As you might guess, January on the Baltic Sea is not exactly pleasant. Helsinki sits right on the coast line and stays just around freezing this time of year, providing us with endless gloomy days permeated by cold, freezing rain. Tack on the short day light hours, and you have a recipe for cabin fever. Or apartment fever, as it were.
Around mid-January, Jimmy and I started to really concentrate on trying to take a trip to literally thaw out for a while and catch some Vitamin D the good old fashioned way- seeing sunlight. We put out feelers for a few timeshare locations but were too late in booking. Then one day, Jimmy tells me that we are taking a trip the following weekend…and wouldn’t say more.
Because most of Europe is an ice box this time of year and most of our warm-weather options weren’t panning out, I figured it was a consolation prize of a trip and planned to pack my parka. However, the day before the departure, Jimmy left a few sheets of hotel information on the entry table before he left for work- carefully cut to not show the destination. Then he sent me the weather forecast ad told me to pack. (Pretty suave, right??)
I also discovered that Jimmy doesn’t so much like planning trips as he enjoys playing with points. It is like a big puzzle- maximizing your trip using the least amount possible. He planned this entire trip on his own, booked with points.
Business class on Turkish Airlines: Booked with points.
Desert Villa with private pool: Booked with points.
You get the picture, right? Aside from our meals and excursions, this trip cost us only the price of the return flight, which we booked direct through Norweigian Air- one of our preferred budget airlines.
Its the kind of trip that makes for a happy wife. Plus there was sun, so you can’t lose.
The following evening, we jumped a red-eye route to Dubai.
When we landed, we were met by a driver who took us on a 90-minute drive through vast expanses of rolling red desert to the Al Wadi Desert Resort in Ras al Khaimah, UAE, where our villa awaited our bleary eyes from the aptly named over-night flight. After driving us to our door on a golf cart “buggy,” were given a tour and run down of the gorgeous villa, which was completely swoon-worthy. It felt like our second honeymoon.
I was completely enamored with the beautiful Arabian details on the wood work and light fixtures. Not to mention the multiple lounge areas fit for a sultan.
You might be aware that a certain level of public modesty should be adhered to while visiting Islamic countries, such as the United Arab Emirates. As Dubai is a massively international city, plenty of people walk around wearing whatever they like- especially in the hot summer months. However, it is not uncommon to be approached by a stranger or staff member and be asked to change or cover up.
As such, the resort has no public pool- which is really to your advantage as every villa has its own private infinity pool, a crucial amenity as the temperatures in the summer climb towards the high 40s Celsius (115+ Fahrenheit!).
Our bed looked right out over our own pool and onto the wild life preserve that was beyond. In fact, on our first morning, we woke up to a pair or gazelles, literally locked in a battle of head butting. (I might add that my sister noted that the girl they were likely fighting over got bored and left…) What a way to start our trip!
Side note on the pools- if visiting in the off season, you may experience the same issue we had. Our pool- and most pools, we noticed- are oriented away from the sun. I imagine this is a huge bonus for the prevailing hot months, but for us, it was just a bit too cold to enjoy a relaxing swim-though we tried anyway!
Wait a minute, what was that about a wild life preserve?
Yes! You heard it right! This little resort is placed in a protected preserve that houses gazelles and wild Arabian oryx, as well as a huge variety of beautiful birds, small foxes, and -apparently- a donkey, who invited himself in. No really, he literally jumped the fence and has stuck around.
Every morning, the hotel offers nature hikes with knowledgeable guides, but we found that we could let the beautiful beasts come to us. On one leisurely afternoon stroll back to our villa, we found two oryxes happily munching on the trees out front, using their long horns to shake berries out of the trees.
Of course, #oryxselfies ensued. The docile animals reminded me of a breeding accident between a Billy goat and a cow, though they appeared a touch more intelligent than either of the former. Plus, those majestic horns! We were instructed that the only time they are dangerous is if they are fighting each other -which can apparently get very ugly. Oh, or if you hit one on your bike, which Jimmy nearly saw!
Outside the comforts of your villas, the resort is desolately beautiful. Natural oasis plants dot the rolling desert mounds and occasional traditional white stucco watch towers peak out of the red sands, reminding you that civilization is, in fact, close at hand. And back in the oasis resort, you find all of the amenities that make civilization oh, so very civilized!
Things like chilled, fresh coconuts for sipping after a morning desert hike.
Or a World’s Fair of a breakfast buffet, complete with 5 varieties of fresh juices, made to order eggs, fresh yogurts, dips, fruits, breads, beans, waffles…..
Every morning, we took our breakfast out in the sun on the terrace, where we would watch the birds stalk recently vacated tables and burn our pasty Nordic skin. By the final day, the maître d’ met us at the door and announced that our table was waiting for us and offered us sparkling wine to make our last breakfast -in his excellently chosen words- “imperial!” I accepted the bubbles with a splash of fresh orange juice, but Jimmy opted for a Bloody Mary, which the maître d’ made himself, insisting that Jimmy test it before his eyes to approve of the requested spicy level.
The main hotel restaurant, Al Waha, that provided the included breakfast also serves lunch and dinner of both international and Arabic variety. We ate an a la carte lunch there our first day as we hunkered inside over a large pot of mint tea during a rare chilly, rainy day. Jimmy heartily approved of his kebabs but I think my aromatic Moroccan tagine with chicken, dates, cinnamon, cloves and olives won the prize. A later dinner buffet of Middle Eastern cuisines also impressed with exotic flavors and -best part of all- a baklava bar.
Al Wadi Desert’s fine dining restaurant, Safran, looks over the watering hole, which is not only host to a variety of colorful birds, but also the permanent resident heron. The desert animals make frequent visits throughout the day and seem to bed down in the adjacent trees. Every evening before sunset, there is a falcon show here, as well. Unfortunately, Safran is only open for dinner, though we think it would be an ideal location for some sunset cocktails and pre-dinner bites.
The late night meal we did have here was excellent and presented by the most friendly staff, who spent time getting to know us at our table. We were offered multiple wine tastings during our bottle selection and were made to feel completely at home. The dishes were aromatic, tasty, and accompanied by a savory variety of naan breads; the winner was garlic, of course.
Oh, heads up, they aren’t joking around when they say a dish is spicy.
If neither of the two sit-down restaurants seem to grab you, you can also arrange for a private and personally staffed dinner in one of the traditional watch towers or “Dinner on the Dunes,” where hotel staff prepares a barbeque for you under the stars. Jimmy and I stumbled upon a trail of rose petals one morning, so it seems like they pull out all the stops when it comes to private dining.
Although Safran would be an ideal location for some aperitifs on the far side of the resort, the main buildings offered some other satisfying options. The haram-esque Samar Lounge provided tasty, desert-inspired cocktails such as a Date Margarita or Chili Mojito. After our first lunch at the property, we whiled away the rest of the storm in one of the tall, cavernous side rooms.
If the weather is fine- which it is most of the year and was for the rest of our trip- you can take advantage of the sunset drink specials at the Moon Bar, on the roof of the Samar Lounge. This place is the ultimate “cocktails with a view” setting on the resort property. As the name suggests, it is also open through the night, pushing last call until 1am so guests can enjoy the sounds of the desolate land and brilliant stars alongside their desert dessert beverages- as well as a fine cigar or table side sisha from the menu.
Evidently you will be well wined and dined at Al Wadi Desert Resort with a variety of locations and cuisines available throughout your stay. And, hey, you are staying in a super awesome villa that pretty much makes you never want to leave (there’s also an excellent room service menu and personal bar). You have a pool, a huge bathroom, a stocked fridge and lounge spaces for 10.
But let’s assume you do decide to venture out into the wild blue and sand covered yonder. What does a desert resort have to offer?
I have already mentioned daily nature hikes offered by the hotel concierge as well as evening falcon shows that showcase one of the most honored, traditional pastimes of the Emirates. Each morning, a falconer in traditional Emirati dress would greet guests with his falcon perched on his arm. I am now very much regretting not having a picture with him. But you may remember we did some falconry of our own on our fall trip to Ireland.
Quick Culture Fact: Abu Dhabi is home to the largest falcon hospital in the world and the UAE spends over $27 million each year on the conservation and protection of wild falcons. There is even an annual falcon beauty contest held in Abu Dhabi
Jimmy and I took ourselves on afternoon nature hikes around the surrounding dunes after we were told that we were welcome to wander wherever we liked. As Americans, these sort of open instructions are always a little weird, as all I see are liabilities and law suits.
Despite the fact that we were assured that the snakes and scorpions were completely nocturnal, I found myself suspiciously eyeing every stick, bush and burrow.
It was, however, really nice to get out and stretch our legs in the warm sand, take in the sun, and enjoy the barren beauty of the Emirati desert.
After our daily nature hike, Jimmy and I booked a few activities through the hotel concierge. The first was a United Arab Emirates classic: Dune Bashing.
Or riding around the sandy dunes in a Toyota SUV with a local well-versed in the sport.
We were picked up at the resort and taken to a tree-free dune park, where the driver, Yacob, took off cruising up and gliding down sandy dunes, leaving a trail of red dust in our wake. We laughed and “yee-haw”-ed through the entire 90-minute ride. The Arabic music blaring out of the stereo was an excellent touch on the experience!
As you can imagine, this was a difficult experience to record, but we stopped for a few photo ops over the dunes. Look closely and you can see the tracks in the distance! We also really enjoyed chatting with Yacob about the sport (yes, it is a favored local activity, though they go at night to make it more interesting) and about the country and culture.
We learned after our ride that you can rent ATVs for the same activity but I believe it is a more intensive activity. However, if motion sickness is an issue for you, I suggest it. AS much fun as I had riding the dunes, I was ready for some fresh air at the end!
What is a visit to the United Arab Emirates without meeting a few long lashed, smiling, hump back friends?
Of course I mean the hilariously ungainly camel.
The second Jimmy told me we were going to the UAE I said “I am not leaving until I ride a camel.” And so it was! We booked a sunset camel ride for our second evening, which was organized with the equestrian and camel center just next to the preserve that we were staying on.
We were wondering what the big stadium lights in the middle of the desert were all about. We inquired and learned that it is a big equestrian center and most people come to practice at night, as it is usually too hot during the day time.
Also, camel racing is a major event in the UAE. Winning camels are worth millions of Dirham and are often owned and paraded by the wealthy sheikhs. Every local Emirati that we met broke out into a huge smile when we asked if they enjoy camel racing; it seems to be well loved across the country. Camels have been an integral part of the regional culture- providing milk and meat, reliable transport and shelter to desert Bedouin for hundreds of years- and have proved to be a national treasure.
Camels race when they are young (and small) so electronic jockeys are affixed to their backs. If that sounds a bit odd, it is an improvement from the former use of child jockeys that was recently banned. After a camel’s racing days, they are generally retired to do this: carry dorky tourists around.
I have a hard time visualizing what it is like to see a camel run a sprint at 40 km per hour- it must be horribly awkward. With their knobby knees and long (looong) legs, they do not seem to be built for high speed. Their endurance, however, if what makes them such prized and respected beasts of burden. They can carry up to 225 kg- just short of 500 lbs- so Jimmy and I would have been a lighter load.
But, my word these babies are tall! I mean- we were really up there!
Of course, I was singing “Arabian Nights” in my head the whole time….
Our guide told us that they are incredibly lazy- which is why their walk with their mouths covered, otherwise they would stop to eat and drink. Which I imagine is simply the result of hundreds of years of desert ancestry. Generally, the females are very docile and the males are typically more aggressive- except, apparently, our male steed who was very sweet. we got to pet him and hug him- and I loved looking into those big gentle eyes! They were so pretty! I thanked him profusely for being such a good ride before we climbed the dune to enjoy the (included) champagne at sunset.
This was a really lovely thing to do as we didn’t partake the “Dinner on the Dunes.” Watching the sands turn colors from red to silver to pink and listening to the desert as night fell was very peaceful. We were also accompanied by a very knowledgeable staff member, who taught us about the surrounding lands, the plants, animals, and culture as we sipped back our bubbles.
Yep, it was lovely.
Other options for entertainment while in the Arabian Desert at Al Wadi Desert include: archery, equestrian activities, star gazing, falconry and their highly lauded spa. Basically, enough to keep you in this desert oasis for weeks.
So we returned to Finland- frosty and a mere 5 degrees Fahrenheit upon arrival- with pink faces and peeling foreheads, but defrosted and cheery enough from a solid, relaxing and fun few days in the Arabian Desert.
We spent a short day in Dubai on our way back and I will soon be sharing a few tips on how to maximize your time for a day in this sprawling (up and out!) desert metropolis!