A unique hideaway in Abu Dhabi

by Natasha.Blair

Only guests of the luxury Desert Islands Resort & Spa on Sir Bani Yas Island can enjoy this eco-tourism destination with its own wildlife reserve

To the west of Abu Dhabi, Sir Bani Yas, one of eight islands, was the private retreat of the late founder and president of the United Arab Emirates, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan. The island was conceived as a wildlife park to ensure the survival of Arabia’s most endangered species. Now, guests at the 64-bedroom Anantara Desert Islands Resort & Spa, a luxury boutique hotel, can enjoy total exclusivity of the island.
I arrived after a wearing three-hour drive from Abu Dhabi city. Fortunately, since my visit, twice-weekly flights by Cessna planes have started. We were ferried by motor launch to the island, passing the palatial grounds of the Sheikh’s palace, which is apparently always kept in readiness of a visit. Adam, who was escorting us, told us that there was little chancing of catching a glimpse of him, however, as the current Sheikh rarely visits.
The hotel is tastefully decorated, with African and low-key Arabian influences. The bedrooms, which are spacious, are decorated in dark colours and have a distinctly male influence. Visitors to the spa enjoy a foot-bathing ceremony before taking any of their treatments. This originates from the owners of the hotel, Anantara, who are Thai-based. The main restaurant serves buffet food, typical of hotels in Abu Dhabi. Their à la carte seafood speciality restaurant, set apart from the hotel by the pool, is the place to eat, with views overlooking the Arabian Gulf and stretches of white sandy beach. The outside candlelit eating area is particularly romantic.
Because the area is a nature reserve, fishing around the perimeters is prohibited. However, snorkelling is allowed in the blue- and green-coloured waters, which are inhabited by dolphins and sea turtles.
For me, the most exciting part of my stay was going on safari in one of the hotel’s jeeps. The wildlife park covers three-quarters of the 87 square kilometres of the island. Several million plants and trees, including mangroves, have been planted to provide both food and cover for the animals on what was once desert. As well as indigenous breeds such as oryx and mountain gazelle, there are also animals that have been imported from Africa. We were told that a tiger was expected. At present, 23 different types of animals roam freely as well as some that are fenced off. We visited the giraffes who were happy to take food from our hands.
Apart from the very flat areas, the interior of the island has salt domes that make mountain biking a pleasurable experience. On the northeastern side are areas of large mangroves where kayaking is possible; this is also a haven for bird life. In fact, when we looked closely there were even clusters of white flamingos in the lagoon at the front of the hotel.
The resort is a place where the only thing you can do is relax and enjoy yourself with plenty of staff on hand to satisfy every whim! The island is part of the country’s developing eco-system and has the region’s only wind turbine. And, this being Abu Dhabi, the is the extra bonus of year-round sunshine.