Husband and I decided on a splurge during our visit to Abu Dhabi – a splurge underwritten by some research monies he has for an article he’s working on (seriously! About Arabian Sands, a book written by an Englishman who wanted to map the part of the Arabian Desert known as Rub Al Khali, or The Empty Quarter.  This section of desert is shared by Saudi, UAE, Yemen, and Oman, and is larger than France, Netherlands, and Belgium put together.  It has more sand than the Sahara, even though in square miles Rub Al Kali is smaller.  More important than any of those facts? It’s stunningly beautiful.  Gobsmackingly, jaw-droppingly, did-you-see-that beautiful).

Underwriting—or as we like to call it, corporate sponsorship—firmly in place, we made a reservation at Qasr Al Sarab.  We reserved a car service to drive us out there—it’s about two hours outside of Abu Dhabi city, and neither of us are equipped, legally or psychically, to drive in the UAE.  First surprise: when you reserve “a car” in New York, you get some version of an over-scented Lincoln Town Car.  Here? We got a beat-up Toyota station wagon with anemic air conditioning.  We also got an upclose and personal introduction to highway driving, Arab style:  drivers pass one another whenever they want, wherever they want, with a simple flash of headlights to indicate their intentions.  The vehicle in front slides over to the right (without slowing down), the driver behind speeds up into the lane of oncoming traffic (regardless of traffic in other lane), goes around the too-slow vehicle in front, and then slips back into the correct lane.  I stopped watching after a while because I didn’t want my panicky gasps to distract the driver and get us all killed before we arrived at the resort.

Wait. “Resort” is TOTALLY the wrong word for where we arrived after our death-defying desert drive.

We arrived at…time out of mind? A place out of time? The corporeal equivalent to you-have-been-reborn-as-Brangelina?

People like us don’t usually find themselves in places like this—and yet there we were.  With our kids. And their noise and their ridiculous diets (“try some mango?” NO! “Try a little homemade yogurt?” NO!  “What about lamb kebab?” BLECH! “Um, excuse me, waitress? Do you have any…plain pasta with butter? Yes, just butter and salt. That would be great. Thanks…” )  But you know what? At hotels like this one, the staff smiles and nods and makes you think that it’s the most reasonable thing in the world that your kids, when faced with the bounty of an impeccably beautiful lunch buffet, would want…plain noodles with butter and salt.

Suddenly Brangelina’d, we were whisked to a free-standing villa bigger than our entire apartment, with a private patio in back, complete with dipping pool, a daybed that could comfortably fit our entire family, an outdoor shower, and a view of the desert. (Husband’s membership in Etihad frequent flyer club got him an upgrade! Let’s hear it for Etihad!) When the boys realized that they would be able to swim whenever they wanted to? They thought they’d died and gone to heaven.

Heaven, however, had more gifts in store for these boys…Because we weren’t paying for the room (or the drive out here or the upgrade), we got ourselves a sunset camel ride. Camels, my friends, are TALL–being up on camelback means being up.  Camels stand up hind legs first, so when you’re on a camel’s back and he stands up, there’s a rather shocking pitch forward, leading to a moment of thinking “holy crap I’m about to pitch right over this thing’s head.”  After we were all safely aboard, we rode out into the empty desert, then dismounted (plunge down and back, again) and climbed up the dunes to watch the sunset.  The boys thought heaven had opened yet again: for two boys who can spend hours and hours digging at the beach, to be presented with an entire universe of sand was almost bewildering in its munificence.

Even the boys felt the power of the landscape; they sat (silent for a few moments!) and stared at the setting sun, before they tried to create an avalanche down the back slope, hoping to send their sneakers into a sandy crevasse. They climbed up, raced down, spun and leaped and laughed, dizzy with the freedom of all that space.

I’ve never been in such deep desert before. I’ve done some Southwestern US deserts but nothing like what we experienced out there.  Being out in the dunes is like being in the middle of the open ocean or one of the Great Lakes: infinite, powerful, implacable.  You are aware of how tiny we are as a race, how insignificant.

Okay, perhaps the whole camel ride thing is a bit hokey – a Disneyfied version of “Bedouin life” – but it felt magical nonetheless, to be  riding through the desert, with no sounds except the susurrus of wind across dunes and the creaking sounds of the camels’ bird-like feet on the hard-packed desert sand.

The dunes surround the hotel; you can swerve off one of the beautiful little paths that criss-cross the hotel property and run up a dune face whenever you’ve a mind to (and the boys always did).  When you sit by the hotel pool, you could almost think you’re in some swanky but standard spot in Vegas or Palm Springs or Scottsdale:

until you turn around and see…this:

Or this:

I suppose if you’re Brangelina, you get used to spending time in amazing places. And maybe that’s (yet another) reason to be glad that you’re not Brangelina—it would be awful to be blasé about a place like Qasr.