A Weekend in the UAE: Qasr Al Sarab

When we moved to Amman in 2019 we made an extensive list of everything we wanted to see while living in the Middle East. We pictured long weekends in Lebanon, spring breaks in Oman, and even a trip to Dubai for the World Fair. But with the pandemic, none of those things happened.

As we near the end of our time here in Jordan, I’ve thought about what I am most bummed about us missing out on. I came up with two things: Visiting Palestine and experiencing true sand dunes. We started researching the Palestine trip – Israel controls all borders and by reading current reviews we discovered that there is no way to guarantee entry into Palestine. Additionally, we looked for a Palestinian-run tour company and could only find outside companies promoting “open conversations” between the two nations. But after living in Jordan for 3 years, we feel like we know the conversation pretty well and we definitely stand with Palestine. The Human Rights Watch and many other international organizations have come to the conclusion that Israel is operating an apartheid state:

“Laws, policies, and statements by leading Israeli officials make plain that the objective of maintaining Jewish Israeli control over demographics, political power, and land has long guided government policy. In pursuit of this goal, authorities have dispossessed, confined, forcibly separated, and subjugated Palestinians by virtue of their identity.”

Since we couldn’t find a way to visit Palestine and only put money in the hands of Palestinians, we opted out of the trip. We’ll continue to look for ways to support and speak up for Palestine.

This left us with one other trip idea: Sand dunes. Chandler went above and beyond on his research for this – looking up list after list of best resorts and filtering them through the Middle East. That’s how we found Qasr Al Sarab – an Anantara resort two hours south of Abu Dhabi. It’s a bit more bourgeois than we’re used to, but we were willing to pay more for the perfect trip to the desert.

We got on a flight from Amman to Abu Dhabi on a Friday morning, landed at noon, and after a (rather rough) drive – picture projectile vomiting frittata in the desert – we arrived at the resort. In a word, it was: Incredible.

A perfect desert oasis, with ancient castle vibes, it was exactly what we were looking for. We were a bit unsure about the high price tag, but the staff at the resort are wonderful – they pay attention to the smallest details. At breakfast, they even introduced us to the chef, who offered to make us anything we couldn’t find in the buffet (as vegetarians, they wanted to make sure we had enough options).

Our first afternoon was spent at the pool, but the next morning we were up early exploring the sand dunes outside the resort. We got an early start to the day because the UAE was experiencing a heat wave and each day reached 100 degrees Fahrenheit.

The dunes were extraordinary. And all of the photos below were taken within walking distance of the resort.

While the day was at its hottest, we luxuriated inside the resort itself. It was impeccably furnished and just shockingly relaxing. Maybe it was because it’s been so long since we’ve been on a true vacation – or maybe it really is that amazing!

We swam, we ate, we chilled. It was the perfect afternoon.

That evening, we signed up for a sunset walk in the desert. We hopped in a Toyota Land Cruiser and drove about 10 minutes through the dunes before stopping at the hiking starting point. Our guide’s name was Stephen and he led us (and two families with kids) through the dunes. At first, we were worried about what we had gotten ourselves into – but the walk soon settled into a rhythm.

Stephen had been working at Qasr Al Sarab for the last three years and was an expert on the desert – as we continued our walk, I was struck by how the tiniest shift in my stance could change my perspective and the way the dunes looked.

The walk probably lasted an hour in it’s entirety, but it was something I’ll never forget. The dunes stretched on forever AND we got to experience something 100% new. Near the end of our hike, Stephen said he was going to show us how to make the dunes sing – Chandler rolled his eyes at this, thinking we were going to be asked to do something silly, like yodel at the top of a dune. But we were wrong.

Instead, we all stood in a long line at the top of a particular dune (not all dunes can sing), and as we walked down simultaneously, we created an avalanche. The force of the avalanche caused the dunes to vibrate and make a noise akin to humming. It was absolutely incredible. The videos I made didn’t do it justice, but you can check one of them out on my Instagram account if you’re interested (abroadwithashley).

We ended the walk with fruit, Arabic tea, and incredible views. Then we hopped back in our Land Cruiser and drove our way down some pretty vertical dunes! The resort offers a full dune bashing session, but there’s no way I would have made it through that!

We ended the evening with a quiet dinner and then woke up the next morning for our return to Abu Dhabi. This experience definitely felt once-in-a-lifetime for us and I’m so glad we went for it.

Fun fact: Even though the falcon is the national bird of the UAE they are NOT native to the country! We learned this when we met Odin, one of the resort’s falcons. I’m always a little uneasy about animal tourism, but Odin is given the opportunity to fly away every morning and evening and he always comes back. Probably because the falcons have their own two-bedroom, air-conditioned villa – not too shabby.

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