Review: Al Wathba Resort, Abu Dhabi: Desert Hotel Retreat
Jumeirah Al Wathba: Abu Dhabi's Oasis-Like Retreat
Jumeirah Al Wathba, Al Wathba South, Abu Dhabi, 56620 United Arab Emirates. Arabian Desert Room with A View (breakfast included), per night: AED1161, US$303, EUR553, £492.
Update: the hotel changed management since this review. The renamed Al Wathba, a Luxury Collection Hotel, was acquired by the Marriott Group.
Beautiful desert property within easy drive of Dubai and Downtown Abu Dhabi
Quiet rooms, gorgeous large bathrooms
Service is efficient and friendly
Plenty of activities and things to do for a weekend or long weekend, perfect for groups of friends too
On-site restaurant, Terra Secca, is good not great
Sunset bar needs to be better organised, #YouHadOneJob
The Case For Staycations
Let me tell you a story about the joy of packing your bags then staying where you are. When was the last time you explored your own backyard?
It feels as if so much of travel now tilts towards a baked-in assumption that going somewhere means far-flung exploration. Travelling abroad is vogue, it is sexier, it is aspirational, exotic. Oh, and the ‘gram loves it, right? There is nothing noteworthy about home, right? The temptations came through commercials about visiting Aruba or enticing you to recreate an Indiana Jones’ adventure in Petra. Nowadays, I blame social media a lot for feeding us a neat, steady diet of wanderlust layer cake slathered thick with saccharine, preset and filters icing.
Boarding a plane is really travelling, right? The airport is the foothills of the holiday. Your exit and entry passport stamps are your first souvenirs.
Sometimes you just need a break and going abroad is not always pragmatic, cost-efficient or possible. A simple city break that is only a two-hour flight away can be a hassle as airport security processing time doubles your total journey time. Why spend four hours going to a place only two hours away?
Perhaps we should do more to explore our backyards with a childlike curiosity turning over unexplored rocks to see what’s underneath. I know this assumes that your home location has lots to see and do. It is true that some locations make the case for staycations more easily than others.
Making the case for a staycation is easy given I live in the UAE which is deliciously saturated with enviable, luxury and destination hotels. There are boundless choices from isolated Arabian desert hunting lodges to uninterrupted, beachfront vistas and mountain ranges. You can also stay in lavish international hotels built on unique man-made attractions such as the Palm, Downtown Dubai or Downtown Abu Dhabi. How about staying in an airstream in the mountains within touching distance of Oman and the Musandam peninsula? Listen, I have selflessly indulged in a few staycations across the UAE and I will share a shortlist of my favourite staycations in due course.
The weather in early October soothes the ferocity of the summer. The transition inspires more local excursions to old favourite haunts. Or, why not indulge in places unknown?
My staycation at Jumeirah Al Wathba: The Experience
We packed our bags and dashed out to Jumeirah Al Wathba. A recently opened hotel within the Jumeirah group within an impressive 90 minutes drive from Dubai Marina (as a landmark).
This Jumeirah hotel is a mellowed departure from the high glamour, opulent Jumeirah hotels I know in Dubai. A long turquoise, infinite pool punctuated with child-sized terracotta vases stretches out towards the desert like an oasis. It is flanked by a quartet of private, curtained cabanas and copious chaise lounges protected under giant eggshell umbrellas. The pool area is richly perfumed by nearby frangipani trees that bend and sway as warm desert breeze rolls through.
This low rise development in Al Wathba Abu Dhabi channels a Bedouin village design with arabesque accents throughout. The pale walls weave around the compound creating a labyrinth that reveals restaurants, open spaces, falcon rooms, activity centres and its Talise Spa. The colour fades gently into the surroundings unobtrusive and almost invisible when driving towards the expansive, secluded development at its 90 rooms and 13 private villas.
Our room, I mean, villa: yup, we were upgraded
Humblebrag: we received a complimentary upgrade from our Arabian Deluxe Room to the two-bedroom suite which, at 150sq metres.
The online price tells me this villa is AED8228 (EUR2040, US$2240, £1816) is a lot of coin for a weekend but is more manageable if shared with another couple. It is twice the price of the Arabian Deluxe Room on a per person basis; other suites do also come with a private pool (at additional charge).
The king-sized bed is one of the most comfortable hotels bed I have ever had the pleasure of sleeping in. I folded into impossibly creamy duvet each night after a day of tanning by the pool like a slow-cooked meat wrapped into a soft bao.
Yet the understated nuances revealed itself over time: discreet USB plugins, the widescreen TV doubles as an information guide replacing busy archaic manuals, subtle wall-mounted touch screen controls: there are a lot of mod-cons and tech here without it staring you in the face. It is a well-considered room, warm and calm.
The bedroom is plush and – maybe even a little homely – but the same warm attention to detail feels a tad absent in a living room/sitting area. This space does not have the same ornate or small touches and attention to detail. This space started to feel more like perfunctory hotel space and less like a luxurious, near AED10,000 villa. The pillows and soft furnishings feel a little cheap and almost an afterthought.
I get it, you did not likely come to Al Wathba to hang out in the living room but, with this much coin, I feel a tad short-changed here. This is a small but noticeable cumulative absence of aesthetic touches especially in comparison to some other hotels within this price bracket. We all know that I also love a boutique hotel so I am more sensitive to these smaller touches and their absence is deafening. The price tag is an aggravating factor. This was a free and significant upgrade for me so, luckily, I did not suffer.
The bathroom is cavernous, tranquil and inviting with free-standing bathtubs and a separate rain shower room. You can expect the usual hairdryer, plush soft towels, mini-bar and Nespresso machines.
Jumeirah Al Wathba: food, drinks and dining
The breakfast offers a tidy selection without going overboard as can be the case in some hotels that offer quantity over quality. There is a focused selection of continental items like fresh muffins and pastries. It offers Arabic favourites such as olive oil, drenched labneh, hummus and spiced, warming foul medames.
Al Wathba strikes the right balance here at breakfast. You want to feel the breakfast is special but, being honest, there is a tipping point where it is diminishing returns. This is Goldilocks-level breakfast offerings: just right.
There are two live cooking stations including an eggs station that produces eggs benedict, omelettes and hash browns. Love hash browns! A second live station makes warm American style pancakes, crepes, light waffles with saffron honey, Nutella or chocolate syrup and zaatar-spiked flatbreads. There is also a fresh juice station adjacent to the in-house Falcon, Wathba, who greeted us each morning with her handler! The fruit is sweet especially the diced watermelon. The service is attentive without being obsequious.
Food and drink – Al Mesayan
This is a terraced, rooftop restaurant providing both sundown happy hour cocktails and an afternoon tea option which was popular with a few guests adjacent to us. It overlooks the desert as it reflects the sunset hues transforming from sand to pink to fire, dusk and darkness within the space of an hour. The signature cocktails are also well-worth exploring including their dark rum and saffron-infused house cocktail and the banana and whiskey cocktail – I know, but try it, it pleasantly surprised me too. You should plan to come here for sunset drinks before dinner.
Food and drink – Pool
The poolside dining is a well-balanced mix of healthier items and more substantial fare like wagyu burgers and chicken sandwiches together with some regional favourites. I was impressed with their salad nicoise arriving in a colourful box crammed with soft poached eggs, anchovies, seared rare pink tuna and crisp spears of baby gem. It offered the light but filling meal while sitting poolside in 35-degree sun. Mrs EatGoSee undertook a careful inspection of their margarita pizza delivered from the pizza oven much to her satisfaction.
What is there to do around here?
The hotel offers a smorgasbord of activities which was helpfully emailed to us in advance so we would have the opportunity to book prior to our arrival and secure a spot. Some of the more novel activities included axe throwing, archery, camel racing, Bedouin basket weaving and – for the out of towners – desert safaris and a private falcon show. We did not opt for any of these as we came purely for leisure and the word ‘activity’ triggered something diametrically opposite to my goals that weekend. I will come back to matriculate through their axe throwing session as this feels like a much under-developed life skill.
Strikeout and Explore
Jumeirah al Wathba offers a driver to chauffeur you to and around Abu Dhabi main city; a fact which is not explicitly included in the activities list. It is 40 minutes from the hotel to Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque which, if you are visiting the UAE, is well worth it in my opinion. The Louvre Abu Dhabi is 1 hour away (also worth it) and finally Ferrari World and the Yas Marina Circuit is 45 minutes away (motorsport fans start your marks). It means that a day out in Abu Dhabi is easily feasible from the hotel ensuring there is a lot to do especially if planned properly.
It goes without saying there is a certain discerning clientele who enjoy this Jumeirah resort. Some beautiful people were creating Instagram-worthy moments, poses and silhouettes with only the slightest of my eye-rolling. Harmless fun.
What would I change about Jumeirah Al Wathba?
There are two key additions that would materially improve upon an already excellent long weekend proposition:
An excellent destination restaurant: Terra Secca has potential. A superb destination restaurant would immeasurably add to the value proposition for guests in two ways. Downtown Abu Dhabi is 40 minutes away which means fine dining is nearly a 90 minute round trip. An on-site, accomplished fine dining restaurant means guests do not need to travel far for a very memorable dinner. Secondly, this additional arrow in their bow may bring more guests to the hotel. Destination restaurants attract people who will stay in a luxury hotel overnight after a long, indulgent tasting menu.
A meticulously curated boutique shop: normally I roll my eyes at these tourist traps. However, this could be useful if you forgot something suntan lotion, aftercare or toiletries. A trendy collection of beachy brands is alluring when looking to treat yourself to something special for pool time or sunset cocktails. This was super useful during my week-long stay at LUX* Grand Gaube.