Rub’ al Khali desert dunes
One Arabian Night–that was all we had. It really is not enough to even begin to explore the largest area of continuous sand on this planet, which harbors the world’s largest sand dunes, but it had to do. We have escaped the soulless glass cityscape, that is Abu Dhabi, countless times before, but our visit to the Tilal Liwa Hotel was the Middle Eastern experience that I was yearning for.
Tilal Liwa’s Infinity Pool
You really could not contrive a more a quixotic desert retreat if you tried; the arabesque arch reflected in the cool blue infinity pool giving the illusion of an oasis blending into the desert dunes in the distance, the perfect symmetry of the Arabian-inspired crenellations in the roof, the camels rhythmically being led across the road by their nimble riders, the scorching heat of the midday desert sun followed by its lithe setting into the vast, apricot-colored dunes, the rising crescent moon on its heels, the sweltering heat of the day gently giving way to the ever-so-slightly cooler Arabian night. A musician plays music of the Middle East on a Qunan in a lonely corner of the courtyard. The smoky scent of Oud and Shisha pervading the air, and you are transported to a time long ago.
This is all I ever wanted: 1,001 Arabian Nights, but I would have to settle for one. Call me a romantic or a history buff, but the only feeling I have really hoped for since we have lived in the Middle East—one year now—is that feeling of being nowhere else in the world other than here. This sensation is harder and harder to come by in our increasingly globalized world. After all, how many places off hand can you think of where you cannot find a McDonald’s or a Starbucks these days?! Not too many. I was transported this past weekend to the time of desert caravans, Bedouin encampments and camels. I spent One Arabian Night at the Tilal Liwa Hotel.
The Lonely Road to the Tilal Liwa Hotel
Where’s that, you may wonder? It’s not in the second nearest town, Liwa—it’s namesake. It’s closest to Madinat Zayed, which isn’t easily mapped, but I found one. Here’s a link to the map. The Tilal Liwa is at the doorstep of one of the largest deserts in the world. It’s not really in your GPS but, having said that, it’s not hard too find. How many roads can possibly be out there? Check in time is 2pm, but we wanted some time to explore the town of Madinat Zayed and perhaps the dunes before we checked in.
You may remember my post in December about the Camel Beauty Pageant? This is the town in which the Camel festival takes place, so please consider a December visit. It was the highlight of 2013 for me, but then not everyone shares my affection for camels–understatement of the year, thought everyone. As a warning, the further you get away from the cities in the UAE and the nearer you get to the desert, the towns, not too surprisingly, become much more conservative. We left on a Friday, the holy day of Islam, and there wasn’t a whole lot to do in Madinat Zayed because everyone was worshipping somewhere and all the stores and restaurants were closed. It was noon, but we decided to try our luck and see if our room was ready for us. The road to the Tilal Liwa is called Million Street. This was the same road that in December was bustling with Bedouins, herds of camels and their riders, wealthy camel breeders and a few interested tourists. On this day, there was no one. Million Street was desolate. We passed all the structures that exist solely for the Camel Festival: the racetrack, the camel veterinary clinic, the stadium, the police station; they were all covered in sand just waiting to blown clean and prepped.
Tilal Liwa Front Entrance
We arrived at the Tilal Liwa Hotel. It looks more like a fortress than a hotel from a distance, but once you get closer, you see the palm trees, and the endless dunes. You feel like Lawrence of Arabia might have felt a century ago arriving somewhere so exotic and, yet, at the same time so convivial. We pulled up into the lavish looking receiving area. A valet immediately came to take our bags, open our doors and park our car; another guided us to the reception. A very nice young lady received us at the front desk. Another greeted us with mint lemonade, a traditional drink of the Middle East and so refreshing on a hot, dusty day. Not only did the hotel have a room ready for us, but also they had given us an upgrade after my mentioning, rather casually, in an e-mail that we were celebrating my husband’s birthday. We were so surprised that they took it upon themselves to offer this to us. It was very unexpected and so solicitous. A bellboy led us to our rooms, past the main lobby and the hotel’s restaurant. Our room was not very large, but well appointed and beautifully decorated. It had large French doors that opened up onto the infinity pool and courtyard area, which was exquisite. The kids, of course, darted off the to the pool. There was a lot for the kids to do in the courtyard aside from the infinity pool: there was an enormous chess set, hammocks, a trampoline, a play area, a ping-pong table. There was also entertainment. We initially thought it was Karaoke, but it turned out to be two rather scantily clad young ladies hired to sing pop songs, and kind of dance to them by the pool. That was weird enough but whatever. We spent the afternoon at the pool. It was so relaxing. As I stated in the introduction, an Arabian-inspired arch looms above the infinity pool where you can sit on seats in the pool itself, relax and stare off into the vastness of the desert dunes.
After all that rest and relaxation, we mustered the energy to take a late afternoon dune walk and desert drive. All morning we wondered if the area were just a ghost town for the other fifty weeks that the Camel Festival was not going on. It turns out there are lots of people there, they just don’t come out until the late afternoon/evening. We encountered bands of camels and their riders. They didn’t seem to mind me taking thousands of photos; they were true showmen, as conformable on the back of a dromedary as they were in front of a camera.
Tilal Liwa’s Friday BBQ Night
Afternoon faded listlessly into evening, we sipped a glass of wine on our balcony and watched the sky grow purple and crescent moon rise over the desert. Wafts of the Friday evening BBQ buffet blew our way and hunger set in. We drifted down to the dining room only to partake in another feast. The knowledge kitchen staff catered to our every need, and every item we tried met our high standards. Fully sated, we meandered home. Our kids were tired, but we weren’t. Live music was playing in the courtyard and it sounded like a lot of other guests had gathered there to listen, so why shouldn’t we? We tucked the kids in and headed over to the Al Liwan Oasis, a.k.a. “the bar by the pool.” The music this evening was Middle Eastern and drew a decidedly more local clientele. I have to admit I was a bit hesitant to order a beer in the midst of so many Emirati guests, but we went ahead and did it anyway, given there was one other western couple there doing the same. We took in the music, the ambiance, people-watched the other
Tilal Liwa By Night
guests who were smoking shisha, dancing and singing along to the traditional music; they knew all the words and were fully enjoying themselves. We soon found ourselves being invited over for drinks with an Emirati man and few of his friends. They ordered a round of drinks (ours, alcoholic and what was in their very “blue” drinks I may never know). Their English was not quite good enough to have a full conversation, but we all tried very hard often relying on charade-like gestures to Pictionary-esque drawings. They were very excited to be celebrating my husband’s birthday with us, so the drinks kept coming, and a good time was had by all. We informed them that we planned to come visit again for the Camel Festival, and we exchanged numbers and made plans to visit with each other come December.
Our server was aptly named Divine.
Breakfast was a wonderful as dinner. We had mostly the same staff as we had had for dinner. They had all been informed that it was my husband’s birthday, and every single staff member he encountered made a point of wishing him happy birthday. How they all knew who he was is beyond me. I want to be sure to mention that each staff member at the Tilal Liwa is extremely good at his/her job. They all have gracious smiles on their faces and seem, at every moment, to be doing far more than their job description requires of them, which is kind of unusual here. We went back to the room and off we went to the pool as per our kids’ plans.
Surprise! Happy Birthday Cake.
After our swim, we returned to our room to pack and get ready to go home. The phone rang. A hotel attendant asked when he could bring the birthday cake. “A birthday cake? Who ordered a birthday cake?” I asked. “No, ma’am. This cake is from the hotel. Can we bring it now?” the voice on the line said. Sure, I responded. It was 11:50 am; we had not eaten lunch. Why not? It would sure be a birthday surprise. And it was. It was brought to our room in moments. The young man that phoned brought the cake, lit candles, sang happy birthday, and insisted on taking family photos for us—SO many until he got one he was happy with. Now, that’s dedication to your job if I ever saw it. The checkout process was as effortless as the check in. The staff got a few more happy birthdays in and off we went, back on that long, dusty, desert road. Back to reality.
In conclusion, one Arabian night is just not enough to really enjoy the full amenities available to you at the Tilal Liwa Hotel. You need at least three or four in my opinion. I would also recommend you go at a cooler time of the year than we did. There were so many desert tours, outings and sports in which you can partake, but they just were not realistic in July or August.