By Becca Hensley
Riding a festooned camel through sand dunes as tall as canyons, my daughter and I feel like characters from a fairy tale. We gallivant across flaxen hills of sand with nothing but desert in sight, our hands firmly grasping our camels’ humps. In harmony, we think of Aladdin and The Arabian Nights stories based on Middle Eastern fairy tales, set in unnamed lands of enchantment. Thus, entranced, we scour the ground for a genie and his lamp. It could happen — in Abu Dhabi.
In fact, Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates, both a city and the emirate that surrounds it, boasts an exotic allure. It feels both modern and centuries old, magical and down to earth. Here in the Liwa Desert, also known as the Empty Quarter, about an hour from the urbanity of Abu Dhabi City, we’ve taken up residence for a few days after my work trip in the city. We’ve checked into Qasr Al Sarab Desert Resort by Anantara, where staff welcomed us with sweet, chewy dates; thimble-sized cups of bitter, cardamom-laced coffee; and gem-colored flagons full of camel’s milk. I pinch myself, afraid I will awaken from this dream.
A transporting resort which melds into the terrain, Qasr Al Sarab rises from the mind-boggling sand dunes as a veritable oasis. Through architecture and form it exhibits the grandeur of the indigenous forts that pocked the region, places for chieftains and royalty. Further enhancing the storybook ambience, the resort’s design incorporates thousands of ancient artifacts, all reflecting various aspects of Arabian civilization — from well-worn, centuries-old camel bags to dented, much-used silver coffee pots and hookahs. These mesmerizing pieces adorn common spaces and guestrooms, evoking a captivating timelessness. In the center, a multifaceted pool, encircled by palm trees and other verdant greenery, further plays out this palpable concept of a bygone oasis. Featuring Bedouin activities for children and adults alike, Qasr Al Sarab offers falconry, camel trekking and archery. There’s dune bashing in Jeeps, too, not to mention hikes at sunrise to watch the sky explode in color. Serving stellar Middle Eastern and Arabian cuisine in various restaurants, Qasr Al Sarab also sets up tables in the dunes for celebratory meals. One night, we enjoy a feast beneath a brightly colored Bedouin tent, the desert breeze, musicians and an attentive butler part of the prize.
Before our grand finale stay at Qasr Al Sarab, we spent a few days touring the capital, a vibrant, culturally minded city that will soon boast the Louvre Abu Dhabi, designed by Jean Nouvel, and the Guggenheim, envisioned by Frank Gehry. Ensconced on swiftly developing Saadiyat Island, we checked into the contemporary Park Hyatt Abu Dhabi, known for its glamorous vibe and sugary beach. At the Atarmia Spa, a haven offering treatments based on local healing rituals, we enjoyed massages, then decided to leave the island to explore. We only needed to cross a bridge to visit swanky Yas Island. (Abu Dhabi is home to 200 islands.) There we visited the Formula 1 complex and poked our heads into its state-of-the art concert hall. But it was Ferrari World, a motorhead’s fantasy of an amusement park, that channeled my inner child. A high-octane playground rife with car-centric rides for all ages, it attracts thrill seekers with the ultimate adventure: Formula Rossa, the world’s fastest roller coaster. We strapped in, donned the requisite goggles, then blasted at heart-racing speeds (0–149 mph in 4.9 seconds) meant to mimic the experience of a Scuderia Ferrari race. Tourists enticed by their time at Ferrari World can take their yen to drive a step further. Book Yas Racing School, where you steer the wheel of an Aston Martin GT4 on Yas Island’s F1 racetrack. Each November the Yas Marina Circuit also hosts the annual Etihad Airways Formula 1 Grand Prix.
A shopper’s paradise, Abu Dhabi requires some bravado. Haggling is the key. We decided to forego the luxury designer brand stores (Gucci, Prada, Louis Vuitton and more) to wander through the panoply of souks. We followed the air’s aroma to Yas Perfumes, specializing in oud — a resin from the agarwood tree. When burned it emits a spicy fragrance, popular with Emiratis. After purchasing a burner and some wood chips, we explored the Carpet Souk, a treasure trove of handwoven Turkish and Persian rugs. The unfurled carpets, bursting with color, allude to mystery and past times. In the rustic Al Ain Souk, another day, we picked up affordable bangles and spices, and at the Gold Souk officially applied our now well-practiced bargaining skills and triumphed with a good deal on a necklace.
Abu Dhabi offers something for everyone. History buffs will want to visit Abu Dhabi’s second city, Al Ain, where the Al Ain Palace Museum pays homage to former Abu Dhabi ruler and founder of the U.A.E., Sheikh Zayed. He lived in the fort-like complex prior to 1966, and the restored premises portray his way of life. To immerse in the culture, we also visited the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque. A welcoming place, it presents unforgettable interiors with a sea-like, handwoven carpet and a ceiling crowned with a prodigious chandelier.
Families can tee off at three championship-ready courses, all within a 25-minute radius of one another. Enjoy the beach vistas at the Gary Player-designed Saadiyat Beach Golf Club. Or meet the Abu Dhabi Golf Club’s ultimate challenge, where an infamous hole, fronted by a lake and an imposing rock wall, ensures birdies are rare. Links lovers can try Yas Links Abu Dhabi, the Middle East’s only true links course, voted the 24th best course in the world. For a modern way to romp in the desert, dune bash in Al Gharbia, where you can bounce across the formidable landscape in a high-speed 4×4. Another option? Ski the sand at sunset, then stay into the evening for a barbecue.
But it’s the otherworldly nature of the Empty Quarter that defines Abu Dhabi for me and my daughter. Our last afternoon at Qasr Al Sarab, we climb the dunes with a falconer in Bedouin dress, his white garments billowing in the wind. On a rim overlooking an infinity of ivory sand, he brings out his birds, and we watch as he demonstrates the ancient art. At dusk, the sun disappears into the meringue-like peaks like a lemon drop tossed from above. We aren’t sure, but we think we see a flying carpet in the sky.