Qasr al Sarab Desert Resort, Abu Dhabi
Sunrise, sunset, swiftly flow the days. So goes the song but at Qasr al Sarab the days drift slowly past like the leaves on a lazy stream. Sun up or sundown? Both are magical here and I exhort you to experience both. Try the camel ride across the slow-motion ocean of the dunes and sup arabic coffee with the inner warmth of cardamom as the departing day's sun dives into the dusty horizon, or rise with the first rays and hop onto the world's only desert fat-bike to test your endurance and daring with the promise of a sumptuous breakfast, well-earned, to come. The warmth of the welcome is exceeded only by the effect of the hammer of the sun on the anvil of the desert.
Alternatively, relax by one of the prettiest free-form pools you will ever see with views over the timeless sands of The Empty Quarter and wonder why on Earth anyone would strain a sinew. Order another ice-cold beer and book a life affirming treatment at a premier Thai spa, reserve your place at Suhail or Al Waha for yet another evening of gastronomic indulgence. You won't want to leave.
Royal Pavilion Villa
On this stay at Qasr al Sarab, we treated ourselves and stayed in a Royal Pavilion Villa. Although expensive, we felt that the villa would offer reasonable value as a host of special benefits were described on the website, including use of the Royal Pavilion, full board and 2 activities per person per day.
The villa itself (villa 9) was beautiful and we preferred the decor to that at Al Maha in Dubai. A dining area in the base of the turret was opposite a compact kitchen (complete with complimentary soft drink minibar). Then a spacious living room and bedroom (each with a desk, so two people can work in comfort) led to a huge bathroom with twin washstands and a bath big enough for 2 (although the water flow was inadequate to fill the bath with hot water, it cools quicker than it fills).
Outside was just perfect - our pictures perhaps don't do it justice. A completely private plunge pool, sun beds, outdoor dining table and romantic shower was wonderful during the day - we spent many hours soaking up the heat of the sun and then cooling off in the pool - and it provides a very tranquil place to sit at night. As the Royal Pavilion Villas are situated away from the main hotel and occupancy was only 20% during our stay, there was absolute peace. The Royal Pavilion Villas are for adults only, so quiet should be guaranteed. The view of the Empty Quarter was unbelievably beautiful.
Apart from the natural beauty of the desert, the absolute highlight of our stay was the dining. Our private chef in the Royal Pavilion was the Executive Sous Chef Aldo (from Sardinia) now our favourite chef in the UAE. Each night, a wonderful multi-course spread was cooked just for us. Never before have we had someone cook so sensitively, accommodating our allergies and designing a fabulous menu without using wheat, gluten or cow's milk. From the perfectly cooked lobster and lamb to the special soya milk panacotta, flavoured with Arabic coffee, everything was prepared with infinite care and was absolutely delicious. Our only problem was the amount of food - half as much would still have been a large meal!
The only main restaurant we used was Al Waha, where we ate breakfast on 2 days (the other 2 days we ate room service breakfast). This offered an extensive buffet with Arabic, Asian and Western favourites. Even when not dining in the Royal Pavilion, Chef Aldo took special care of us, even preparing a delicious camel milk cappuccino on our final day. Having not had a milky coffee for years, this was a real treat. It seemed that Chef Aldo took real pleasure in the challenge of preparing dishes we may not have had for a long time and making them delicious and suitable for us. It will take a lot to beat the dining experience at Qasr al Sarab.
As we had 2 activities included in our stay, we were able to try a few different things. On our first night, we had a wonderful sunset camel ride - around 45 minutes on the ship of the desert followed by tea, coffee and Arabic sweets whilst watching the bright orange orb of the sun sink below the horizon.
The following day, we rose early for a sunrise fat bike ride through the dunes. If you are below 5ft8, you may struggle to find a bike to fit - Mrs d2t only just managed and she is 5ft6 and physically fit. It was wonderful cycling amongst the dunes, although it would have been more enjoyable had the guide pointed out animal tracks or similar along the way. Unfortunately, Mrs d2t suffered a puncture at the furthest point from the resort and had to travel back in a 4WD as there wasn't another bike small enough. We were told that the charge for one fat bike would be waived.
We also decided to try archery and were lucky enough to be the only people booked on the session (if you book in the heat of the day, this is more likely). This was great fun and we would definitely do it again. The guides for all 3 trips were knowledgable, friendly and sensitive to the surroundings.
Qasr al Sarab is very definitely 5*. All the little touches are there, from the welcome coffee and dates, to the huge beds, bathrooms you could throw a party in and a choice of eateries to rival many a town.
In a terrace room, it feels a little like being in a substantial apartment in the centre of a medieval town somewhere in The Maghreb. The terrace itself would easily accommodate a cocktail party for twenty five. All the terraces are angled to take advantage of the often spectacular sunsets. A strange feature of the terrace room we saw was the location of the sun beds. Although these were pointed towards the view, they were in shade and the majilis style seating area was not screened from the sun. Fantastic in the evening, but a bit too hot during the day.
Room space is generous for two and the bath is a humungous circular tub with plenty of room for a couple to spread out. Two 3-door wardrobes provide plentiful closet space, as well as an ottoman at the base of the bed for storage of smaller non-hanging items or a cabin-sized suitcase.
Overall, Qasr al Sarab is a beautiful desert retreat, although if you particularly want to see the flora and fauna of the desert, we would advise staying in Al Maha, Dubai. The rooms are well furnished and spacious and food amazing. Our stay fell short of our expectations and we would be cautious about the experience offered by the Royal Pavilions. However, we do plan to return to the resort and test the GM's promise that our stay was an aberration. Activities, natural surrounding and F&B were unbeatable. In general, staff were eager to please and friendly; however, at times this felt a little false. Qasr al Sarab probably is the best desert retreat; however, it ought to strive to be more than this. We definitely recommend staying, but temper your expectations a little - our experience in the Royal Pavilions did not provide the luxury personalised service advertised.