Sir Bani Yas Island: on safari in the Persian Gulf

by Jeremy Tredinnick

Got a hankering for an offbeat luxury getaway in the Middle East? Then head for Abu Dhabi's Sir Bani Yas Island, where a curious combination of attractions awaits lovers of wildlife and pampering

These days virtually all five-stars tick every self-indulgent box, offering sophisticated, understated décor, high standards of service, excellent facilities and luxurious accommodation that if not identical, all use the same familiar model. Call me blasé or even jaundiced, but knowing what to expect, even if it is top quality, can become, dare I say it . . . a tad boring?

Then I heard that the Anantara hotel group had made a deal with the royal family of Abu Dhabi, creating the exclusive 62-room Desert Islands Resort and Spa on a remote and fascinating island in the Persian Gulf, 250 kilometres west of that emirate’s city. I was intrigued and set out to discover more.

Sir Bani Yas Island belonged to Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the ruler of Abu Dhabi, principal architect in the founding of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and its president for 30 years. A liberal and foresighted man, in 1971 he decided to turn this barren isle into his own private nature reserve. Starting a massive irrigation project, he initially stocked it with endangered Middle Eastern species like the Arabian oryx and various gazelles, but then branched out and began to import groups of large African animals. Building an impressive palace on the island’s southern tip, he used Sir Bani Yas as his own safari park and personal retreat.

When in 2004 the visionary sheikh passed away, the island reserve was left underused (although the palace continues to be occupied by members of the royal family on occasion). But with the opening of the Desert Islands Resort in October 2008, and the launch of an air service between Abu Dhabi and the island last January, Sir Bani Yas and its fascinating menagerie of free-roaming animals has now become accessible to all. You can go on game safaris, mountain bike or hike through ancient hills and wadis, snorkel with turtles and reef fish, or kayak through mangroves on the Persian Gulf coastline – while retiring to opulent quarters in between. This is a resort with a difference, and I felt compelled to explore.

The short flight from Abu Dhabi airport is probably the best way to arrive on Sir Bani Yas, giving spectacular views of the island’s central hills and cerulean surrounding water as you approach (Google Earth it and you’ll get an idea). Alternatively, a two and a half hour limousine ride along immaculate tarmac brings you to a custom-built jetty where a 15-seat speedboat waits to zip you across an eight-kilometre stretch of water to the island. Passing the opulent façade of Sheikh Zayed’s palace we enter Sir Bani Yas Bay, where the Anatara’s jetty and arrivals building is located. From here a 15-minute drive in an open safari jeep brings us to the resort – a nice touch as the ride immediately highlights the island’s appeal: doe-eyed gazelles forage freely by the roadside, and glimpses of ostriches and peacocks, rock hyraxes and desert hares among groves of date palms and acacia trees add to the nature-rich atmosphere.

The resort itself stands alone on the northern shore of the island like some storybook stronghold from the Arabian Nights. (In fact it is built on reclaimed land, as are most of the island’s structures, a strategy designed to impact less on the fertile ground of the original island terrain.) The building was originally the sheikh’s “safari lodge” for personal guests, but Anantara renovated and upgraded it, adding faux wind towers to its roof to create a more overtly Arabic look. A tented entranceway suggests an African or Bedouin camp – either would be appropriate – but the lobby is a visual feast, from its huge, hanging cluster of multicoloured lantern-like lights to its plethora of sofas and armchairs in leather and warm fabrics, massive Chinese ceramic pots, and Arabian cabinets decorated with exquisite inlays.

This interior design, presenting an eclectic mix of African, Arabian, Thai and Chinese motifs, both classical and modern, might seem overpowering to some but for me it works beautifully. There is a warm, homely ambience, the diverse objects and artefacts alluding to the sort of collection we would all love to amass during a lifetime of travelling. Every corridor of the four-storey building is decorated with distinct artwork and decorations, and consequently I find myself exploring, stopping to examine and appreciate items as I wander around. It makes a refreshing change from the minimalist contemporary style of today’s typical resort.

As interesting as I find the hotel, however, the island’s history and permanent inhabitants soon draw my attention. Activities on Sir Bani Yas are managed by the UAE’s Tourist Development and Investment Company (TDIC), which ensures environmental concerns are the top priority. My guide, Adam, takes me on a two-hour game drive in an open safari jeep, explaining the make-up of the Arabian Wildlife Park and Bird Sanctuary as we go.

Sir Bani Yas Island covers 87 square kilometres, and the irrigation project has resulted in an astonishing two and a half million trees and plants, flourishing mostly on the plains that surround the central hills. The park occupies 3,500 hectares, with the Arabian and African species separated by lengthy fences. Running wild across the island are two species of gazelle, the reem (sand or goitered gazelle) and the domani (Arabian or mountain gazelle), as well as rock hyraxes, Arabian hares and other abundant critters. The reem, according to Adam, are brainless beasts, prone to panicking as a jeep approaches and running in suicidal dashes across the road. The domani are slightly smarter, their doe-eyed gaze melting many visitors’ hearts – both “reem” and “domani” are Arabic names for beautiful young girls, which seems an apt description.

We visit a grove where ornery ostriches and preening peacocks grub about in the sand, then drive to an enclosure near the royal palace containing a number of stately reticulated giraffes from East Africa. But probably the park’s signature animal is the Arabian oryx – with more than 400 individuals, the park has the world’s largest population of these small but beautiful antelopes, which are now extinct in the wild. There are plenty of other beasts to see, from massive gemsbok and elands to pugnacious blackbucks, scimitar-horned oryx (an African species), barbary sheep, striped hyenas, Laristan urials and various types of deer. It’s fair to say that nowhere else in Asia will you see a collection of wild animals such as this – more than 20 years of conservation work and ecological investment has created a worthy legacy for Sheikh Zayed’s vision, as well as a unique and satisfying experience for tourists.

The next afternoon I take a guided hike into the central hills, which are the remnants of salt domes uplifted 500 million years ago during a period of geological turmoil. As we trek up the wadis, or slot canyons, the crumbling conglomerate of different minerals pushed up by tectonic movement glows gold in the dipping sun. The view from the summits is splendid: the hillsides sport multicoloured striations, large areas are planted with acacia and other trees in huge grid patterns, shades of green contrasting with the barren sandy earth – and off in the distance the beryl sea gleams.

My remaining days are equally fulfilling: I mountain bike on one of the island’s planned routes, opting for an easy 9km jaunt rather than the exhausting 28km hill track designed for experienced riders; I wander round the lagoon that lies in front of the resort, where pink flamingos feed, strutting stiff-legged through the shallow water; kayak through the mangroves on the eastern side of the island; and snorkel in the bay area near the resort (dolphins, dugongs and sea turtles can be seen here). Once a barren, almost lifeless island, Sir Bani Yas has become a veritable soft adventure zone, with the added bonus of offering accommodation in style.

I happily admit, uniqueness aside, Anantara’s latest establishment also provides all the obligatory luxuries and facilities that I facetiously belittled at this story’s beginning. It’s the best of both worlds – a familiar but welcome level of luxury, but with a stimulating dash of Middle Eastern and African spice: all in all, an alluring Arabian package.

Jeremy Tredinnick

I am a London-born editor and travel writer/photographer based in Hong Kong for the past 20 years. I now predominantly edit, write, shoot images and production plan and supervise high-quality cultural & historical guide books to unusual Asian destinations for Odyssey Books & Guides. My most recent books include an illustrated historical travelogue called "Asia Overland: Tales of Travel on the Trans-Siberian & Silk Road", a guide to Mongolia, and the 2nd edition of our Kazakhstan book. Soon to be published is an authored book on Xinjiang.