10 desert regions and what's to see beyond the sand...
Sweeping seas of dunes, hospitable locals and sunsets to savour: the world’s desert regions are wonderfully romantic. Whether you choose camel training with the Bedouin, trekking with the Berbers or luxury lodging in Monument Valley, the exhilaration, stillness, clean air and stargazing will leave you longing to return. Here are 10 of the best deserts, and how to holiday in them.
America’s Southwest: The states of California, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Utah and Nevada could have been where the phrase “wide open space” was coined. Crank up the country and western, stock up on bottled water and drive through the inhospitable beauty of Death Valley, past the towering rock spindles and mesas of Monument Valley or along Nevada’s Highway 50 — dubbed the Loneliest Road in America. Set cruise control and steer through a land of tumbleweed, ghost towns and Joshua trees, then party at the oversized oases of Palm Springs and Las Vegas.
Tourists stroll the Badwater Basin in Death Valley, North America's low point, at 85 metres below sea level
About 100 miles to the west of Monument Valley is the Amangiri, a super cool take on how a desert resort should be. Or the Furnace Creek Resort in Death Valley was built in 1927 and is an institution of desert tourism. It sits on a natural aquifer - which has given life to a micro pocket of lushness and has been used to fill a sumptuous swimming pool. My heart sank to see the attached golf course though.
Jordan: On my last visit to Jordan, as the wheels of my plane hit the pink dusty runway, the young woman next to me proffered an enigmatic “Welcome to the desert”. And boy, what a desert it is. Crossed by the north-south sinew of the King’s Highway, Jordan includes the Dana gorge, the ruins of Petra and the superlative dunes and mountains of Wadi Rum. Jordanian hospitality is justly celebrated, the infrastructure is good and there are top-notch hotels and simple Bedouin-style camps to sleep in.
Petra's so called Treasury blushing pink in the dawn light
The Wadi Rum Bedouin Desert Camp is a good stab at creating a homely Bedouin atmosphere. It's admirably simple too - you sleep in traditional tents and dine in a larger lean-to. When I was there it was perhaps a little too close to nature though, as the sandy floor seemed to conjure scorpion-infested dreams. These days the tents are more substantial and nicely raised off the ground. There are no such worries in the Dana Biosphere's Fenyan Lodge- a delightful 26-room vegetarian bolt hole styled on a caravanserai.
See Visit Jordan
Morocco: South of the Atlas Mountains, the valley floors are traced by date palms and sand-coloured settlements. Further on, the villages are fewer, the palm groves more marooned, until you’re enveloped by the sublime stillness of the Sahara. There you can trek the great dune fields, then camp out at night, or gaze at the shimmering scene from the comfort of a luxury converted kasbah.
Aït Benhaddou was an important stop on the caravan route between the Saharsa and Marrakech
About a four hour drive southeast of Marrakech is the Riad Caravane; a lovely 8-room riad in a short stroll away from the kasbah village of Ait Boulmane - used as a filming location in The Man Who Would be King and Gladiator. Or an hour further east is Dar Ahlam; a 12-room desert lodge in Skoura with high walls, luscious decor and fine dining.
See Much Morocco
United Arab Emirates: Like many desert people, the Emiratis love a good sunset - well actually any sunset. They celebrate the safe passage of another scorching day by heading off in their 4WDs for family desert picnics where they feast, fraternise, and run the quickly cooling sand through their fingers. You don’t need Emirati pals to experience this, though — several desert hotels cater for locals and tourists alike.
Desert falcon with trainer. It's the national bird of the UAE and must have its own seat when being transported by plane
About 80 miles south of Abu Dhabi is the crescent-shaped Liwa Oasis, which borders the vast Empty Quarter. Qasr Al Sarab, a luxury resort, offers Beau Geste bling — it’s styled as a desert fort, but with tasteful rooms (some with private pools) and a romantic restaurant.
Sir Bani Yas Island, 160 miles west of Abu Dhabi, was once the private pleasure park of the revered Sheikh Zayed, where he entertained the global great and good, and helped to save the Arabian Oryx. (The world’s largest herd is here.) His relatively modest guest palace is now a stylish 64-room Sir Bani Yas Anantara resort, from which you can take an Oryx safari, canoe in the mangroves, cycle over hills or lounge by the pool.
Rajasthan: India being India, its deserts are rarely deserted. Indeed, Rajasthan is about the most flamboyant part of the country, with forts, palaces and towns that teem with colourfully clad locals, not to mention the magnificent moustaches. Push on past Jodhpur and you’ll come to the Great Thar Desert’s fort of forts, Jaisalmer. This magical castle has narrow streets and an intoxicating atmosphere, almost overwhelmingly so during its festival (February 23-25).
The Amber Fort near to Jaipur in Rajasthan
Oman: The locals are the most gracious givers of directions — a care derived from the days when bad directions could mean death in the desert. Roads are few, but well maintained and quiet. The low-rise capital, Muscat, is a super place, as is the city of Nizwa, the Hajar Mountains and the Wahiba Sands, where there are several excellent desert camps. Salalah it at the far south of the country and now has a few good beach resorts, but it is also gateway to the Empty Quarter — a sea of sand larger than Spain — that has to be seen to be believed.
A range of 400ft high sand dunes in the Empty Quarter of Oman. Photo Richard Green
The Rotana Salalah Resort is a splendid new beach resort with Arabian decor, excellent food and fine swimming pools. In the east of the country on the edge of the Wahiba Sands is the luxurious Desert Nights Camp. Here you'll find Bedouin style decor in its tented suites and very good service too.
Egypt: Alexander the Great consulted the oracle at Siwa oasis before his eastern conquests. The temple is a ruin, but the patchwork of orchards, mud houses and magnificent dunes makes an unforgettable trip. Not far from Alexandria, there are poignant reminders of desert conflict in the scruffy town of El Alamein, home to many memorials to the fallen. And in the country's far south are the mesmerising ruins of Abu Simbel.
These four colossus of Abu Simbel, carved in the 13th Century BC are each of Pharaoh Ramesses II
Chile: Front runner for the title of oldest and driest desert in the world, the Atacama is a 600-mile sliver of Chile’s far north. It has weather stations that have never detected rain, and parts of it were used by NASA to test its Mars landers. Yet, partly by harnessing the moisture in marine fogs, plants and people have made it home for thousands of years. San Pedro de Atacama is a dusty oasis with superb desert lodges, an excellent archaeological museum and tours to the nearby Valley of the Moon.
Twisted rock formation in Chile's Atacama Desert
Australia: The Red Centre is dominated by Uluru, the arresting red rock that is six miles in circumference and sacred to Aborigines. Old settlements and ranches cling barnacle-like to the desert floor of western and central Australia, too, and make fascinating pit stops. The best way to appreciate the distances and the desert is a trip either down through the Tanami Desert from Darwin or up from Adelaide on the luxury Ghan train.
Clouds passing over Uluru, a gigantic sandstone monolith sacred to Australia's native people
Tunisia: The south of the country is a fascinating slab of the Sahara, with spectacular scenery and short driving distances. The English Patient and Raiders of the Lost Ark were filmed here, and the troglodyte dwellings at Matmata had cameo roles in several of the Star Wars films. You can even drop in at Luke Skywalker’s place — now the somewhat scruffy Hotel Sidi Driss. A few hours’ drive away are a swathe of Saharan dunes called the Grand Erg Oriental, the mirage-like oasis settlements of Zaafrane, Ghidma and Ksar Ghilane, and the desert city of Tozeur, famous for its old town’s intricate facades.