Qasr al Sarab Desert Resort, Liwa
Liwa's Empty Quarter rolls out the red carpet long before you take the 12km unmade road, near the town of Hameem, to the resort itself. The two-hour drive from Abu Dhabi is not only signposted at reassuring intervals, but is also marked by lines of stalking camels and a sea of high-rolling sand in red and pale yellow as far as the eye can see. Driving down the Qasr al Sarab road, there is a real sense of anticipation (even after sundown) thanks to two sets of huge gateposts marking the way ahead, before you sight the resort. The floodlit causeway leading to the entrance gives some sense of the scale of the development; a mighty, film set-like fortress with huge ramparts holding back the sand.
There's no standing around. Check-in takes place over a glass of fruit juice and a cold towel, in the comfort of the reception-cum-lounge area wondering at the centrepiece of coolly lit, decorative pools. The area has floor-to-ceiling windows that provide panoramic desert views and is decorated with local antiquities, soft rugs and sofas piled high with cushions. If I'd swallowed a copy of Vogue whole for breakfast, I'd say that this was "Citadel Chic". We were promptly shown to our room, a little walk through the hotel and outside - the member of staff showing the way was very embarrassed to get a little lost before explaining the features of the room.
There's a fuel station manned by cheerful locals just before you hit the track leading to the resort but the pumps hardly count as a hang-out. Marooned in the desert, it's a mark of the resort's success that it manages to be self-sufficient, offering sufficient entertainment to prevent guests feeling the need for rescue.
Apart from the telephone operator who struggled to understand my requests for help with the television and a cherry stone pillow, service at reception and in the bars and restaurants was attentive, efficient and cheerful. Both the pillow, listed on the "pillow menu" by my bedside, and assistance with the TV appeared, but hours later.
There is a total of 154 rooms and one-bedroom suites and 42 villas; two wings of rooms off the main body of the hotel, as well as a separate complex of one-, two- and three-bedroom villas with gardens and plunge pools, and a royal pavilion for VIP guests. We had a first-floor balcony room decked out in dark, heavy, iron-studded furniture, sandy-coloured marble and an enormous soft rug. The bed was not stand-out comfortable but more than adequate and the soft furnishings on the balcony, espresso machine and bedside light and A/C controls that actually worked, were all welcome touches. Best of all, the bathroom was large enough for a magnificently hot rainfall shower, separately enclosed toilet and bidet, and an cavernous oval bathtub, easily big enough for two.
Even running at 25 per cent capacity, generally, the main hotel did not feel too empty except on the Thursday night when there were only a handful of people browsing the buffet. By Saturday lunchtime, however, there were young and middle-aged cooing couples, large groups of friends and families, members of the Armed Services and what looked like a party of South African engineers, all enjoying the view out over the terrace.
The resort has three restaurants: Al Waha, an all-day buffet dining room offering a mix of European, Arabic and Asian food, from chilled oysters, to French cheeses, melting steak, roast duck and tasty vegetable curries. Desserts were particularly fine; each a work of art as well as a challenge to the waistline. The choice of hot side dishes felt slightly limited at dinner time (US$54; Dh200) but I'm being picky here. Lunch at $48 (Dh175) per person was more satisfying with more vegetables on offer and main courses that included garlic chicken, roast cod and salmon with black lentils.
Suhail Rootop Bar and Grill offers a more ambitious, French-style dining experience. Expect foaming amuse-bouches, foie gras, intricately sliced vegetables and nouvelle cuisine-sized portions. The menu is tempting and well-balanced but expensive: a three course meal costs from $79 (Dh290) including tax. The poolside restaurant, Ghadeer, served an accomplished burger ($22; Dh80) and hot, fresh chips as well as salads, sandwiches and pasta.
Sitting out on the terrace at Suhail, watching the sun set behind the dunes. It was a great place to people watch too, as below, families and groups of friends attempted to scamper up one of the largest dunes to catch the last rays of light, before body surfing down again. More sensibly, a couple in national dress sat side by side on the sand, taking in the moment. To say that it's a romantic spot is an understatement. The strong hands of the soft-voiced Thai masseuse, who bathed my feet before kneading me to a pulp on the massage table. Total bliss. A 90-minute Thai massage costs $186 (Dh685) including tax. Picking up an archery bow for the first time and trying to hit the target rather than a dune. Other activities on offer include desert walks, dining in the desert and camel rides, and more are planned.
The pool area. Thoroughly spoilt by the attention to detail in the architecture and design of the resort as a whole, the pool is disappointingly ordinary. Although the loungers are very comfortable, and you don't have to fight to be given two towels, the area seems somewhat spartan.
This is not simply a carefully considered five-star hotel but an ambitious tourism project designed to leave visitors with a sense of the romance of Arabia. It delivers on both with great aplomb, thanks in no small part to the beauty of Liwa Desert.
Until February 28, a double room costs from $537 (Dh1,972) per night, including taxes and breakfast. Qasr al Sarab, Liwa Desert, Abu Dhabi (qasralsarab.anantara.com; 02 886 2088).
Updated: January 23, 2010 04:00 AM