The Upgrade

Is This the Most Incredible All-Inclusive Hotel in the Middle East?

PART 15: For you all-inclusive skeptics — yes, the food is to die!

Blogger Ben Schlappig here, the full-time traveler behind One Mile at a Time, and the guy who introduced you to my uber-luxury travel lifestyle all made possible by using miles and points. On my last adventure, I was taking you inside one of the best first-class airport lounges in the world.

My trip continues in the UAE, which is a pretty small country, though there’s a lot to do there.

When most people think of the UAE, Dubai is probably the first thing that comes to mind. Dubai is all about having the biggest and best of everything, and it can be a bit overwhelming. What most people don’t realize is how many other areas there are to visit in the UAE.

For example, Abu Dhabi is a pretty cool city, one that I in many ways prefer to Dubai. It feels a bit more “traditional” and has more culture, while Dubai largely feels artificial.

The UAE even goes beyond the cities. If you want a beach vacation, you have beautiful Saadiyat Island, which has some great resorts and powdery soft beaches with clear water.

Personally my favorite area of the UAE to visit is the desert. Not only does it make you feel like you’re on a different planet, but it’s tranquil and has lots of activities you wouldn’t find elsewhere.

One of the best desert resorts in the UAE is Al Maha, which fortunately is a Starwood Luxury Collection hotel. This property can be really expensive if paying cash — sometimes it costs upwards of $1,500 per night. Ordinarily a stay here would cost 60,000 Starpoints per night, though the past couple of years Starwood has run seasonal promotions, where you can book select resorts for 35 percent off. That includes Al Maha, which has been bookable for 39,000 Starpoints per night.

Al Maha is among the best desert resorts in the UAE.

That’s still a lot of points, given how value Starpoints are, but a stay at Al Maha is very different than stays at most other hotels. For one, the entry-level room is a private, standalone villa with a plunge pool, so everyone gets a lot of personal space.

Al Maha lodging

Beyond that, the resort is all inclusive, so when you redeem points here it includes three meals and two activities per day. When you think of how much that would cost at another resort, the value of that is really put into perspective.

Typically I shy away from all-inclusive properties since I think the qualify of food isn’t as good, though that’s not the case at Al Maha. The food at the resort is incredible across the board, and you can choose to have every meal in your villa or in the restaurant.

Fancy a desert dip?

We made the drive from Abu Dhabi to Al Maha. The drive from Abu Dhabi to Dubai is about an hour, and from there it’s about a 45 minute drive to Al Maha. So the resort is easy to get to regardless of which airport you fly into.

We arrived at Al Maha in the afternoon, and after being escorted to our villa, we got a briefing about all the activities we could choose from, ranging from dune bashing to a sunset camel trek to archery to falconry.

Most of the activities are in the mornings or evenings to avoid the heat, so for that evening we scheduled a sunset camel ride.

I’ve ridden a camel a few times in the past, and it’s always a fun experience — especially getting on and off, given how abruptly they stand up!

Sunset camel ride: a desert must!

We left about 45 minutes before sunset, and then about 30 minutes later stopped at a point a few kilometers into the desert. The desert landscape is extremely relaxing to me — you couldn’t hear a sound, other than some animals. We stopped there for some drinks, watched the sunset, and then about 30 minutes later returned to the resort, again by camel.

I love nature in general, and I think desert landscape has to be among the most underrated. People love mountains and oceans, but desert landscapes are possibly even more beautiful and relaxing! You really feel like you’re on another planet.

I’ll talk more about our time at Al Maha in the next installment, though wanted to briefly talk about the great way that hotel groups are expanding by opening up more unique properties.

Yes, the food is to die for — even though it's an all inclusive!

I’m obsessed with loyalty programs and points (in case you haven’t figured that out yet), though I’ll be the first to admit that I’m eternally conflicted about whether or not to stay at a major chain hotel. In the past, most of these major chain hotels were “cookie cutter.” That’s both a blessing and a curse. It’s a blessing since you know exactly what you’re getting — a comfortable bed, fast Wi-Fi, and the like, which isn’t necessarily a given at independent hotels — and can get great elite benefits (points, room upgrades, free breakfast, and more). At the same time, you’re often giving up a unique, local experience.

However, the major hotel groups have expanded their portfolio of hotels, and largely have introduced independent brands as part of their portfolios. For example, this hotel belongs to Starwood’s Luxury Collection, which is their group of independent hotels. To me that’s the best of both worlds — you’re getting consistency where it matters, earning points and getting elite benefits, and getting a local experience that doesn’t feel cookie-cutter.

Keep reading as I continue my globe-trotting adventures!

FOLLOW MY JOURNEY:

Tour one of the world's best first-class airport lounges.

This is what it's like to fly inside one of the fanciest cabins in commercial air travel: an apartment in the sky.

Come with me on my flight filled with caviar, designer pajamas, and luxury gifts.

I support my boyfriend's first-class travel life (and in return he lets me pull stunts like this).

See how I booked a $12,000 flight for nearly free.

See Bali's littler-known party side — including a hangover brunch (with a DJ) to end them all!

Glimpse the five-star life I love (and buy with miles!) in Bali.

Here's why I call Bali the ultimate place to recharge.

Check out my epic layover in the world's best airport on the way to Bali.

Read up on my Hello Kitty-themed flight to get this far...

 

And the Hello Kitty airport experience to match!

And here's where it all began at LAX.

Are first-class cabins getting easier to book on miles?

And here's a pro tip for taking advantage of hotel points:

Ben Schlappig, the blogger behind One Mile at a Time, experiences about $1 million worth of travel every year using miles and points — and covers about 400,000 miles annually this way. Ben has teamed up with Bravo’s Jet Set for a series called The Upgrade, in which he shows you how you — yes, you! — can score real-world-ready strategies for upping your travel game. Come along for the adventure!

Jet Set is Bravo's launch pad for the most extravagant, luxurious, and unforgettable travel experiences. Ready for takeoff? Then Like us on Facebook to stay connected to our daily updates.

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