What comes to mind when you hear the words “desert island”? Perhaps you think of The Maldives? Seychelles? Palm-fringed white sand and crystal clear waters teeming with fish? Difficult journeys to inaccessible places? A bank overdraft? Well, Sir Bani Yas is a true desert island. There are palm trees but there is also mangrove. It is only a two-and-a-half-hour drive and a short speedboat ride away from one of the busiest hub airports in the world. Where? Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. If like me, you find that you’re bored after an hour on a sun lounger, you might be interested in the variety of activities on offer. Oh, and the weather is a lot more predictable than the Indian Ocean. The sun shines. That’s it. Almost always.
We went to take a look at Anantara Sir Bani Yas Island Resorts during a recent tour through the region, spending two nights in a one-bedroom beachside villa at Al Yamm. This is the most exclusive part of the Anantara Desert Islands Resort. There are only 30 villas, half of which are on the beach and half face the mangrove-fringed lagoon. After a very warm welcome, we were escorted to our gorgeous villa built in a local style but with every modern luxury convenience. The bed is huge and very comfortable with cosseting, high-grade cotton sheets. There is a small kitchen area in the entrance hall with a Nespresso machine (and lots of capsules). The bathroom is also very good with a decent freestanding soaking tub and a huge rain shower enclosure – a lovely touch was a soap menu offering a choice of scents. Opening the double doors of the bedroom onto the terrace and stepping onto the sand soon had us smiling. The color and clarity of the seawater make it feel as though you are in the Indian Ocean. Like that sea, there are also turtles and occasionally dolphins in the waters here. Abu Dhabi you see has been a little more careful with the natural environment than its brash brother next door.
When you tire of lazing in the sun next to the pool or gazing at the beautiful blue sky, hop in one of the safari jeeps and let your guide show the amazing wildlife in the reserve. Somewhere in there are two big male cheetahs who share their living space with one of the biggest herds of oryx in the world as well as countless gazelle, some spotted Indian deer, and even giraffe and ostriches. The cats have to hunt to feed themselves and had taken a spotted deer the night before our visit so we caught up with them licking their paws in the shade of a Ghaf tree. We got some great photos.
The guided cultural tour also taught us a lot about Arabian history. Particularly the history of the UAE. This was one of Sheikh Zayed’s favorite spots. He was determined that the oil-fuelled development that his people so badly needed would have as little impact as possible on the natural environment. After his death, the family decided to open the island for tourism. They plant a mangrove sapling for every visitor to the island to keep improving the scope of the habitat here. You can take a kayak out into the mangrove while you’re here. There’s also a dive center so you can get up close and personal with the marine life and even continue your PADI training and certification.
Al Yamm has one restaurant, called Olio. It offers Italian cuisine and is the venue for breakfast for Al Yamm guests. The outdoor terrace has fantastic views across the mangrove. Breakfast here is heavenly. We had a fabulous fresh tuna steak on our first night, perfectly cooked. On the other side of the island, about ten minutes by complimentary SUV is the larger complex of Desert Island Resorts. Here is Amwaj, a great restaurant offering terrific seafood and some more Arabian-style specialties. I confess a liking for seafood and can report that the lobster in the seafood platter for two was tender and lightly seasoned. Perfect.
A short walk from Amwaj through delightfully tended gardens with sparkling fountains is the Anantara Spa. It is staffed almost entirely by Thai and Indonesian folk, which means it offers a very high standard of personal care. That’s not bias, we both had a 60-minute massage and then the full hour’s pedicure and foot treatment. The staff were excellent, perfectly sensitive, charming, and discrete as you’d expect from a high-end spa.
There is so much more to do here we wished we’d had more time. For example, we’d like to watch the sunset from an Arab Dhow, go snorkeling, try our hand at deep-sea fishing, paddleboarding. I could go on. There are also e-bikes to hire and there’s a stable where, if you have at least three years experience you can ride an Arab through parts of the reserve.
Service was good throughout, from the warm welcome (and wonderful amenity of fresh and dried fruits and local sweets) to the guides, waiting staff, the spa, handling of luggage. Departure was well managed and as we were waved off at the jetty, we wondered wistfully when we can come back.
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