Situated in the heart of the Empty Quarter – the world’s largest desert covering some 650,000 square kilometres shared by the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Yemen – lies one of the most unique resorts you will ever encounter. Although the environs may appear extreme to outsiders, Abu Dhabi’s desert vastness has been home to Arabic tribes for many centuries.
Nowadays, locals are more likely to have solar panels on their roof, but are keen to preserve their cultural heritage. Camels are no longer used for everyday transport, but you will see them along many routes in this region and they form a part of the fabric of society, as they are well adapted to desert life and are highly prized by the locals.
Qasr Al Sarab Desert Resort by Anantara is tucked away in a secluded wadi adjacent to a palm-rimmed oasis and is easily one of the most impressive getaways anywhere in the United Arab Emirates and maybe beyond these borders.
In Arabic, qasr means ‘fort’ or ‘fortified palace’, while al sarab means ‘mirage’ and with its massive dun-coloured walls and tall, crenelated towers punctuated by diminutive windows, this resorts majestic form appears to rise out of the sand from nowhere, as if a vision out of Arabia’s ancient past.
The architecture references structures that were built centuries ago out of straw and mud to protect water wells and served as watch towers, but in this modern-day incarnation, Qasr Al Sarab Desert Resort by Anantara uses many of these same features, but supplemented by everything needed to create a modern, comfortable and luxurious resort that attracts guests from all around the globe.
Décor throughout the resort includes local art and antiques, which emphasizes the noble cultural heritage of Abu Dhabi. You will find strategically placed throughout the public areas, historic maps and prints, artifacts, reference books on Arabic culture, history, flora and fauna and examples of what has been a part of the fabric of life in this region for hundreds of years.
Whatever space you explore in the lobbies and from the sand dunes looking back at the resort, you will be instantly mesmerised by the detail that unfolds, whether it be the light fittings or vistas through the windows that make you feel you are nowhere near civilization.
The layout of the property is also eye-catching, and you may easily get lost as you walk along terraces and down staircases away from the main lobby, but there is signage to highlight which direction you need, but with all the water features and crenelations, your attention is drawn to the physical structure and amazing amount of detail, rather than wondering where you are going.
Due to the architecture, it is a very spread out property horizontally across the dunes and even though it is only spread out over 206 rooms, suites and villas, it seems a lot more than that due to the expansiveness of the design.
Once you are escorted to your room, only then do you feel as if you have been cocooned in another world, with the rooms adorned with thick, hand-woven Middle Eastern fabrics and silver and bronze chandeliers.
The fit-out is definitely referencing the Arabic culture and given that so many months are very hot in this part of the world, the dark interiors give that cooling feeling and you can either choose to let the sunlight in through the floor to ceiling windows that open onto your terrace or balcony, or you can completely shut it out to get some respite from the desert sun.
Each room opens onto a private balcony or terrace with inspiring desert views. The bathroom has an enormous oval sunken bathtub and as the weather was quite cool during winter season especially in January and February, a hot bath felt very luxurious.
Our half pool facing (blocked by the soaring palm trees) Deluxe Garden room is spacious with an incredibly comfortable bed mattress and there is an extensive minibar should you want to stay in, but this resort is all about what is outside your room! One little niggly thing is that there does not seem to be enough storage if you want to fully unpack, but maybe the guests do not stay for weeks on end, so it is tailored to suit the known length of stay.
Anantara are also well known for their spa and this is not to be missed. It is a separate building on a grand scale and gives you a sense of occasion, which is what a true spa experience should be.
Of course, when it comes to the outdoor facilities and activities, no destination is complete without an amazing resort swimming pool and this resort has just upgraded theirs and it is fantastic.
There is space to do laps from end to end, while also having areas where you can just secrete yourselves away to one side and enjoy the moment in the cooling waters, or watch the kids play in the splash park to one side.
The pool side restaurant and swim-up bar can be enjoyed while you are in or out of the pool. It also gives a wonderful view of the resort architecture especially during sunset, so another vantage point to admire the wonders of your oasis retreat.
Million dollars sunset view by the pool
The magic hour is here to find.
The excursions on offer are what you have to avail yourselves of, as being in this location means the desert becomes your playground. Expert guides are on hand to facilitate desert hikes, falconry, 4x4 dune-bashing, horseback riding, archery and more. We booked ourselves into a sunrise camel tour and were blown away by the experience. This was a long camel ride up some very steep dunes and the end of the trek was where you alighted and looked over a large expanse of the Empty Quarter desert while enjoying some light breakfast pastries and tea and coffee.
It was a memorable ride and the scenery is breathtaking, plus the stillness in the early morning with 8 degree cold desert winter temperature is something to behold while you watch the sun come up and change the colour of the dunes in front of you. Don’t miss out!
Sunset is also a special time in the desert and there is a superb vantage point that can be easily accessed especially when you walk up to the resort adjacent desert sand hills to find your preferred spots of sunset watching. The sand is so soft that barefoot is the only way to enjoy the experience. If you are a determined Yogi, desert yoga experience will definitely inspire you to re-discover a new way of your usual practice and re-open your vision in different perspectives.
When it comes to food and beverage options, the choices are extensive enough, with Al Waha where breakfast is served, Al Liwan all-day dining lobby lounge, Ghadeer Mediterranean a-la-carte restaurant, Al Falaj Bedouin-style outdoor dining and Suhail rooftop lounge and upscale grill together with a swim-up pool bar that serve light snack meals. We did not have time to try them all and while we had some quite delicious meals at least at Ghadeer despite a few dishes that the ingredient was not up to scratch or not cooked to standard, but they were quick to react and get it resolved.
Top facilitated hardware need to be complimented by quality service. The resort’s hardware is superb, but occasionally the software needed some attention. Breakfast is the most important meal of the day, as it creates your mood and the buffet was quite extensive with Middle Eastern and International selections and a touch of Emirati flair as well as an Asian corner.
We experienced a lack of attention to detail in the service standard as the service team seems a little disoriented and not so well organized when it comes to delivering orders as well as clearing the tables. There seems to be a lot of staff watching, but not actually participating in making things happen at the right time.