Breathtaking landscapes, unique activities and starry nights are the hallmarks of a great desert stay – Imogen Lepere sifts through the world’s best hotels and camps
Few landscapes say more about nature’s give and take than deserts. Across the millennia, water has gathered in scars on the leathered land, drawing nomads and settlers. Hardened by relentless heat, many of these people have laid the foundations for great cities and civilisations. Now it’s the hoteliers’ turn.
These mirages are real. To create a luxury hotel in this climate is a feat of design and imagination that has to be seen to be believed. Rarely do we appreciate opulence more than when its antithesis surrounds us. Every drop in an infinity pool, every cool linen curtain and iced fruit drink, is a defiant gesture in the face of the wilderness. Desert holidays give you opportunities other destinations don’t.
Take advantage of the vast expanse around you: try camel-trekking in Jordan, dune-bashing in Abu Dhabi or trekking in Namibia. At night, when moonlight catches ripples in the sand, your hotel will feel like the last bubble of civilisation, adrift on a stormy sea. Whe-ther you’re an adventurer, a romantic or someone who needs to get away from it all, allow us to guide you around the world’s most spectacular desert hotels.
QASR AL SARAB (ABU DHABI)
Despite being characterised by its magnificent excess, this hotel is excellent value. There are 205 spacious rooms, villas and suites, abounding with silk cushions, leather armchairs, and silver and bronze chandeliers. The United Arab Emirates’ rulers have their tribal roots in the region, and Abu Dhabi’s glitterati regularly descend on Qasr Al Sarab for lavish weekends. You may want to opt for the hotel’s limousine from the airport, and ditch your hiking boots, before making your entrance at any of the five restaurants that Qasr Al Sarab offers. Rooftop steakhouse Suhail offers more than 120 wines, and awe-inspiring views of Abu Dhabi’s aptly named, vast Empty Quarter. Jump in a four-wheel-drive vehicle and spend the day ‘dune-bashing’ with a driver – and get set for a brilliantly bumpy ride. Don’t miss the daily falconry shows, led by a master of this ancient art, whose skills have been passed down through four generations of the same family.
Nearest airport: Abu Dhabi (210 kilometres)
EXPLORA ATACAMA (CHILE)
From the snow-capped Andes to the Pacific Ocean, the Atacama Desert is a hotchpotch of sensational scenery. Volcanoes loom over glistening salt flats, while the Moon Valley is so other-worldly that NASA tests equipment there. Take advantage of pleasant October temperatures (about 21ºC) with one of Explora Atacama’s expert activity packages – you can choose from the likes of hiking, horse riding, cycling and astrology. Explora Atacama is the destination hotel in the oasis of San Pedro. Its 50 rooms are tastefully decorated in restful hues, while Wi-Fi is banished to communal areas, so you can switch off completely. It boasts an observatory, an enviable wine cellar, and a dazzling open-air spa that has four pools, Jacuzzis, and a sauna and steam bath. Well-worked muscles will feel instantly revived by a traditional Turi Puri massage, not to mention a relaxing glass of Merlot in the hot tub. For an unforgettable experience, bask in Puritama Hot Springs, located in a nearby nature reserve.
Nearest airport: Calama (100 kilometres)
In local Nama dialect, ‘namib’ means ‘vast place.’ And as you stand at the heart of the oldest desert in the world, you’ll see why. This great beach has swallowed more than 2,000 kilometres of Namibia’s coastline, and 81,000 square kilometres of the country, taking lumbering mountains, moonscape valleys and fiery plateaus in its stride. Atlantic mists roll in just before sunrise, creating enough moisture to nourish a surprising variety of wildlife. Look out for giraffe, oryxes and wildcats on a safari around the Wolwedans nature reserve, which maintains a ratio of 1,000 hectares of desert per bed. If you need a little breathing space from everyday life, it’s hard to beat the six luxurious camps that are sprinkled throughout its 200,000 hectares. We recommend Dunes Lodge, with its two lounges, library and infinity pool with hammocks. The nine chalets have canvas walls that can be folded up, so you can wake up to the sound of the dune larks, as warm breezes drift in.
Nearest airport: Windhoek (440 kilometres)
BANYAN TREE AL WADI (DUBAI)
Jet into Dubai, and follow the well-heeled locals to the exclusive resort of Al Wadi. Just a 45-minute drive from the airport, it is located within the lesser-known neighbouring emirate of Ras al-Khaimah, and has a five-star setting amid the desert vegetation and backdrop of the Al Hajar Mountains. Each villa has its own infinity pool, king-size bed and seriously sexy lighting. Take your pick from six restaurants and bars, including the open-air Moon Bar and Safran – a Thai restaurant with sweeping views over the vast nature reserve. If you’re the romantic type, try the desert dining experience: a private meal among the dunes, with a butler anticipating your every need. There are some knockout day trips on offer, and if you fancy a flutter, October sees the start of the camel racing season at the Suwan track. If all that sand makes you think of the sea, simply hop on a shuttle bus for 20 minutes, and spend the day at the resort’s beach club. Ras al-Khaimah has sugar-like sand along the Arabian Gulf.
Nearest airport: Dubai (80 kilometres)
MIHIR GARH (INDIA)
Picture the most extravagant sand castle you’ve ever built. Now put it on a dune, in Rajasthan’s Thar Desert. Add castellated turrets, curvaceous towers inspired by the huts of the Bishnoi tribe, a plunge pool or Jacuzzi per bedroom, and you have Mihir Garh – or ‘Fort of the Sun’ to its designers. A total of 150 local craftsmen toiled for two years, over just nine suites, and the result is a sensual feast. Each space is 158 square metres, and includes gorgeous features such as mirrored chimney pieces and frescoes of peacocks with fabulously jewelled tails. An entire stableful of Marwari horses makes this the ideal choice for equestrian lovers. The sense of freedom that comes from riding these powerful beasts, through their homeland among the birds and other wildlife, will be a memory to cherish for a lifetime.
Nearest airport: Jodhpur (60 kilometres)
In a country as vast as the US, it’s easy to travel for days in-between sights. So when you have the Grand Canyon, Monument Valley, Grand Staircase, Bryce Canyon and Zion National Parks all within a few hours’ drive, you know you’re on to a winner. When the sun is at its height and the ruddy sands of Utah’s Canyon Point burn white, it is almost impossible to spot Amangiri. This exclusive desert hide–away blends so seamlessly into its surroundings that condors swoop over it fearlessly, making it a birdwatchers’ paradise. Its 34 suites are an ode to minimalism: think contemporary sculpture, sleek wooden furniture and floor-to-ceiling windows. Throw in a gallery of Navajo art, a restaurant serving locally sourced produce and a cutting-edge spa, and you have the last word in desert chic. After an afternoon of hiking, relax in the stone-lined pool, drying beside the outdoor fire. Ask the staff to make up one of the king-size daybeds and spend a night under the stars.
Nearest airport: Las Vegas (390 kilometres)
DESERT NIGHTS CAMP (OMAN)
This Oman camp puts the ‘glam’ into glamping. Although there are four ‘normal’ rooms, the 26 tented suites are spectacular. Every contemporary convenience has been cunningly included (power showers, hairdryers and air conditioning) without compromising on pared-back Arabian design. Frankincense wafts from metal burners, locally woven tapestries adorn the walls, and sprigs of bougainvillea are scattered over silken bed throws every evening. After a long day quad-biking through the rippling Sharqiya Sands, recline on your porch with a laban (a salty buttermilk drink), while local women adorn your arm with henna art. For a closer look at the culture around you, visits to traditional Bedouin huts can also be arranged. Two Dunes Restaurant serves Arabic dishes such as Mashuai (spit-roasted kingfish and lemon rice), or pre-book a traditional barbecue two days in advance; lamb baked under ochre sand for at least 48 hours, provides a beguiling taste of the harsh wilderness of the Arabian Gulf.
Nearest airport: Muscat (230 kilometres)
PRAIRIE HOTEL (AUSTRALIA)
Are you one of those travellers who need proof that this intoxicatingly alien landscape really is South Australia? Step into the classic Edwardian bar of the savagely isolated Prairie Hotel, where locals sip cold ones and the humour is as dry as the dust in Parachilna’s oven-like heat. If you need more evidence, then tuck into the hotel’s acclaimed but pricey feral grill, with its camel sausages and kangaroo steaks, served alongside bush tomato jam. The Prairie Hotel offers slickly contemporary eco-accommodation, including the revamped heritage rooms, which are partially buried in order to stay cool. This is the rough-as-guts wilderness, with the harsh edges polished off. It’s also a superb spot to take a scenic flight, whether you’re soaring high above the natural amphitheatre of Wilpena Pound, or the 1,600-million-year-old wonderland of Arkaroola with its granite peaks, slopes of golden spinifex and views of dazzling salt lakes. Closer to home, dusk delivers the coal train – one of the longest on Earth, with more than 160 carriages. Passing directly in front of the Prairie Hotel’s striped awning, it’s your signal to head outside, sink a beer and witness a man-made, rather than a natural, desert marvel.
Nearest airport: Adelaide (470 kilometres)
WADI RUM NIGHT CAMP (JORDAN)
As you thunder through the sun-stained chasms of Wadi Rum on camel-back, you will find it impossible not to indulge in Lawrence of Arabia daydreams – indeed, the night camp brings them to life. This is our pick for those looking for an authentic desert experience. Its 25 tents are on the rustic side of luxurious: beds and dressing tables are hand-carved by local tribesmen, while dinner is served on low-slung, silken couches in one of two restaurant tents. Negotiate your way into the kitchen and learn how to make traditional Jordanian flatbread, filled with zaatar spices and local cheese. Pre-book a day’s camel-trekking, for an experience budding adventurers and histor-ians will savour. The rock formations are epic, and you’ll see the remains of Lawrence’s house, as well as inscriptions carved into the sandstone cliffs in Aramaic, which is thought to be the language of Jesus Christ. Your guide will help you translate the names of the Thamūd tribesmen, whose camel trains plodded this path 2,000 years ago. Guests can also combine the trip with a visit to Petra, one of the Seven Wonders of the World, which is less than two hours away.
Nearest airport: Queen Alia International in Amman (290 kilometres)