24-Hour Room Service: Al Maha Desert Resort and Spa Dubai

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The Independent Travel

It could have been one of the most costly romantic gestures ever. A guest proposed to his girlfriend in the desert using a falcon to drop the engagement ring at her feet.

It could have been one of the most costly romantic gestures ever. A guest proposed to his girlfriend in the desert using a falcon to drop the engagement ring at her feet. Big sky, wild rocky terrain, magnificent bird circling high above - you get the picture. But once released, falcons don't always come back. (It's a meat - quail - rather than love relationship and occasionally the lure of the open sky is too much). They also cost more than most engagement rings, so the couple wouldn't have been the only ones out of pocket. Sheiks have been known to pay up to US$250,000 for one bird. Luckily the falcon played its part - and she said yes. There have been 80 or 90 marriage proposals at the Al Maha Desert Resort in Dubai since the Emirates-owned hotel opened in 1999. Not all using birds of prey, I was told, but all successful. A fact partly due, no doubt, to the romance of its desert location.

Designed to resemble the country's traditional low-lying sand-coloured buildings - unlike in Dubai itself where the skyscrapers soar ever higher - the sense of peace and tranquillity in the desert is tangible. And the contrast will be even more marked over the coming weeks: Dubai's annual shopping festival, a month-long retail frenzy, began a few days ago.

The Al Maha is set in a 225 sq km nature reserve and is touted as the world's first Arabian eco-resort. All the water is recycled: the 12 million litres of ground water used every day goes on to water the plants. Hotel bosses have also reintroduced a number of indigenous species to the area, including oryx and Thomson's gazelle from Kenya, which wander freely around the resort. Taking a 4x4 safari through the ochre dunes, your ranger's eagle eyes will also spot sandfish, Gordon's cats and the odd desert fox.

Other activities include camel-trekking at sunset, horse riding, guided nature walks and, of course, falconry. If you're after relaxation there's the recently opened Jamileh spa - or if you can't make it that far, lounge beside your private plunge pool and gaze out across the desert.

LOCATION

Al Maha Desert Resort and Spa, Sheikh Zayed Road, Dubai, United Arab Emirates (00 971 4 303 4222; www.al-maha.com). The Hajar mountain range, which separates Dubai from Oman, can be seen on the horizon.

Time to international airport: it's a 45-minute drive from Dubai airport

COMFORTABLE?

There are three staff to each of the 40 adobe-style suites. I was in Bedouin Suite 18 with its stone-slabbed floors and towering dark wooden doors studded with brass. The main room is octagonal, with two huge columns acting like supports for a tent-effect ceiling. Scattered with antiques, terracotta pots and rugs spilling out of an old chest, the huge carved wooden bed comes complete with a pillow menu - although the standard pillows are 100 per cent goose down. Back-lit alcoves above the bed contain ornate brass urns, and in the bathroom there is a two-person bath and free-standing shower with rain shower head. Because each suite has its own plunge pool, no under-12s are allowed. On the decking are two padded loungers, and there are binoculars in each suite and an easel and pad for sketching.

Freebies: a selection of tea, a decanter of sherry and a platter of nuts, dates and dried fruits. Bulgari toiletries in the bathroom.

Keeping in touch: Satellite TV and direct-dial telephone in each room.

THE BOTTOM LINE

Double rooms cost from $1,600 (£842) including full-board accommodation and all resort activities, but excluding alcoholic drinks. The price is all-inclusive so if you want caviar delivered to your pool, you've got it.

I'm not paying that: British Airways Holidays (0870 24 33 406; www.ba.com/holidays) offers five nights at the Al Maha from £2,309 per person based on departures from 9 January to 15 March 2005 including return flights from Heathrow and free connecting flights from most regional airports, full-board accommodation and private transfers.

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