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Al Maha Desert Resort has been a long-standing jewel in Marriott’s portfolio of properties. First built in 1999, the owners, Emirates Group, handed over management of this iconic property to the Starwood Hotels & Resorts Group (“SPG” – before it was bought out by Marriott) in 2010.
For those not familiar with Al Maha, it’s an ever-present bucket list property for most people engaged in the points and miles hobby. What makes it unique is that the property is the only resort situated in the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve, with all 40+ rooms being standalone luxury units with private plunge pools. Additionally, points and revenue stays both come with meals and non-alcoholic beverages included. It’s essentially a luxury desert getaway within 1-2 hours driving distance from Dubai and Abu Dhabi.
This property has been meticulously covered from every conceivable angle, time and time again in the blogosphere, so this won’t be detailed step-by-step review of the property. In lieu however, I’ll be doing a “QuickTake” – my condensed update of sorts on the property and my main key takeaways and observations from my recent visit there.
The Emirates Group completed construction on the resort in 1999 and managed it themselves until 2010. Right from the outset, Al Maha Desert Resort was being developed as the first conservation eco-resort in the region, preserving not only the desert and wildlife, but also the Bedouin heritage which developed within this environment. With this goal in mind, the Royal Family of Dubai financed the reintroduction of the Arabian Oryx in this section of the desert in 1997 – a symbolic species that was otherwise becoming critically endangered in the Arabian Gulf.
This eventually led to Emirates Airlines sponsoring and creating the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve (DDCR) encompassing a 225 km² stretch of land and thus becoming Dubai’s first national park. Since that time, the DDCR has been running its own conservation team of ecologists and wildlife specialists, and 100% of the DDCR’s visitor income goes towards their conservation efforts.
Despite being situated in a reserve in the middle of a desert oasis setting, Al Maha is surprisingly accessible from both Dubai and Abu Dhabi. For our journey, the drive from Abu Dhabi took about 2 hours and the drive to Dubai on our return was about an hour. In all my previous trips, I’ve always driven myself – however you should be able to secure a taxi or Uber for ~USD $125-$150 each way, or alternatively arrange private transfer with the hotel. If driving from Abu Dhabi, I’d suggest taking the E20 highway as its a much more serene drive into the interior of the country as opposed to initially heading up to Dubai and detouring away from there.
Lastly, if you’ll be driving, pay attention to any welcome email sent ahead of your stay as they provided us with directions complete with GPS coordinates on where to turn off on the highway as apparently one of the two regular gates to the DDCR was closed.
Cash rates at Al Maha nowadays start at just over USD $1,000 and do go as high as USD $1,860+ during the peak season which is usually Nov-Feb in the UAE.
Booking a night on Bonvoy points currently ranges between 92,000 Bonvoy points in the low season of summer, to 120,000 Bonvoy points during the winter months. Of course, this is all subject to change since officially Marriott has done away with award charts, so properties are free to set their own prices. It’ll be interesting to keep tabs on Al Maha’s redemptions rates in future.
For our nights, we had booked 2 Bedouin Suites, each for 120,000 Bonvoy points. One room had been booked about 3 months prior, and the second room, just a few days before our stay.
Elite & Brand Benefits
All Bonvoy Platinum Tier elites and higher have the following benefits:
- Welcome Amenity: As a Bonvoy Titanium member, we were offered the choice of welcome gift in the form of 1,000 Bonvoy points or a box of Al Bateel dates. To say that the correct choice between these options is obvious, would be an understatement.
- Early Check-in/Late check-out: Across my ~4-5 stays here, I’ve never arrived particularly early (2pm was the earliest), however have availed the 4pm checkout numerous times. This time was no different and it was confirmed at check-in.
- Repeat Recognition: One of the informal benefits of being a repeat visitor at Al Maha Desert Resort is better ‘soft’ recognition. This is often in the form of being allocated a more ‘desirably’ situated unit or extra little goodies here and there (i.e. a ‘Welcome Back’ cake as an example).
All hotel guests receive the following benefits:
- Parking: All hotel guests receive complimentary onsite parking.
- Activities & Dining: Being a full board resort, all meals, snacks and non-alcoholic beverages are included in both cash or points bookings. See the “Dining & Activities” section below for more on this.
- Turndown Service: Yes – and glad it is as well as the suites really transform into a cozy little getaway once the mood and patio lights are switched on and the curtains let loose.
- Resort Fees/Tax: Minor AED 20 daily local tax on points stays is collected at check-in.
A few minutes after exiting the highway, we arrived at the main entrance to the DDCR in which Al Maha is located. A guard took our details and then let us through with strict instructions to not go over the speed limit once inside as we would be passing by free roaming animals. After a short ride further in, alongside some photo ops with some Gazelles and Oryx’s – we approached the resort which from a distance looked just like an oasis – an explosion of greenery in the middle of the desert. Signs clearly labelled the way to the main building where staff was waiting for us.
The check-in experience was seamless. Instead of a traditional check-in desk, guests are taken to one of the various seating arrangements in the main building where they offer guests smoothies (date and banana if my memory does not betray me?). Here our associate explained what guests can expect during their stay – from meal times, to the daily activities, property layout etc. It’s also important to note that children under the age of 10 are not permitted at the resort. On that note – drones are banned as well. Please don’t be “that” blogger/influencer who thinks that the rules don’t apply to them!
Once checked-in, we were driven to our suites in golf carts along with our luggage. Each suite is a permanent structure with a canvas ceiling. The Omani influences across the room’s decor is unmistakable – and it is this that gives the experience a sort of old world elegance to it all.
The suite is plenty spacious. Aside from the king sized bed, there are two chaise lounges on either side of a large coffee table (technically a door made into a coffee table) looking out to the deck of the suite. On the table were more welcome goodies in the form of some bowls of nuts, dates and baklawa. The room also had a full sized cupboard, desk and even art supplies for those of you who might find themselves feeling inspired in this little desert oasis.
Approximately half the room has floor to ceiling glass panels, which allows you to enjoy your serene surroundings as much as possible- even when staying indoors. Though.. why would you want to spend so much time inside when all the suites come with private decks like this…
The pools are heated and the temperature can even be tweaked to your liking for which you’d just need to let the staff know
Each unit tends to have slightly different views and you’ll find the more often you come back, the more likely you are to receive rooms which have a more ‘desirable’ location within the resort. I say ‘desirable’ because there are some that are convinced that most of the lower level units are best because of the open views you get – but I’m not convinced. The higher up villa’s often has a lot more greenery hugging the suites and as a result you get some terrific bird watching opportunities in addition to the feeling of being cocooned in your very own secret garden – an experience you just don’t get at the lower level units. So am I saying the higher unit are better? No – I’m not… what I’m getting at is that you’ll have a great time whatever your suite number is likely to be – so don’t sweat it and let that detract from the experience (unless you get a high 30’s suite 😐 ).
In a nutshell, my stay this time around was just as lovely as the previous couple of times. Rooms are still well maintained and service levels are just as high as previous visits. Oh and the feeling of having gazelles popping into your backyard never really gets old either.
Activities & Dining
Each guest is able to select two daily activities for free while at the resort. If going for a short trip – I’d strongly suggest getting in touch with the property beforehand to book your space. During our trip the following activities were offered:
I’ve personally done falconry multiples times, alongside archery and sundowners. I’ve always had a great time at falconry where the bird handlers do a fantastic job of educating the audience on their animals – often showcasing a couple of different birds and demonstrating their hunting abilities as well. This trip I was glad to finally see Oscar the Owl! On a previous trip in 2020 – Oscar had decided 2 mins in that it was too early for him and had flown away into a nearby tree and refused to budge from there.
If with a group, archery is a lot of fun as well. While I was doing my best Legolas impression, our guide was telling us about the “Al Maha Arrow Challenge” – and to my surprise – golf legend Sir Nick Faldo seems to be a fan of Al Maha Desert Resort and the archery activity.
Dining at Al Maha is, as I’ve mentioned above, all included. This includes breakfast, lunch, dinner, room service and an afternoon tea service at the bar and patio in the main pavilion. I’ve often heard that you can select lunch for the day you arrive or for the afternoon that you leave depending on how the schedule works out for guests.
Our overall dining experience was a bit of a mixed bag as unlike previous trips, we found this time around some dishes were outstanding, while others kind of fell flat. Given the variety of dishes on offer, it’s certainly advisable to hunt for some recommendations.
For breakfast I’ve only ever ordered room service, though friends have often told me that breakfast in the restaurant is very good. Despite that, I’ve always enjoyed the food being brought over and either set up on the patio outside, or on the coffee table overlooking the suite’s pool. While there were some highs (pear and walnut toast ) and lows (bread basket), overall it was decent quality offering in a terrific setting. For an added fee, you can also have a floating breakfast in your pool (please lets not encourage this absurdity 😐 ).
We had lunch at the main restaurant and the highlights there were the grilled lamb chops, dorado and the burger, with the pistachio brulee and match molten cake the desserts of choice for us.
If there is one meal I’d advise to take in the Al Diwan restaurant, it would usually be the 5-course dinner they serve. While still a good dining experience, it is one area where I noticed a decline over my previous visits. As with the other meals, some dishes were excellent, while others were.. well meh. On previous visits, the entire meal had almost always been close to outstanding. The 5 course dinner started off with a unmemorable bland maki roll for the table, followed by appetizers you select. The lobster raviolo and foie gras were terrific choices. After that, all guests were served a sorbet followed by our selection of mains. After finishing up our desserts (apple pie and banana tart are the ones to pick!), the staff brought over a “Welcome Back” cake, which I thought was a nice touch… though not sure the best time to bring over a cake is right after a 5 course meal :).
Every afternoon, there is an afternoon tea setup in their bar area which offers all sorts of sweet and savory snacks such as macarons, date scones (so good! Ask them to bring some cream), finger sandwiches etc. Its a great time to grab some drinks and snacks and walk over and sit on the outdoor patio and enjoy the desert landscape. Hopefully you’ll see some gazelle and oryx activity as they wonder back and forth between the waterhole in the distance. On really clear days, you’ll even be able to see some mountains in Oman in the distance.
Final Word: Al Maha Desert Resort – overrated?
Al Maha has been wildly popular within the miles and points community for a number of years now. Anyone who has any level of engagement in the hobby has at least heard about it at one time or another. I know a number of people who have even planned visits to the UAE from abroad with the sole purpose of going to the resort. So that begs the questions – is Al Maha overrated? Does it fail to live up to the hype?
I think the short answer for me to both of those questions, is an emphatic no. Having visited the property a couple of times, I still enjoy the experience of being out in the peace and quiet of the desert. Despite noticing a significant drop-off in the quality of the food and beverage offering, there is still enough here to get me looking forward to coming back for repeat visits. Add to that, despite commanding a high premium in points – it still remains excellent value when you consider the food and beverage inclusions. I mean – how can you argue about the redemption value here when you have Airport Courtyard Marriott’s charging 70,000 Bonvoy points in Hawaii. At Al Maha – there is no resort fees… there is no seaplane charge.. there is no menu add-on. You can truly have an almost fully all inclusive getaway for the price of your Bonvoy points. That’s a pretty terrific redemption.
For anyone who hasn’t been here yet and will be crossing by this part of the world – then I absolutely wholehearted recommend they try and squeeze Al Maha into their plans. Would I come here again? Probably not anytime soon unless I’m visiting with company that hasn’t had this experience yet.