Modern-day Dubai might look like a futuristic space-age city, but it's the vast Arabian Desert that really feels like another planet. No visit to the UAE is complete until you see this eerie landscape for yourself, so we've gathered a few of the most popular ways to experience it...
Desert adventure safaris
A dune bashing safari followed by an evening barbeque at a desert campsite is the most popular day trip excursion in Dubai. Most tours start around 3pm and the drive from your hotel to the desert in an air-conditioned 4WD is only about 45 minutes.
After an exhilarating session of bumping and bashing over the sand dunes, twisting over peaks and plunging down steep slopes, you'll disembark for optional sand boarding and quad bike riding before one of the photographic highlights of your trip: the sun setting over the desert.
When darkness descends you'll head to the campsite and be met with Arabian coffee and sweet sticky dates before sitting down to a barbeque buffet. After a belly dancing show, and the chance to get a henna tattoo and buy souvenirs, you'll either settle down for the night (if you've chosen the overnight option) or be driven back to your hotel. Most tours last around six hours.
Numerous operators in Dubai offer this excursion, so the best bet is to ask for a recommendation from your hotel, or check out some of the leading companies such as Viator, Star Mark Travels and Desert Safari Dubai, or book in advance with Virgin Holidays.
The Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve
The Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve is a protected area which covers 4.7% of the total land area of the Dubai Emirate, established to conserve the natural inland desert ecosystem of Dubai. Only four operators have permission to offer tours within the conservation area, to ensure minimal impact on the environment and fewer crowds.
While all the operators offer similar tours to the desert safaris above (there are nine Bedouin-style camps in the reserve) a less touristy alternative is an early morning trip to see the rare migratory birds and native wildlife – Arabian oryx, gazelles – of the Ghaf Forest. With managed feeding points and watering holes, chances of witnessing animals at close quarters are good. You can also try your hand at traditional Arab pursuits such as archery, falconry and horse-riding.
Luxury desert resort experience
Al Maha is a luxury 42-suite desert resort and spa – also located within the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve – which has just announced three new day trip excursions for visitors to Dubai. Previously only available to resident guests, the hotel's tranquil setting and facilities are now available for everyone to enjoy.
The Pool Package gives full access to the main pool and spa facilities, which includes sauna and steam room, hydrotherapy bath, cold plunge pool, jacuzzi and fitness centre, plus lunch and a gift voucher for AED 100 (about £17) to be used in the spa or shop. Cost: AED 550 (about £93) plus tax.
The Spa Package includes all of the above plus a choice of any 60 minute spa treatment valued at AED 450, such as the After Sun Soother, the Al Maha Frankincense Facial, or the Desert Hot Stone Massage. See the full list of treatments at the Timeless Spa. Cost AED 1000 (about £170) plus tax.
The Activities Package includes any two activities ranging from horse-riding on professionally groomed Arabian horses who live in air-conditioned stables on site, a wildlife drive, camel safari and archery. Visit the Falconry mews and stables, and also receive full access to the main pool and spa facilities, plus lunch. Cost: AED 950 (about £160) plus tax.
Hot air balloons
We've previously recommended hot air ballooning in our guide to Dubai by Air, Land and Sea but it's worth mentioning again as it really is the best way to experience the sheer magnitude, grandeur and silence of the desert. Floating over this sea of apricot sand dunes as the sun rises will undoubtedly be the most serene experience of your stay. Balloon Adventures tours last around five hours from pick-up to drop-off, and depart from a remote desert location north of Al Ain in Abu Dhabi.
Header photo of Al Maha resort © Emirates Hotels LLC
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About the author: MaxineMaxine Sheppard
Maxine is the editor of the Virgin Atlantic blog. Travel and music are her joint first loves, and despite having written for Virgin for more years than she cares to remember she still loves nothing more than jumping on a plane in search of new sights and new sounds.