These days the landscape is just as dramatic as it ever was, but far more inviting. For modern explorers, these sands are a great playground, and what better way to explore them than by jumping into a 4x4 and setting off into the sand dunes? Wadi-bashing, as it’s known, is a hair-raising version of rallying, where you rev up your vehicle and drive it at breathtaking speed up and down the dunes at angles that seem impossible.
Unless you’ve got extensive experience of desert driving, it’s best to go with the experts. They will happily attempt the highest dunes for you, meaning you only have to worry about fastening your seatbelt and holding on to your stomach.
Abu Dhabi is the capital and by far the richest of the seven emirates that make up the UAE, and it’s currently using its oil wealth to put itself on the tourist map. The latest figures from the Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority show the emirate achieved a 2 per cent rise in hotel guest numbers last year, while guest stays in the final quarter grew by 16 per cent year-on-year.
One of the newest additions is the Anantara Qasr al Sarab Resort, the first hotel in Qasr al Sarab (its name means “mirage palace”) and it was born out of the vision of Abu Dhabi’s leaders to celebrate the traditions and roots of the emirate, and is designed to resemble an old desert fortress.
As Thesiger knew very well, this is one of the least hospitable places on the planet, so it’s just as well that the hotel comes with its fair share of mod cons, as it also offers a state-of-the-art spa, fitness centre – complete with kinesis, yoga and aerobic studio – children’s club and a huge free-form pool.
It is perched on the shoulder of a sand dune overlooking a natural long valley that runs for several kilometres from east to west – and there was nothing better than opening the curtains to my room each morning to gaze on the towering red sand dunes that sprawled as far as the eye could see.
Rooms come with plasma home entertainment, sumptuous beds and a bath that’s big enough to swim in; there are 154 in total, in addition to 42 villas and 10 royal villas for those with a lot of cash to splash. Meals can be enjoyed at the Middle-Eastern-themed buffet-style Al Waha, or poolside at Al Ghadeer, while the rooftop terrace of Suhail was my favourite place to enjoy a pre-dinner cocktail before dining on a feast of grills and seafood in the adjacent restaurant.
The hotel offers a wide range of “adventurous activities” including desert excursions and trekking, although one of the true highlights of my stay was camel riding in the late afternoon sunshine. As I climbed onto my sturdy, yet surprisingly comfortable “ship of the desert” I felt as though I was stepping back into traditional Arabia – only to dismount in the middle of the sand dunes an hour later to find myself presented with a glass of chilled champagne to sip on while I watched the sunset.
After an action-packed day of desert adventure, it was time to unwind at the Anantara spa, where I indulged in a reinvigorating massage combining Arabian rituals with Thai methods, that left me dreaming of deserts and dunes. The signature treatment, Qasr al Sarab Retreat, which includes a foot massage, exotic herbal bath, sand scrub – using local granules – also comes highly recommended. We rounded off our time at Qasar al Sarab with a traditional feast of fruit-soaked tajines, kebabs, and national delicacies under the stars at a nearby Bedouin-style camp.
And, as I sat cross-legged on the tent floor with the scent of sheesha pipe hanging in the air and a cup of sweet tea in hand, this really was an Arabian night to remember.
If you’re looking for an add-on to your Abu Dhabi adventures, head on to Sir Bani Yas Island, one of the region’s largest nature reserves. Once the private retreat of the United Arab Emirates’ founder, Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the island has now been opened up to tourists who stay at the luxury Anantara Desert Islands Resort – sister resort to Qasr al Sarab. Rooms overlook the turquoise water of the Gulf and feature terracotta floors, dark wood furniture and marble bathrooms; facilities include a spa, a pool, a long protected beach and a lagoon.
Just metres away, indigenous wildlife such as Arabian Oryx, Arabian hares, hyenas – and now cheetahs – roam the national park, while the adjacent safari park is home to giraffes. Guided drives are offered daily, along with a multitude of activities, including kayaking, archery and mountain biking. These days, there’s more to the desert than sand.
Return fares from London to Abu Dhabi start from £358 in Coral Economy and £1,573 in Pearl Business, including taxes. Return fares from Manchester to Abu Dhabi start from £378 in Coral Economy and £1,689 in Pearl Business, including taxes. Etihad Airways flies 21 services a week from London Heathrow and seven flights per week from Manchester to Abu Dhabi. For further details, call 0800 731 9384 or visit www.etihadairways.com.
The transfer to Anatara Qasr al Sarab takes around 90 minutes by road; helipads will mean the resort is also accessible by air.
Anatara Desert Islands Resort & Spa is reached via a 50-minute seaplane from Abu Dhabi airport, or a two-hour car journey from Abu Dhabi followed short 20-minute boat transfer from Jebel Dhana.
Prices at Anantara Qasr Al Sarab Desert Resort start from AED1,800 (approx £312) per night for a Deluxe Room including breakfast.
Prices at Anantara Desert Islands Resort & Spa start from AED1499 (approx £259) per night for a Deluxe Seaview Room including breakfast and two island excursions.
Call +971 2 801 5400 or visit www.anantara.com.
REVIEW: LIME WOOD HOTEL, HAMPSHIRE
Lime Wood took five years to create and its interiors are the work of David Collins, London’s most sought-after designer of restaurants, from The Wolseley to The Landau.
It is, then, a rather special place, with a heaping helping of style and a sense of chic that washes over you the moment you reach the end of the long driveway. Lime Wood’s location, amid the wild ponies and owls of the New Forest, is tranquil and fresh. The main building – a renovated country mansion – reflects this with marble, spaciousness and a wonderful conservatory with a retractable roof that served as a beautiful breakfast room, as well as cosy antechambers with loaded bookshelves, fire-grates and comfy sofas.
Every detail has been thought of. Our split-level room had no fewer than two fireplaces – one in a cosy downstairs enclave with a desk, books, sound system, table, fridge and sofa – and one in the bedroom, which featured the most comfortable bed I have ever lain on. But they weren’t just for show – there are fire porters who come and build you up a lovely blaze as you recline in your rich towel robes and refresh yourself with the (free) Belu water from the minibar.
There’s lots to enjoy outside the room. Food is a big deal here, with one fine-dining restaurant headed up by Alex Aitken, formerly of Michelin-starred restaurant Le Poussin in Brockenhurst, and the more casual Scullery, that serves diner-style food from impeccable local producers, much of it organic. Its local honey went down a treat at breakfast.
From late summer 2010, pampering will take place in a state-of-the-art spa with a swimming pool, hydro-therapy pool, eight treatment rooms, saunas, hammam, steam room and fully equipped gym. In the meantime, I had a brilliant massage in an elegant makeshift treatment room in one of the (sleekly modernised) carriage houses. Otherwise, make time to walk, forage, do archery, falconry and yoga. A boot room with dozens of wellies for guests means you can clomp through the mud with abandon. Now that’s good service. Rooms from £180, see www.limewoodhotel.co.uk.