Sunday, March 23, 2014

DAY ONE HUNDRED FORTY THREE - Palace of the Mirage

The cities of Abu Dhabi and Dubai have dozens and dozens of hotels and resorts between them, and more are being constructed all the time. Honestly, I don't know how they manage to fill them all up, but apparently they do. Many are along the Arabian Gulf, and all have a pool (or pools), spa services, lots of restaurants (with lots of stars attached), a lavish lobby, and on and on. But when you ask around for a place with a different experience, a distinctly Arabian desert experience, one name comes up: Qasr al Sarab.

Doug's job at New York University Abu Dhabi (NYUAD) is a very stressful one. All his jobs have been stressful, but with the brand new campus due to open this fall and still lots to do, he is non-stop busy. Meetings and more meetings, non-stop emailing and phone calls, including conference calls, every day of the week at all hours. Taking big chunks of time for vacation is not possible in the foreseeable future, so we decided to commit to at least one weekend getaway per month. That seemed reasonable, right? 

Somehow February slipped by us, so I was very anxious to schedule something for March. I thought if we were going to spend a weekend at Qasr al Sarab, now would be the time to do it before the heat of Summer is upon us. Already the daytime temperatures are in the mid-80's, and we've even had a few days that reached the upper 90's. I suggested the resort to Doug, and he said, "Go for it". So I went for it. 

Thorough person that I am, I checked out all the rooms and the various on-line booking services to see where I could find the best price. The rates appeared to be consistent no matter where I looked, but I went with www.PointsHound, a free on-line service I'd recently discovered. The excellent thing about this service is that you earn frequent flyer miles with several airlines when you book through them, so all things being equal, I'd just as soon earn frequent flyer miles if I can. In this case I earned 3,900 FF miles with Etihad which I think is pretty darn good. So yes, I guess I am putting in a plug for PointsHound.

Doug and I don't have a car in the UAE - haven't had a need for one to date - so I booked a car service. Qasr al Sarab is about a 2-1/2 hour drive away which is a bit too far for a cab, and car service rates in the UAE are pretty cheap by US standards. And then there is the convenience factor. We didn't want to have to bother with the hassle of renting a car and finding our way there. 

Our car arrived right on schedule at 12:30 Thursday afternoon. I was a little surprised and slightly dismayed to see that the driver was the same one I'd used for a day trip to Dubai when my friend, Linda, had visited in January. On our way to Dubai, Linda thought the driver looked a little sleepy at the wheel. I was sitting right behind him, so I couldn't really tell. But Linda had a friend who had a real scare with a driver in some other country, so she engaged our driver in conversation hoping to keep him alert.

But now, here he was again. I was hoping that the Dubai ride was a one-time thing. Maybe the guy had had a rough night. Maybe he'd worked extra-long hours. He recognized me at once, and we chatted about the Dubai trip before we got underway, and once again I was seated right behind him. I kept a close watch just in case, and I thought towards the end of the drive that he appeared to be trying to keep himself awake, but I wasn't sure. I think I held my breath the last hour of the trip. Doug didn't appear concerned, but then again he was doing email. I told myself I was imagining things.

The entrance to Qasr al Sarab is marked by a simple sign and enormous, rustic pottery urns. We turned into the road and headed up over a dune the size of a good-sized hill. I expected to see the resort once we topped the dune, but instead I saw the road stretch away before us, winding its way to the horizon. We drove for a good ten minutes before we came upon the entrance.

The front entrance to the resort

Qasr al Sarab was built only five years ago, but it was designed to look like an old Arabian fortress town that has been around for centuries. The walls are rough mortar, and the roofline is crenelated. Hundreds of palm trees, shrubs, native grasses and flowers give the grounds the feel of a desert oasis.

 The Main Lobby

The sky was clear blue and the sunlight blinding when we arrived, but once we stepped into the lobby all felt cool and serene. Rather than being ushered to the concierge's desk, we were greeted and taken to the room you see at the back of this photo, through the doorway and down a few stairs.

Al Liwan - This room serves as a sitting area, and you can order tea, coffee and Arabic pastries and dates

We were seated at the small sofa in the lower-right of this photo. Within minutes a small tray arrived with 2 glasses of a thick, cool beverage which turned out to be Camel Milk with Dates. It tasted like a date milkshake, and since Doug and I both love dates (and who doesn't like milkshakes!), we very much enjoyed the drink. The gentleman who greeted us handled our check-in while we sipped our drink. When he returned we discussed what activities we'd like to do while we were at the resort so we could book them while spaces were available. I had, of course, read up on what was offered and said the Number One thing I wanted to do was the Sunset Camel Ride. I had promised my friend, Susan Sweeney, that we would ride camels, and here was our chance. I also signed up for a 2-hour sunrise desert walk the next morning, but Doug declined - no surprise as he is not a Morning Person. The only time he sees a sunrise is when he's been up all night.

Once we had checked in, booked our activities, and made reservations made for dinner, our Greeter took us out to the entrance and ushered us into a golf cart, or "buggy" as he called it, to drive us to our room. As we quietly careened along the winding paths, it was obvious that this resort is very spread out. We were told that we should pick up the phone and dial ZERO for a buggy when we need to go anywhere. Later, after we'd walked about for a bit, I could understand why people would opt for a buggy in the desert heat. When the temps are mild, the walking can be lovely, but I'm sure it would be easy to get heat stroke in the middle of Summer.

When I made our reservations I had looked over the various room options. This place is NOT a budget resort - in fact it is the most expensive place we've ever stayed - so I looked at the least expensive room which still looked beautiful and spacious. Had money been no object, I would have opted for one of the villas, all of which have a private plunge pool off the very private patio. Doug had me bump up our room one level, so when we were escorted into room #308 I expected to see our Deluxe Balcony Room. But what we discovered was we'd been upgraded (surprise!) to a suite! Yes, there is a god!

This shot is a little dark (sorry), but it's the view walking in through the front door. Living room straight ahead and patio beyond. 

View of the living room with my back to the patio. There is a TV in that cabinet and one in the bedroom as well. I am happy to report we never watched any TV.

The first door on the right goes to the front door, the next door opens to a kitchenette (yes, we had a little kitchen!), and the door to the left opens to a huge bedroom.

The ceilings are all designed this way with beams and palm branches. Since there are few trees in this country, masonry and palms (also mango wood) are the traditional building materials. The lighting fixtures are all metal in some kind of lattice-work design.

Peaking into the bedroom.

The bed is huge, and the sheets are so smooth they have to be Egyptian cotton. Luxurious!

Now I've seen some creative folded napkin creations on restaurant dinner tables, but this is the first time I've come across a folded towel! What do you think.... a swan maybe?

The TV was on when we walked in and displayed this greeting. This was when I learned that Qasr al Sarab means Palace of Mirage. I think that is such an exotic and romantic name. 

The lighting fixture in the bedroom. I loved how it threw a dappled light on everything.

Doug and I got a laugh out of this bedroom dimmer light switch. We've never seen this before. Gotta love it  ;-)

The bathroom is a suite unto itself. Straight ahead through heavy, double-doors is an enormous, round soaking tub. To the right is a large dressing area with double sinks. To the left is a spacious walk-in shower with hand-held shower and an overhead rain shower head (boy did I love that!), and a separate toilet/bidet stall (more like a room). My only disapointment was the tub. I dearly love (LOVE!) soaking in a tub, but this tub was designed poorly in my estimation. The sides were completely vertical, so you could not lean back. Also the tile edge extended in a lip over the tub, so that cut into your back too. Doug thought I was crazy, but I climbed in and sat down in my clothes just to confirm what my eyes told me - it looked gorgeous, but it was NOT comfy, so I never bothered to fill and use it.

Our patio stretched the length of our suite. This portion is off the bedroom.

And the part to the right is off the living room. In between and out of sight behind the divider is a table and chairs. Doug sat there to do some email. It was just lovely sitting out here in the evening. The resort lighting is very subdued in general, so we could see lots of stars.

I do appreciate attention to detail. This is our patio outdoor lighting fixture. The light is electric, but it looks like a gas lamp. You can see how the masonry is textured to look like it's old. 

The view from our patio. The resort is divided up into three large sections. The largest is the Central Hotel which houses the standard rooms and suites as well as the lobby, library, restaurants, spa, and health center. The pool is also adjacent. Separated by a short pathway are the Villas, which you can barely see in the left-hand part of this photo. Then in the distance in the middle, nestled into the dunes, is the Royal Pavilion with the highest-end accomodations. 

By the time we finally got to our room - make that our suite! - and got unpacked and explored a little, it was time to head down to the Library where we were to assemble for the Sunset Camel Ride. I'd packed jeans and sneakers just for this activity. The hotel is built into the dunes, with many levels and lots of narrow, winding paths. It really gives you a feel of being in a walled city. A very clean, immaculately kept "ancient" Arabian city. We found our way to the library down stairways and through open, covered walkways.

Masonry, densely-clustered buildings, crenelated rooflines, palm-thatched terraces, arched doorways.......

....and the dunes everywhere! The dunes completely surround the resort, giving the impression this is an oasis city in the middle of Nowhere.

The "city" streets are paved, and lattice-covered shade structures are everywhere. The land-scaping is simple and not overdone. This is not a jungle city or a city in the Pacific Northwest of the United States. This is a (pretend) desert city, and the designers clearly wanted to keep with that theme. 

Note all the detail in the architecture, including the slit windows and the drainage spouts. In stark contrast to the desert sands, is the abundence of water. There are simple fountains everywhere as well as narrow "streams" that are designed to look like the traditional low, masonry irrigation channels. Everywhere you walk, there is the soft, gentle sound of water flowing. When you add in the bird songs - Indian House Sparrows (thank you, Linda, for identifying them from a photo), white-cheeked bulbuls, and pigeons - this place is beyond tranquil. 

In the middle of this photo you can see one of the "irrigation channel" water features. 

We gathered in resort the Library which was decorated with old books and artifacts. It was a nice place to sit and relax, and there was a large terrace through large French doors. Fifteen people of all ages and ethnicities had signed up for the Sunset Camel Ride. Our guides led us to the entrance of the resort and then into a small caravan of Toyota Land Cruisers. 

The Library

We drove for about ten minutes out into the desert. Along the way our driver pointed out the horse stables, archery range and camel stables as well as a fairly sizable area of low-slung housing where the resort staff resides. 

When we exited the SUV there were no camels to be seen. Then we walked over a dune, and there they were! 

The camels were tied up into groups of six each, and each group had a robed camel handler. The resort guides walked alongside and helpfully offered to take photos of us.

Camels are not the most graceful creature when it comes to getting to their feet. They are also quite tall. So remaining in the saddle while getting upright is no easy matter. We were instructed to grip the handle in front of us, lock our elbows, and lean back. The camels get up with three lurches: back legs (partway up, then front feet (as shown here with Doug hanging on gamely), and then finally the back legs straighten up completely. 

At the end of every group of camels was an "extra", and I was right in front of one of these extra (back-up) camels. He was apparently quite curious....

....and friendly. I believe they put those snoods over their noses so they don't nip or spit. My friend, Christine, had me laughing when she referred to them on Facebook as "nose bras"! 

And off we go!

This is one of my favorite pictures. I am a bit bummed that the helpful guide had his finger over the iPhone lens, but oh well. I'll consult my photographer friends later to see if I can photo shop it out. 

The ride was about 1 hour. When we were done we found the guides had set up a little snack for us: dates, tea and Arabic coffee. There were some low seats for us to rest upon, and then we walked to the top of a dune to watch the sun set. 

When Doug and I returned we had less than an hour to get ready for dinner. I felt I smelled like camel - not a bad smell, mind you, but not something I'd bottle and sell - so we showered quickly, dressed and called for a buggy. Doug said it felt like Tattoo would show up at our door (for you youngsters, I am referencing an old TV show "Fantasy Island"). For our first evening at Qasr al Sarab we made reservations at Al Falaj, an outdoor "restaurant" on the outskirts of the resort that operates only during the cooler months of October through March. We really did need a buggy to take us there as we'd never have found it in the dark. A short but speedy drive took us to an area set up to look like a traditional Bedouin camp, that is if a traditional camp has a red carpet flanked by torches at the entrance!  The camp was literally carpeted with overlapping Oriental carpets. This is traditional as it covers the soft sand and provides a floor. Along the perimeter were tents, and low tables with cushions were arranged throughout the area. Lighting was provided by torches, kerosine lamps on each table, fires in braziers beyond the dining area and the stars and full moon. The air temperature was absolutely perfect, and we chose to eat under the stars rather than in a tent.

Doug relaxing over dinner. You can see the carpets covering the sand, one of the tents behind him, and the low tables. You'll have to imagine a black sky filled with stars and warm, desert air. 

Behind me on the sand is a brazier burning brightly, and beyond that is the open desert.

The menu was fixed and based upon traditional Arabic food. The only option was with or without an alcoholic  beverage (beer or wine). In this country adding alcohol to your meal can literally double the cost. After bringing us beverages, our waitperson brought us a variety of small plates of mixed mezzah which included Arabic bread (much like pita, only thinner and a little crispier), hommes, babaganoush, fatoush (salad) and some items that were new to me. I was a picky eater as a child, but these days I'll sample anything. Well, almost anything. After that was cleared away out came a large platter of Arabic barbecue: grilled lamb chops (the best I've ever eaten), lamb kafta, chicken, fish, Omani lobster and beef. Rice and grilled vegetables were heaped in the center of the platter. We made a good dent in it, and if we'd wanted more - and we didn't because we were stuffed - we could have gotten it. The bottomless Arabic BBQ! Finally we were served Arabic coffee and a tray of Arabic sweets. The Arabic coffee is very different from American coffee - it is never sweetened, nor does it have milk, but it is heavily flavored with spices, mainly cardomom. It is an acquired taste, one that I'm not sure I can acquire. The platter of desserts was another story. It contained dates (there are always dates on desert platters), fresh fruit (melons, strawberries and pineapple), and Doug's favorite Arabic desert, Umm Ali which is sort of like a liquidy bread pudding. It is made with bread (in this case croissants, which aren't exactly traditional), milk, sultanas, pistachios and spices (cinnamon and cardamom). There are no eggs, which is why the dessert does not have the custardy texture of an American bread pudding, and it's not terribly sweet. I haven't been a fan of Umm Ali, much preferring the artery-hardening recipe I got at Commander's Palace in New Orleans, but the version at this place was absolutely delicious.

After dinner we hopped aboard a buggy and headed back to our suite. En route our driver asked if we had time for a little tour, so we said yes. He ended up driving us out to the villas and beyond to the Royal Pavilion area. We parked and he showed us through the public areas which were quite something else again. Grand in an understated way. On the way back we stopped along an unlit part of the pathway so I could get out to see the night sky. This was literally the first time in years that I've seen so many stars. In Hoboken there is too much light pollution, and even though there is far less light in Abu Dhabi than in NYC, the humidity is so high that the stars are also obscured there as well. When we were finally dropped off at our door, we lingered outside for a few minutes more and I was startled to hear the sound of peepers or something that sounded just like them. There is nothing I like more than a warm starry night with the sound of peepers.

I was up before the alarm I'd set for 5:15 a.m. went off, and half an hour later I was walking to the Libaray to meet up for my Sunrise Desert Walk. The library was filled, but within a few minutes several people left to go Dune Bashing, and then the rest left to go for a Sunrise Camel Ride. That left one elderly gentleman, John from Virginia, and me for the walk. Our guide took us to an SUV and we headed off into the desert. He drove past the camel ride area, over a steep dune and then beyond for another 10 minutes. He headed up a series of steep dunes but stopped when the SUV lost traction and could climb no further. We got out and started walking. And walking. Now I am a good city walker and can walk for miles on the flat, but hiking in the very soft and fine-grained sand of that desert is not easy, and when you add in the steep incline of the dunes, then it's a real challenge. I was huffing and puffing, and I thought poor John was going to have a heart attack. Our young guide seemed oblivious to our struggles. My mind wandered to the very large helicopter the resort has on standby for medical evacuations. Finally we reached the top of the largest dune, but by that time the sun had risen. I really didn't care at that point. I was happy to have simply made it to the top. The views were magnificent, and it was utterly silent out there. I rarely experience silence where I live, so I soaked it in.

I made it! When I got back to the hotel I discovered I had a good cups worth of sand in my sneakers. 

Lest you think I was exaggerating about how far we walked from the SUV, check this out. This is our guide in front of me. If you look waaaay down the dunes you will see a white speck that is our SUV near the dark, flat area. The dunes are also steeper than they appear in this photo. And lastly, while that is not far to walk under normal conditions, it IS a far piece when walking in this type of sand.

I learned one very interesting fact about the sand from our guide. He said that it is much softer in the warmer months because of the heat and added humidity. I can attest to this because when I was in this desert in early January with Doug and Jeff, it felt hard-packed, almost crusty beneath our feet, and we didn't sink into it at all. I had no idea that sand could be like snow in this respect. 

When I returned to the hotel I found Doug asleep as expected. I showered off the desert, and then we headed down to the all-day restaurant for a breakfast buffet. We sat outside and took our time, enjoying the desert views as well getting a chuckle watching the flocks of sparrows help themselves to leftovers right off the table and serving trays. Truly I think house sparrows are taking over the world. 

Indian House Sparrows

After brunch we changed and headed down to the pool. My plan for the rest of the day was to sit poolside, go in for a swim when we got hot, sip drinks, relax, and repeat. As Doug and I thought about it  we realized that when we go on vacations we never just sit poolside. We're always on the move, out exploring, taking in the sights. But this time we decided we would just relax. Plain and simple. 

Here is a view of the pool. The tented structure in the center is a poolside bar. When we entered we were handed towels, escorted to a chaise of our choosing by a person with the words "Sunshine Butler" printed on the back of his t-shirt, and then said butler put up an umbrella and adjusted it for us. Later on another Sunshine Butler came around with a kit offering to clean our sunglasses. Yet another one appeared with an aerosol body moisturizing spray.

After we were thoroughly baked and had taken several swims we headed back to our suite. Dinner for our last evening was at a steak house. Sadly our reservations had been lost or something, and there was no room on the terrace, so we ate inside. I was a little disappointed because the night was so perfect, but I couldn't complain too much. Our steaks were wonderful, but my cheesecake? Well, there really is nothing like genuine New York City cheesecake. 

Saturday is the last day of the weekend in this Muslim country, so after a light breakfast and some shopping at the hotel souk, we headed back to our rooms to pack. We had time to kill, so we just sat outside on the patio until the very last moment, eeking out as much "resort time" as we could.

Our driver once more arrived promptly at 12:30 as scheduled, and we headed out the gates of Qasr al Sarab. 

Doug and I were totally and utterly relaxed as we sank back into the car's passenger seat. It's hard for Doug to truly escape from his work, but even though he'd attended to some email while we were here, he looked more relaxed than I've seen him in years, and I do mean years. I was happy and oh-so-Zen.

And then a few miles into our drive, I noticed that our driver, the very same one who drove us to the resort on Thursday, appeared to be nodding off. I stiffened up in my seat and watched the back of his head. It would begin to wobble, drop forward, and then he'd immediately jerk upright. He'd shift in his seat, rub his head with one hand, fidget, re-adjust his left arm on the arm rest and maybe take a drink out of his water bottle. But then after a few minutes the head wobbling would begin again. Was I imagining this? I couldn't see his face, and I wondered if maybe he had some sort of physical issue that made him twitchy. But I was nervous. I glanced over at Doug who had been focused on email and saw that he was looking at the guy. I got Doug's attention and mouthed the words, "Is he alright?" nodding toward the driver. Doug mouthed back, "NO!" and then "I think he's sick or tired or both". The main highway we were traveling on is pretty devoid of stops, but just ahead was a gas station, so Doug leaned forward and asked the driver if he was okay and then added firmly, "why don't you pull over at the gas station and take a little rest". 

The driver went inside the ADNOC station and was gone for maybe 15 mintues which gave Doug and me time to discuss the situation. I said maybe we should offer to drive. Doug pointed out we aren't insured to which I replied "Which is better? Driving uninsured or getting into an accident with this guy at the wheel?" When the driver returned, Doug offered to drive. The driver said something about it being a boring drive (straight road for two hours), but he said he was okay and that if he felt he was not, he would pull over. So off we went, but Doug suggested he turn down the a/c because it was warm inside the car, and I brightly offered that having the radio on always helped me when I drove. I want to tell you that was the longest ride home EVER, and if I use that car service again I will specifically request that we do not get that same driver! I will probably contact the car service and tell them about my experience, but I don't want to get the guy fired - he seemed nice enough. But on the other hand, I don't want someone else to get hurt because this guy is constantly exhausted. Maybe the car service is demanding he work too many hours? That is a possibility here I think.

And so ended our March Get-Away. Other than the ride home, which was a bit unnerving, the weekend was a Dream. The only thing missing was Maria Muldaur singing Midnight at the Oasis. I've always loved that song.....


  1. Nice post thanks for sharing this post with beautiful pictures and with fabulous info.
    keep sharing
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    1. Thanks for your comments! I am in the States for a 2-week visit, but once I return to the UAE my "adventures" will continue, and I will for sure be writing about them.

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