Qasr Al Sarab Desert Resort by Anantara Near+Far rating: 9/10
Qasr Al Sarab Desert Resort; Empty Quarter, Abu Dhabi, book now
Why stay at Qasr Al Sarab Desert Resort by Anantara
Qasr Al Sarab Desert Resort by Anantara – translating to Castle of Mirages – feels almost like an enigma. Located in the western reaches of Abu Dhabi, almost touching Saudi Arabia in what is fittingly known as the Empty Quarter, the hotel is the only flicker of civilisation for miles, with only the odd prancing Arabian gazelle or oryx for neighbours. The undulating dunes of Rub’ al Khali stretch as far as the eye can see over the largest uninterrupted sand desert in the world (an area the size of France). It’s a truly magical setting: a fortified compound which seems to rise in front of the desert sands like a mirage, complete with faux watchtowers and castle walls. This isn’t all private pool villas with sky-high price tags. There are double rooms in the main villa and magnificent mini-private castles in themselves set away from the resort and hidden by dunes. Add to this a superb steakhouse, Bedouin dining experience, tennis and padel courts, and desert activities – on top of the globally renowned Anantara spa (given an Arabian twist), and you’ve got one of the best hotels in the Middle East. The absolute best part? It’s just a two-hour drive from Abu Dhabi and three hours from Dubai.
About a two-hour drive from Abu Dhabi Airport and three hours from Dubai, making it entirely possible to escape for just a weekend. The setting is truly spectacular, showcasing the very best of the Middle East desert and a landscape many travellers perhaps still associate with the region – one of rolling terracotta dunes, pinky sunrises and blood-orange sunsets. Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Dune: Part Two were shot here, cementing the location as truly Hollywood-worthy.
Rooms and suites: 9/10
What makes Qasr Al Sarab by Anantara, perhaps, the most fantastic desert escape in the UAE is its wide range of room categories. No one is ostracised by excessive room rates or villa-only accommodation, and there are plenty of categories to choose from, so many people can experience the utter peace of the desert dunes and step into the hotel’s Arabian fantasy. There are double rooms in the main turreted hotels – incredibly spacious with Arabesque touches like patterned rugs, wooden chests, lamps and latticed furniture, and garden or dune views. Suites come with terraces, lounges and dining areas, and villas dotted around the grounds like a manicured suburb. Pool villas have up to four bedrooms and range from 130 to 467 sqm, and come with a private plunge pool, sundeck and butler service.
The royal villas are the pièce de résistance and make the property one of the most ultra-luxurious and exclusive, as well as approachable resorts (a delicate and widely unachievable feat). The newest Al Sarab Villa is breathtaking, designed with guests of the Abu Dhabi royal family in mind and sitting one kilometre from the main hotel. The two-bedroom villa has Hermès furnishings, a grand dining room and multiple sitting areas, sprawling gardens and grounds, a full-sized swimming pool, a fire pit and guest and staff areas. What’s remarkable in the villas is the attention to detail, and these feel like lived-in, curated, loved homes. Diffusers, candles, fascinating coffee table book and art all create the feeling of an incredibly beautiful home-away-from-home. Simply Whatsapp your butler for a buggy, room service, spa and restaurant bookings or to organise a private sunset dinner right on the dunes or a morning camel walk.
Food and drink: 8/10
Guests at an Arabian desert resort want the authentic experience, and Qasr Al Arab delivers this at Al Falaj – a Bedouin-style buffet feast right in the sands open from November to April. For relaxed, all-day fare, there’s Ghadeer – the hotel’s poolside Mediterranean restaurant, and Al Liwan – the lobby lounge casual coffees and bites, afternoon tea and evening drinks. To soak up the sunset, head to rooftop restaurant Suhail – the hotel’s upmarket steakhouse, which comes alive at night with mood-setting (yet non-invasive) DJs. The menu is simple yet superb, corpsing steakhouse classics, classic European and American dishes and a bold wine and cocktail menu. Breakfast is served at Al Waha indoors or on the panoramic terrace. The buffet is truly spectacular, and countless stations serve international favours, egg dishes, fresh fruits and local dishes like Emirati pancakes and Saj bread. A la carte options include green smoothies, coconut pancakes and matcha bowls – and there are, delightfully, plenty of vegan and dairy-free options.
Spa and facilities: 9/10
The Anantara Spa is sublime – set in its own villa backing right onto the dunes, with a shaded courtyard, soothing fountain and the scent of fragrant roses in the cool air. Treatments include Thai and Balinese massages, but also therapies that use healing desert sands and local ingredients. Being a desert resort, there are the usual activities like camel rides, desert safaris, dune bashing, sandboarding, and desert dining experiences, and a sunrise camel walk with coffee and pastries on the dune is an almost meditative treat. The hotel has two tennis courts – one shaded – and one padel court, with tennis complimentary and padel for a fee. Many guests spend their days around the palm-lined swimming pool, an oasis in the desert, and little ones (and teens) are entertained at the children’s and teens club and dedicated, playful kids’ pool. A stylish boutique sells chic homegrown fragrance and candle brands, sunglasses, and resort wear – a contrast against the corridors lined with historic Emirati desert memorabilia.
The vibe: 8/10
Vibrant and social, yet exclusive, relaxing and intimate. Qasr Al Sarab creates its own mini-town in the middle of the desert. There’s peace in the lanes connecting the villas and on the rust-coloured dines, but a buzz around the public spaces and the main hotel.
Qasr Al Sarab Desert Resort by Anantara is one of the most impeccable hotel offerings in the UAE. It manages to make you feel in another world, yet it is a manageable drive from both Abu Dhabi and Dubai. This is a hotel you can easily spend a week in – rare for a desert resort – and, from what we’ve been told, some exciting initiatives are on the horizon.
Empty Quarter, Abu Dhabi, UAE; doubles from AED 1,500 per night; book now