Let’s be honest, as an environmentally conscious, discerning traveller, the booming and bustling city of Dubai will most likely strike you as unpleasantly megalomaniac, the personification of unsustainable development even. Yet, it only takes an hour by car and you are in an entirely different Dubai.
70 km from Dubai and bordered by the road from Dubai to Al Ain, lies the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve (DDCR), with the Al Maha luxury resort right in the middle.
A day at Al Maha Resort and Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve
It is June and already heating up to 42 degrees celsius outside when we visit the resort, following an invitation from Arne Silvis, Al Maha’s general manager. About an hour and a half has passed since our pickup outside Park Regis Kris Kin hotel in Dubai, when our air-conditioned car reaches the gate that protects the fenced terrain from unwelcome visitors. A few words between warden and driver, a short phone call, and we are allowed inside.
Five-star hospitality awaits us as we are greeted and escorted inside Al Maha’s spacious, comfortably cool main building. Welcome drink in hand, we sit down with Gerhard Erasmus, the resort’s conservation manager and sustainability delegate, who gives us a brief overview of Al Maha’s history and vision.
Al Maha – Dubai’s precious green jewel
Established in 2004, the Dubai Conservation reserve’s purpose is to reintroduce indigenous fauna into the area, and to protect native plants from the grazing of camels, goats and donkeys. Only 0.2% of the 225 sq. Km (56.250 acres) reserve are developed.
The Al Maha resort, which was opened in March 1999, lies right in the middle of this vast reserve made of dunes, sand, and the odd scrub. Since then, Al Maha, which took two years to build, has become Dubai’s precious green jewel.
Managed by Starwood Hotels and Resorts, today Al Maha comprises of 37 Bedouin suites, 2 Royal suites, 2 Emirates suites, and one Presidential suite – the later with its own dinning area, private courtyard, private kitchen and servants quarters. But hold on, a luxury resort right in the middle of the desert – is that even possible?
Sustainable luxury: focus on wildlife and water conservation
In such extreme environments as the Dubai desert, environmental friendliness does have to make way to comfort, at least to some extent. Quite honestly, we’d hardly stand the heat without air-conditioned buildings and cars. Solar power seems the obvious energy source, but Gerhard tells us current technology just isn’t up to scratch when it comes to Dubai’s sand storms (improvements are on their way). So electricity still comes from Dubai.
Water, however, is where Al Maha excels. All the tap water comes from a bore hole on the property, approx. 35m – 60m deep, with a total of 7 water holes on the Al Maha Reserve. The water is pumped up, purified and distributed to outlets. Waste water is collected in tanks, cleaned and used for irrigation and at the waterholes. Here’s Gerhard’s predecessor talking about conservation at Al Maha.
All of the trees visible from the resort have been planted by its conservation managers, including about 6.000 acacia, sidr and gaff. Irrigated by two waterholes, these trees are not just nice to look at, but also provide welcome shade to the animals, most of which have been donated by Dubai’s ruler, Sheikh Mohammed.
Let’s talk about food!
Since we arrive just in time for lunch, we start our visit of the Al Maha resort at the exquisite Al Diwaan Organic Restaurant, which is the heart of the culinary and service experience of Al Maha Desert Resort & Spa. Most of the other guests have left the spacious room by the time we approach dessert, with gives us an opportunity to catch up with David Miras, Executive Chef and a fellow European, French national.
Without further ado he invites us on a tour through the huge kitchen, where we ask him about his very own challenges in complying with the resort’s high standards and dedication to sustainability. The main issue, he tells us, is to obtain produce whose quality is up to scratch with the resort’s five-star standard, which in many cases just isn’t available in the region.
Sustainable fishing is a big topic, and a massive WWF wall poster tells kitchen staff exactly which fish can be caught when, where and at what quantity. David is also eager to reduce waste, such as by changing buffet style lunch to a la carte, which makes a big difference considering that a five-star buffet has to look as plentiful and marvelous to the last guest as it does to the first.
Al Maha activities: wildlife safari and camel ride
Undisputed highlight of our visit to Al Maha in the Dubai desert were the wildlife drive and the camel ride into the setting sun. Words won’t do, so here are some impressions:
It is dark when we finally hit the road back to glittering and glamorous Dubai. A spectacular day at the Al Maha resort and Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve has come to an end, leaving us somewhat conciliated with this impossible city built on sand, bold dreams and cheap immigrant labor.
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