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Travelling to the United Arab Emirates: What to do and where to stay

It’s a mere 7.5 hour flight to Dubai or Abu Dhabi from Singapore, and from there you can explore all the region has to offer. Lara Sage explores the United Arab Emirates, from its world-class resorts to its desert vistas and futuristic cities. Did someone say holiday plans? Check!

Empty Quarter Desert in Abu Dhabi
Enjoying the views at the glorious Empty Quarter Desert

#1 The desert

Where to stay: Qsar al Sarab by Anantara

One of the most exquisite places I’ve ever visited, Qasr al Sarab is inspired by the grandeur of old desert fortresses. It’s set on the dunes of Abu Dhabi’s Liwa Desert, on the northern edges of the Empty Quarter – the largest uninterrupted sand desert in the world. At 6,500 square kilometres, this expanse of sand is bigger than France; three quarters of it lies in Saudi Arabia, the rest in the UAE and Oman.

Qsar al Sarab by Anantara pool
Gorgeous pool at Qsar al Sarab by Anantara

Qsar al Sarab’s iconic lobby is adorned with local furnishings, while earthenware pots add charm to walkways and balconies. Elsewhere, lanterns, carvings, sculptures and paintings depict indigenous desert culture with scenes of camels, sunsets and falconry. Built on a crescent-shaped dune, the guestrooms and villas have earthy colour palettes and are designed to resemble old sand huts. Each one faces west to maximise the sunset views, and is kitted out with mod-cons such as high- definition TVs, Wi-Fi, rain showers and gigantic bathtubs.

Abu Dhabi dune bashing
Don’t miss the chance to go dune bashing

A multitude of excursions are on offer, including a Falcon and Saluki show that’s well worth the 5.45am wakeup for – our timing was impeccable, as we caught the moon setting and the sun rising during the show. Other activities include sand boarding and sledding, archery, action-packed 4×4 dune bashing, horse riding and camel rides. For the non-thrill-seekers, soft drives take you on a journey among the tallest dunes, or you can immerse yourself in a Middle Eastern cooking class before indulging in the Moroccan hammam, sauna or ice room of the spa.

#2 Abu Dhabi

Abu Dhabi is a growing destination, with natural influences of sea, river and marina. And while the city, like Dubai, is perhaps better known for its 21st-century transformation than for its historical or cultural sites, there is still plenty to see. A visit to the refined Grand Mosque is a must, with its white marble, inlaid decoration and exquisite carpet – the largest of its kind in the world. The Al Hosn Fort and Heritage Village gives a glimpse into the historical culture of the region. Like the mosque, entry is free – you’ll need about half an hour or so here.

Eastern Mangroves Hotel and Spa exterior
Take an evening swim in the stunning pool at the Eastern Mangroves Hotel and Spa

Where to stay: Eastern Mangroves Hotel & Spa by Anantara

Surprisingly for such a sandy country, Eastern Mangroves Hotel & Spa is set along river frontage overlooking a 1.2km stretch of protected mangrove reserve. It’s 20 minutes from the airport.

Spread over five levels, the 222 guestrooms and suites are triple-glazed to ensure a peaceful stay. Arabic architectural heritage is expressed in the archways, mashrabiyas, intricate mosaics and trellis, with subtle touches of 18-carat gold, and you get a full sense of the Emirati influences on arrival, through the aromas of burning bakhour oils, and the complimentary dates and traditional coffee (not for the faint-hearted!).

Four Seasons Hotel Abu Dhabi room
Lovely room at the Four Seasons Hotel Abu Dhabi

Where to stay: Four Seasons Hotel Abu Dhabi

Newly opened on Al Maryah island, this “hotel of the moment” embodies urban chic, with two towers of rooms, and direct access to the high-end Galleria Mall. The views of the city skyline and Arabian Gulf from the rooftop pool looked even better after I’d taken advantage of my first-ever sunglasses-cleaning service!

#3 Dubai

Dubai appeals to family holiday-makers wanting the guarantee of good weather, thrill-seekers after sports and motor racing events, and those who are keen to shop. And, come on, who of you doesn’t think of the Sex & the City movie and want to grab a kaftan and a cosmopolitan, and dash out the door for a girls-only trip? For us, it made the ideal destination for four days of fast-paced fun – at times a little over the top! (Fireworks attached to a champagne magnum and langoustine “french fries” come to mind…).

Jumeirah Zabeel Saray Hotel
Enjoy a leisurely day by the Jumeirah Zabeel Saray Hotel’s private beach

Where to stay: Jumeirah Zabeel Saray

A stay at Jumeirah Zabeel Saray on Palm Island is a serene indulgence, and its Talise Ottoman Spa wins a slew of awards, year after year, from the likes of the World Travel Awards and Condé Nast. The facilities are astounding, particularly the indoor pools, the exquisite Turkish hammams with spectacularly decorated booths and cushions surrounding a pool, and the ceiling lit up with fairy-like stars. There’s even a snow room!

Jumeirah Zabeel Saray thalassotherapy pool
Have a dip in this stunning thalassotherapy pool at the Jumeirah Zabeel Saray

The lobby alone made us feel quite grand from the moment we checked in, after our 45-minute drive from Dubai’s airport. Hand-painted ceilings and murals, crafted marble and crystal chandeliers lavishly adorn the hotel. Our room was spacious and decorated in traditional Ottoman style. All 405 suites and rooms offer ocean views, and the resort has beach access and its own jetty for shuttle boat transfer to and from the Dubai Marina. We girls sipped cocktails and sunned ourselves on the beach before heading into the “bright lights” of Dubai.

Fact File

  • Fly Etihad Airways or Emirates from Singapore to either of the two cities. Qsar al Sarab is a 200km, two-hour drive from Abu Dhabi, or three from Dubai. (One stretch of road on our drive was almost completely straight for 100km!) We made a quick stop to see dates up close, growing naturally on the roadside – worth the exhilarating dash across hot sand! You’ll also sometimes see camels on the side of the road. Alternatively, helicopter flights can be arranged by the resort.
  • Annual cultural activities in the Western region include the Liwa Date Festival in July, the Al Dhafra Camel Festival in December, and the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge in March. Animal-related activities and outdoor Bedouin dining are only held in the cooler months from October to May.
  • Be aware of the additional charges throughout the UAE, amounting to nearly 20 percent on all your bills.
  • When booking desert safaris, check if they are “dry” or if they offer alcohol with dinner.
  • Websites: qasralsarab.anantara.com, abu-dhabi.anantara.com, fourseasons.com/abudhabi


This is an extract from an article that first appeared in the April 2017 edition of Expat Living. You can purchase a copy for the full article, or Subscribe now so you never miss an issue!

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