(CNN) — Nothing much lies on Qatar’s border with Saudi Arabia. A few sunbaked outposts and miles and miles of vast, empty desert in all directions.
Then, earlier this year, something very different appeared in the middle of this nowhere: A huge, gleaming luxury hotel complex, complete with its own theme park.
The Hilton Salwa Beach Resort & Villas is clearly no ordinary hotel.
Seen from the air it resembles an entire coastal town. Pristine twin beaches peel away from a central harbor. Above the sands, bright white villas and buildings cluster around blue swimming pools. Behind them, oasis greenery. It’s one of the Middle East’s largest resorts.
So what happens, when a gigantic upscale hotel appears miles from anywhere just as a pandemic freezes global travel?
It gets really busy, according to Etienne-Charles Gailliez, the resort’s general manager. On opening its doors in February it became a staycation hit with locals, he says. More recently it’s been a popular destination for visitors and business travelers from the wider region.
There’s plenty of room. Hilton Salwa Beach has 84 villas, ranging from two to four bedrooms, with private pools and direct access to the white-sand beach (prices from US$1,500-a-night). There are 31 Arabian village-style apartments and villas, while the main hotel has 246 rooms and suites.
The huge grounds also contain more than 20 food and drink outlets, including seven gourmet dining options, a high-end spa with VIP suites, sport courts, swimming pools surrounded by landscaped gardens, corporate facilities and a marina.
On top of that, there’s Qatar’s largest theme park, featuring dozens of attractions, including “King Cobra,” a thrilling twin tube ride that sends riders into the mouth of a massive snake-like structure.
Health and safety
The luxurious complex has been built on 320 hectares of sandy land some 100 kilometers southwest of Doha, strategically situated to welcome visitors both from Qatar and Saudi Arabia.
Construction began in 2015 and the final stage before opening was focused on adapting it for the enhanced health and safety measures in line with Qatar’s mobility rules and hygiene protocols.
“Due to the impact of Covid-19, we had to accelerate the requirements for the opening of the resort and identify new unique selling points, which focused on staycations,” Gailliez told CNN.
That was good news for Sama Jamali, a 21-year-old Doha resident, and her friends. “Since it was unsafe and difficult to travel, we decided to have a staycation at the resort,” she told CNN. “The room was lovely and very spacious and comfortable — with advanced technology and very Covid-19 safe and clean.”
Gailliez said the introduction of travel guidelines and restrictions led to the adoption of a phased opening approach, with a number of outlets and facilities such as a diving center and a state-of-the-art sports academy expected to be functional in the coming months.
“We are a new resort and are more than just rooms. We have villas and a water park which makes our structure quite unique,” said Gailliez.
Alongside efforts to integrate new contactless technology, Gailliez identified logistics and staffing as key considerations. “On peak days, across the resort we welcome up to 2,500 guests, with a workforce of around 1,200 team members,” he said.
Action and adrenaline
These guests, when they’re not lounging or strolling on the cotton-soft sands along the resort’s 3.5-kilometer shoreline, can keep busy by choosing from a long list of fun-filled activities.
At the heart of it all is the Desert Falls Water and Adventure Park.
The adrenaline-packed attraction features multiple children’s pools and water playgrounds, as well as nearly 30 rides and slides, including a spinning rapids ride that at its starting point — at the peak of the park’s 32-meter mountain — offers panoramic views of the entire resort.
Here, mat-racing guests can also zoom down tubes — head to head and side by side — into a rapid splashdown, or try out a surf simulator.
The park is also home to what is billed as the first man-made canyoning structure in the Middle East. There’s an outdoor go-kart race track — fully equipped with stands for spectators — and an indoor laser tag course.
Inevitably, given its size, the hotel has a range of dining options, including Middle Eastern, Italian and Chinese cuisines.
Levantine serves signature Arabic dishes with a twist, including The Qattinah, a delicious mocktail that consists of crafted botanical spice syrup, citrus kaleidoscope and flakes of 24-karat gold. Main course and dessert highlights include sizzling kebabs with Mdakhan (smoked hummus, roasted garlic puree) followed by Knafeh nabulsiyeh (pistachio cream).
Golden drinks and foosball
At Miss Wong, the sound of a gong ushers guests into a private Chinese dining experience that kicks off with an elaborate tea ceremony. Recommendations include the chicken and vegetable soup (Enoki mushroom, dried shiitake mushrooms, vegetables, chicken & turmeric wonton), various dumpling options and crispy Peking duck. A refreshing Orange Sunset mocktail (fresh orange/fresh watermelon/fresh lemon/grenadine syrup/oolong tea/egg-white) stands out on the drinks menu.
The resort’s Dante Cucina Italiana restaurant serves Tuscan wines and pizzas cooked in a wood-fired oven. Another, The League, is a sports and entertainment bar where guests can watch soccer matches and play games of pool and foosball. Cocktail pitches and beer buckets are available here, along with a gastropub menu featuring a selection of burgers, steaks and smoked ribs.
Of course, there is no shortage of luxury resort options in Qatar, especially as the country gears up to welcome visitors for soccer’s World Cup Finals at the end of 2022.
The already busy line up includes the W Doha, the Mandarin Doha, Ritz-Carlton’s Sharq Village and Spa, plus Antara’s offshore Banana Island Resort, all of which are more convenient for downtown and airport.
So is the trip out to the desert worth it?
“We enjoyed the selection of restaurants, especially the continental buffet. Top-notch food with excellent presentation,” said Jamali, who is already looking forward to another stay.
“It was a wonderful experience and there was no dull moment due to the fun and different activities available