Qasr Al Sarab resort, Abu Dhabi review: Opulent ode to the Bedouin

Read our writer's views on this property below

The walls breathe the desert ways but not at the expense of five-star trappings, writes Rob McFarland.

I'm starting to think this might be an elaborate joke. Allegedly, I'm on my way to one of the most impressive new resorts in the Middle East but I'm now more than 200 kilometres from Abu Dhabi and for the past hour have been surrounded by nothing but a vast expanse of featureless desert.

Suddenly, we turn off the main highway on to a small unmarked road that snakes among towering sand dunes. I give the driver a look that has "are you sure you know where you're going?" written all over it but he continues regardless. All I keep thinking is why on earth would anyone build a hotel out here. It'd be too hard, too complicated, too expensive. No, someone is definitely having me on.

And then I see it. A riot of towers, turrets and serrated roofs in the sandy vastness. It is enormous. It's not a resort, it's a city. It's the sort of vision that should be accompanied by a fanfare of trumpets.

Measuring 2.5 kilometres end to end, the crescent-shaped Qasr Al Sarab resort overlooks an incredible winding valley of sand in the Liwa Desert. It's part of the Empty Quarter, the world's largest uninterrupted body of sand, which extends from the United Arab Emirates into Oman, Saudi Arabia and Yemen.

It would be hard to imagine a more difficult place to build a hotel - but difficult is what Abu Dhabi does best. The emirate is attempting an ambitious array of projects during the next decade and it has the oil to finance them.

It took 5000 workers three years to build Qasr Al Sarab and the resort now employs 400 staff. I was there a month after it opened last October and, while there was still minor construction taking place, it was all but complete.

It's a staggering achievement considering the logistical difficulties of building a 206-room resort on a shifting sand dune in the middle of a desert.

There is reason behind this apparent madness. Apart from the spectacular valley view the location affords, it was in the Liwa Desert that the Bedouin ancestors of the current rulers of Abu Dhabi and Dubai used to live. Qasr Al Sarab will keep some of this heritage alive.

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The resort's architects spent months studying ancient forts and liaising with staff at the Al Ain museum to ensure its authenticity. They've used traditional building techniques such as rope joins between the walls to allow them to expand and contract in the heat. The walls themselves are rough and imperfect and the vast array of pots, rugs and ornaments scattered around the resort are genuinely old, not Disney old.

It's still a luxury five-star resort, though, so you can expect to find the usual trappings of a property of that calibre. The rooms are beautifully appointed with hand-crafted Arabian furnishings, intricate metal lamps and richly embroidered fabrics. Plus there is the requisite technical gadgetry in the form of HD TVs, free Wi-Fi and iPod docking stations.

The spacious marble bathrooms are particularly indulgent, with rain showers and enormous, round, sunken bathtubs.

In addition to the entry-level deluxe rooms, there are suites and a range of one- to three-bedroom villas with separate living and dining areas and a 24/7 butler and chef service.

All rooms have a view of the valley and it's mesmerising to watch the sun melt behind the dunes at the end of the day.

From April, guests will be able to see Arabian oryxes and mountain gazelles as a 50-kilometre perimeter fence is being erected around the resort to create a wildlife reserve.

Given you can't just pop down the road to get a snack, the property has a good range of eateries, from a lobby lounge serving Arabian coffee and pastries through to an impressive fine-dining rooftop restaurant. There's an informal cafe next to the pool and an all-day buffet restaurant with the most incredible range of salads and desserts I've ever seen.

Thankfully, there are ways to expend calories as well as imbibe them - the resort has three floodlit tennis courts and a fitness centre with a yoga and aerobic studio. The finishing touches were still being put on the spa during my stay but it will boast the usual steam and sauna rooms as well as a Moroccan-style hammam and a futuristic-looking ice cave.

The resort is managed by Anantara, a company that has made a name for itself for its cultural immersion programs. Activities on offer include sunset camel rides, desert excursions, archery and falconry. There is also a Bedouin tent in which guests can experience a traditional Arabian meal.

I opt for the sunrise desert trek, which involves dragging myself out of bed at the rather un-holiday hour of 6am. I meet my guide Jalal and we drive into the dunes under a sky of vivid pinks, violets, reds and blues.

The sand feels cool as I walk barefoot towards the crest of a dune and it's hard to believe the temperature can reach 50 degrees here in the middle of summer.

The area looks devoid of life but Jalal points out the tiny gerbil and insect tracks that criss-cross the dunes.

Thankfully we don't see any evidence of the vipers, scorpions and dinner plate-sized camel spiders that also inhabit the area.

It's a magical experience, sitting in the still of early morning in this vast undulating landscape and watching the sun creep over the horizon. I'm surrounded by sand in a multitude of colours, from paprika red to emerald green and cobalt blue.

I've often wondered why Bedouins chose to live in such an inhospitable place, given the alternative of living by the coast. But as I watch the rising sun throw shadows across this mystical landscape, I begin to understand.

The writer was a guest of Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority and Qasr Al Sarab.

TRIP NOTES

WHERE 1 Qasr Al Sarab Road, Abu Dhabi, UAE. The resort is 90 minutes by road from Abu Dhabi airport. Hotel staff can organise transfers.

HOW MUCH Rooms from 2320 dirhams ($688), including breakfast. Phone +971 2 886 2088, see qasralsarab.anantara.com.

TOP MARKS Authentic design and impressive attention to detail.

BLACK MARK Guide was late for walk.

DON'T MISS Sampling an Abu Dhabi Coastline from the poolside bar. A heavenly concoction of mango juice, orange juice and lemon sorbet.