Well in the Desert

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In Dubai, next–level wellness offerings, widespread fitness initiatives and sustainably focused menus are turning the desert metropolis into an oasis of betterment.

It’s snowing in Dubai. At least it is in the sleek, marbled circuit area at Awaken Spa within the new Atlantis The Royal hotel. My face gives away my curiosity.

“In this city, everything is possible,” says an attendant with a wink. I wince: We get plenty of snow in Montreal. Lucky for me, there’s no shortage of alternate options. A few steps away, there’s a glowing halotherapy salt cave, oversized vitality pool, aromatherapy steam room, and a separate wing of high–tech chromotherapy sensory pods. Here, lounging spa–goers are immersed in a rotation of coloured lights while the pod’s speakers play binaural beats, both features designed to promote deep relaxation, rest and improved mood. Down the hall, Aeon Clinic offers high–tech treatments like cryotherapy and stem–cell facials.

June 19, 2024
Chromotherapy loungers in a green lit room at the Awaken Spa with the Atlantis The Royal hotel in Dubai
Peace in a pod: Chromotherapy loungers feature binaural beats and coloured lights at the newly opened Awaken Spa within Atlantis The Royal.
Majestic rooms at Awaken Spa house terrazzo bathtubs in Dubai
Guests can opt for a majestic soak in a terrazzo bathtub at Awaken Spa within Atlantis, The Palm.

For traditional wellness–seekers, there’s also a hammam and several body treatments starring local ingredients like dates and nature’s exfoliant, desert sand. At the neighbouring Atlantis, The Palm, weekly complimentary sound–healing meditation sessions are offered to guests at a second Awaken Spa location, and the signature massage starts with an Ayurvedic–inspired ritual.

“I was both grounded and walking on a cloud.”

“Pick a stone,” says my therapist, Celine, as she guides my hand into a small black bag. “What you choose will guide how we approach your treatment.” Between earth, fire, water and air, I fittingly pick earth, which means that I could use a little grounding. She gives a knowing smile: I had just mentioned my long–haul flight. An hour later, thanks to Celine’s magic hands and the earthy Ayurvedic massage oil blend with juniper berry, vetiver and clary sage essential oils, I was both grounded and walking on a cloud.

Loungers sit under a flowering tree by the pool at the Atlantis the Royal in Dubai
The sauna room at Awaken Spa in the Atlantis the Royal in Dubai
A white opulent treatment room at Awaken Spa in the Atlantis the Royal in Dubai
Traditional hammam and spa facilities are given a modern update at Atlantis The Royal.

Wellness Glossary

A mortar and pestle for ayurveda
Photo: Bahadir Yeniceri/iStock
  • Ayurveda — A holistic approach to wellness based on the ancient medical system of India. The Sanskrit term translates to “science of life.”

A speaker for binaural beats
Photo: Ensup/iStock
  • Binaural Beats — Auditory illusions caused by listening to two different frequency sounds simultaneously, said to reduce anxiety and improve focus.

A red light used for chromotherapy
Photo: Paolo de Gasperis/Shutterstock
  • Chromotherapy — The use of different colours or coloured lights with the goal of promoting better mood, skin and overall health.

A bowl of ice used for cryotherapy
Photo: Anna Fedorova/iStock
  • Cryotherapy — Exposure to very cold temperatures for therapeutic purposes, such as muscle recovery and mood improvement.

Pink salt used for halotherapy
Photo: Rimglow/iStock
  • Halotherapy — Breathing in dry salt air with the idea that it may provide respiratory benefits.

A singing bowl used for sound therapy
Photo: Liudmila Chernetska
  • Sound Therapy — The practice of using different sounds from music or instruments, such as singing bowls and tuning forks, to improve emotional and physical well–being.

At the new Museum of the Future, a bright white and intricately shaped architectural marvel designed by Killa Design that opened in February 2022, wellness is a central part of the museum’s vision for tomorrow. I’m led to the Al Waha floor, an entire permanent exhibit dedicated to wellness, where each installation encourages guests to disconnect from the digital world and reconnect with their senses.

I stand in front of a gong and feel a deep vibration resonate to my core, then move to a multiseat table where I practise humming in unison with a handful of other guests. The last stop on the Al Waha floor is a large circular room where guests lie on floor mats for a refreshingly casual type of group contemplation.  As soon as I’m supine, my instinct is to check my inbox, but I leave my phone tucked in my bag and pretend I don’t have one. Instead, I let my eyes follow the waves of light projected onto the ceiling, and for a second, the future is tech–free.

The circular exterior of the Museum for the Future in Dubai
Smoke emanates from a pedestal before a hallway of red arches in the Museum of the Future in Dubai
The Museum of the Future’s circular building represents humanity, while its void represents the unknown future.
Arabic calligraphy adorns the exterior facade of the Museum of the Future in Dubai
Arabic calligraphy featuring inspiring quotes by Sheikh Mohammed adorn the Museum of the Future’s facade.

At BOCA restaurant, where I’m seated for dinner, the wellness ethos translates to a conscious effort to reduce waste, care for the environment and support small providers and staff. Awarded a Michelin Green Star for sustainable gastronomy in 2023, the restaurant’s yearly carbon emissions report is integrated into their menu as an illustrated infographic, with a QR code that leads curious diners to the restaurant’s sustainability protocol.

A spread of vibrantly coloured dishes from BOCA restaurant in Dubai
From local sourcing to ingredient upcycling, sustainability factors into every dish at BOCA restaurant.

Community well–being is another strong pillar. “We provide competitive wages and health benefits for our employees, so they stick around,” says Omar Shihab, founder and chief sustainability officer at BOCA. Clients tend to be loyal, too: The business–district restaurant has a vibrant atmosphere even on a Tuesday, with a dapper crowd sharing dishes like gulf kingfish ceviche and seared confit artichokes.

“Dubai has lots of celebrity chef restaurants, and they’re incredible, but you won’t see those chefs at the local seafood and farmers’ markets first thing in the morning,” says Shihab. “Our network of suppliers allows us to create a menu centred around seasonal ingredients. We always ask ourselves: What can we use locally?”

Kitchen and bar staff work together to avoid food waste by using as many ingredient parts as possible, even upcycling some as they near expiration. Leftover tomatoes become an edible garnish for the strawberry–tomato cordial. “It’s like grown–up Fruit Roll–Ups,” says Shihab. The tomato skins are dried and powdered into a seasoning for the “yesterday’s bread” starter, topped with ricotta cheese made from nearly expired milk and just–ripe avocado. The crispy, creamy and umami dish is artfully garnished with edible flower buds. A few bites in, I’m convinced: Leftovers have never tasted so good.

Shihab even found a small oyster provider on the east coast of Oman. It’s not easy to source locally, he says, but there’s a solid interest and investment behind the endeavour. It’s also the raison d’être behind the International Center for Biosaline Agriculture (ICBA), a Dubai–based organization working to discover ingredients and superfoods that can grow in arid desert soil. “So far, they’ve developed a type of amaranth and quinoa that are highly nutritional and can be produced right here,” he says.

Cricket enthusiasts play on the pitch at Kite Beach Fitness Village
Cricket enthusiasts play on the pitch at Kite Beach Fitness Village, a hub for free sports activities during the Dubai Fitness Challenge.

Some initiatives shape up menus, others shape up entire communities. Dubai Fitness Challenge, which runs annually from late October to the end of November, aims to inspire every local to commit to 30 minutes of daily movement during the month–long event, with the goal of sparking a habit for an active lifestyle.

“Fitness isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Dubai,” says Yaqoub Nabi, manager of Dubai Fitness Challenge, as he steps off a tennis court at Kite Beach, wiping beads of sweat off his brow. It’s past sunset, but the village is lit up with activity, from boxing matches to beachside yoga classes to spinning. Use of the facilities and all classes are free for the 30–day duration of the challenge, and there are 26 hubs, like this one, of different sizes throughout the city sponsored by their respective communities.

“We had serious doubts about the annual Dubai Run. We honestly didn’t think people in Dubai would wake up so early in the morning to run,” says Nabi. “But we were entirely wrong. The run starts at 5 a.m., and people show up at 3 a.m. just to get a spot at the front. Lots of people even fly in just for the run – there were over 226,000 participants last year.”

There’s also Dubai Ride for those who prefer to bike. It’s a sport that’s gaining popularity in the city, and initial plans are already in the works for what will be called The Loop, a 93–kilometre–long, climate–controlled bike path surrounded by greenery and designed to keep cyclists cool despite the desert heat.

Dubai Fitness Challenge has also inspired a slew of studio fitness offerings. “More and more gyms are opening their doors,” says Nabi. “We’re seeing a huge interest in CrossFit, paddleboarding and yoga around the city. There’s something for everyone.”

A man and woman hiking at Hatta Dam in Dubai
Swap high–rise hotels for high–rise cliffs on a hiking or rock–climbing day trip to Hatta.

Roughly an hour–and–a–half drive from the urban centre, in Hatta, an arid desert landscape leads to a large dam surrounded by the Hajar Mountains. Here, visitors can rent pedal boats and kayaks for another natural endorphin boost and a temporary change from the high–rise skyline.

It’s not quite Lake Louise, but its blue–toned lagoon and encircling rocky hills glimmer with comparable mystique. I had not imagined myself kayaking past ducks and a couple of friendly mountain goats on a trip to the desert. But as I’ve discovered, almost anything is possible in Dubai.