The Ultimate Desert Experience

In the north eastern corner of the Rub Al Khali, or Al Rimal as it is locally known, that covers an expanse of 650,000 square kilometres, mostly in Saudi Arabia, but also stretching into Oman and the UAE, lies the crescent shaped Liwa Oasis. It stretches for 150 kilometres in a barren desert landscape where the dunes rise up to 250 metres. A landscape that, in the past, moulded a people that were renowned for their hospitality to travellers. It is in these dunes, not far from the Liwa Oasis in the Abu Dhabi Emirate that Qasr Al Sarab Desert Resort and Spa nestles. Its name translates to “mirage palace”, and unlike a mirage playing tricks on the eyes of a weary traveller, it is a tangible, welcoming and luxurious place for the modern traveller to experience the essence of the tribal spirit.

On arrival, the receptions we received from the various staff members were warm, efficient and inviting. Cold facecloths quickly wiped away the weariness of travel, while a welcoming drink made from yoghurt and dates soothed our parched throats. The checking-in process was discreetly handled by a staff member, while we relaxed in plush arm chairs in the cool, spacious reception area where the soft gurgle of water provided an instant sense of relaxation. The car and luggage were taken care of, while we were given a short introduction to the resort, before being whisked away to our room on a golf cart.

The luxurious feel of the room was enhanced by the sweeping view of endless dunes from the balcony and a Nespresso machine, ready for our early morning fix. The stone floors and dark wooden ceiling beams contrasted with the woven ceiling, the carved wooden panels hiding air-conditioner vents, leather headboard, brushed copper dustbins, beautiful art works and photographs adorning the walls, make for a sumptuous room I never wanted to leave.

At the time of our arrival in the late afternoon the temperature was still a fiery 48°C, and we did the sensible thing by heading towards the inviting coolness of the pool. Chilled to just the right temperature, we enjoyed sitting in the water, sipping cool drinks at the pool bar, and soaking up the peacefulness of our surroundings. This is also where we spent the whole of Friday morning, before wisely retreating indoors.

The library leading off the lobby is an exquisite space where we spent a couple of idle hours reading. There is a great selection of books here on the UAE, and it is a fantastic space to further one’s knowledge and understanding of the area.

Al Liwan or ‘gathering place’ is the aptly named lobby bar and ideal for sun downers or a game of chess. There is a stand with a variety of board games to while away the lazy hours of an afternoon. I often find air-conditioners set far too cold for my liking, but at Qasr Al Sarab they have found the perfect temperature, which is not just pleasant to be in, but also far better for the environment.

Food has always played an important role in Bedu hospitality, and guests were always fed first. At Qasr Al Sarab one is spoiled for choice. Al Waha restaurant serve a delectable breakfast that include local foods like chbaab (Emirati pancakes) and manakish, while one can choose between ‘full cream milk’, ‘fresh milk’, ‘soya milk’ and ‘camel milk’. Every single morsel provides a fresh burst of flavour in one’s mouth, and I felt rather disappointed when my stomach protested that it was full. Suhail restaurant is an upscale grill restaurant where Australian Blackmore beef is served, and an astounding array of different salts are used. It also has a private wine cellar where one can dine. Mediterranean cuisine prepared under the watchful eye of a talented Italian chef, that melts in the mouth, is served in the more informal Ghadeer restaurant by the pool.

The inspiration for the architecture of the resort that only opened its doors late in 2009, came from the various forts that dot the region, but specifically from Al Ain’s Al Jahili Fort . Although the only enemy here is the scorching summer heat, the crenelated parapets that were used everywhere, not only give the buildings an unmistakeable fort-like appearance, but look very formidable and grand. Natural materials were used where possible to stay true to the traditional way of utilising the natural environment when building. Palm fronds and trunks, wood, rope, and a compressed sand exterior are testament to this.

Water played an important role in the design of the resort and can be found everywhere. The ancient falaj system that allows water to flow, through the use of gravity, from a mother well through a system of irrigation channels to the areas lower down that needed cultivation, have been carefully replicated. The trickling sound of water can be heard throughout the resort, and does not only connect one with an environment that has always been water rich in its underground reservoirs, but calms and soothes the soul.

The inside of the resort is richly decorated with authentic crafts. The sculptures, paintings and artefacts that dot the interior were carefully chosen to embody the spirit and heritage of the Bedu. The warm hues and different textures that were used, as well as the Arabian lanterns that cast intricate shadows, all add to the welcoming atmosphere of the resort. Intricate detail can be found everywhere. The attention to detail does not just make for exquisite interiors, but assures service where one’s every whim and need are anticipated by the well-trained staff.

The understated elegance of the resort creates the illusion of stepping back in time, albeit one of fantasy. The luxurious, stylish and air-conditioned spaces belie the tribulations of life in the desert in times gone by. The architecture, décor and service bring to life the rich customs, traditions, and heritage of the Bedu that once lived in this unforgiving environment. It is also a reminder of the sudden and rapid development of a people that, not so long ago, lived a life of hardship close to the earth, to one of comfort and ease in big mansions and glass towers.

Although the discovery of oil changed the social and cultural landscape of the Emirates, the timeless beauty of the desert prevails.