Leaving the vertiginous skyscrapers of Abu Dhabi behind you and retreating into the vastness of the desert is a welcome change of scenery indeed. The calmness and contentment that comes with the sense of freedom gradually seeps in during your two-hour ride into the Liwa desert. But nothing can fully prepare you for the jaw-dropping elegance and extravagance of this larger-than-life sandcastle – like a shimmering oasis, it appears out of the desert, breathing life into your childhood dreams. It’s no surprise that “qasr al sarab” means “mirage palace” in Arabic.
Perched on the edge of the world in the scorching wilderness, surrounded by mesmerising, endless sand dunes, you’ll quickly find yourself swept away by the sheer beauty of Qasr Al Sarab. Turrets and palm trees line the exterior, and the heavy wooden doors lead you into a world where bubbling fountains, Arabic lanterns and luxurious tableware take centre stage. Inside is a real-life version of One Thousand and One Nights, with the addition of all the modern luxuries including private pools, a fully equipped spa with hammam and some superb restaurants. Beyond the walls of this palatial splendour, there’s a different kind of beauty – golden and bronze sand dunes as far as the eye can see, constantly resculpting and transforming the territory.
Like a desert palace straight out of an Indiana Jones movie, the main resort has shaded walkways and a number of restaurants, including the al-fresco Al Falaj, which is designed like a Bedouin camp, where guests lounge on sofas on the sand and gaze at the starry night sky. Electric golf buggies ferry guests to and from the stunning spa that opens out onto the untouched desert and the secluded villas for extra privacy. United Arab Emirates President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan (who accesses the resort by private helicopter) owns his very own villa here, and occasionally visits to escape the hustle and bustle of the UAE’s rapidly growing cities.
To avoid the scorching heat, the ideal time to visit is from October to May. In total, the hotel features 154 guest rooms and 52 villas across a sprawling 19,000-acre property. Guests can choose between Garden, Balcony and Terrace Rooms, as well as a range of remote Family and Royal Pavilion Villas with pools. The rooms are outfitted with lavish curtains and rugs, as well as dark wooden furniture, while the bathrooms come with grand egg-shaped bathtubs and separate rain showers – even boasting their very own soap menus.
Though it’s certainly tempting to luxuriate in the resort, guests are encouraged to explore the stunning surroundings beyond the hotel walls. Despite a common fear of scorpions, it’s actually quite safe according to Qasr Al Sarab’s staff. Feel free to admire the windblown waves that snake across the dunes during a camel trek, take a sunrise desert walk through the majestic landscape, or get active with some fat-biking and sandboarding. Enjoy the desert silence and stroll out past the Royal Pavilions. If you keep heading south all the way through the Empty Quarter (Rub al Khali in Arabic), you’ll reach the Saudi Arabian border after 20 kilometres.
Other exotic activities include falconry and archery; for some exhilarating fun, sign up for a dune-bashing excursion in a 4×4. The drivers stick to specific routes so as not to disturb the local wildlife – but this rollercoaster ride over the dizzying dunes is not for the faint of heart. End the adrenaline rush with a comforting tea party at the top of a shimmering ridge, admiring the cinematic scenery as the sun turns the dunes into a rusty orange and red before it sinks over the sandy horizon.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens was partly filmed in the mesmerising Liwa dunes; the Qasr Al Sarab was fully booked out by the cast and crew during the shoot. The Liwa desert is also a protected natural reserve that has become a breeding ground for Arabian oryx antelope. The hotel runs a programme to reintroduce the animals back into their natural habitat, as they face extinction due to excessive hunting and the rise in property development.
A backdrop for deep contemplation, the endless serpentine-like cascading dunes will unleash your spirit and send your soul on a spiritual journey. You’ll soon blend with the desert – naturally, effortlessly, until Mother Earth has enveloped you entirely. The romantically luxurious Arabic palace of the Qasr Al Sarab might leave you speechless, but the pure nothingness of the desert in all its majestic, infinite vastness will leave you breathless.