High style in Israel’s deep south
You can reach the Negev Desert by car from Tel Aviv or Jerusalem within four to five hours (the latter route comes with a drive-through view of the historic fortress Masada); or you can fly in Eilat, on the Red Sea. But you choose to get there, get ready to be blinded. Weight like a dagger between the Sinai Peninsula and Jordaan, its erosion craters, undulating folds and wadis are mostly limestone and chalk – dreamy waxes pale beige for miles, under an improbable deep blue sky, interrupted by date palm farms and kibbutzim which has been a pioneer in desert farming methods since the middle of the 20th century. They follow a thousand years of history, in which the Negev was the almost exclusive preservation of Bedouin – for which it naturally had supporting roles in both biblical and Roman narratives.
Sleep: What the Negev has never had until now was really a spectacular place to stay. It was neatly resolved by Six Senses, which opened Six Shaharut Senses here last August, on the edge of a cliff near the village of the same name. It has just about everything to recommend: killer food (light, locally sourced, all organic), an expansive spa with indoor pool, low-rise villas with white-on-cream-on-meringue interiors and splash pools overlooking those Holy Land views. Since it is Six Senses, it also delivers sustainability. I stayed last November, and it’s not long ago that a place impressed me so much. From $ 750 per night
Namibia is a myriad of deserts – some of them deep red earth, dotted with peaks whose tops are scorched black; other layers, undulating field, sparkling for miles with silvery grasses. Then there is the Kaokoland, a marriage of formidable dunes and rocky striped mountains carved out of glaciers hundreds of millions of years ago, culminating in the Skeleton Kiss. The sound (and taste and smell) of the Atlantic Ocean can be observed from miles inland. Megafauna that have long adapted to the harsh ecosystem – elephant, lion, giraffe, cheetah – are longer and thinner here than elsewhere in Africa. Sand is layered like icing in large regions for miles, all borderless topography and bleached earth palette. Knownly alluring, and equally famously inhospitable, it’s one of the most atmospheric, captivating encounters of desert and water in the world – well worth a spot on the bucket list.
Sleep: The eight tents at Hoanib Skeleton Camp is economy, smooth and the definition of remote control. One evening, while my companions and I were drinking G & Ts around the campfire after dinner, the surrounding emptiness was so velvety-black that we only discovered the next morning that a large bull elephant was strolling quietly between us and the garbage tent – less than 10 meters away. About £ 645pp share, including camping activities
High and (ultra-) dry in Chile
The Atacama is thin on oxygen (altitudes range from about 2,400 m to 5,000 m), and even thinner on humidity (outside the two poles it is the driest place in the world, and scientists believe it was so for about three million years ). But it is also endowed with otherworldly landscapes and the fascinating traces of advanced pre-Columbian cultures. Seasonally, parts of it are the sky for birdwatchers, including Andean flamingos in the inland salt flats, and hummingbirds and finches of various plumage that climb out in the spring. But those landscapes are what you travel for – a confluence of lunar and Martian scenes, interspersed with hidden fountains, a salt plain as large as a small sea, and peaks whose edges through atmosphere and time to high-relief sharpness filed.
Sleep: Awasi is known for his sleek, super-fine performances at his three South American lodges in Patagonia, Iguazu, and here in Atacama, in the small town of San Pedro. It’s small – just 12 rooms – and each has its own private guide and 4WD for multiple-every-day excursions. Part of $ 900pp, including private excursions
Go for the Gobi
Large yellow-brown steppes with white grass; caravans of Bactrian camels, bells and harnesses ringing; nomads on hardy ponies – or Soviet motorcycles – herding goats and foxes and sheep: all are well-known indications of the Gobi Desert, which occupies much of the South Mongolia, a backdrop for movies and personal travel fantasies. The locals wander around there, and so should you: amidst the desert’s half-million square miles, you may find 300m high sand dunes, ancient temple ruins and paleontological sites that house 70 million year old dinosaur remains. But human civilization is fortunately scarce. At night the sky is stretched out, and sinks with starlight, and the silence is perfect.
Sleep: Jalsa Urubshurow, the founder and CEO of Nomadic Expeditions, one of Central Asia’s top outfits, has opened the 40-tent Three Camel Lodge 20 years ago, and it’s still the best in class here. From $ 882
Indian desert rest
It stretches across western Rajasthan, into Punjab province and Sindh in Pakistan; and despite its sea of sand and scorching temperatures, India’s Thar desert is home to more than 80 people per square kilometer, making it the most populous in the world. Nagaur and Jodhpur are its eastern gates and although many of them are wilderness by Indian standards, there is, as elsewhere across the northern subcontinent, a rich crossing of Hindu, Muslim and Sikh culture alongside nomadic tribes with their own traditions of music and food. Here and there a fort or tumbling temple; and further west, miles of saffron-colored dunes, and camel caravans passing in slow motion on the horizon, and (relative) emptiness to reflect.
Sleep: For a desert-adjoining city-palace residence, Narendra Bhawan in Bikaner offers a gentle, albeit slightly insane, five-star service and accessories. If there’s a proper camp in the desert you’re looking for, Suján Die Serai delivers the full fantasy, its 21 tents ranging up to 2,100 square feet, some with splash pools, its food exceptional – and its guides guide historical tours through the 10th-century desert kingdom of Jaisalmer, bird watching expeditions and stargazing excursions at night. Suites from £ 680