Photograph by Fernando Guerra

Where stars intersect with sand

A boutique hotel in the desert makes getting away from the city the ultimate luxury.

WORDS BY CATHERINE BOLGAR

SPACE

It’s hard to decide which mirage might emerge from the shimmering ruby sands at Al Faya Lodge, a hotel and saltwater spa at the foot of Mount Alvaah in the Sharjah desert. Maybe tumbleweeds bouncing down the ribbon of highway. Or a low-slung yacht-like convertible, the kind with fins. But maybe the mirage is futuristic. The high life on Mars? The sand is red enough. Is that a space rover coming over those moonlike mountains?

Al Faya Lodge is an improbable yet perfect spot for a five-star hotel. In a previous life, during the boom years of the 1960s, as the emirates of the future federation were quickly modernising, the building was a roadside grocery store, with a single gas pump to fill one’s tank on the caravan route between the Gulf coast and the Indian Ocean. In fact, it’s thought to be the emirate’s first gas pump and now holds a place of honour. 

The grocery store and a medical clinic across the road had long been abandoned. A mirage must have been at work when the Sharjah Investment and Development Authority, or Shurooq, saw the potential to repurpose the decrepit buildings into a luxury boutique hotel and restaurant. While preserving the structures and their history, Shurooq would create a time-travel experience that could whisk visitors far from the city bustle and deep into the heart of the desert, less than an hour’s drive from downtown Sharjah or Dubai.

“What is the new luxury?” asks Jonathan Ashmore, founder and director of Anarchitect, with offices in Dubai and London, who led Al Faya’s metamorphosis. “Dubai and Abu Dhabi have amazing hotels, really opulent and extravagant. They are very successful. But then there is the idea of going into nature. The UAE’s nature is the desert. You connect with history and Bedouin culture. Lots of people want to just get away from it all. Time and removal from the city become the new luxury.”

Jonathan Ashmore, founder and director of Dubai-based architecture and design practice Anarchitect, and Militza Ashmore, head of creative development and communications. The firm oversaw Al Faya’s bold metamorphosis. Photographs by Fernando Guerra.

The original buildings had a modernist vibe but clearly needed the interiors to be replanned in order to accommodate four deluxe rooms and one superior room. The five-bedroom property is designed to be booked in its entirety, small enough that a family or a group of friends can enjoy a private staycation or an occasional getaway from the city. With no other guests and a small staff, it’s like a private home.

“It felt like a cinematic desert hotel,” Ashmore says. “There’s an urbanity to it, thanks to the through road. But it’s quiet. You can sit out there, like at a motel, and one car passes by. Or there are camels.”

The fundamentals of the renovation were no demolition and no major increase of the buildings’ footprint. The concrete-and-stone walls offer good insulation against the extreme temperatures of the desert. “We kept true to what was there in the 1960s,” Ashmore says. “It’s a sustainable approach.”

Photograph by Fernando Guerra

However, the original windows were small, so Ashmore used frames of Corten steel, which, being stronger than aluminium, could be very thin, to maximise the views of the desert and mountains. Corten structures also created shade to avoid making the interiors heat up. In fact, by working with the orientation of the windows and using passive design, the rooms enjoy natural light and guests “can actually open the doors and get cross ventilation.”

Ashmore also used Corten steel in the structure that reinforces the original grocery, in order to allow access to the roof and to create skylights. In some places, the original fossilised limestone remains visible, while in others it’s there but covered with steel. The steel “is almost a contrast to the heavy density of the concrete buildings,” he says. “You can understand the dialogue between new and old. We didn’t want to recreate something old, but to merge the two. It reprogrammes the whole building with brutal refinement so it has a clear purpose.”

Corten steel is made with a particular oxide that allows it to rust in a way that actually protects the steel from erosion. “It’s very contemporary. It evolves and takes on the essence and influence of nature,” Ashmore says. “It’s also very responsive to the oxide content in the sand.”

The sand dunes surrounding the lodge are a brilliant crimson thanks to high iron oxide content. The Mleiha region where Al Faya Lodge is located has been nominated for UNESCO World Heritage listing because of its natural and archaeological sites, from Fossil Rock—which can be seen from one of the rooms as well as from the roof terraces—to the Faya Caves, thought to be among the first places that anatomically modern humans ventured as they moved out of Africa. The Lodge, part of the Sharjah Collection by Mysk, a group of boutique hotels and eco-retreats, offers ecotourism and adventure activities to experience the natural wonders.

Out here in the desert, the nights are free from light pollution. In the inky velvet above, the whole galaxy and even others beyond glisten. Al Faya is designed for delighting in the stars. Each room has a skylight over the bed. Or you can settle into the recliners on the roof terrace for group stargazing, seeing 360 degrees across the plain. “It’s really stunning,” Ashmore says. “In winter, it gets quite cold, and you need a blanket outside. But the skies clear up [then] and are an azure blue that contrasts with the red sand.”

Next to the ex-grocery-now-luxe-lodge, a new building accommodates a hands-free spa and saltwater pool. The spa includes a sauna with local scents like clove and rosebud; a shower walk, where guests pass through water jets of different pressures; an herbal treatment room; and a salt-inhalation room with a wall of purifying Himalayan salt. The pool, which has built-in recliners, looks west out across the empty sands, but the giant metal shutters can also be closed for complete privacy, leaving the pool open only to the sky.

Across the road, the former clinic now houses a restaurant, which is open only to guests during the week and to the wider public on weekends. The menu follows the dual themes of nature and family. It features locally grown organic produce and includes a variety of convivial mezze plates intended for sharing. A wall of windows faces east to the jagged jebels of Mount Alvaah, which tower over the restaurant and hotel such that they provide shade for a good hour after sunrise.

The furnishings throughout are modern and spare, their luxury obvious to the touch without gaudy opulence that would detract from the main attraction—the scenery outside. The interiors push and pull with the exterior. The furniture is mostly angular, to contrast with the rippling dunes. Yellow limestone and yellow travertine marble in the bathrooms echo the warm tones of sun and sand. The dark walls of the guestrooms offer visual respite from the bright sun and, with the skylights, make each room a private observatory.

“It’s about going out there and bringing back to life the property,” Ashmore says. “It’s something from the 1960s that can be brought back to life. It’s part of history and can be done in a quiet, evocative way.”

Anarchitect applied a contextual modern approach to architecture to reimagine two single-story, stone-built structures from the 1960s into a contemporary boutique hotel and restaurant, with the addition of a newly built saltwater spa building. The project pioneers the region’s architectural movement towards adaptive reuse of heritage structures, using local vernacular and contextual choice of materials. Photographs by Fernando Guerra.

SPACE

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