Nick Walton ventures into the desolate beauty of Abu Dhabi’s Empty Quarter to discover Qasr Al Sarab, one of the world’s most unique and luxurious retreats.
It’s just before six in the evening and as the light drains from the sky, a great silence washes over a landscape that stretches forever before me. There is a serene lull, as if the whole world is holding its breath and listening. And then, as if ebbing up from the ground itself, a loud groan startles the desert birds resting in the dunes as I slip from my toppling tree pose and sink ungracefully into the velvety sand. As you might surmise, I’m not much of a yoga junkie; I don’t know my standing dog from my hair of the dog. However, if I had to do yoga, it would be here, at Anantara’s Qasr Al Sarab desert resort, in the echoing silence and aching beauty of the Empty Quarter.
The towering sand dunes of the desert dominate the landscape on the drive out from Abu Dhabi. You don’t have to go far from the city’s shimmering tower blocks to find the desolation of flat, barren desert, but the Rub’ al Khali or Empty Quarter, at 648,000sqkm the world’s largest sand desert, is something else; it’s a rolling sea in freeze-frame, a timeless wind across silk sheets. It’s mesmerizing, captivating, and very, very beautiful.
It’s a fitting location for Qasr Al Sarab, one of the world’s most remarkable retreats. Located two hours from the capital of the UAE, the resort is only on the cusp of the sea-like Empty Quarter, in an area called the Liwa Desert, but it instills the desert experience to perfection. Enjoyed by Gulf Arabs, foreign dignitaries, and affluent travelers alike, the resort, which was bankrolled by the Aub Dhabi royal family, brings the people to the desert in all its majesty. The mountain-like dunes are a constant backdrop, the daylight threading its way across the valley floor a daily performance that beats the hell out of packaged day tours in grumbling 4x4s. It’s easy to imagine how much the construction site would have resembled an Indiana Jones film set, as 5,000 workers toiled for three years to build this unprecedented hideaway.
To reach the 209-room resort, guests navigate a road that charges into the desert, dancing and weaving its way between massive waves of talcum-fine sand until it reaches the fort-like resort, which is completely wreathed by a sea of sand the color of toffee. It’s a sight that knocks the breath out of you, that something so authentic-looking, and so unique, so luxurious and so far from anywhere, exists at all.
By day the hotel blends into the desert landscape seamlessly, the sun beating down on baked clay walls, shimmering fountains, and sand-whipped minarets. Guests lounge by the pool, retreat to the spa or dine alfresco under tented awnings. By night, Qasr Al Sarab is every bit an Arabian Nights wonderland, where rooms are lavishly decked out with authentic antiques, many belonging to the royal family; where the starry sky above is nothing short of entrancing; and where the narrow paths and trickling water features of the hotel are lit by burning lamps which dance in the desert breeze.
There are distinctly modern touches too. The resort’s car park is filled with marque models, especially on weekends when wealthy Emiratis escape the city and reconnect with their Bedouin traditions. There is also parking for 15 helicopters, which comes in handy during regular visits by ruling sheiks, who stay at the exclusive Royal Pavilion, a hotel within a hotel located a kilometer away from the main resort. The Royal Pavilion is literally fit for a king, or even two, with ten one-bedroom luxury pool villas clustered around a main dining area, courtyard, spacious terrace, and traditional Majlis meeting room. The latest technology and 24-hour butler service come standard, naturally.
Accommodation in the main resort may be more humble by royal standards but still makes sleeping in the desert a refined, indulgent experience. Rooms either open onto intimate gardens, balconies, terraces, or private pools and offer uninterrupted views across the resort’s expansive main pool to the desert’s rolling dunes. Rooms and suites are punctuated by Arabic décor, including rich fabrics, jewel-encrusted chandeliers, and hand-woven carpets, while bathrooms boast marble-lined bathtubs big enough for a water polo tournament.
Dining is also an important aspect and despite its remoteness, the Anantara resort doesn’t disappoint, from the chic poolside grill with its swim-up bar and Mediterranean menu, through to rooftop dining at Suhail, home to elegant French cuisine. The breakfast buffet is laced with fresh camel’s milk and succulent dates and there’s always a strong coffee on offer in the library, where guests meet before excursions into the dunes.
You take what you want from Qasr Al Sarab; for locals, it’s a chance to delve back into the desert lifestyle that dominated the landscape before Abu Dhabi’s glittering skyscrapers rose from the sand. They enjoy family time by the pool or delve into the desert for dinners served in traditional Bedouin tents. But for the desert newbie, there is plenty more on offer, from falconry to camel rides, archery, and dune trekking led by an experienced excursions team. Or you can soak up the atmosphere of this truly surreal landscape, as I did, with a spot of ‘seated’ yoga at sunset, as another day comes to an end in the Rub’ al Khali.
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