It’s a strange business being a writer. You spend thousands of hours sitting in a room on your own. You’re in a state of near permanent worry. Will your next book be trashed by the critics? Will anyone read it? Will your publishers drop you? There’s the horror of the bestseller charts which prove every week that what goes up must come down… and believe me, it’s the downward spiral that you feel more. You’re lonely, stressed, and neurotic. And then, suddenly, you get invited to an international literary festival and everything is all right.
One of the very best festivals takes place every year in Dubai. On the one hand, it’s an opportunity to meet authors and readers from many different cultures and to foster understanding between the UAE and the West. With more than 140 authors invited, it’s a fantastic celebration of almost every sort of literature. On a cruder level, it’s also a chance to get some March sunshine. The hospitality is awesome. It’s a week of unparalleled luxury, sightseeing and socialising. I’ve been three times and I love it.
They fly us out business class – a rare treat. It’s unlike me to waste words on an airline but I was knocked out by Emirates’ Airbus A380 which signals the way air travel is going and, I’m afraid, reminds me how old-fashioned Virgin and British Airways have become. It has fantastic food, widescreen televisions and extremely comfortable flat beds. There’s also an entire floor dedicated to business travel and the interior has the look of an Arabic palace. Even the gift packs are worth keeping. The flight was so good, I didn’t want to get off.
And then there’s Dubai airport, the Ozymandias of international airports with miles of gleaming marble, soaring pillars and arrivals halls so vast that Emirates could park most of its fleet inside. I’ve never felt so tiny as I did heading for passport control, and I was through in minutes.
I had just finished a 150,000-word novel and decided to reward myself with a weekend at the Al Maha Desert Resort & Spa , about an hour’s drive outside the city, before attending the festival. It’s in the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve, and has 34 pavilion rooms clustered together in a tranquil oasis with astonishing 360-degree views across the desert. Long-horned Arabian oryx and gazelles stroll through the grounds. Birds chatter all day in the date palms and acacias. Otherwise, there’s total silence. It’s a place in which to relax and recharge. Stay too long, and you’ll also have to remortgage – but if you’re looking for a couple of days of perfect luxury with the knowledge that the price includes everything except alcohol (served in the bars and restaurant) this is the place to come.
My pavilion was on the very edge of the compound. It was a generous space, circular, with wooden pillars supporting the tented ceiling and French windows opening on to a private swimming pool and deck with uninterrupted views of the desert beyond. It was tastefully furnished in faux-antique style, with its own hallway and large bathroom. I slept in one of the biggest beds I’ve ever seen. I was a little surprised by the umbrella hanging in the wardrobe – and even more so when, one morning, I had to use it. Rain in the desert? Bad luck.
Al Maha also has a spa with a lovely pool, gym, hot tubs and various massage treatments – but the truth is that guests barely leave their rooms, particularly in the summer when temperatures can easily reach 122F (50C). If you do decide to wander over to the spa, there are electric buggies to whizz you around.
The resort offers activities early in the morning (from 6.30am) and in the evening – although, to be honest, there isn’t an awful lot to do. There’s an informative nature walk, an exhibition of falconry or you can head off “dune bashing” in a 4x4. I went for the more sedate camel trek… 30 minutes into the desert and then back again with a glass of champagne to watch the setting sun. With the camels tied together in two lines it was a bit Frinton-on-Sea, but I was completely won over. I mean, I was on a camel. I was in the desert. The sunset was gorgeous and the light, on the way home, soft and ethereal. So why be sniffy?
The next morning I went horse-riding, which can be a little more adventurous. Even so, the hotel is cautious. These are retired racing horses and you need to be able to control them. My guide took one look at me, had me pegged as the proverbial sack of potatoes and proceeded most of the time at walking pace. Later, I went walking with my wife over the sand dunes, the two of us alone in this spectacular desert landscape.
The real triumph at Al Maha is the food. You can have meals brought to your private terrace, but the restaurant, spread out over a long balcony, is lovely – particularly at night, illuminated by flaming torches and twinkling stars. There’s a large menu, more international than Arabic, but everything I ate was almost surreally good. Gigantic prawns and lobster in the middle of the desert? There were also top-notch Argentinian steaks, curries, fresh fish, and blue shell mussels. The service is immaculate and you can eat at any time that suits you.
If I have one cavil, it’s that there’s not very much at Al Maha that’s communal. A central meeting place, a fire, Bedouin music… something that brings the guests together would be nice. For too much of the time I was alone with my loved one. I mean, of course my MacBook Air . And my wife. The guides are friendly enough but as they formed a line at the side of the reception area each morning, they struck me as reserved and distant. A bit like the oryx.
It occurs to me that I haven’t even begun to describe the literary festival that was meant to be the whole point of this piece. I’ll get to that next time.
I really liked Al Maha. In fact, my literary agent was also staying there and I liked it so much that I didn’t even mind paying for 10 per cent of his room.