When the city is abuzz and the bright lights dazzle, the Middle East of yesteryear quietly beckons at the Empty Quarter’s Qasr Al Sarab Desert Resort by Anantara.
For almost 15 years, it has helped guests roll back the sands of time with total rest and relaxation; and it recently recorded its busiest night of bookings.
As its popularity goes from strength to strength, The National answered its gentle call.
From the first encounter with security at the gates to the last interaction with the concierge, there are huge smiles on faces.
All staff live on-site, meaning there is a genuine sense of camaraderie within the team and it hums throughout the property.
A word of advice: fill up with petrol before getting on the E65 connecting Abu Dhabi and the hotel as there is only one fuel station on the way — it's located somewhere between the signpost marking the exact spot of the Tropic of Cancer and my wits' end. Luckily, we trundle into it before breaking down in — literally — the middle of nowhere, having watched the last bar on the fuel gauge blink thirstily for the past 38 minutes.
Approaching the resort, which sits close to the Saudi Arabian border, we turn on to a private road leading us to the 1.8km-long resort which folds into the rolling red and gold dunes of the world’s second-largest sand desert.
It’s about a two-hour drive from Abu Dhabi and three hours from Dubai.
The 207 rooms, as well as the suites, villas and the lobby itself, offer a grand smorgasbord of Bedouin heritage and Emirati opulence, earthy hues and rich embroidery, sun-beaten antiques and vibrant abstract art.
The rooms sprawl out across the low-rise property like sun-kissed cubes in the otherworldly landscape — the Oscar-winning dystopian sci-fi hit Dune and its upcoming sequel were shot nearby, and cast members stayed in the Anantara property.
The standard rooms (if there is such a thing here), family villas and royal villas are linked by quiet pathways that zigzag throughout the resort, with only the occasional electric cart trundling along with guests in tow to break the silence.
Pool villas are surrounded by palm trees and fences, with dining areas and kitchenettes, lounges, vast bedrooms with super-king-sized beds and generous bathrooms.
French doors lead outside, where seating areas, with plunge pools, comfy sun loungers and a double cabana await.
Complementing its considerable natural charm, the area is also a conservation project operated by the Environment Agency — Abu Dhabi, with breeding programmes for wildlife, including extending the one that successfully saved the oryx from extinction.
There is a growing animal centre on-site, operated by a specialised team and where gazelles have recently moved in alongside camels. It is also home to falcons and salukis, with several greenhouses using recycled water to produce crops and more on the way. It's a springboard where guests can learn about the animals that have mastered the art of desert survival. None more so than camels, or the “ships of the desert”. Guests can set sail on one as part of morning or evening walks, where retired racers or former stars of beauty pageants shuffle riders back in time.
My journeyman Boba may have called it a day on his track career, but there’s still life in the old boy as he breaks rank and overtakes the line of camels (all muzzled, “because they’ll literally stop and chew everything,” our guide reveals) as we learn about them. They can smell water up to 75km away, produce faeces dry enough to be used as fire starters, rarely sweat and use those long, lavish eyelashes to keep out sand and dust. They’re basically the Swiss Army knife of desert survival, with a hump, which itself stores fat to keep the camels going during particularly arduous treks.
Elsewhere, the hotel offers a meditation and wellness centre as well as an extensive spa. I leave my wife to the latter (“The massage was so relaxing, I woke myself up snoring on the table … twice,” she confesses) and take advantage of being in serene landscapes by making a beeline back to the surrounding dunes.
The best way to soak it all in is at the top of the biggest, which stands at 250 metres. I grab a sandboard and some water before charging to the top for sunset — then sliding back down.
Breakfast at Al Waha, needless to say, is a royal banquet of live cooking stations, fresh fruits and cereals, vegan and gluten-free corners, pastries and noodles, eggs and manakish, juices and smoothies. Suhail is an upscale steakhouse with its own dry-ageing room and rooftop sunset terrace facing the dunes. Ghadeer is a relaxed restaurant next to the family pool serving Mediterranean cuisine.
In the cooler months, the outdoor Bedouin-style dinner Al Falaj by Dina Macki (Dh400 per adult, Dh200 for those aged four to 11) is a must. It's hosted under the stars and celebrates traditional Middle Eastern cuisine with a contemporary twist from the charming British-Omani chef. Do not leave without trying the hummus with roasted peaches and 24-hour marinated lamb shuwa.
Highs and lows
The resort’s biggest success story is undoubtedly its staff. “We’re like one big family,” one member reveals. And, as cheesy as it sounds, it appears to be abundantly true.
The only low is leaving, if only I had my trusty steed Boba for the journey back to Dubai. At least he wouldn’t run out of petrol.
The insider tip
Sunrises and sunsets to savour reign supreme here — grab a picnic, head for the tallest dune and breathe it all in.
For those looking to lose themselves in the desert or visit one of the UAE’s great wildlife experiences, this blockbuster hotel with a golden history has myriad opportunities to do so.
The bottom line
Stays from Dh2,300 including breakfast, excluding taxes. Check-in is from 3pm, check-out is by noon; www.anantara.com
This review was conducted at the invitation of the hotel. It reflects hotel standards during this time, services may change in the future