Written by: Matt Newkirk
Destination: Abu Dhabi
Visited: October 2017
Have you ever fantasized about the Arabia of old, where nomadic tribes wandered the dunes and sultans wiled away the days in opulent palaces in desert oases? A place where swashbuckling heroes rescued veiled maidens from thieves and villains in the bustling bazaar? If the answer is yes, keep reading.
Just a three hour drive from downtown Dubai, through the expansive desert highway lies Qasr al Sarab Desert Resort. I'll admit this is a bit of a splurge from my normal mid-range travel accommodations, but staying at Qasr Al Sarab is really less about a trip to a vacation resort, and more about a definitive desert experience.
Even as you enter the empty quarter, the landscape begins a magical transformation. Slowly the bushes and trees along the road fade away, only to be replaced by towering dunes of fine sand.
Red, orange, and gold patterns emerge in the flowing mountains that are unmistakably reminiscent of ripples on the surface of a still lake. Gas stations give way to tents filled with camels, and the landscape opens up into a sea of sand as far as the eye can see.
In the middle of this sea of sand, just 16 miles away from the border with Saudi Arabia, lies the Qasr Al Sarab Resort. The resort is completely modern, but built to resemble a desert fortress from some romantic foregone era. It is clear that no effort was spared to create a unique experience for the guests, from the antiques that are scattered throughout the grounds to the exceptional service provided by the staff at every turn, this is a true five star experience.
The Qasr Al Sarab can provide all of the typical offerings that you would expect at any resort of this caliber, including spas, swimming pools, fine dining, etc. But what makes this place truly special are the desert experiences.
Camels, Dogs and Falcons.
Shortly after arriving, I kicked off my desert experience with a camel ride through the desert. I have had the opportunity to ride camels a few times in the past, and I have to admit that I have always been more excited to get off of a camel's back then onto one.
My first experience with camels, in Egypt, was much like bouncing up and down on an army helmet while the smelly beast pretty much did whatever it felt like. But this was completely different. I am surprised to say that I truly enjoyed riding the camel in Abu Dhabi. The camels were meticulously cared for, clean, and somehow seemingly well behaved. The ride was a short one, only a few hours, but it was a great way to see the dunes, and cover much more ground than would be possible on foot.
Next I went for a hike through the dunes. This was an amazing experience that I will remember for a long time. Some of the dunes in Abu Dhabi can reach five stories high and beyond, and the soft sand forms exquisite patterns as the wind blows across the surface day after day.
I will say, that there is no way to prepare for how hard it is to walk to the top of a 100-foot sand dune in the desert heat while you are sinking into the sand up to your knee, and sliding back down the hill at the same time. Really you have to run, at full speed, uphill, in the sand, to make any headway. Reaching the top of the dunes and looking out over the expanse of the empty quarter is an unforgettable experience, and in the end, well worth the physical exhaustion of the climb.
After my tiring walk in the dunes, I joined a falcon and dog hunting show. Initially I was skeptical. When I think of animal shows, I am reminded of killer whale and dolphin shows from Marine World back in the United States. This however was a totally different thing. There were only about 10 guests, gathered in the middle of the desert dunes at sunset. When we arrived the falconers were just setting up. After a cup of hot tea and some delicious dates, the falcons were set loose.
Watching the agile birds of prey cover the vast expanses of the dunes in just seconds was very humbling, considering the labor that I had just undertaken to climb to the top of a single dune. The falconer then signaled to the falcon, and it immediately returned and swooped and dove at the decoy on the end of the falconer's rope. After about a dozen passes, the falcon emerged victorious.
This was followed by a display of the speed and prowess of the “saluki” dogs. The saluki is an ancient breed originally from Mesopotamia. Images of salukis have been found on pottery dating back over 6,000 years. Seeing the strong and lean, web-footed dogs, which are closely related to the greyhound, cover 200 yards of soft sand in just seconds was truly an awe-inspiring experience.
I was actually surprised that I enjoyed the dog and falcon show as much as I did. But after all, falcons and salukis are very serious business in this part of the world. I was informed that it is not uncommon for falconers to bring their prized birds on flights with them, in order to enter competitions around the world. Typically, this means buying a first-class seat for the bird to ride in the passenger cabin.
Dune-Bashing & Dune-Boarding
I returned to the dunes on my second day in the empty quarter, but this time with some horsepower. Dune-bashing, as it is referred to, is the art of deflating the tires on four-wheel-drive vehicles to drive up and over the soft sand in the dunes. This sounds fairly pedestrian, but I assure you that this is far from the case. I would equate the ride as comparable to a roller coaster at a world-class amusement park. This was not the rough and bumpy four-wheelin' experience that I am accustomed to growing up camping in the mountains of California. Driving through the sand is a buttery-smooth experience, almost like gliding in a boat over a crystal clear lake. Going up and down the 100-foot-tall dunes, leaving a huge rooster tail of sand in our wake was a thrill that is not to be missed. The drivers, who have undergone serious training, displayed an amazing delicacy and finesse as they swooped and swerved through the sand.
After about an hour of the non-stop thrill ride, we stopped at the top of a large dune. The driver then proceeded to pull out snow-boards from the trunk of the SUV. Full disclosure, I have been snow-boarding before, but it was years ago, and I am really more of a skier. Still, I was not going to miss out on this one. It did not disappoint. Riding the board down the soft sand dunes in the beating sun, is similar, but somehow an altogether different experience from doing it in the snow. The only major drawback is there is no ski lift to bring you back to the top. Sadly, after just two rides, followed by two arduous sprints back up to the top of the soft mountain of sand, I had had all that I could stand.
Whether you are looking to re-create the “Arabian Nights” fantasy of your youth, or are just hoping to escape the shopping malls and city lights of Dubai, The Qasr Al Sarab in the Empty Quarter of Abu Dhabi is a truly unique experience that is sure to thrill even the most discerning traveler.
While it is not the most budget-friendly retreat, it is actually a tremendous value, considering the experience and the quality of the service and accommodations provided. For a quick weekend away, it is an awesome option to experience the largest expanse of sand dunes on Earth.