When the inevitable question “What are you up to this weekend,” comes up each Thursday – usually in a very quiet lift – it’s fair to say the person asking doesn’t really care whether you’re going to a friend’s birthday or heading to the beach. But you smile and reply all the same, and naturally conclude the conversation with, “And you?”
Now note, if you’re planning a weekend away at one of the Banyan Trees in Ras Al Khaimah, this polite back and forth may play out a little differently. Just the words “Banyan Tree” see bland words and glazed expressions transform into a wide-awake exclamation. “Shut up! So jealous! I really want to go there!”
Before my recent trip to the Banyan Tree Al Wadi desert resort (the beach resort is a short drive away), I got that exact response. Banyan bragging rights.
We all know in this region that restaurants, beach clubs and hotels throw around the word “oasis” without much of a thought. But this feels like the real deal. Located just over an hour’s drive north of Dubai, the resort is discreetly knitted into a network of undulating dunes and surrounded by lush vegetation. Being a fair distance from the nearest highway, it’s also very quiet.
Accommodation comes in the form of beautiful, low-lying mud-brick villas – there are five types, ranging in scale to suit couples, families and small groups, all very private and all with their own plunge pool. It’s actually the first desert resort in the UAE to offer an all-pool villa concept, with the emphasis on privacy and proximity to nature. Expect to spot an Arabian gazelle or oryx and a visit from a bird or two while you take a morning dip.
Once we’d checked in, we hopped on the back of a golf buggy to be taken to a gorgeous villa – equipped with a light and airy bathroom on one side and a four poster bedroom, study and porch on the other.
The resort is sprawling – there’s an 18-hole championship golf course at Al Hamra Golf Club, stables and paddocks for horses, and vast conservation areas – all set against a magical backdrop of the jagged Al Hajar Mountains. You can order buggies to pick you up and drop you off, but we requested two push bikes as our mode of transport for the weekend – much more fun and a great way to cover some ground and explore on cycle paths that stretch out into the desert. Just be aware that you have to pedal backwards for the brakes to kick in, which can be a bit hazardous downhill.
Back to the word “oasis”. To me, it evokes leafiness and quietly lying still. But here, while stillness is an encouraged option, there are plenty of activities on offer: from guided nature walks, archery lessons and falconry shows to horse riding and desert treks. The sunset or sunrise yoga comes highly recommended (AED120 per person, per hour) for the backdrop as well as the expert tuition.
There’s also the Spa Treatment Pavilions just by reception. It’s actually the largest state-of-the-art hydrotherapy facility in any of the Banyan Tree resorts and has all the healing and relaxing treatments you could wish for, with the Rainforest Experience – a signature hydrothermal therapy experience – being a popular choice.
We decided to stay outside and channel our inner Katniss Everdeen with an archery lesson (surprisingly fun) and falconry show, and then booked in for some sunrise yoga.
Mingling with other people isn’t big on the agenda here. It’s actually avoided for you; the only time we saw anyone else was while riding our bikes or with a polite smile at dinner. Privacy is even top priority when it comes to dining, in fact, with the option to book a table in the Safran Tower, positioned on a sandy hill and built in the style of a traditional Arabian watchtower. The menu is curated by Safran, the resort’s signature restaurant (you’ll find one in every Banyan Tree from Thailand to the Maldives), but there’s also the option of enjoying a private Arabian barbecue out in the desert, which is perfect for small groups.
We opted for a table outside at Safran restaurant. It overlooked an Arabian watering hole where wild nomadic desert animals often gather. Staying true to Banyan’s Thai roots, the menu is bursting with seriously delicious authentic Thai cuisine. There’s a choice of three set menus with highlights, but we decided to go á la carte. And with a couple of hints from our knowledgable waiter, we ordered a feast including stir-fried lobster curry served in its shell, a classic Pad Thai and the Safran rice with the scent of lemongrass and fresh spices – all delicious.
By the time we checked out the next day, it was hard to believe how much we had packed into such a small amount of time; we felt as relaxed as if we’d spent an entire week away. And at least now when someone at work says they are planning a visit I can say I’ve been.
Three things to try
For 45 minutes, saddle up and canter away into a secluded area of the nature reserve amid rolling dunes and valleys.
Learn more about this fascinating ancient Bedouin art form with a professional falconer in an interactive (but totally safe) session.
Sunrise Yoga or Sun Salutation sessions begin slowly before becoming more dynamic and combining meditative and yoga postures to leave you relaxed and energised.
Price: The 24-hour Banyan Tree weekend package includes bed, breakfast and soft drinks from the mini bar, an archery session and an interactive owl and falconry show. Rates start at AED1,900 for Al Rimal Pool Villa at Banyan Tree Al Wadi. For reservations visit: banyantree.com