vibe felt somewhere between an old Arabian hunting lodge and Raffles.  Beyond the main reception complex was a Timeless Spa where guests could arrange for treatments, and a main pool.

Al Maha Desert Resort, Al Diwaan, Dubai, Starwood 25

Al Maha main reception area and lobby

We were promptly escorted to the guest arrival area, where we enjoyed a refreshing local drink whilst the guest services coordinator, Evalyn, provided us with comprehensive information about our stay.

Al Maha Desert Resort, Al Diwaan, Dubai, Starwood 24

The guest arrival area, part of the main reception complex

Evalyn advised us that our booking rate entitled us to three meals, plus tea and coffee (but excluding other beverages).  In addition, we’d be able to access an afternoon tea spread from the main lobby, as well as two activities. Our choices included archery, camel trekking, falconry and dune bashing.  It was clear that we wouldn’t go hungry!

Following our orientation, our luggage was loaded onto one of the resort’s buggies, and we were driven to our Bedouin suite, which was ready for an early check in.  While I usually try to avoid buggy transport, it’s a welcome mode of travel if you plan to stay in the heat of the Dubai summer, like I did.

Our Bedouin suite villa

The entry-level Bedouin suites are actually standalone villas with 75 metres of space.  They are sprawled out widely across the resort so as to afford guests the utmost in privacy.  The suites are split into a large bedroom / sitting area, with separate bathroom.  They offer decks with private plunge pools and an endless view of the desert landscape.

Our octagonal-shaped suite was luxuriously decorated with traditional Arabian furnishings and had a tented ceiling.

Al Maha Desert Resort, Al Diwaan, Dubai, Starwood 17

Sitting area with day beds

An easel and sketchpad were thoughtfully provided for artistic nature lovers…

Al Maha Desert Resort, Al Diwaan, Dubai, Starwood 19

Easel and sketchpad

…while a set of binoculars were placed on the writing desk, useful for spotting the abundant wildlife.

Al Maha Desert Resort, Al Diwaan, Dubai, Starwood 40

Writing desk

Still suffering from jetlag, I was heartened to discover that a Nespresso machine was available, with the largest assortment of pods I’d ever seen.  And as I hold SPG Gold status, a welcome amenity of fruit and local Arabian sweets was waiting on our coffee table.

Al Maha Desert Resort, Al Diwaan, Dubai, Starwood 3

SPG Gold welcome amenity

The bathroom featured a deep standalone bath, double vanity, separate shower and toilet.  While the decor was arguably getting a little dated, it was still spacious, warmly decorated and incredible luxurious.  Al Maha is currently undertaking a refurbishment of suites, so I’d expect to see the bathrooms refreshed over time.

Al Maha Desert Resort, Al Diwaan, Dubai, Starwood 14

Standalone bath

Toiletries were provided by Le Cinque Mondes, a leading Parisien spa brand which I really love.

Outside on our private sun deck, the temperature-controlled infinity pool beckoned with views of the desert beyond.

Al Maha Desert Resort, Al Diwaan, Dubai, Starwood 16

Toiletries from Le Cinque Mondes

As a traveller hailing from a cool Australian winter, I’d had misgivings about staying in the desert in the heat of Dubai’s summer, but a refreshing dip in the pool soon helped to allay any fears.

Al Maha Desert Resort, Al Diwaan, Dubai, Starwood 38

Our private plunge infinity pool

Lunch at the Al Diwaan Restaurant

After an hour spent in the pool and lazing on the deck, it was time to eat as we’d opted to take our lunch at the resort on day one. While we had the option of ordering from the extensive room service menu, we decided to head to the Al Diwaan Organic Fine Dining Restaurant.

We called for a buggy, which arrived promptly.  Arriving at the restaurant, we were blown away by the view of the desert from the deck.  (If you look closely at the photo below, you’ll spot four snowy-white Arabian Oryxes – one wandering to the left, and three drinking from the waterhole to the top right).

Al Maha Desert Resort, Al Diwaan, Dubai, Starwood 26

View from Al Diwaan Restaurant deck

Despite the spectacular view, it was far too hot to eat outside, so we wandered inside and resolved to book an outside table for dinner.

There were just a few people eating inside the restaurant.  Given the heat, we assumed most guests were wisely choosing to spend their day chilling out by their private pool.

Al Maha Desert Resort, Al Diwaan, Dubai, Starwood 8

Interior of the Al Diwaan restaurant

We were greeted enthusiastically by our waiter and advised that we could choose three courses from the lunch menu. As mentioned above, beverages (apart from tea, coffee and water) are not included in the full board rate, so we decided to take a look at the drinks menu.  Whilst we took a look at the menu, a basket of fresh, crusty bread and oil was brought to us.

Al Maha Desert Resort, Al Diwaan, Dubai, Starwood 10

Al Diwaan Restaurant cocktail menu

Moderate prices

I was pleasantly surprised by the prices – cocktails started at 65 AED with taxes included (around $22 AUD), and a bottle of wine could be purchased from 160 AED (around $56 AUD).  We both opted for a refreshing Al Maha Gin Fizz, and settled in to order our food.

For my entree, I chose the heirloom tomatoes with burrata, croutons and a balsamic dressing.  I was skeptical about ordering an Italian style dish in the Dubai desert, but I was blown away by the freshness of the summer tomatoes and the creaminess of the burrata.

Al Maha Desert Resort, Al Diwaan, Dubai, Starwood 11

Heirloom tomatoes with burrata, croutons and balsamic dressing

For main course, I chose a simple dish of chargrilled Omani Jumbo prawns with a side salad and lemon dipping sauce.  The prawns were enormous and well cooked.

Al Maha Desert Resort, Al Diwaan, Dubai, Starwood 12

Chargrilled Omani jumbo prawns

By this stage, I was really struggling to find space for dessert.  However, I was persuaded to finish off the meal with the chocolate tart with salted caramel and butterscotch ice cream.

Al Maha Desert Resort, Al Diwaan, Dubai, Starwood 13

Chocolate tart with salted caramel and butterscotch ice cream

After the meal, we decided to walk back to our villa on foot, meeting a curious gazelle along the way.

Al Maha Desert Resort, Al Diwaan, Dubai, Starwood 20

Gazelles wander the property freely

Activities at Al Maha

Each award night entitles guests to two daily complimentary activities which are managed by dedicated field guides.  Activities on offer include archery, falconry, dune bashing, ‘Sundowners’ (a drive to watch the sunset) and a Ghaf Tree walk.  There are a couple of additional activities available that require a 250 AED supplement, like horse riding.  During the summer, most activities run at either sundown or sunset.

The approach to booking is very casual, and we were encouraged to simply contact reception when we’d decided on an activity.  We chose the camel trek for our afternoon activity – a slow guided camel trek to the dune. We’d toast the sunset with a glass of champagne before proceeding back to the resort for dinner.  The plan was to then rise early for falconry, which was due to commence at 5.45 am the next day.

Guests gather at the lobby prior to afternoon activities, and are met with a huge refreshment spread, including coffees, teas and juices.  Nibbles on offer included bite size lemon curd tarts and rare roast beef sandwiches. We were still incredibly full from lunch and anticipating a large dinner, so we only sampled a couple of canapes.

Al Maha Desert Resort, Al Diwaan, Dubai, Starwood 27

Lobby afternoon tea buffet

Onboard the Ship of the Desert

Soon, it was time to head down to the front of the resort, where the camel train was waiting.  There were around 15-20 guests undertaking the activity, coming from many different countries.  Our field guide, Brett, was a former park ranger from South Africa.

Al Maha Desert Resort, Al Diwaan, Dubai, Starwood 30

Camel train, with handler

The trek was great fun, though it was still quite hot.  We marvelled at the desert landscape as the camels trekked slowly through the dunes. After around 30 minutes, we arrived at a clearing, where a complimentary drinks stand had been set up.

Al Maha Desert Resort, Al Diwaan, Dubai, Starwood 31

Dune drinks to toast the sunset

We stopped for around 30 minutes to enjoy a twilight glass of champagne. As we trekked back, we watched the sun sink slowly beneath the dunes.

Al Maha Desert Resort, Al Diwaan, Dubai, Starwood 32

Sunset over the dunes

Dinner at Al Diwaan Restaurant

Soon enough, it was time to eat – again!  Dinner at Al Maha is an extravagent multi-course affair, and the dress code is lifted to ‘smart casual’.

After a quick post trek swim and shower, we wandered down to the restaurant.  While it was still quite hot, we were happy to dine outside on the deck, under the stars.

After selecting an ice cold bottle of Argentinean Pinot Grigio, the food service commenced.  The first course was a flavourful amuse bouche of beef with yoghurt and pomegranite seeds.

Al Maha Desert Resort, Al Diwaan, Dubai, Starwood 33

Amuse bouche of beef with yoghurt and pomegranite seeds

For entree, I chose the Argentinean beef tartare, which was thankfully quite a small portion.

Al Maha Desert Resort, Al Diwaan, Dubai, Starwood 34

Argentinean beef tartare

For main course, I chose the slow cooked shank of lamb with vanilla infused potato puree. The lamb was beautifully cooked, and falling off the bone.

Al Maha Desert Resort, Al Diwaan, Dubai, Starwood 35

Slow-braised lamb shank with vanilla infused potato puree

Finally, for dessert, I chose a cheese plate, which featured Brillat Savarin, my favourite triple cream cheese from Normandy.

Al Maha Desert Resort, Al Diwaan, Dubai, Starwood 36

Cheese plate, featuring Brillat Savarin

Breakfast, a lazy morning and checking out

After a wonderful sleep in the comfortable bed, I awoke to find I’d slept through the 5.45 am falconry call – oops!  I wasn’t particularly upset though.  It provided me with the opportunity for a cool swim before the heat of the day set in.

Al Maha Desert Resort, Al Diwaan, Dubai, Starwood private pool

Our private pool beckons for a dawn swim.

After a morning spent generally lazing around and swimming, we decided to take our final meal in the comfort of our suite, on the deck.  A comprehensive room service menu is provided, and you can order whenever you like.

As far as I can tell, you can basically order as much as you want from the room service menu.  Given our food intake the day before, we’d only been planning to order one dish each, but the friendly guest relations coordinator convinced us to try a few more.

Al Maha Desert Resort, Al Diwaan, Dubai, Starwood 37

Our room service breakfast spread – we ended up with three dishes each!

Breakfast arrived and was set up silver-service style within around 40 minutes of me placing the order.  We were treated to fresh juices, waffles, pancakes, Arabian dips and flatbreads, fresh fruits. Condiments including adorable tiny bottles of tabasco.

It was a lovely way to finish off our stay.  Soon enough, it was time to depart, with my Emirates First Class Chauffeur booked in to pick us up at 11.30 am.  Following a final swim, we booked our last buggy and bade farewell to our desert paradise.

Overall, I really enjoyed my stay at Al Maha, and it was a perfect way for me to enjoy a 24 hour stopover in Dubai.  If it’s on your bucket list, I can definitely recommend it!

The bottom line

39,000 Starpoints (or 78,000 AMEX Membership Rewards points) is undeniably a huge splurge for a one night stay. However, the extra inclusions definitely made it worthwhile for me.  Here in Australia, you can immediately earn 50,000 AMEX Membership Rewards points (converting to 25,000 SPG Starpoints) with the sign on offer for the American Express Explorer Card.

While some reviewers suggest that two nights would be the perfect length of a stay at Al Maha, given the amount of food on offer and the activities available, I actually think one would be enough, particularly if you could arrive early and / or leave the resort late the next day. The resort seemed to offer flexibility for attendance of morning or evening activities on either day of our stay, and if a suite needed to be vacated, the main pool (which we visited but didn’t photograph) would be a great place to perch in between meals or activities.  I should also note that the resort doesn’t accept small children – the minimum age is 10 years.

My only recommendation?  Visit during Dubai’s winter, if possible.  While the private pool provided welcome respite from the searing heat of the summer, it was still incredibly hot when we visited.  Staying in the cooler months would open up alternative activities and the ability to spend time outside during the day.

Receive 50,000 bonus AMEX Membership Rewards Gateway points (the equivalent of 25,000 SPG Starpoints) with a new Explorer Card.  You’ll also pick up a $400 travel credit, lounge access passes and more. Apply via PC, tablet and smartphone here

American Express Explorer Credit Card