The best desert hotels and retreats in the UAE for 2023

Advice

All hotels have been independently reviewed and selected. We will earn a commission if you book via the links below, but this never affects our rating.

The UAE is most famous for its glamorous city skylines defined by gleaming rows of skyscrapers, some twisted, some illuminated, and one that wins the accolade of being the tallest building in the world – you really can’t miss Burj Khalifa. Most visitors drive past these megastructures as they journey from the airport, mesmerised, eyes gazing upward through taxi windows, keen to know what lies inside – but, take note, there’s more to this young Middle Eastern country than its modern facade might portray.

Beyond its shining towers and look-at-me landmarks, hidden among the silk-soft, rust-coloured dunes, there’s an exotic collection of low-rise Arabian sanctuaries designed for guests who want to unplug from the rat race and cavort with gazelles. Camel rides are optional and private pools are a refreshing bonus. Welcome to our pick of the best off-the-beaten-path desert resorts, safari camps and hotels in the UAE, featuring hidden treasures in Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Ras Al Khaimah.
 


How we review

Every hotel in this curated list has been visited by one of our expert reviewers, who are usually hosted on a complimentary basis. They stay for a minimum of one night, test at least one meal and trial other experiences that the hotel might have to offer. 


    

Ras Al Khaimah

    

The Ritz Carlton Ras Al Khaimah, Al Wadi Desert

Just north of Dubai, Ras Al Khaimah’s Ritz-Carlton offers guests an elevated spa experience among the dunes. Beyond age-defying Espa facials and spiced oil massages, there’s “The Rainforest”. This hydrothermal suite has 16 stations, among them the “Igloo” with crushed ice body scrubs, a hammam, salted steam room, herbal sauna and pebble foot spa. The gym is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Horse, pony and camel riding lessons are also available, alongside archery, biking, stargazing, bird-spotting and nature tours of Al Wadi’s 1,235-acre protected reserve. After all that, sleeping is easy in luxury Bedouin-inspired villas with private pools and wraparound views of the desert.

Read the full review: The Ritz-Carlton Ras Al Khaimah

FROM

£
285

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The Ritz-Carlton Ras Al Khaimah, Al Wadi Desert - one of the best desert hotels in the UAE


The Ritz-Carlton Ras Al Khaimah offers Bedouin-inspired villas in the Al Wadi Nature Reserve


Credit: DON LORIEZO

Dubai

    

Bab Al Shams Desert Resort & Spa

The original Arabian desert retreat, Bab Al Shams opened in 2004, intended as luxury lodgings for Dubai’s equestrian set in Al Qudra, occupied only by stables and racetracks (and now with the addition of cycle paths and man-made lakes). Its name translates as Gateway to the Sun, which makes sense as you watch the sun rise from the comfort of the resort’s infinity pool. By night, stars help navigate the way to Al Hadheerah, one of a handful of restaurants, best described as an experience. Part culinary bazaar, part cultural theatre, Arabian singers croon, drummers dance to a beat of their own and horse and camel riders re-enact historical tales. At weekends, there are even fireworks.

FROM

£
175

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Bab Al Shams Desert Resort & Spa - one of the best desert hotels in the UAE


Bab Al Shams started out as a desert retreat for the Emirates’ horse racing set

Al Maha

Al Maha means “The Oryx” and you are likely to spot several at this dreamy resort in the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve. These majestic antelope with white coats and black horn crowns patrol the horizon, while Disney-like gazelles skip right up to the tented suites to sip from the private pools. This boutique retreat has one restaurant and one lounge, both equipped with verandas that capitalise on the views. Daily treats (covered in the room rates) include afternoon tea with strawberries and cream and camel milk smoothies and two activities; choose between archery, camel trekking and nature drives with passionate field guides. 

Read the full review: Al Maha Desert Resort & Spa

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£
694

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Al Maha - one of the best desert hotels in the UAE


Al Maha is ideally situated for spotting local desert wildlife

Platinum Heritage overnight safari

It can be hard to discern one desert safari from another. Most include dune-bashing with a trained driver in a Toyota Land Cruiser, a buffet in a Bedouin-style camp on Persian rugs, shisha, camel rides, henna tattoos, falconry and, perhaps, a belly dancer. Platinum Heritage has a different agenda. Guests are driven through Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve in vintage open-top Land Rovers, the preferred mode of transport in Fifties Dubai. After dinner, they sleep in traditional Arabian stone dwellings, albeit with comfier bedding, before being gently woken with a gourmet breakfast in time for a sunrise hot air balloon ride.

Overnight desert safari and hot air balloon flight from AED2,100/£420 per person (platinum-heritage.com)



Platinum Heritage Overnight Safari - one of the best desert hotels in the UAE


With its vintage Land Rovers, Platinum Heritage stands out from other Emirati safari lodges


Credit: SHUGA PHOTOGRAPHY

Abu Dhabi

    

Telal Resort Al Ain

This boutique hotel, ringed by trees and tucked within the peaks of Remah desert, hides two pools, a spa, zip line, sand zorb ball, quad bikes and a restaurant. Once a Bedouin stamping ground, it remains popular with rare antelopes, the Domani, Reem and Arabian oryx. Pretty Al Ain, “The Garden State” is close by and it’s just two hours from Dubai airport, less from Abu Dhabi. The largest villa has four bedrooms, plus a private pool and spa. Authentically Emirati standard rooms have wicker-covered ceilings, elaborately carved furniture and striped, red al sadu weave fabrics. Bring your own nightcaps, as Telal isn’t licensed.

Read the full review: Telal Resort Al Ain

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107

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Telal Resort Al Ain - one of the best desert hotels in the UAE


Telal Resort Al Ain is an authentically Emirati boutique hotel in the Remah Desert

Anantara Sir Bani Yas Island

Arriving on Sir Bani Yas Island by private plane sets a decadent tone. Seaplanes and boats also service this designated conservation area, earmarked for preservation by the first president of the United Arab Emirates. The Arabian Wildlife Park is occupied by more than 10,000 animals and three Anantara-managed properties; inland, Al Sahel Villas on the sand offers the most authentic safari experience. Wildlife to spy through binoculars includes Arabian oryx, exotic wildcats, giraffes, gazelles and the lesser Egyptian jerboa, which looks like a mouse-sized kangaroo. Daily guided tours are the main draw.

Read the full review: Anantara Sir Bani Yas Island

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365

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Anantara Sir Bani Yas Island - one of the best desert hotels in the UAE


There are three Anantara properties on Sir Bani Yas Island, a designated wildlife conservation area

Qasr Al Sarab Desert Resort by Anantara

Qasr Al Sarab’s castle-like exterior reflects traditional Bedouin forts of yesteryear and its immersive desert experience is spellbinding. Artefacts are plentiful in common areas and hotel thoroughfares, windows and doors have been designed with tradition in mind, while dimly lit lanterns and falaj-style water systems are a nod to days gone by. The sunsets are as incredible as you’ll see anywhere and the changing vistas just as enchanting – it’s easy to see why the producers of Star Wars: The Force Awakens chose to film here.

Read the full review: Qasr Al Sarab Desert Resort

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241

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qasr al sarab - one of the best desert hotels in the UAE


Qasr Al Sarab Desert Resort has been built in the fashion of historic Bedouin forts


Credit: Paul Thuysbaert

Arabian Nights Village

The village approach is dramatic, with twin fortress watchtowers emerging from behind a gigantic dune, and then the smell of freshly brewed cardamom-spiced coffee mingling with the woody perfume of bakhoor, the local incense made using hand-me-down recipes. Paths shaped like palms, ambiently lit like Christmas trees by night, weave through clusters of spacious tents and stone rooms, 36 in total, their walls lined with al sadu weave or palm frond latticework. At Al Maqam, guests feed their inner Bedu with meats and Arabian flatbreads after days of camel trekking, quad biking, dune bashing and sand boarding. 

Overnight desert experience, inclduing activities, for two adults from AED900/£180 (arabiannightsvillage.com)



arabian nights village - one of the best desert hotels in the UAE


From stunning sights to evocative fragrances, Arabian Nights Village assails the senses


Credit: NICOLAS DUMONT

Sharjah

    

Mysk Al Faya Retreat

In the Sixties, a grocery store, clinic and petrol station were built an hour’s drive east of Dubai on a lonely road snaking between mountain and desert deep within Sharjah. Typical of mid-century modern architecture in Britain at the time, the single-storey blocks with steel-framed windows were later abandoned and might have crumbled to dust. But the local authorities had another idea: design firm Anarchitect was commissioned to turn the plot into a five-room boutique retreat, incorporating the original buildings and adding a spa, a pool and a terrace restaurant with atmospheric firepits. The effect is compelling, with one lone rusting BP pump standing in what’s now the lodge’s forecourt as a sculpture and reminder of the region’s past.

Doubles from AED809/£160 per night. Currently, the property is offering buyout bookings (all five rooms) at AED4,043/£800 per night (al-faya-lodge.hotels-sharjah-uae.com)



al faya lodge - one of the best desert hotels in the UAE


A long-abandoned rest stop east of Dubai, Al Faya Lodge has been repurposed as a sleek boutique retreat

Contributions by Melinda Healy

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