Five fabulous desert escapes
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High style in Israel’s deep south
You can reach the Negev desert by car from Tel Aviv or Jerusalem in four to five hours (the latter route comes with a drive-by view of the historic fortress of Masada); or you can fly into Eilat, on the Red Sea. However you choose to get there, though, prepare to be dazzled. Wedged like a dagger between the Sinai Peninsula and Jordan, its erosion craters, undulating folds and wadis are mostly limestone and chalk – dreamy washes of pale beige for miles, under an improbable deep-blue sky, punctuated by date-palm farms and kibbutzim that have been pioneering desert agriculture methods since the mid-20th century. They follow on a thousand-odd years of history, in which the Negev was the near-exclusive preserve of Bedouins – before which, of course, it had supporting roles in both Biblical and Roman narratives.
Sleep: What the Negev never had until now was a really spectacular place to stay. That’s been neatly solved by Six Senses, which opened Six Senses Shaharut here last August, on a cliff’s edge near the village of the same name. It has just about everything to recommend it: killer food (light, locally-sourced, organic everything), a sprawling spa with indoor pool, low-slung villas with white-on-cream-on-meringue interiors and plunge pools giving onto those Holy Land views. This being Six Senses, it delivers on sustainability too. I stayed last November, and it’s been a long time since a place impressed me this much. From $750 per night
Namibia is a myriad of deserts – some of them deep red earth, stippled with peaks whose tops are seared black; others low, rolling veld, sparkling for miles with silvered grasses. Then there is the Kaokoland, a marriage of immense dunes and rocky striated mountains carved by glaciers hundreds of millions of years ago that culminates in the Skeleton Coast. The sound (and taste, and smell) of the Atlantic can be perceived from miles inland. Megafauna that have long since adapted to the harsh ecosystem – elephant, lion, giraffe, cheetah – are taller and thinner here than elsewhere in Africa. Sand is layered like icing in huge swaths for miles, all edgeless topography and bleached-earth palette. Famously alluring, and equally famously inhospitable, it’s one of the most atmospheric, haunting encounters of desert and water in the world – well worth a spot high up on the bucket list.
Sleep: The eight tents at Hoanib Skeleton Coast Camp are spare, slick and the definition of remote. One night, as I and my companions drank G&Ts around the campfire after supper, the surrounding emptiness was so velvety-black that we didn’t discover until the following morning that a huge bull elephant had silently strolled between us and the mess tent – fewer than 10 metres away. About £645pp sharing, including camp activities
High and (ultra-) dry in Chile
The Atacama is thin on oxygen (altitudes range from about 2,400m all the way up to 5,000m), and even thinner on humidity (outside the two Poles it’s the driest place in the world, and scientists believe it has been thus for about three million years). But it’s also endowed with otherworldly landscapes and the fascinating traces of advanced pre-Columbian cultures. Seasonally, parts of it are heaven for birders, with, among many other species, Andean flamingos in the inland salt flats, and hummingbirds and finches of various plumage alighting in spring. But those landscapes are what you travel for – a confluence of lunar and Martian scenes, interspersed with hidden springs, a salt flat the size of a small sea, and peaks whose edges have been filed to high-relief sharpness by atmosphere and time.
Sleep: Awasi is known for running tight, superfine shows at its three South American lodges in Patagonia, Iguazu, and here in Atacama, in the tiny village of San Pedro. It’s small – just 12 rooms – and each has its own private guide and 4WD for multiple-each-day excursions. From $900pp sharing, including private excursions
Going for the Gobi
Vast tawny steppes dotted with white gers; caravans of Bactrian camels, belled harnesses jingling; nomads astride hardy ponies – or Soviet motorcycles – herding goats and yaks and sheep: all are familiar signifiers of the Gobi desert, which covers much of Southern Mongolia, a backdrop to blockbuster films and personal travel fantasies alike. The locals roam it, and so should you: amid the desert’s half-million square miles, you might find 300m-tall sand dunes, ancient temple ruins, and paleontological sites harbouring 70 million-year-old dinosaur remains. But human civilisation is blessedly scarce. At night the skies are vast, and sag with starlight, and the silence is consummate.
Sleep: Jalsa Urubshurow, the founder and CEO of Nomadic Expeditions, one of central Asia’s top outfitters, opened the 40-tent Three Camel Lodge 20 years ago, and it’s still best in class here. From $882
Indian desert repose
It extends across western Rajasthan, up into Punjab province and Sindh in Pakistan; and despite its seas of sand and blazing temperatures, India’s Thar desert is home to more than 80 people per square kilometre, making it the most populous in the world. Nagaur and Jodhpur are its eastern gateways and, though much of it is wilderness by Indian standards, as elsewhere across the northern subcontinent there’s a rich intersection of Hindu, Muslim and Sikh culture alongside nomadic tribes with their own traditions of music and food. Here and there, a fort or tumbledown temple; and, further west, miles of saffron-hued dunes, and camel caravans that pass in slow motion on the horizon, and (relative) emptiness to contemplate.
Sleep: For a desert-adjacent, city-palace stay, Narendra Bhawan in Bikaner offers a plush, if slightly zany, take on five-star service and accoutrements. If a proper camp out in the desert is what you’re after, Suján The Serai delivers the full fantasy, its 21 tents ranging up to 2,100sq ft, some with plunge pools, its food exceptional – and its guides leading historical tours of the 10th-century desert kingdom of Jaisalmer, birdwatching expeditions and stargazing excursions at night. Suites from £680