Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates
Despite its unpromising names, there’s much to see in the Empty Quarter, a massive 250,000-square-mile desert expanse encompassing parts of Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Oman, and the United Arab Emirates. It is earth’s largest uninterrupted desert, a no-man’s-land bigger than Holland, France, and Belgium combined.
The Quarter, as it is known, is characterized by an ocean of sand dunes reaching up to 850 feet in height. There is little plant or animal life and lots of extreme heat, along with some of the largest oil fields on the entire planet. Explorer, geographers, geologists, and other scientists have traversed this forbidding space since the 16th century: biologists have recently discovered new plants and birds whose ability to survive in such conditions continues to confound them.
As for tourists, they have begun to explore the area close to Abu Dhabi’s Liwa Desert, near the Saudi border. This is where you’ll find the new Qasr al Sarab Resort, a mirage-come-true modelled after an ancient Emirati Fort. Built on a vast scale, its rooms, suites, and villas are sumptuous, decorated with hand-woven textiles and carpets. At night its crenelated towers and turrets are lit with torches straight out of Ali Baba. It’s carefully staged production that gets all the details right, from the palm-lined pool to the Asian/Arabian Anantara Spa offering coconut body wraps and sand exfoliation. Dinner is served in a Bedouin tent under a star-studded desert sky.
All across the Liwa are those mythic, massive red dunes, home to both desert villages and the oasis of AI Ain, where fresh waters sustained the ancient caravans of traders. Today Liwa offers some of the most adrenaline-pumping off-road adventures. Dune bashing is a roller coaster ride for 4WD buggies that blaze vertical trails up and over the towering dunes. There is plenty for the serenity seeker here, as well, including early-morning rides to watch the sunrise and silent desert walks in the late afternoon. The resort can also arrange camel treks with the local Bedouins and lessons in the traditional Arab pastimes of archery and falconry.
WHERE : Al Ain is 90 miles/144 km south of Abu Dhabi.
BEST TIME : Jan – Apr, when the desert heat is less.