Sunday, 31 October 2010

Fierce Creatures

Cover of "Fierce Creatures"Cover of Fierce CreaturesStaying at Emirates' Al Maha Desert Resort and Spa has long been a treat for us. The lavish little 42-room hotel nestles on the side of a large bowl out in the sands between Dubai and Al Ain, every room a suite with its own little infinity pool looking out over a plain edged by rolling dunes. We usually cash in Emirates' Skywards air miles rather than dig deep for the Dhs 4,000-odd you'd have to dole out for a night of bliss in the desert, but this stay was compliments of Skywards after their customer service people unearthed the little disaster that was our attempt to make a booking in August (thank you, chaps).

Al Maha was the first of the UAE's desert resorts - Bab Al Shams, Al Sahra and Qasr Al Sarab have all followed in the wake of the resort's success but none have ever had the appeal of Maha for us. It wasn't, of course, the first 'desert hotel' in the UAE - that honour belongs to the now dowdy but yet still delightful Liwa Hotel. But it was the first place to transform the pleasures of camping in the deep dunes into a world-class luxury bliss-out experience - the suites are all tent-themed and the stiff room rate does include a variety of desert activities as well as breakfast, lunch and dinner. There are few chilled weekend experiences to rival it. It's so good, TripAdvisor (the website that makes hotel GM's break into cold sweats) does nothing but gush about the place. and they're all right about it, too. My own raving about the place has been going on for a good long while now, so you can forget the accusation that I'm only being nice because of the Skywards comp.

One of the most delightful aspects of this delightful hotel is that it's set in the middle of a massive game reserve made up of something like a third of Dubai's total landmass and dedicated to the preservation of the Arabian Oryx - or Al Maha. Camels are banned (they're not actually indigenous to the region, dontcha know?) but a thriving herd of oryx, gazelles and an increasingly rich variety of desert life are not only welcomed,  but assiduously protected. Starting at something like 90 head when it opened, Al Maha's herd of endangered pointy-horned ruminants has grown to over 300 now.

But there's trouble in paradise. Someone, somewhere has decided to remake the John Cleese comedy Fierce Creatures and locate it in the desert outside Dubai.Only this time it's for real.

The globe-spanning Starwood Hotels and Resorts, which is responsible for brands such as Le Meridien, Sheraton and Westin, is to take over the management of Al Maha from tomorrow. I can find no trace of an official announcement,  but the news has led to a number of staff, including some of the hotels' complement of South African guides, chucking in the towel and moving elsewhere. Others are presumably waiting to see what happens when the new bosses turn up with their sleeves rolled up and briefcases bursting with formulas for increased efficiency and resource management.

(Fierce Creatures, BTW, revolved around 'big business' taking over an ailing zoo and the new director deciding to increase the place's popularity by making its large-eyed, furry inmates seem more dangerous and therefore more attractive to the general public.)

Starwood already manages one Emirates-owned property, the Le Meridien Al Aqha  Beach Resort. And there's a lot of sense to an airline focusing on doing what it does best (running the world's largest demonstration of the effectiveness of the 'long tail' principle) rather than running hotels. What's more, the Starwood network would have a huge benefit to Al Maha which, we understand, does tend to suffer from low mid-week occupancy and rammed weekends. But part of what made Al Maha so unique was how very focused everyone there was on customer service and creating a wholly memorable experience that went beyond reason. The million dollar question is whether that experience will survive once the 'under new management' sign has been taken down and the place settles into its new routines and the task of making that management contract thoroughly profitable.

In the meantime, when you read in Gulf News of people being disemboweled by Arabian Oryx or gored by vicious gazelles, remember Fierce Creatures. You saw it here first...
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Mich said...

I've always wanted to go to Al Maha and had read about it and seen pictures even before coming to Dubai. One day, maybe... :-)

Mita said...

I have had the privilege of visiting some good friends for a meal once and its as good as its advertisement. I do hope Starwood make no drastic changes.

the real nick said...

I was one of the architects of the resort in 98' and worked closely with Tony Williams, Emirates Holidays project director on this development. Tony had been drafted in from a game resort in South Africa and was instrumental in defining the concept of Al Maha, and has been overseeing it since then. The resort was very much his baby - the opposite of a large hotel chain property but an individual boutique resort. It can only change for the worse.

alexander... said...

All the guides are from the SA game lodge industry, too.

All I can say is you did a good job, Nick. It's a great hotel and is, indeed, an individual boutique resort - at Dhs 4,000 and up, it'd wanna be, too!

hnd said...

We've been visiting Al Maha since they first opened in 1999 (good job Nick! and we too know Tony Williams).

We were about the 4th couple to check in, there were a couple of problems but hey it was soft opening and they were sorted out. We loved it!!!! So much so that we visited twice a year thereafter, visits increasing from 3 nights to 10 nights as we realised that we were spending time on the beach counting down the days until we got to Al Maha. (Yes, we do realise how lucky we were to be able to afford this) Had a fantastic 50th birthday for MrH - braii and party.

Once we moved here, it was one of the luxuries (as we are retired) which would have to be cut down but we still visited as often as possible. Took avantage of Skywards summer offers but had my 50th birthday there, took sister and Brother in law for their 25th wedding anniversary and they loved it so much they paid for an extra night.

Over the years we've probably stayed there well over 25 times - and we're well aware that we're so very, very lucky to have been able to do so.

the real nick said...

Thanks Alex /hnd - I wasn't fishing for compliments but appreciate them;)
For you pampered expats' benefit I am now working on another boutique resort; similar to Al Maha at the moment but slap bang in the mountains. Start saving now..

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