There seems to have fallen a kind of disillusionment with large, resort-type chain hotels. Especially with a younger generation of travellers who are looking for experiences, not a cookie-cutter sense of hospitality. We want the bespoke, the unique, a far cry away from the standardised experiences that have dominated the worldwide tourism industry.
Enter the boutique hotel. Though each one is different, boutique hotels are characterised by their small size, design focus, and singular personality. Each one sells more than a bed and breakfast; it's an experience. And because they're usually independently run, they also tend to seamlessly incorporate their setting - historical, natural, or cultural - into the very fabric of the space.
So from your own luxurious private isle to a no-electricity eco lodge at the edge of the desert; from a castle on a hill to the glamping (glamour camping) of your dreams; from what we're sure would be James Bond's getaway to the ruins of a 4th-century church and a sentinel of Arab Jerusalem: here are the absolute best boutique hotels the Middle East's seas, deserts, and rolling mountains have to offer.
*The values listed are indicated as minimum for each hotel, but vary according to date and accommodation type.
M O R O C C O
Riad Yasmine / $106 per night
It’s the age of Instagram. Of course it is, we know it is. And it’s most true of this beautiful Marrakech boutique hotel, whose owners say a whopping 80% of guests come to the riad because they’ve seen pictures of the pool on Instagram and Pinterest. Which is honestly valid, especially since nearly every inch of this tiny hotel is more than Instagram-worthy.
Riad Yasmine consists of only eight uniquely decorated rooms in Moorish architecture, all built around a central courtyard, which holds the famous pool. The hotel is only a 20 minute walk away from the city centre of Marrakech, and offers a welcome respite from the city. From the equally photogenic roof terrace, you can see the hustle and bustle of the city, historical landmarks, and even the snow-capped Atlas Mountains. More here.
Kasbah Tamadot / $1050
Barely an hour away from Marrakech, at the end of a winding road through the mountains and villages, a castle rises in the distance and takes your breath away. Kasbah Tamadot is owned by British business magnate, philanthropist, and founder of the Virgin Group, Sir Richard Branson, who bought it during one of his hot air ballooning expeditions. Each of the 28 rooms and suites is uniquely decorated and features antiques from all over the world.
But it's not just a gorgeous orientalist fantasy at the foot of a mountain. Located in Asni, a small village and marketplace in the foothills of the Atlas Mountains, the hotel prides itself on its focus on the community. Nearly all of the hotel’s employees are from the surrounding village, and Eve Branson, Branson’s mother, runs her foundation in the Atlas Mountains, teaching communities everything from languages to professional training. More here.
Dar Ahlam / $1000
‘House of Dreams,’ as the name of this tiny fourteen-room hideaway’s name translates into, is right. Secluded by palm groves and almond trees at the edge of the Moroccan desert, this boutique hotel is actually a two-hundred year old kasbah, fully fitted with modern comforts and technology to create a singular experience of timeless luxury.
Dar Ahlam prides itself, most of all, on its complete customisability. Want a specially prepared meal served to you in any number of distinct, private settings, like a garden designed by French architect Louis Benech? Yes. Want to trek through the Valley of Roses and explore among the pomegranate trees and make your flower-girl fantasies come true? Absolutely. Want to drive to the hilltop vestiges of a 12th-century Berber village for a traditional tea ceremony at dusk? The Dar Ahlam team is on it. More here.
U A E
Zaya Nurai Island / $700 per night
Sometimes, the best travel is the hustle and bustle, the exhilaration of a revolving door of characters and never-ending excitement. More realistically, though, sometimes you just want a private palace on an azure shore, all on your own. And there’s probably no better place than the so-called Maldives of the United Arab Emirates, named the Best Boutique Hotel in the Middle East at the International Hotel Awards 2016-2017.
A mere 15-minutes away from Abu Dhabi, on an island whose name stems from the Arabic word ‘Nur’ for light for its staggering beauty, this 32-unit five-star hotel offers a gorgeous selection of beach villas with private infinity pools, massive beach estates with their own private beaches, and water villas that literally seem to levitate over the water. As they phrase it, “the turquoise ocean is your private backyard.” Basically your own private isle. Done. More here.
Kingfisher Lodge / $350 a night
There’s camping, there’s glamping, and then there’s the Kingfisher Lodge on the wetland of Khor Kalba in Sharjah. Nature? Check, you’re by the UAE’s oldest mangroves, on a pristine beach, with lounging boat trips. Wildlife? Check, you can see the incredibly rare Arabian Collared Kingfisher, and if you’re lucky, a gazelle might literally just waltz past your tent. A luxurious experience that can make you forget you’re - gasp - camping? Check, check, check.
From the boat arrival experience, the individual climate control, the decadent buffet and a la carte dining, nature conservation never felt so good. I mean, we know it’s technically a tent, but the gorgeous soft blues, mauves, and beiges of each of their 20 massive units’ interior is certainly heavy on the glam, light on the camp of it. More here.
Anantara Sir Bani Yas Island Al Sahel Villa Resort / $408 per night
Nestled on Sir Bani Yas island, a protected reserve off the coast of Abu Dhabi, this luxe hotel is home to only 30 ultra-swanky villas scattered throughout grasslands in the center of the island. It is the type of place where you wake up to a plunge pool on your private terrace outside your room, and beyond that wild gazelles and peacocks roam freely. Literally. At night, the stars come out to play, and during the day you can head out on safari desert drives in a full-on wildlife sanctuary where you can spot giraffes, the near extinct Arabian oryx, and cheetahs. Or you can sip tea in the savannah in a crazy personalised experience, because life is good like that at the Anantara Al Sahel resort.
If you're feeling adventurous, you can go horseback riding on the beach, kayaking among the mangroves (yes, there are mangroves), channel your inner Katniss Everdeen with an archery course, or even visit a 1,400-year-old Christian monastery - the only one discovered in the UAE. More here.
Meliá Desert Palm / $256 per night
With two independent riding schools, three champion polo fields and 400 Arabian thoroughbreds, this place is an equestrian dream. Or in our case, a 'sip champagne in a beautiful silk dress and Chanel sunglasses while looking in the vague direction of a polo match' dream. Tactile saddle leather drapes the stair rails, retired saddles are objet d'arts, and polished saddles are refashioned as bar stools in this ode to equestrian-chic.
You can opt for one of Meliá standard rooms - though we're stretching the word 'standard' here - with en-suite rain showers, chestnut leather divan beds, and organic amenities. Or you could go for private luxury in one of 13 villas, and enjoy your own pool in the privacy of tall stone walls. More here.
E G Y P T
Lazib Inn / $220 per night
Fayoum, only a couple hours southwest of Cairo, is one of the most beautiful places Egypt has to offer. It has impeccably preserved history, idyllic villages, and beautiful landscapes, but good luck seeing any of that if you’re staying at Lazib Inn. If you’re anything like us, you literally won’t be able to step out of the tiny, artsy, beautiful hotel your entire stay.
If we had to use one word to describe the place, it would be: curated. Its eclectic charm - replete with old school doors straight out of the Bohemian guidebook, stained glass windows, unique sculptures strewn around the property - is a carefully constructed fantasy. Each of the hotel’s grand total of eight rooms are unique, and the grounds include a sunflower field, two infinity pools, and a hot tub where you can eat pizza under the stars. Literally life goals. More here.
La Maison Bleue / $250 per night
On the coast of the Red Sea, in the resort town of El Gouna, stands La Maison Bleue. If at first glance you find yourself asking how old this place could possible be - since parts of it look like Marie Antoinette’s summer house by the sea - we couldn’t blame you. The luxuriant mansion was designed by antiques collector and interior designer Amr Khalil, whose gorgeously heavy-handed 18th and 19th-century European influences have made the mansion a modern Art Deco dream.
With - among so many other aesthetic marvels - a Venetian-style facade, marble floors inspired by the Italian Saint Mark’s Basilica, and reproductions of Minoan murals from Santorini, you’ll find it hard to remember that the entire city of El Gouna is only 30 years old, and the hotel itself has only been around since 2011. Each of the hotel’s 11 luxury suites is individually decorated, serving Italian empire decadence. More here.
Adrère Amellal / $460 per night
Built on the side of a white limestone mountain, a few kilometres from Siwa in the far-flung eastern deserts of Egypt, lies an eco lodge that perfectly blends luxury and sustainability. Creator Mounir Neamatalla describes the place as fundamentally authentic and ecological. With the walls themselves made of kershef, a mixture of earth, stone, and salt water, and an exclusively organic garden-to-table dining experience, an authentic experience in the desert is exactly what you’ll be getting.
Oh, and did we forget to mention, there’s absolutely no electricity or telephones in the ecolodge? We’re already clutching our phones to our chest like you just threatened to take away our firstborn, which is probably how to know you need a few days in the detoxing beauty of Adrère Amellal. More here.
O M A N
Alila Jabal Akhdar / $300 per night
Do you want to stay in a literal fort on a mountain? The answer is yes. Yes, you do. Perched 2000 metres above sea level in Oman’s Al Hajar Mountains, Alila Jabal Akhdar is a modern boutique hotel inspired by ancient forts and traditional Omani construction techniques. Local stones are combined with contemporary architecture in this Arab interpretation of ‘the castle on the hill.’
Through its cultural learning, hiking, trekking, conscious living, cave adventure, and stargazing experiences, Alila Jabal Akhdar is perfect for those of us who want to explore culture, nature, and our own physical limits - really, we do - but would also really appreciate a long soak in an infinity pool and some pampering in a 5-star spa right after... Or maybe just the infinity pool, with a view of the mountain we’ll trek one day, we swear. More here.
Six Senses Zighy Bay / $637 per night
Oman’s Musandam Peninsula is breathtakingly beautiful. Its barren mountains rise to 2 kilometres above sea level, jutting out like fingers into the sea, creating fjord-like inlets and hidden gems like Six Senses Zighy Bay. Nestled between a the huge Hajar Mountain range and a one-mile sandy beach on the turquoise waters of the Gulf of Oman, the hotel offers an excitingly remote yet luxurious stay only a scenic two-hour drive from Dubai.
The hotel is larger than most of the ones featured on this list, with 82 units. But the way Six Senses is built, in the style of a traditional Omani village, with low-rise pavilions and sandy passageways between the 82-stand alone stone-walled villas, you’ll have all the space and privacy of a much smaller establishment. More here.
B A H R A I N
The Merchant House / $265 per night
Downtown Manama’s getting a full-blown makeover, and the newest Campbell Gray hotel in the region is part of its total regeneration plan. The Merchant House next to the Bab el-Bahrain souk has just opened its doors, featuring an array of artsy attractions through its 46 suite-establishment.
From a library of over 1000 curated books hanging above the lobby (that you’re welcome to enjoy), to a unique collection of contemporary art by Bahraini and international artists, to the emerald pool on the roof, the first 5-star luxury boutique hotel in Bahrain has set itself up as a new gem in Bahrain’s tourism industry. More here.
J O R D A N
Ma’in Hot Springs / $130 per night
The biblical site of Belemounta, now known as the Ma’in Hot Springs, are 264 metres below sea level, less than an hour’s drive south of Amman. The thermal mineral hot springs and waterfalls have been a pilgrimage site since the days of Rome, with people across eras coming for thermal treatments, or simply a hot soak.
The resort and spa is set like an oasis in the dramatic terrain, combining modern luxury and spa experiences with local architecture and age-old medicinal practices for a truly unique healing experience. You can literally walk into a waterfall and the natural sauna cave discreetly buried behind it, which allegedly is good for dermatological health and boosts weight loss. We say skip the dispensable New Year’s gym resolutions, and head to Jordan. More here.
Wadi Rum Night Luxury Camp / $145
This one hits close to home for us. The last time a member of the Scene Arabia team went camping and ventured to sleep under the night sky like a veritable child of nature, draped in a blanket of stars and her own poetic babble, she got bit on the lip by a mosquito - or some other creepy crawly - and came to the office looking like she got half a (very painful) lip filler. Hilarious for us, traumatic - and not worth the starry sky - for her.
Presenting Wadi Rum Night Luxury Camp, a constellation of glamping experiences, chief among which is the Full of Stars Hotel. It’s a bubble. You’re sleeping, under the stars, in Wadi Rum. In. A. Bubble. Your ‘tent’ (can we actually call it a tent?) comes complete with a king sized bed and a shower-equipped bathroom. And we all lived happily ever after never having to sacrifice our comfort to sleep underneath the stars. More here.
T U R K E Y
Koza Cave Hotel / $125 per night
This one isn’t so much Instagrammable as an actual Instagram phenomenon. On what seems to be the roof of the world, you’ll enjoy the breathtaking views of Cappadocia’s iconic hot air balloons that have made many a travel blogger’s dreams come true. With the highest vantage point for miles, their terrace is truly unparalleled. If you can drag your eyes away from the hot air balloons just a little, you’ll also see a perfect view of Cappadocia’s equally iconic natural landscape of rock formations that were millions of years in the making, the adorably and fantastically named ‘fairy chimneys’.
The hotel is also a prime example of stylish sustainable tourism. It's carved into a cave, and each of its 10 rooms - centered around a small courtyard - are traditionally furnished with an eco-friendly twist: the owner himself has created many of the unique lamps and furniture pieces by up-cycling salvaged materials. More here.
Makacizi Hotel / $460 per night
Welcome to the azure seas where James Bond retreats at the end of the movie, perfectly mixed martini and gorgeously clad sidekick in hand. On the northern edge of the Bodrum Peninsula in the Aegean Sea lies the painfully trendy Türkbükü Bay, Turkey’s answer to St Tropez, replete with high-end beach clubs, celebrity clientele, and the gorgeous Makacizi (pronounced ‘magicizzy’). Originally conceived as a retreat for artists and writers in the 1970s, the hotel is now a 53-room ode to luxury.
Sure, the rooms are gorgeous, the head chef’s menu of Mediterranean and ‘new Turkish’ cuisine is to die for, and the huge Nuxe Spa is a wellness dream, but the real coup de grâce is the clientele. You shouldn’t be surprised if you find Mick Jagger on the next sun lounger over, as well as this year’s hottest supermodels on one of the hotel’s yachts, bobbing along in Türkbükü Bay’s clear blue waters. More here.
Bosphorus Palace Hotel / $230 per night
Originally built as the Debreli Ismail Pasha mansion in 1876, what is now the Bosphorus Palace Hotel in Istanbul was rebuilt after a devastating fire in 1983 according to the original plans and old photos. Before it was a modern boutique hotel, the garden side of the mansion was used as a harem, while the seaside part was reserved for men.
A prime example of neo-Ottoman architecture, the building features 12 uniquely decorated rooms, each with high ceilings and Italian handcrafted furnishings, adorned with 18-carat gold leaf. The hotel - along with its former boathouse-turned-upscale-restaurant - is a favorite for weddings, and we can absolutely see why. More here.
Puli Mini Otel
In the heart of the mountains, valleys, and endless shades of green that have given Çamlıhemşim a reputation as the most beautiful place in the eastern Black Sea region, sits a chestnut wood-and-stone historic house that - for the past 80 years - has been the gorgeous Puli Mini Otel.
Right on the bank of the Fırtına River, with food made with strictly organic produce, and the wood-and-stone ambience, Puli Mini - with a little help from the sounds of the river - gives a gorgeously rustic feel to your stay. More here.
L E B A N O N
Bay Lodge / $100 per night
What would you say your happy place is? Ours is a no-brainer. A spa tub inside our private room, sipping champagne or a sweet Lebanese white, overlooking a panoramic view of the Mediterranean coast, stretching from Beirut to Byblos. Heaven, repeated in every single one of Bay Lodge’s 15 suites.
If you can drag yourself out, the hotel’s The Terrace is also an incomparable serenity “on top of the world” and the Chapo Ba is an upscale cocktail bar on the rooftop. You could also drag yourself a little further away (exactly a 20-minute drive) to Beirut for a night out, just as long as you’re back to watch the Lebanese coast come to life at sunrise, all from the comfort of your own tub. More here.
Hotel Albergo / $280 per night
Straight out of a Wes Anderson fantasy comes the beautiful Hotel Albergo. With a city as loud and exhilaratingly beautiful as Beirut - with a new experience around every corner - you kind of need an urban oasis, all the better if it’s with all the old-school charm of the Albergo. Tucked away in a quiet neighbourhood in east Beirut, only a stone’s throw from downtown, stands a stunning three-arch heritage mansion emblematic of 1930s architecture.
The Albergo’s 33 individually designed, old-fashioned, boudoir-style suites are all furnished with unique antique-hunted pieces in an applied Lebanese-oriental style. As the hotel defines itself, it’s the perfect meeting of the Orient and the West, perfect in Beirut, the multi-faceted historical crossroads of East and West. More here.
Cherry Blossom Boutique Hotel / $150 per night
Nestled among the hills of Lamartine Valley, terraced along the sunlit pine trees of the forest, lie 20 square kilometres of private land that have been made into the Lebanese mountain estate of our dreams.
We can just see ourselves when the seasons turn and the rooftops of the village below all turn white, bundled up and watching the snow fall, living out our fiercest, coziest winter wonderland fantasies. Before the snow settles in, though, you can join their farmers on a cherry picking tour, go hiking (or cherry blossom Instagram-posing) and explore your inner connoisseur with a wine tasting from the many exquisite vineyards and wineries in the area. More here.
T U N I S I A
Dar Hi / $100 per night
Throughout this ecologically sensitive, brilliantly hued design hotel on the edge of the Sahara, you’re required to shed your shoes (and your worries) and slip on special slippers (and a much mellower state of mind). If looking out of your window, you find yourself wondering if you’ve also slipped into a movie scene, that’s because the town of Nefta - with its salt lake, palm groves, and natural hot springs - has been a popular location for filming, including Star Wars and the English Patient.
The hotel itself offers four different room types. Whether you choose the ‘pill houses’ - where each room is a stand-alone elevated structure with glass walls and impeccable views of the dunes - or one of their troglodyte rooms - built around circular areas based on the Matmata cave houses - you’re in for a unique experience. More here.
Dar El Jeld Hotel & Spa / $150 per night
What’s better than staying in a UNESCO World Heritage Site? Staying in a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the heart of Tunis with a peaceful garden setting and the perpetual fragrance of lemon trees and the soothing sounds of a stream, that’s what.
The Dar El Jeld Hotel and Spa in Tunis offers luxury amenities in each of its 16 immaculately constructed suites, as well as the ultimate experience of Tunisia’s age-old tradition of Turkish baths. An invitation to live out our most extravagant orientalist fantasies, complete with endless arabesques, Turkish hammams, and more traditional Tunisian cuisine than we could possibly handle? Yes please. More here.
P A L E S T I N E
The Jerusalem Hotel / $150 per night
In the heart of the ancient city of Jerusalem, on top of the remains of a 4th-century Byzantine church, stands the Jerusalem Hotel. The 120-year old Arab mansion, originally built by a feudal lord, has been managed by the Saadeh family since 1960. In the thick stone walls cut from creamy Jerusalem stone, arched windows, high ceilings, cool stone flagging, secluded vine garden, the Saadehs have maintained the distinct Arab aesthetic of 20th-century Jerusalem.
We truly can’t think of a better window into the long, complex history of Jerusalem than this hotel, from its garden patio - designed to simulate a Palestinian village - to the fact that it’s been Palestinian-owned since before the Naksa of 1967, to its being only a few minutes-walk from the Damascus Gate, the main entrance into the Old City. More here.
The Walled Off Hotel / $225 per night, $60 per night for the ‘Budget Barracks’
This is a starkly different experience than the other hotels on this list, but frankly, we couldn’t resist. In 2017, the anonymous and notorious graffiti artist Banksy established a hotel that boasts “the worst view in the world,” that of the apartheid wall. The tongue-in-cheek Walled Off Hotel - a play on the famous ‘Waldorf’ - is hemmed in by the eight-metre-high concrete wall in Bethlehem.
What started as a temporary provocative piece of installation art is still operational today, and has proven an improbably successful tourist attraction. Despite accusations that Banksy was just making money off a community's misery, according to Wisam Salsa, the hotel’s Palestinian co-founder and manager, as of December of last year, “the hotel has attracted 140,000 visitors since it opened...a massive boost to the Palestinian tourism industry.” More here.
Q A T A R
Souq Waqif Boutique Hotels / $90 per night
Tivoli Hotels have consolidated a collection of tiny, unique stays into their constellation of boutique hotels in the Qatari capital, offering elevated - though by no means standardised - experiences in Doha.
If you choose the Bismillah, welcome to Doha’s worst-kept secret, the first hotel built in Qatar in the 1950s, once frequented by foreign traders and now boasting total exclusivity and intimacy in its two luxurious private residences. Go for the Najd, and you’ll be treated to the modern interpretation of the palaces of traditional Middle Eastern travelling traders, where each room’s unique take on Arabic modernism never compromises the luxury that Souq Waqif guarantees. More here.
S U D A N
Nubian Rest House
At the foot of Jebel Barkal, the holy mountain of Ancient Egyptian and Nubian Pharoahs, by the small town of Karima, sits the charming Nubian Rest House. A large private enclosure is bordered by 22 rooms, each with a characteristic Nubian door.
All the buildings are made with local bricks, traditionally covered by hand-spread clay plaster. The interiors, however, are a delicately woven blend of traditional and European, courtesy of the hotel's Italian management. The decor and finishing are mainly imported from Italy, providing an elegant-yet-rustic charm. More here.