By Annick Dournes & Frederic de Poligny
Welcome to a hidden place set in the legendary Empty Quarter, the largest uninterrupted sand desert in the world. Qasr Al Sarab meaning “The Mirage Palace”, is a unique hotel and an extravagant blend of luxury and Arabian heritage, of silence and desert exploration and of oasis life. This exclusive hotel is not just a convenient starting point to explore the area it is a whole destination in itself.
Located 190 km away from Abu Dabhi city Qasr Al Sarab Desert Resort by Anantara is only a 90-minute drive through the desert on a very good road. Once in the estate the road winds through the dunes which fluid and smooth curves take unreal pink, purple and golden colours under the omnipresent sun. The magic can begin… The hotel was built to look like an Arabian fortified village surrounded by crenellated walls and towers, stretching along a hollow within the dunes. You will experience the warm Bedouin hospitality from the first moment you enter the lobby and its amazing decoration. Enjoying your welcome drink, a tasty glass of chilled camel milk with dates, you will seat in a library like lounge or on the outside terrace engulfed in the view over the desert. Then you know for sure that these holidays are going to be like no others.
Anywhere in the resort whether in the lounges, the restaurants, the bars, the spa or the 206 rooms and suites the decoration was created to absorb the local customs and although the hotel was built only a few years ago it feels like an old desert fortress and boast locally hand-crafted furnishing rich carpets, embroidered fabrics, ancient artefacts such as stone statuettes, old wooden doors, all kinds of antique weapons, over-decorated saddles, copper pots, old millstones, leather binding books, impressive wrought iron lanterns… make you feel like living in the palace of a sheik’s family who would have collect all these objects over several generations. But sometimes you wish you were in an antique shop and be able to bring a few souvenirs back home!
Protected from desert’s winds behind high walls the hotel is like a typical Arabian village. Its narrow streets are lined with two levels houses surrounded by green spaces and are a perfect place for an early morning jogging during the cooler months of the year from October till April. But if you don’t feel like walking electric carts will take you everywhere you need to go in the village including to the beautiful swimming pool surrounded by tall palm trees or to the elegant Anantara spa where you will enjoy an Arabian or Thai massages.
The rooms and suites are both vast and cosy. The smallest rooms are “only” 40sq metres plus a balcony or a private garden. The “terrace rooms” are even larger and have a 45sq metres terrace with comfortable sofas, a dinning area and a breathtaking view over the desert. There are also 106 sq m suites and one, two or three-bedroom villas with a private pool perfect for families. Each one has its own decoration matching earthy hues with indigenous fabrics, gilded mosaics, crafted furniture and a selection of ancient artefacts. Not to forget the bathrooms where the impressive round bath definitely has the place of honour. You will also find there complimentary plant-based toiletries especially made in Thailand for Anantara such as cedar wood, ginger flower, vetiver or patchouli soaps. Make sure to ask your butler for all the different fragrances and try them all!
Qasr Al Sarab proposes a wide range of activities to discover the desert. Camel trekking is a must for a first encounter with the “Empty Quarter”. Slowly rocked on top of your “ship of the desert” you will see the desert’s colours change depending on the time of the day. For a speedier discover hop into 4×4 vehicles and ride some of the tallest dunes around. This desert safari is an opportunity to discover indigenous plants as well as desert foxes or hares, gazelles or even snakes. A one-day excursion will take you to Liwa natural oasis, to the historic Liwa Fort and to a palm tree farm, a vegetable farm and a camel farm. A genuine discover of the desert life for the whole family.
During our stay we particularly enjoyed an exciting the falcon and saluki show. Emirati are in love with animals and hunting is strictly prohibited in all the Emirates. They nevertheless have kept the traditional hunting training of falcons and dogs.Meeting the skilled people that take care of the falcons and dogs is a great experience. One air-conditioned villa of the hotel is entirely dedicated to these delicate animals that cannot stand hot weather. Arabian Salukis are a kind of greyhound known for their excellent speed, intelligence and stamina that have made them the perfect hunting companions for centuries. Falconry has been practiced for thousands of years in the area and watching these amazing birds diving to catch the lure wheeled around by the falconer is an unforgettable experience.
Many more outdoor activities are available at Qasr Al Sarab. You will also be able to ride horses in the desert, try your hand at archery, embark on a unique experience with a yoga session in the middle of the silent desert at sunrise, ride a fat bike, the only bicycle that can be ridden on the sand dunes, go down the giant sand dunes of the Empty Quarter on a sand board or sand sledge, experience the magic of the desert during a mystical and enchanting desert walk at night and watch the dunes illuminated by the moonlight… If you get the chance to stay at the hotel during a full moon night it will be even more exhilarating.
In the restaurants of the resort the variety and quality of food meet the unique sense of hospitality of the staff so don’t expect to lose weight while staying at Qasr Al Sarab. Each meal celebrates temptation! Breakfast will undoubtedly start your day off on the right foot and a week won’t be enough to try all the different food of the huge buffet. The colourful corner dedicated to fruit and vegetable freshly made preparations is a feast for the eyes, breads are made on the spot and you can admire the know-how of the restaurant’s bakers, Indian, Arabian and Mediterranean hot and cold dishes prepared in the open live kitchen will quickly fill your plate, the pastries are fresh out of the oven… Breakfast will be an opportunity to make camel milk your daily healthy drink, so don’t miss to taste this wonderful milk which has the closest to human milk composition of all animal milks. You could quickly get addicted to its creamy and slightly salted taste.
Dining under the stars is a must in the desert. So when the weather is not too hot, from October till April, you can enjoy an Arabic dinner comfortably seated on oriental carpets and cushions and taste the cuisine of the Bedouins: homemade mezzeh, roasted whole lamb, Arabian mixed grill and Arabic sweets homemade by Qasr Al Sarab’s own Oriental pastry chef. A wonderful moment to the sound of a soft Oriental live music echoing in the quiet of the desert!
The rooftop restaurant, Suhail is the ideal place for a sunset drink admiring the 360° stunning view over the resort and the dunes before having dinner in the air-conditioned restaurant room. Most dishes are inspired by Asian cuisine such as the Sichuanese eggplant, black code in Asian marinade with shitake, a duo of lamb, Kobe Beef or Mayura Beef tenderloin cooked on a lava stone grill… Not to forget a wide international wine menu awarded by Wine Spectator in 2017 for its quality.
Last but not least the swimming pool restaurant, Ghadeer, is dedicated to regional and Mediterranean cuisine. Whether for a light snack such as mezzeh with freshly baked bread or grilled salmon with vegetables, or for more sophisticated dishes such as spiny lobster or scallops everything is prepared in an instant in the open live kitchen.
Exploring the hotel you will find many hidden corners waiting for guests in search of quiet moments. You may also find it difficult to escape the call of the comfortable armchairs of the lobby lounge that invite you to relax with your friends or loved one. The cosy decoration and the sound of live music take you miles away from home and get you into the mood for an Arabian coffee, a Tchaba tea that will perfectly match with local dates or with an obviously too rich but obviously too good cake!
Lost in the immensity of the desert time is definitely passing too fast in Qasr Al Sarab and leaving it is undoubtedly frustrating. Thinking that the whole film crew of “Star Wars VII, The Force Awakens” booked the entire place for six months to shoot the desert scenes just makes me feel awfully jealous!
More at www.anantara.com
Text ©Annick Dournes
Photos ©Frederic de Poligny & Annick Dournes