Question: how do you have a “no crowds” experience at an authentic desert hotel, even when they are fully booked over Easter weekend?
Answer: book a villa! You will barely be aware that anyone else is there.
Anantara, that world class resort management company who brought you the Desert Islands experience (reviewed here a year ago), have done it again. Qasr al Sarab (literally, “castle of the mirage”) has plunked a truly unique experience down smack in the middle of the vast Arabian desert, and have managed to convince discerning travelers to travel 2 ½ hours from the nearest airport (Abu Dhabi) to check it out. Hotel rooms, each with a private open-air dining area, tumble across the dunes like some artist’s award-winning sandcastles. The awesome scale of the desert becomes apparent when you look out your window and see an 800 foot high dune. It’s permanent enough to be known by the locals, but still transitory—the wind is moving it south, inexorably, every year. You really need to be this deep in the desert to appreciate the eternal beauty wrought by wind on sand…and see the genesis of the “Arabesque” curves so common in architecture and design in the region.
Given that this was a special birthday, we thought we’d pass on the rooms and suites, and try out one of the villas that are part of the complex—a 1 bedroom villa doesn’t cost much more than a room, and the private back garden and infinity pool in each one, with the desert and the dunes as the background, sealed the deal. Every detail of the property was carefully thought out, with wonderful local décor, and grace notes like a fully stocked Nespresso machine and not one but two rain showers (one inside, one out). Dinner was good, not great, but a room service breakfast delivered hot by a golf cart-wielding butler and served elegantly on the verandah couldn’t be beat. The croissants, I assure you, had never seen a bubble pack—they were made fresh that morning. The service in every part of the resort was absolutely beyond belief—we figured that there were between 2 and 3 employees for every guest in the hotel…and everyone was very experienced.
Beware, Qasr al Sarab really is in the middle of nowhere…and it’s in the tropics. We drove south and actually crossed the Tropic of Cancer to get there. The 2.5 hour drive from Abu Dhabi (4 from Dubai) finishes with a 150 km trek across deep desert (albeit on a paved road). We were singing “we’re on the road to nowhere” and “on the road again”, but finally settled on “I’ve been through the desert on a road with no name”. With a brisk wind most of the way, the sand eddies flowed across the road and drifted in corners in a way that made us flash back to the snowfields of the high alps and Dolomites. When we arrived, we looked jealously at the Abu Dhabi Aviation chopper sitting on the helipad—well, maybe next time. Because there will be a next time—it’s a truly unique place— and worth the drive.
Photo Credit: Gary Ransom