Day 13: Al Maha
We are now past the halfway mark of this trip around the world and today we will be heading to the apex: Al Maha. The morning started with a light but pleasant breakfast in the Conrad Executive Lounge. I also talked with the Concierge at the lounge to extend our keys for a late-checkout.
Then we headed down to the pool area for a quick swim. The pool at Conrad Dubai was excellent, with a large outdoor area on the 5th floor and extensive immaculate gardens. There were plenty of day beds and cabanas available – free of charge. The area was also fairly empty and the temperature was in the high 20s, perfect for a dip.
Although my mom was not much of a swimmer, she enjoyed using the day beds and the spa.
I also freshened up at the spa, before packing up and getting dressed for lunch. It was fun pretending to be a Dubai businessman.
Believe it or not, we hadn’t spent a single Dirham on food in Dubai yet – everything was covered by the hotel. We would only have one meal that wasn’t complementary in our six days in Dubai, and this was it. In Dubai, weekends are on Friday and Saturday, with Friday being known for having large, extravagant brunches. Brunch in Dubai is very different from brunch in the West. It is more than just breakfast foods, with restaurants putting out most or all of their menu up in an all-you-can-eat style. Brunch also starts in the afternoon, usually 12:30 – 4pm, and some places also have live music and bottomless booze. Dubai brunches are also pricy – with $100USD+ per person being very common. I managed to find a relatively affordable one ($185 DH or $50USD) which was just a few blocks away at the Shangri-La Dubai. The restaurant, Hoi An, was a well reviewed Vietnamese place, which I thought suited our taste buds more. Unlike a typical buffet, this brunch served all its dishes a la carte, but the whole menu was available and included in the price.
There were 14 appetizers, which were all served in small samples. This allowed us to try everything and we can ask for more of our favourites. Everything was delicious but that shrimp in particular was amazing.
Next round was the Pho – a staple of any Vietnamese meal. I’ve had a lot of Pho in my day, but this was by far the best I’ve ever had. My mom agreed and could have had that Pho by itself for the whole meal.
After this, we had our main courses. I thought we would each select one from the menu, but the waitress said they already put the orders in. Then they came out with six main courses plus fried rice and I thought there’s no way we could finish this.
The fish was delicious and the short rib was perfectly cooked. Unfortunately we were only able to have a small taste of each. We were running low on time, but the restaurant insisted that we stay for dessert. Since we were on a time crunch, they gave us one of the two desserts – a coconut ice cream on mango purée. This was amazing. I’m not a huge fan of either coconut nor mango, but this has to be up there with one of the best desserts I’ve had. I was very happy with the service and how they want us to give us the full experience even though we said we didn’t need it.
The one downside of this experience came with the bill. We got the food only option which was $185 DH instead of the $205DH package that included unlimited drinks. I prefer to only drink water at meals so I can focus on the flavours of the food. However, unlike in the west, water is not just free tap water. It was a large bottle of Evian Water which costed $10USD, basically the same as upgrading to the unlimited drinks package. This would actually be the first of many water-related charges on this trip. Nonetheless, for the quality, quantity, and variety of dishes given, relative to the cost of other brunches in Dubai, it was great value and we both enjoyed the experience very much. After brunch, we quickly made our way back to the Conrad, checked out in the lounge and met our driver to Al Maha. The hotel concierge and the driver helped us with our bags, offered water and cold towels, and escorted us to the Lexus ES350, a mid-size luxury sedan that is quite popular in Dubai.
Al Maha is located in the middle of the Arabian desert, which can be difficult to navigate for Uber drivers. We didn’t want to take our chances, so I pre-booked with Al Maha to send us a chauffeur. While this wasn’t cheap (about $100 USD), at least this could be charged to the room which would net me 21 Marriott points per dollar. We took one last look of the buildings on Sheikh Zayed Road, then headed out of the city and into the desert.
Al Maha is an incredibly special property and one of the best hotels in the world. It is owned by the Chairman of Emirates Airlines and located on a massive 225 sqkm Desert Conservation Reserve. The property is an all-inclusive all-villa ultra luxury resort, in one of the most unique settings on the planet. Isolated from the hustle and bustle of Dubai, it is a quiet and beautiful oasis. Since it’s on conservation grounds, the hotel is teeming with exotic wildlife. Hundreds of Gazelles and Arabian Oryx (which is what Al Maha means in Arabic) call this property home, along with a few dozen lucky visitors. While this property opened in the late 90s, it partnered with Starwood hotels in 2010, making it a Luxury Collection property. It has since become one of the most famous hotels in the world for people interested in points and miles, and is often regarded the ultimate hotel points redemption.
All of this doesn’t come cheap – rates start in the thousands, with my 2 nights worth over $4000 USD. It is also expensive in terms of points – previously requiring 60000 Starpoints a night (equivalent to 180000 Marriott points). After Marriott acquired Starwood in 2016 and the points chart was updated in Aug 2018, something remarkable happened. For a limited time (until Mar 2019) all properties in the Marriott-Starwood portfolio topped out at 60000 Marriott Points a night. That made Al Maha a massive bargain. Still, 120000 points (for 2 nights) are hard to earn – but another big loophole from the merger helped me out. I signed up for the JP Morgan Ritz Carlton Card during this merger time, which came with 2 free night certificates at any Tier 1-4 Ritz Carlton property. Since the Ritz Carlton Tier system was being merged with the Marriott Rewards chart, the certificates got converted into Marriott points certificates. A Tier 4 Ritz Carlton got mapped to 60000 Marriott points, meaning I now had 2 60000 point certificates that I could use at any Marriott-Starwood property – and the choice was obvious. This (plus the free 1.5 years of Platinum Status and unlimited Priority Pass), made the Ritz Card probably the most value anyone could get from a credit card in less than a year. This entire trip was thus planned around staying at Al Maha in Dubai, which was why I was so excited for it.
After pulling up past the security checkpoint for the resort, we drove an additional 10km through the desert road before reaching the lobby. Arrival was splendid – the staff greeted us by name, took our luggage, and sat us down in the lobby lounge for check-in. They brought out 2 refreshing smoothies, which to this day I’m not sure what was in them but it was really delicious. The staff kindly went over all the amenities and activities included in our stay, then ordered a buggy (golf cart) to drive us to our villa. They also acknowledged my Platinum status by giving us one of the best located villas, although there were no upgrades since we were already in suites. Our villa was very close to the main lobby building, which makes it convenient to walk instead of calling a buggy every time.
The 800 sqft Bedouin Suite was amazing. A large entryway by the door had a vanity desk and counter for water, tea, coffee, and a decanter of wine. There were all the Nespresso capsules you could ever want and at least 8 bottles of water.
The main room had a large king-sized bed and two chaise lounge chairs with a coffee table filled with fruits and Arabic treats.
Unfortunately, these treats attracted some flies, so we didn’t end up eating them. The room had some insect repellent which we sprayed, after which we didn’t have any bug problems. Then there was the bathroom, which was huge, with a large soaking tub, stand-alone rain shower and separate water closet.
Everything was decorated with traditional Arabic decor, giving a sense of understated luxury and a unique ambiance tailored to the destination. The pièce de résistance was the private infinity pool and deck, something that I had seen countless times online in the lead up to the trip, but in the moment was even beyond my expectation.
After gawking at our suite, we went back to the lobby for some afternoon tea and our first activity.
Each guest gets two free activities per night, so we got four in total. We used our first one for the Sundowners, which is a ride into the sand dunes where we toast the sunset with Champagne. An alternate activity is the Camel trek, which will also arrive at the same dunes for sunset. The camel trek was full for that day so we signed up for the one tomorrow. This worked out great in the end. As we were waiting, we noticed there were a lot of other Chinese guests. We talked with two couples, one from Guangzhou on business and one from Saskatchewan also using points. This property is so popular with Chinese guests that I even got a Chinese welcome letter in my suite. Once it was golden hour, a fleet of 4x4s lined up outside the lobby to take us to the dunes.
The dunes were unbelievable. The sand was so clean and soft. The place was so quiet and peaceful, a moment rarely experienced after living in cities everyday. Stunningly calm and beautiful.
After the dunes, we went back to our suites to relax and get ready for dinner. Dinner was a formal affair so we had to dress up a little. The main restaurant was dimly lit, so the menus came with reading lights. The menu was in Chinese and English, again catering to its clientele.
Dinner started with an amuse bouche.
For appetizers, I got the Wagyu Beef Carpaccio while my mom got the poached oysters. Both were some of the best appetizers I’ve ever had in my life. The wagyu was so soft and buttery, paired beautifully with the eggplant and Parmesan foam. The oysters was my single favorite dish of the trip. It was fully cooked but had the texture of a raw oyster. The potato purée and white wine foam complimented that texture perfectly.
Before the mains, we got a refreshing lemon sorbet to cleanse the palate.
For the main course, I had a duo of lamb and my mom got the lobster.
The lamb done in two ways, on the bone and braised. Both were cooked beautifully, although the sauce could have used a bit more seasoning. The lobster tail was stunning and the lobster ravioli was rich and delicious, although my mom found the sauce a bit heavy. For dessert, I had the tiramisu while my mom got the strawberry and green tea mousse.
The tiramisu was definitely unconventional, with a chocolate layer on top of the glass that was melted with a cup of warm chocolate sauce that was poured table-side. Both desserts were delicious and a great end to the meal. Because of the number of courses, the meal took over 2 hours so it already 10 pm by the time we got back. It's hard to believe all of this was free.
In the dark of night, you can see several watering holes which are lit up for the animals. Good night from paradise.