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Ecotourism encounters luxurious side in Dubai

You can camp out in $1,000-a-night digs amid desert sand dunes and an array of native animals.

Published October 15, 2006

MARGHAM, United Arab Emirates

Skinny-dipping in Arabia? If it feels good, why not?

So I was swimming naked. It was broad daylight, but I figured the private infinity pool behind our private bungalow in this exclusive desert resort was private enough. No one's going to see me but my wife, and she was napping.

But I sensed a pair of eyes watching me as I floated in the pool. I looked around and quickly spotted the peeper. He was hiding in a broom bush: a young Arabian gazelle, a very rare species known for its white belly and alleged timidity. Somebody forgot to tell this one.

I clapped my hands and the gazelle sprung off in a puff of dust, loping down the peach-colored sand dune to another private bungalow below ours.

The Al Maha Desert Resort & Spa is ecotourism, Dubai-style. Its 40 ridiculously luxurious bungalows resemble Bedouin tents, but they're stocked with pillow menus, Bulgari soaps and complimentary crystal decanters of sherry.

They sit on the slope of an enormous dune inside a desert conservation reserve of 90 square miles - about 5 percent of the landmass of Dubai, an emirate that is also home to the city of Dubai.

Al Maha isn't the only ecotourism option in the Emirates, just the most expensive. In the northern emirate of Ras al-Khaimah, my wife and I also joined an overnight trek with a company called Mountain Extreme, which takes hardy souls climbing in the sun-shattered rock of the Hajjar Mountains. There are several other wilderness options in this western-oriented Arab country that has become the Middle East's epicenter of luxury tourism.

Al Maha's version of ecotourism isn't always ecologically friendly. Its air-conditioned bungalows use lots of water and electricity. And the resort's owner, Emirates airline, has introduced non-native plant species and more than double the animals than the desert can support, so they need to be fed.

But Al Maha is playing a key role in protecting species and desert habitat that are disappearing amid the gulf's rapacious development.

The resort is oriented with a view over a desert valley and the undulating dunes that stretch unbroken until meeting the rocky Hajjar crags on the dusty horizon.

The valley, with an artificial watering hole at bottom, was the center of our attention. We watched the animals with complimentary binoculars from our private deck, lounging, like the antelopes, in the total quiet of a 108-degree May afternoon. We also watched the traffic from our breakfast table in the luxurious lodge, and during our starlit dinner on the terrace, with the help of well-placed floodlights.

With a few hitches, the wildlife is thriving. The biggest success is the Arabian oryx, a large, white antelope whose numbers had been poached to fewer than 50 by the 1960s. At one point, Dubai's herd was given asylum in Arizona to prevent extinction.

Al Maha's herd of 110 Arabian oryx has since swollen to more than 300, many of which can be seen munching the irrigated greenery that lends privacy to Al Maha's bungalows.

There are also three species of gorgeous springing gazelles, two desert foxes as well as the fascinating sand skink, an 8-inch lizard with porcelainlike skin. We chased one but it dove into the soft dune, causing sand to cascade like water.

"They can literally swim in the sand," says Don Booysen, the drawling South African naturalist who was our personal guide.

Some animals and trees in Al Maha don't belong in the reserve, most notably a herd of scimitar-horned oryx, once native to Africa's Sahara, now extinct in the wild. Conservationists here are struggling to revive the herd after its numbers dropped alarmingly, to 18 from 35. Another misplaced breed is the Thomson's gazelle, a native of east Africa.

The desert's most destructive non-native animal - the camel - has been banished from most of the resort, allowing natural greenery to return from decades of overgrazing. Camels bred for racing have denuded much of the Emirati desert, turning already barren lands into empty wastes. But well-connected sheiks keep a few herds inside the reserve against the resort's wishes.

"As long as you have camels, you can't do conservation," Booysen says. "There's not enough food for them in the desert."

The biggest issue my wife, Chloe, and I had with this resort was figuring out what to do with our precious time. Its bungalows rent for $1,000 a night (with discounts for frequent fliers on Emirates airline), so we didn't want to squander any moments, especially with a trained naturalist at our disposal.

We spent much of the time touring the fascinating desert, waking at 5 a.m. to watch a display of falcon-hunting, and as it turned out, owl-hunting. A spotted eagle-owl followed a trainer's commands brilliantly, circling slowly and swooping just over our upturned faces. Its yellow eyes bulged as it snapped up pieces of bird carcass.

As the sun drifted toward the horizon, we joined a camel trek to the summit of a tall dune where resort staff handed us flutes of Champagne and fresh strawberries. We sat in the soft sand with a handful of other couples - Brits, Germans and Japanese - and watched a sunset made psychedelic by the dusty horizon.

For those who want ecotourism without the strawberries and Champagne, there are treks among the dramatic and remote mountain villages of the Shihhi tribes of the northern emirate of Ras al-Khaimah and neighboring Oman.

John Falchetto, 33, a Canadian mountaineer and entrepreneur, takes hardy hikers deep into the rugged Wadi Bih canyon and peaks of the Hajjars for overnight hikes that tackle two of the tallest mountains in the Emirates.

We opted to climb Jebel Qiwi, 5,900 feet tall, an easy climb over sharp rocks in the blazing sun.

We parked Falchetto's Land Rover at the side of a dirt track and hiked to a village deep in a landscape that crosses Macchu Picchu with the Grand Canyon: terraced stone villages sitting on precarious perches above gaping canyons of colored rock.

Falchetto developed a unique brand of ecotourism, investing his income renovating abandoned Shihhi villages and using them as base camps for hikers. Most villages can only be reached on foot, and are perched in stunning locations on the edge of cliffs.

Falchetto is working with the emirate's ruler to establish a nature reserve in the peak district. We spent one night in the village, sleeping on cots in the silent mountain air, watching the rising moon illuminate the canyon below.

At 5:30 a.m., with the sun brightening the sky, we set off on a three-hour ramble to the summit, where we sat on the peak, ate sandwiches and rubbed our sore feet. The barren canyonscape below, with striated layers of limestone and other rock, resembled a vast topographical map spread out before us.


AL MAHA: or (011) 971-4-303-4222. Nightly rates for two-person bungalows begin at $1,000; summer discounts available. Last summer, Emirates airline's frequent flier club members were offered bungalows for $490 per couple. Stays can be exchanged for frequent flier miles. Rates include meals and private guide.

WADI BIH: or (011) 971-7-227-1735. Overnight trips with guide John Falchetto, $180 per person, including food and transportation from Ras al-Khaimah. Day trips and sea-mountain trips include snorkeling and kayaking.

GETTING THERE: Dubai's airport is served by 110 airlines. Emirates airline offers two daily New York-Dubai nonstops. Al Maha is a 40-minute drive from Dubai. The resort arranges $250 airport transfers but you can get a taxi for less or rent a car. Mountain Extreme's base is just over an hour from Dubai; $55 each way from Dubai.

WHEN TO GO: The gulf's steamy summers (June through September) are best avoided, but for those who can handle the heat, flights and hotels are cheaper. Al Maha is open year-round, and Mountain Extreme runs limited excursions in summer. The weather cools in October and remains pleasant through April.

OTHER: The Emirates is probably the most western of Arab countries and one of the safest. English is widely spoken. The country is home to 15,000 Americans and welcomes tourists to its huge array of resorts. Dubai is also a top U.S. Navy shore leave destination. The country has never been hit by a terrorist attack, but the U.S. State Department urges vigilance. Alcohol is legal and accepted in Dubai. U.S. passport holders get free 60-day visitor visas at the airport.

[Last modified October 15, 2006, 00:51:57]

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