Beyond Dubai's towering horizon of look-at-me landmarks and hotels lie rustic retreats nestled between the dunes
Ras Al Khaimah
1. The Ritz-Carlton Ras Al Khaimah, Al Wadi Desert
Just north of Dubai, Ras Al Khaimah's Ritz-Carlton offers guests an elevated spa experience among the dunes. Beyond age-defying Espa facials and spiced oil massages, there's "The Rainforest". This hydrothermal suite has 13 stations, among them the "Igloo" with crushed-ice body scrubs, a hammam, salted steam room, herbal sauna and pebble foot spa.
The gym is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Horse-, pony- and camel-riding lessons are available, alongside archery, biking, stargazing, bird-spotting and nature tours of Al Wadi's 500ha protected reserve.
After all that, sleeping is easy in luxury Bedouin-inspired villas with private pools and wraparound views of the desert.
Pool villas for two from AED1997/$864 (00971 7 206 7777; ritzcarlton.com).
2. Bab Al Shams Desert Resort & Spa
The original Arabian desert retreat, Bab Al Shams opened in 2004, intended as luxury lodgings for Dubai's equestrian set in Al Qudra, occupied only by stables and racetracks (and now with the addition of cycle paths and manmade lakes).
Its name translates as Gateway to the Sun, which makes sense as I watch the sunrise from the comfort of the resort's infinity pool.
By night, stars help navigate the way to Al Hadheerah, one of four restaurants, best described as an experience. Part culinary bazaar, part cultural theatre, Arabian singers croon, drummers dance to a beat of their own and horse and camel riders re-enact historical tales. At weekends, there are even fireworks.
Double rooms from AED694/$300 (00971 4 809 6100; babalshams.com).
3. Jumeirah Al Wathba
Neat and beige with brass bedside lanterns, the rooms are pristine at one of the newest desert resort in the United Arab Emirates - and its air-conditioned stables are almost as spotless.
Daily pampering sessions, nutritious treats and adoring handlers account for the amiable nature of the horses. The guided rides, at sunrise and sunset, are a highlight of any stay here. Other activities include off-road fat-biking (the vehicles' oversized tyres are especially suited to traversing dunes) and slacklining, a bit like tightrope walking across lines of webbing elevated above the sand.
Home to a Talise Spa, a yoga pavilion, a 930sq m infinity pool and a children's pool and multiple restaurants, the resort offers much to occupy body and mind.
Double rooms from AED725/$313 (00971 2 204 4444; jumeirah.com).
4. Arabian Nights Village
The village approach is dramatic, with twin fortress watchtowers emerging from behind a gigantic dune, and then the smell of freshly-brewed cardamom-spiced coffee mingling with the woody perfume of bakhoor, the local incense made using recipes passed down the generations.
Paths shaped like palms, ambiently lit like Christmas trees by night, weave through clusters of spacious tents and stone rooms, 36 in total, their walls lined with al sadu weave or palm-frond latticework.
At Al Maqam, guests feed their inner Bedu with meats and Arabian flatbreads after days of camel trekking, quad biking, dune bashing and sand boarding.
Double rooms from AED750/$325 (00971 2 207 8989; arabiannightsvillage.com).
5. Al Faya Lodge
In the 1960s, a grocery store, clinic and petrol station were built an hour's drive east of Dubai on a lonely road snaking between mountain and desert deep within Sharjah. Typical of midcentury modern architecture in Britain at the time, the single-storey blocks with steel-framed windows were later abandoned and might have crumbled to dust.
But the local authorities had another idea: design firm Anarchitect was commissioned to turn the plot into a five-room boutique retreat, incorporating the original buildings and adding a spa, a pool and a terrace restaurant with atmospheric firepits.
The effect is compelling, with one lone rusting BP pump standing in what's now the lodge's forecourt as a sculpture and reminder of the region's past.
Doubles from AED715/$310 (al-faya-lodge.hotels-sharjah-uae.com).