When we think of getting away from it all, really getting away and decompressing why do we default to sun, sea and sand?
What about just… sand? How would you feel if all you could see was nothingness and no life as far as your eyes could see?
I travelled deep into the Emirati desert, 30km away from the Saudi border and as I stared out upon the endless sandy dunes I was deeply moved. I don’t understand why I felt this way but maybe it’s because if you are in a place where nothing moves or grows, you are forced to stop dead in your tracks and be still with it. Aside from the heat, unbearable between April and September, it is a wonderful place to hike and cycle (with fat tyres) for anyone with reasonable fitness.
This mystical magical landscape is worth the flight alone, without the cultural experiences. The tones of the sand vary between pale yellow to deep red and brown and whether under pink sunsets or twinkling starry stars you will want to stare for hours into the horizon. And you can stare for hours because I’m going to tell you about a luxury resort set in the middle of the sandy spectacular.
It’s just a two hour drive away from Abu Dhabi airport and the property’s 12km driveway through rolling curving red sand dunes will have you leaning forward into the dashboard until a gigantic Arabian castle rises before you. With four restaurants, a giant pool, phenomenal spa, activity desk and the most beautiful library I’ve ever seen you can be as busy or relaxed as you want.
Even the entry level rooms in the resort are the most memorable I have ever stayed in. Dark wood, intricately carved into beautiful furniture and marble floors flow out onto gorgeous private terraces which face the enormous oasis pool. The room was so beautiful I had to stop myself ordering room service every night and eating at the table in the garden. What a thoughtfully designed bedroom! A giant chest by the bed for extra pillows and also storing suitcases. The extra large wardrobe has doors on both sides so you could access it from the bathroom and bedroom. The tea and coffee station rolled out from under the TV so neatly Marie Kondo would be proud! I absolutely loved the bathroom, primarily because the tub was the biggest I’ve ever been (swam!) in but also because the chocolate wood next to the mosaic tiles were just divine.
The resort was such a wonderful oasis for the soul that of course I checked out the spa thoroughly. Firstly the views from the treatment rooms were epic but also each space had its own huge bathroom which I appreciated. The 90 minute signature massage was truly blissful and I recommending opting for the 30 minute oriental foot therapy add on. Manicures and pedicures, which I am particularly fussy about, were perfectly executed.
And so to the food. In my view, the quality of a restaurant can be quickly assessed not by whether they can execute soufflé or coriander foam but how they cook their vegetables. Are they tender but with a hint of crunch? Is the pasta perfectly al dente? If the answers are yes to the above this is sign if it being a great restaurant. Qasr al Sarab absolutely nails it. You can have fine dining and rooftop desert views at Suhail, Mediterranean at Ghadeer by the pool, the grandiose buffets the Arabs are famous for at Al Waha. Finally my favourite, traditional outdoor dining under the stars and dunes on Bedouin rugs at Falaj.
As you hike and bike across the desert, which the concierge will gladly organise for you, you will need to fuel up! Eat Nutella crepes with breakfast, hummus with every meal, even the omelettes at the morning egg station. Skip the mediocre pizza at lunch for the wonderful burgers or croquet jardin vegetable sandwich and embrace the most delicious mezze you have ever tasted at dinner. Although nothing grows in the immediate surrounds, the pomegranates and dates are grown in the country and the fresh produce was definitely bursting with taste.
Finally engage with the local people by visiting the animals that live on property. The Saluki dogs are native and absolutely adorable but think greyhound in terms of their personality. The camels are gorgeous including a fluffy friendly three month old and the Arabian horses are magnificent. Falconry has been used for hundreds of years and you could see a number of birds of prey but there are in fact native gazelles and oryx that roam the desert and the hotel’s animal tour is well worth it.
If you are going to do one trip that is completely different to anywhere else you have been without compromising on luxury, visit Qasr Al Sarab. The region maybe called the “Empty Quarter” but it is in fact full of riches and the Anantara richly deserves a Citizen Femme Stamp of Approval.
Packing tips: Sunhats and swimwear. Temperatures soar to over 40 degrees in summer (don’t forget the SPF 50; and you are still guaranteed a great tan) but the desert gets cold at night so pack some lightweight, long-sleeved tops. If you’re planning on visiting local villages on a Liwa tour, women are required to cover their shoulders and knees.