Qasr Al Sarab: Abu Dhabi’s hottest hotel

(CNN) — Inside its grounds, the Qasr Al Sarab hotel has all you’d expect from a high-class UAE resort — luxury villas, private pools, top-notch restaurants and a fully equipped spa.

Beyond the walls, it’s got one feature that few others can match — sheer beautiful nothingness.

That’s because the Qasr sits perched on the edge of the world. Or at least on the edge of the Empty Quarter — Rub’ al Khali in Arabic — the planet’s largest uninterrupted sand desert.

Stroll out past the hotel’s Royal Pavilion and travel south: It’s just mile after mile of shifting dunes, right up until the dusty highway and fence that marks the Saudi Arabian border.
That remoteness, and the staggering allure of this sun-scorched wilderness, are what make the Qasr one of the best hotels in Abu Dhabi, an emirate not short of five-star contenders.

For the folks running this distant outpost of civilization, it presents a very specific set of problems — chiefly, how to stop the place being swallowed whole by the desert.

And how not to hurt the very environment that makes it so special.

Shimmering illusion

The Qasr Al Sarab’s name means “mirage.”

Barry Neild/CNN

The Qasr Al Sarab was originally conceived as an escape from the hustle of the UAE’s rapidly growing cities, where guests could immerse themselves in a classic Arabian sandscape.

Work began in 2007, a fortress-style structure appearing on the edge of dunes tinted gorgeous hues of red and green by particles of iron and copper.

The finished complex, with 154 guestrooms and 52 villas sprawled over 19,000-plus acres, rises from the desert like a shimmering illusion — no surprise its name means “mirage.”

Not that anyone, says Amer Braik, who heads up the Qasr’s environmental and cultural ops, has ever mistaken the resort for a mirage in the eight years since it opened.

Of course they haven’t. Save for the occasional Bedouin wandering past, the only reason anyone’s made the journey all the way out here is to stay at the resort, or work in it.

Unless guests have access to a helicopter — UAE President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan has his own villa here, so it does happen — that journey is a dull two-hour drive.

Which makes the arrival, along a lantern-lined bridge and through a majestic turreted gate, all the more keenly anticipated.

Within the hotel complex, electric golf buggies ferry bags and guests to sunset-facing rooms and villas strung around seven kilometers of access roads.

The Qasr’s main hub resembles a desert palace, especially lit up at night. When the midday sun hits, there are shaded walkways, greenery and cooling channels of burbling water.

Its focal point is a collection of palm-lined swimming pools sculpted to resemble an oasis.

There are also several restaurants, including one designed as a Bedouin camp where diners recline on sofas placed out under the stars as a traditional musician performs on a nearby dune.

All very relaxing. Just as long as you don’t start thinking about the effort that goes into preventing this place from being engulfed by the surrounding desert.

Sea of sand

That sea of sand just beyond the swimming pool is restless. North-south breezes constantly shift and resculpt the terrain.

Several times a year those breezes build up into full-tilt sandstorms, with 50 mph gusts engulfing the resort in thick clouds. That’s when the Qasr’s location is at its most challenging.

The hotel was designed using wind-modeling techniques to minimize the effects of these harsh conditions, and it’s well equipped for the clear-up.

“We have big bulldozers and machines which are working on a constant base shifting sand and clearing some areas,” says Braik.

Heavy machinery can’t, however, help with the more painstaking work of emptying sand from not only the main pool but also the 60-plus private pools attached to individual villas.

Then there’s clearing the manicured lawns and flower beds.

Yet this place is spotless. Despite the ravages of the environment, it wears its eight years of operation well and is still in regular demand as a backdrop for glossy magazine photoshoots, not to mention weddings, honeymoons and other romantic getaways.

There are other problems though. Like where do you find the staff to run a hotel in the middle of nowhere?

“Recruitment can be a challenge,” says Braik. To help, recreation facilities are laid on in the separate village where the mainly expatriate employees live. City day trips are also laid on.

“Over the years, the name of the hotel has become very attractive in the market to come and work here,” he adds.

Eerie fog

Qasr al Sarab hotel

Sandy sundown: Desert excursions end at dusk.

Barry Neild/CNN

The constant struggle with the desert does not stop the Qasr making efforts to protect it, particularly crucial in an area that’s designated a protected natural reserve.

Water is recycled or pumped in so as not to burden precious local aquifers. The resort also runs a breeding program to reintroduce Arabian oryx antelope back into their natural habitat.

Hotel guests are encouraged to engage with these beautiful surroundings via a range of activities including camel treks, desert walks, sandboarding and falconry.

A dawn fat-tire cycle ride — when the sands are sometimes bathed in an eerie fog — offers an exhilarating chance to get among the dunes and enjoy desert silence.

Noisier, but no less exhilarating, are dune-bashing excursions in the hotel’s big Toyota 4x4s that culminate with a dune-top tea party as the sun sinks over the dusty horizon.

Vehicle tires are deliberately deflated from 30 to 14 psi to get a better grip as they careen over vertiginous drops that often leave stomachs struggling to cope.

The experienced drivers know how to keep their 4x4s from rolling or getting stuck in the sand. They keep to specific routes to avoid disturbing the wildlife.

They also know when to stop to prevent a queasy guest from ruining the upholstery.

“We can sense it when someone’s about to go,” grins one driver, Shalika. “We always manage to pull over in time.”

Says Braik, some guests still need reassurance about the desert beyond the hotel’s walls.

“I’m asked if it’s dangerous to walk outside on the sand,” he adds. “Guests are sometimes scared of scorpions and snakes, but it’s really safe.”

That said, it’s wise not to go too far without a guide.

Hotel staff recall receiving a mobile phone call from one group of guests who had to be picked up after striking out in the direction of Saudi Arabia and getting lost.

“They told us, ‘we’re by the big sand dune.’ Well look around you. In this place, that could’ve been anywhere.”

Sheer beautiful nothingness.