No trip to Abu Dhabi is complete without a visit to the desert. It is, after all, the UAE’s cultural heartland. In times gone by, Bedouin tribes would traverse the great sand sea looking for places to graze their camels making temporary camps wherever they went.
Whilst it is still possible to follow in the footsteps of the Bedouin and camp in the desert, there are now many other, far more luxurious options for places to stay in the desert.
These have more than just proper toilets, showers and high-speed Wi-Fi. In fact, you’ll be blown away by the sheer opulence of some of Abu Dhabi’s 5-Star desert hotels and resorts.
Here we take a close look at 3 of the best you’ll want to experience in the Abu Dhabi desert, plus a round up of further desert locations to try for a unique experience in Abu Dhabi and around the emirates.
Anantara Qasr Al Sarab Desert Resort
Qasr Al Sarab, or The Palace of the Mirage, as its name translates, sits nestled between the desert dunes of the Liwa Desert, also known as the Empty Quarter – the world’s largest sand desert.
If the desert around here looks familiar that’s because it’s been used as a filming location for many Hollywood movies including the 2021 Blockbuster ‘Dune’. This area of the United Arab Emirates is known as ‘The Empty Quarter’ – or Rub’ al Khali – the world’s largest uninterrupted sand mass.
The cast and crew of ‘Dune’ actually stayed at the Qasr Al Sarab whilst they were filming and why wouldn’t they? It is a simply stunning hotel – on every level. Here tradition meets all mod cons.
As you drive through the gates you are transported to a fairy tale world; but a fairy tale world complete with a luxurious spa and some of the best restaurants in the whole of the UAE.
Accommodation at Qasr Al Sarab
There are a variety of rooms on offer at Anantara’s Qasr Al Sarab, from the 140 comfortable standard rooms to the 52 private villas with their own private pools. Each room is tastefully decorated in sympathy with the local culture and environment.
Dining at Qasr Al Sarab
There are numerous dining options at the Qasr Al Sarab. Breakfast is served in the Al Waha restaurant and is buffet style. A huge variety of breakfast options are available, ranging from local delicacies and South Asian options to a full English breakfast.
Lunch can be taken at the Ghadeer Mediterranean restaurant and poolside bar. The Lobby Lounge, Al Liwan also serves light bites throughout the day. Most of the other restaurants do not open until the evening.
The Suhail Rooftop Lounge and Grill opens at 3 pm for drinks and serves dinner from 6 pm. Book a table early in the evening to enjoy magnificent sunsets.
If, on the other hand, you want to experience Bedouin-style dining and an Arabic barbecue with belly dancing and camels close by, make a reservation at Al Falaj – it isn’t open every day, so be sure to check when booking to avoid disappointment.
If you’re looking for something really special the Qasr Al Sarab can offer you a number of tailored dining experiences. Dine by Design gives you options from the three signature restaurants that can be enjoyed at a private table overlooking the desert (24 hours’ notice must be given).
As the sun sets, torches and a fire pit will be lit, giving way to a romantic evening beneath the stars. If you want an even more secluded venue, a private barbecue can be arranged out amongst the dunes, but this will set you back somewhere in the region of AED 1,500 per person if you’re drinking alcohol.
Of course there is always the option for in-room dining and the Qasr Al Sarab does offer 24 hour room service.
Facilities and Activities at Qasr Al Sarab
There are plenty of opportunities to explore the desert at Qasr Al Sarab. Short and long camel treks are available, as well as desert drives through the dunes and sandboarding.
You can get up close and personal with some desert wildlife on the ‘Animal Experience’ excursion (which is the only activity suitable for children under 4 years old) as well as during the scheduled falconry displays.
If you’d like to stay away from your hotel room and sleep in a Bedouin-style camp, the hotel can accommodate this at the luxurious Camp Nujum; this will set you back 2000 AED per person.
The hotel is set in oasis-like gardens and has its own tennis courts, gym and other sports facilities. In addition to the private villa pools, there is a large communal pool with a splash pad for children. Children even get their own mini sun beds.
If your little ones aren’t content sitting by the pool or you need to keep them busy whilst out on an excursion, there is a very well-equipped kids club and enclosed playground, which is available for an extra fee.
For anyone seeking some real pampering, the Qasr Al Sarab has beautiful Anantara Spa and Hammam facilities, and you can end your day with sundowners at the swim-up bar.
What does it cost to stay at Qasr Al Sarab?
A stay at the Qasr Al Sarab doesn’t come cheap, but it is a once-in-a-lifetime sort of experience, the undisputed champion of UAE desert experiences.
The Arabian Nights Village
The Arabian Nights Village offers a comfortable and unpretentious stay whilst giving you most of the benefits of other desert resorts at a fraction of the price.
You can make your own way out to the desert or be picked up in Abu Dhabi and driven there in an air-conditioned 4×4. We do have to say that driving out there isn’t for the faint-hearted. The road is dubious in places and you do run the risk of bumping into a few camels… It is, however, doable and all part of the adventure!
Sitting only about 1 hour from the city, Arabian Nights Village attracts evening-only visitors on desert safari experiences, as well as overnight guests.
Accommodation at Arabian Nights Village
Rooms or “bayts” at Arabian Nights Village are individual chalets. There are three different sorts of room available.
You can stay in a one-bedroomed masonry bungalow or a two-bedroomed wooden chalet, or metal framed Bedouin style tent-like building. The rooms are decorated beautifully and give you a real sense of desert living. Larger groups can also stay in the large towers that mark the entrance to the hotel compound.
Dining at Arabian Nights Village
Dinner is buffet style and served Al Fresco around a central stage. An Oud Player and Belly Dancers provide entertainment while you tuck into all sorts of middle eastern and South Asian fayre. Once dinner is over, you can while away the hours chatting around the campfires and gazing at the stars.
Breakfast is also served in the morning for overnight guests in the restaurant.
Activities and Facilities at Arabian Nights Village
There is a beautiful pool area and bar, as well as space to play games within the walls of the hotel. Large dunes make for the perfect sandboarding opportunity, and the hotel makes sandboards available free of charge.
You can take a short camel ride as part of your package or pay extra and go on a magical dawn camel trek. Dune bashing and quad bikes are also available for an extra fee. Don’t miss the chance to get an authentic henna tattoo.
What does it cost to stay at Arabian Nights Village?
The Arabian Nights Village offers excellent value for money and includes a number of activities, dinner and breakfast within the room price. Standard Rooms start from 990 AED per couple to over 3000 AED per night for the Tower Suite, accommodating up to 6 guests.
Al Wathba, A Luxury Collection Desert Resort & Spa
Formerly operated by the Jumeirah Group, the Al Wathba Desert Resort is a beautifully designed desert retreat less than an hour’s drive from the centre of Abu Dhabi.
The desert here isn’t as picture book worthy as the desert at Liwa or around the Arabian Nights Village, in that there are no huge sand dunes to slide down, but there are fossil dunes close by, and the somewhat flatter terrain makes for great horse/camel riding, both of which are available to guests staying at this luxury Abu Dhabi desert resort.
Accommodation at Al Wathba Desert Resort
There are 90 deluxe and superior rooms as well as 13 one, two and three-bedroom villas with their own private pools. The Resort is modelled on a traditional Arabian village and contains a lot of traditional features.
Dining at Al Wathba Desert Resort
The Al Wathba Desert Resort offers a variety of culinary experiences, from Afternoon Tea at the Al Mesayan rooftop bar, to dinner at the amazing Italian trattoria Terra Secca. If you’re visiting or staying on a Friday, why not try the sumptuous Desert Rose Brunch at the Bedouin style Bait Al Hanine restaurant?
Facilities and Activities at Al Wathba Desert Resort
The Al Wathba Desert Resort has a beautiful pool area with a nice pool bar. There is also a beautiful luxury spa offering a variety of relaxing and indulgent treatments. The hotel offers a variety of desert experiences, including camel riding, horse riding, falconry displays, and dune bashing a slight distance away from the resort.
The hotel is also located close to the Al Wathba Camel Race track (you have to get up very early to see any races – they’re usually over by 8 am) and the Al Wathba Wetland Reserve, home to a large number of flamingoes and over 200 other species of bird.
What does it cost to stay at Al Wathba, A Luxury Collection Desert Resort & Spa?
Rooms start at around 850 AED per night, excluding taxes in high season.
More Desert Resorts in Abu Dhabi
Both offer beautiful accommodations and a variety of desert activities. Tilal Liwa offers a great value option for those on a budget but still wanting the desert resort experience.
Another very new option we’re going to throw in here that sits on the cusp between glamping and luxury desert resort is Bab al Nojoum Bateen Liwa. This property sits deep in the Liwa desert and offers a series of standalone villas, each with a private plunge pool, kitchen and outdoor living space overlooking the vast dunes of the empty quarter.
No extensive resort facilities, though, to the extent of the other desert resorts in Abu Dhabi that we listed above. However, there are dining options available at Liwa Village, along with an additional pool and fitness facilities available to guests.
More to come on this one later in the season! here’s a sneak peek on insta to whet your appetite!
Western Region – Sir Bani Yas
Another popular choice for unique UAE experiences is Anantara Desert Islands Resort & Spa. Situated on Sir Bani Yas Island, approximately 2 hours west of the city, stay in a nature reserve and enjoy the best of both desert and sea in the Persian Gulf.
If you’re happy to “rough it” just a little more, check out our Abu Dhabi Desert Glamping and camping guide – far more luxurious than you may fear!
Other unique experiences in Abu Dhabi (that aren’t camping)
Whilst it is not strictly a desert hotel, the Mercure Grand Jebel Hafeet in Al Ain, sits just beneath the summit of Abu Dhabi’s tallest mountain and offers views down to the Al Ain Oasis and across the border into Oman.
The hotel could do with a bit of TLC, but the rooms are comfortable, and there is a nice pool area with slides. There is also a lovely children’s play area and splash pad. Dining is not 5-star but the Eden Rock poolside restaurant serves up a decent burger.
The Mercure Grand Jebel Hafeet offers the perfect base to discover the Jebel Hafeet National Park, the World Heritage Site of Al Ain Oasis and the wider city of Al Ain.
Luxury Resorts in Other Emirates
Although Abu Dhabi is by far the largest emirate of the UAE, there are further luxurious desert hotels to be found in Dubai, Sharjah and Ras Al Khamaih. Some of the best we would recommend you look at for a luxury experience:
- Al Maha – A Luxury Collection Desert Resort & Spa (Dubai)
- Bab Al Shams Desert Resort & Spa (Dubai)
- The Ritz-Carlton Ras Al Khaimah Al Wadi Desert (Ras Al Khamiah)
- Mysk Al Badayer Retreat (Sharjah)
Before you go… Important things to consider planning a trip to Abu Dhabi
- Pop into our essential planning information page, it includes everything you need to know about getting around Abu Dhabi, a handy guide on what to pack as well as top tips for first-timers on the dos and don’ts, laws, and customs in the UAE.
- Check the most up-to-date COVID entry rules for Abu Dhabi.
- Don’t forget to pack your travel insurance!
- Discover the best places to stay in Abu Dhabi, or bag a bargain on your accommodation here:
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