A solicitous phone call on the morning we were heading out to the desert, checking that we knew how to find the hotel, set the tone. Turning off the main road after Madinat Zayed, we immediately felt that we were off the beaten track, with the view of endless sand plains and dunes punctuated only by a camel racing track and a small grandstand that is used for the judging during Al Dhafra Festival. On the final stretch of the road, with the hotel clearly in sight, we were amused by a direction sign that boldly stated Tilal Liwa Hotel with an arrow pointing straight ahead - on the only road to the only building for miles around. The greeting was warm and friendly and, following a swift and courteous check-in, we were asked if we wanted an escort to show us to our room. It was offered, rather than imposed - a nice touch, we thought, that made it all feel more relaxed.
Three weeks before we came, the dunes and plains were smothered with camps and camel pens, as thousands gathered from all over the Arabian peninsula for Al Dhafra Festival, the region's largest camel festival. A handful of small camps remained (lending a nice touch of Bedu tradition) but otherwise the area was deserted. Madinat Zayed, the nearest town, could have been half a day's ride away, not just 15km. Meza'ira (Liwa Oasis) is 30 minutes' drive away, with Moreeb Dune beyond it.
Not much happens in this part of Al Gharbia, Abu Dhabi's Western Region. Indeed, the opening of the hotel, several weeks previously, was the biggest thing to happen for a long time. It has already become the "special occasion" place for local residents, we were told, although while we were there (a Saturday night) it was very quiet. That wasn't an issue for us, as we go to the desert for peace, not a throbbing nightlife. The hotel is compact enough that, while we knew it was almost empty, it didn't feel cold and lifeless.
It punched way above its four-star weight. The décor was an appealing blend of earthy tones and russet reds, with plenty of texture and detail - all done with very good quality fabrics. Glass doors on to a small, shaded terrace that in turn opened directly on to the hotel's central courtyard and swimming pool, made the bedroom feel light and open to its surroundings, yet still secluded. Even with extra-large twin beds it felt spacious. The bathroom was great: as well as being beautifully decorated in sandy-coloured tones with textured stone finishes and touches of dark-stained wood, it was very large and the over-bath shower was as good as they come.
While still a little unpolished on occasion, the staff were unfailingly sweet and eager to please - though never intrusive. When we asked how we could ease back on the air-conditioning we were told that it wasn't possible as it was centrally controlled; however, a heater was brought to our room less than 10 minutes later.
When we stayed, in February, the hotel ran on a full-board basis only, which put an onus on the chefs to make the food appealing, not just an "absence of choice". In fact the buffet - for all three meals - was so generous and varied that we hardly gave the à la carte menu a thought. When we did, for our main courses at dinner, we were delighted by well executed dishes that zinged with flavour. Our only caveat was that the seasoning of the buffet dishes was on the bland side. The hotel has only one restaurant but we were told that there are plans for some form of outdoor barbecue-style dining, as well as picnic suppers in the dunes. Both would be welcome additions to the experience of being in the desert. The hotel had not yet received its liquor licence but at the time of going to press we were told that it is expected this month.
The desert-chic contemporary décor - sufficiently Arabian to create a sense of place, without being overdone. And the swimming pool, with its infinity edge that seemed to spill out into the desert, with an arch that perfectly framed the view. The water temperature was exactly right, too.
The refrigerator-level air conditioning, which we couldn't change. The lack of a fly screen on the balcony door, which meant we couldn't have the door open to enjoy the fresh desert air without getting an airborne invasion.
Set among the low dunes near Madinat Zayed, yet within easy striking distance of the spectacular desert of Liwa Oasis and beyond, this is a peaceful and attractively designed retreat that offers just the right amount of cosseting without losing its sense of place.
Double rooms cost from $157 (Dh579) B&B or $252 (Dh927) full board, including taxes, based on a current promotional weekend rate. Tilal Liwa Hotel, Madinat Zayed, Al Gharbia, Abu Dhabi (www.danathotels.com; 02 894 6111)