As well as camels, and the Toyota Land Cruisers that had taken the wadi-bashing party for such an exhilarating helter-skelter of a ride, the desert spot about ten minutes from the luxury resort that is Qasr Al Sarab Desert Resort by Anantara, deep in the hinterland of Abu Dhabi’s Empty Quarter – there were three falcons. They were most agreeable birds, all males, two locals and one European, who deigned to allow the gal to hold him for a time. He lives well. He and his mates are housed in air-conditioned splendour and their daily diet includes chicken and quail.
They are three or four years old, and their personal concierge wears a pristine white dishdash, also known as thawb, taub or gandoora. It really is incredible that even in the desert a bird carrier can look as if he has just been dressed by a personal tailor… he is here to work, and it is time for his three birds to have a shower. He produces the kind of spray you might use at home on a precious tomato plant, gives each a squirt, and each bird shakes his head in appreciation. The whole thing seems like a mirage in the desert, which is what the name ‘Qasr Al Sarab’ means.
Then we get back into our vehicles and head for the 206-room resort. Oh what a triumph this is, in so many ways. It stretches over what seems like about three square miles, open in every direction to the sand dunes around (luxury travel tip: try to come during the week as at weekends it is so full that some Dubai residents cannot get rooms but still drive the 2.5 hours or more just to come for lunch). It is so addictive, here in the fresh, tranquil air, that one New Zealand couple recently stayed 21 days. And yet you can walk around and see no-one, and think you have it all to yourself.
My ideal stay here would be at least three nights, if only for the early evening activities, which all start about 5.30 pm. One night would be dune-bashing, another camel-riding, another horse-back riding. In between I would put in yoga in the dessert, mountain biking, and running up and down the dunes. This is the ideal resort for all teenagers other than those who must have blaring music nonstop (this, praise be, is the only thing I can think of that is missing here). There is a 24-hour gym, with good personal trainers, and the spa is idyllic. Where else does your treatment room have one wall entirely window, looking straight out into the desert?
OK, there are spas where you look straight out into treetops, say in India (Vivanta by Taj in Coorg) and Thailand (Four Seasons Tented Camp) or looking out over the ocean (say Rosewood’s Little Dix Bay in Virgin Gorda BVI). But here you just know you are in the Middle East. That being the case, I ordered the traditional local starter, a mezze. Go to some restaurants and you can have dozens of little dishes as first-course nibbles. Here, sensibly, you can choose three or six dishes. The resulting chickpea hummus, puréed eggplant (aubergine) moutabel with sesame paste, and chopped parsley tabouleh was one of the ten best I remember, anyway. Eat the moutabel by the mouthful and you do not need any of the Arab bread that goes with it.
At breakfast I watched about 20 local men, in white dishdash uniforms it seemed, at the buffet. Gosh they do like sweet things. Take a portion of porridge, or cheese, and put honey from the whole cone on it. Even though you are two hours’ drove from Abu Dhabi city, here, the chefs brilliantly have best products imaginable (try the local mozzarella, made with imported buffalo milk, fabulous – almost as good as that of Castel Monastero in the Ombrone Valley near Siena). Yes, this place is quality. It also offers Dine By Design, which means you can dine in your room, or ideally one of the villas that have private and utterly secluded plunge pools, or in a range of restaurants, or on a sand dune or wherever. And as of the end of 2013 you will be able to sleep over on a sand dune as well.