Shifting LARA SAGE explores the United Arab Emirates, from its world-class resorts to its desert vistas and futuristic cities.
Where to stay: Qsar al Sarab by Anantara
One of the most exquisite places I’ve ever visited, Qasr al Sarab is inspired by the grandeur of old desert fortresses. It’s set on the dunes of Abu Dhabi’s Liwa Desert, on the northern edges of the Empty Quarter – the largest uninterrupted sand desert in the world. At 6,500 square kilometres, this expanse of sand is bigger than France; three quarters of it lies in Saudi Arabia, the rest in the UAE and Oman.
Qsar al Sarab’s iconic lobby is adorned with local furnishings, while earthenware pots add charm to walkways and balconies. Elsewhere, lanterns, carvings, sculptures and paintings depict indigenous desert culture with scenes of camels, sunsets and falconry.
Built on a crescent-shaped dune, the guestrooms and villas have earthy colour palettes and are designed to resemble old sand huts. Each one faces west to maximise the sunset views, and is kitted out with mod-cons such as highdefinition TVS, Wi-fi, rain showers and gigantic bathtubs.
Traditional geometric patterns abound in the resort’s design, from the shadows cast by lanterns at night to walkways bathed in sunlight. Environmental sustainability was considered throughout; specially designed double-glazed recesses, overhangs and balconies reduce heat transfer, while water features create a sense of calm cool – the curvaceous freeflow pool is reminiscent of an oasis.
A multitude of excursions are on offer, including a Falcon and Saluki show that’s well worth the 5.45am wakeup for – our timing was impeccable, as we caught the moon setting and the sun rising during the show. Falcons are revered birds in this region – worth up to a million dirham (S$385,000!) – and the show reveals their amazing speed and hunting skills. When their heads are covered by traditional leather headdresses, they sit still. In flight, though, they have the speed, agility and long-distance vision to make them master hunters – their hard-hitting force can even kill a young gazelle.
The other extreme desert hunter is the Saluki dog, or Persian greyhound. Built with muscular thighs and big lungs set in a large chest cavity, yet with skinny bodies, these beasts can reach a speed of 72 kilometres per hour. Yet their demeanour is loving; as our guide said, they would lead a burglar to a family’s stash of gold and jewels!
Other activities include sand boarding and sledding, archery, action-packed 4x4 dune bashing, horse riding and camel rides. For the non- thrill- seekers, soft drives take you on a journey among the tallest dunes, or you can immerse yourself in a Middle Eastern cooking class before indulging in the Moroccan hammam, sauna or ice room of the spa.
I also recommend the traditional Al Falaj Bedouin- style meal, where you dine under the stars on low cushions and oriental carpets set in the dunes. We feasted on cold mezze, open-flame grilled meats and prawns, shish taouk and lamb kofta, before indulging in handmade Arabic sweets, all to the live sounds of a Quanoun (traditional stringed instrument).