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By Hans Tammemagi
For Travel Writers' Tales

A week immersed in super-sized Dubai city-the world's tallest building, an indoor ski hill (in simmering desert heat!), artificial islands, a seven-star hotel-was exhilarating, but also exhausting. Needing to recover, I headed along a modern highway into an empty expanse of beige sand dunes. Then a narrow sand-blown road led deep into the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve. Finally a clump of trees with tents scattered among them like a Bedouin encampment appeared like a mirage. I had arrived at the Al Maha Resort & Spa deep in the Arabian desert.

At the reception building, I was greeted by name as I stepped from the vehicle-I love Arab hospitality! After check-in, I wandered through the reception area and spa, admiring the geometric and floral designs of the Arab décor and architecture. Persian carpets, Bedouin jugs and Omani doors melded with modern design. The resort owns the largest collection of antiques in Arabia. It felt like an art gallery and I could see why Sheikh Mohammed, the ruler of Dubai, often comes here.

Then a golf cart carried me past elegant villas with large canvas sails for roofs, which were spaced far apart to ensure privacy. Entering mine, I found a king-size bed, Arabian antiques and an enormous bathtub. An easel with art supplies stood in a corner. Outside, a sprawling wooden deck and a personal infinity pool offered long views over the desert. I had never imagined such delicious luxury in the middle of a desert, and almost felt guilty.

In the afternoon, Hillary, a naturalist, took me out to explore desert ecology. She let about half the air out of the Land Rover's tires, and said, "You'll be surprised how this helps us navigate over sand." Within minutes we were out of the oasis and into sand dunes with attractive sculpted ridges and rich shadowy ripples stretching to the horizon. Now and again we spotted delicate little Arabian gazelles gazing nervously at us. Hillary pointed at a sandfish lizard, which immediately dug itself into the dune in a flurry of sand. Shortly after, an oryx, an antelope with long, straight horns, walked up a dune and posed against the sky.

As I jumped out to take a photo, Hilary warned, "Stay back. Those horns have killed lions." She explained how the oryx had been declared extinct in Arabia in 1968. In 1998, about 50 oryx, which had been bred in captivity, were returned and released in the reserve. With government protection, including a fence around the 225-square-kilometre reserve, the population prospered and has grown to more than 400.

Later in the day, as the sun dropped low in the sky, I met Shadeem, a big, muzzle-wearing male camel. Our Arab guide, who wore a kandura (long white cloak) and guthra (headscarf), made Shadeem kneel down and I clambered awkwardly aboard. We formed a caravan, eight camels nose to tail, and bounced far into the desert until nothing was visible except sand.

Dismounting, I enjoyed soft, warm sand scrunching between my toes. Behind a dune, a table had been elegantly set with drinks and hors d'ouevres. Nice touch, I thought, as I meandered among the graceful dunes, sipping sparkling wine and nibbling a date. The camels formed dark silhouettes against a western horizon awash with oranges and mauves. Too soon the sky darkened, we mounted up and rode back.

After a rest, I strolled through the warm dusk to the resort's restaurant, Al Diwaan. The maitre'd greeted me with a smile, and by name (of course!) and led me to a candle-lit table. I was soon munching happily on Arabic bread and baba ghanoush. Next came a Bedouin platter of grilled jumbo prawns, lamb kofta, hammour (grouper fish) and a chicken skewer. I ate slowly, savouring the succulent offerings as long as possible. A hedonist to the core, I ordered the Yemeni nougat glace for dessert.

Under a sky ablaze with a million stars, I strolled to my "tent" and, enveloped in total silence, fell sound asleep.

Next morning, I lazed by the pool sipping a hearty Arabic coffee from a tiny cup and listening to an avian orchestra, including a dove coo-coo-coo-ing like a mother comforting her child.

When we left for the airport, I felt as though I was emerging from the Tales of the Arabian Nights. Rested and relaxed I headed for home.


Getting There:
Many airlines fly from North America to Dubai via Europe. Try to take Air Emirates for the Europe-Dubai leg. Unless dwarf-like, avoid Lufthansa and its cramped seats.

Where to Stay:
Al Maha Desert Resort: Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve:

General Information: & Canadians require a visa

PHOTOS by Hans Tammemagi

1-Lounge with displays of antiques
2-My luxurious suite
3-An oryx poses on a sand dune
4-A camel silhouetted against a sunset

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