By Richard Bevan
I live in Dubai and I love it. The fast paced energy of the place is addictive and there’s definitely no shortage of things to do away from work. But like most people, I still crave a bit of calm and a more ‘earthly’ experience every now and again – an ‘escape to nature’ if you will.
So imagine my delight and intrigue when I heard about Sir Baniyas Island and the Anantara Desert Islands Resort.
It’s a three-hour drive from Dubai to the Jebel Dhanna ferry port and then a 20-minute ferry crossing to the island – which is just enough to make it feel like a road trip but short enough for it to be easily manageable for a weekend getaway.
As far as contrasts go – it would be difficult to find one more startling than Dubai and Sir Baniyas Island. The 87 square kilometer natural island, named after the Bani Yas tribe who first inhabited Abu Dhabi 250 years ago, was turned into a wildlife and nature reserve by the late ruler and founder of the United Arab Emirates, His Highness Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan, a well-known animal lover, in 1971 to ensure the survival of Arabia’s endangered species. At that time there were no trees on the island – there are now several million along with over 30 species of free roaming animals, which number over 15,000 in total.
As well as providing a haven for animals and plant life to be protected and nurtured prior to being relocated to the mainland, the island also houses three hotels – Desert Islands Resort & Spa by Anantara, Anantara Al Yamm Villa Resort and Anantara Al Sahel Villa Resort, allowing visitors to sample the island’s unique charms.
We stayed at the stunning Desert Islands Resort & Spa, which is situated on the shores of the Arabian Gulf and opposite a large mangrove filled lagoon, just a short distance from the entrance of the wildlife park and offering the tantalising combination of ‘beach life’ and nature. That’s the beauty of the place – one minute you can be sat by the pool or on the beach, drink in hand, recharging the batteries. The next minute you can be embarking on a wadi walk, learning about the geological history of the island or going on a nature and wildlife safari.
We opted for the latter for our first activity during our weekend stay and were mightily pleased that we did. All excursions and activities are guided and the team at Desert Islands really know their stuff, especially our expert English guide Mark, who was a font of knowledge about the history of the island, its geology and its abundant wildlife as he drove us around the park in a robust 4 x 4.
During the trip we spotted scores of animals including giraffe, ostrich, gazelles, blackbuck antelope, barbary sheep, Arabian oryx, peacocks and the pièce de résistance – the cheetahs! Mark explained that four of the majestic beasts were introduced to the park as predators to keep the natural ecological balance of the environment in check, preventing a population explosion among other species and preparing them for life back in the wild.
The following day we opted for some advanced mountain biking, cycling into the wildlife park and taking on some pretty challenging uphill climbs before enjoying the thrill of the downhill leg, whizzing along the off-road trails and again, spotting plenty of animals along the way. No cheetahs this time, although, without the protection of the 4×4, I can’t say that I was disappointed by that, despite our guide assuring us they don’t attack humans!
These were the only organised activities we tried but there are plenty of others for guests to partake in including horse riding, land sailing, archery and nature walks to name just a few and there’s also a highly regarded spa where aching muscles can be massaged back to life after a day of adventure.
The original Bani Yas tribe lived in tents but I have to say I was delighted that we had the luxurious Desert Islands Resort & Spa to use as our base during our stay in the island. Our large sea-view room with balcony had all the mod cons you’d expect from a 5-star hotel including one of the biggest beds I’ve ever seen. The food we sampled at the Amwaj seafood restaurant and the Al Shams Arabian theme night was also delicious while the sprawling infinity pool overlooking the ocean was the perfect place to unwind when not out cheetah spotting.
We also partook in a spot of sea kayaking and enjoyed a game of tennis on the hotel’s courts, both of which were excellent ways to burn off some calories after the feast of a breakfast served up in the The Palm restaurant.
But the thing that really made our stay unforgettable was the staff. To a man they were some of friendliest and most accommodating we’ve encountered in the Middle East.
Luxury furnishings, top class amenities and breath-taking views are great but kind of pointless if you feel uncomfortable, unwelcome or agitated during your stay right? What really makes a trip is the ‘experience’ and it’s the service staff on the front line who can make or break that. In the case of Desert Islands Resort & Spa it was a resounding ‘make’ – from general manager Christian, who was there to greet us off the boat on arrival, throughout the entire team, they were faultless in their warm and accommodating manner. None more so than F&B supervisor Ali. What a character – he took time every day to speak with all of the guests around the pool, getting to know them, dealing with requests, and generally making them feel good. He was attentive, not to the point of being suffocating, but just enough to make you feel special which is in itself a skill and the service provided by him and the rest of the team at Desert Islands Resort & Spa will last even longer in the memory than the luxurious hotel, excellent dining options and wonderful activities.
If you’re looking for a unique weekend getaway in the UAE, this magical wildlife haven is a real tonic from the bustle of city life.
Desert Islands, United Arab Emirates
Tel: +971 2 801 5400
Tel: +971 2 895 8700 or email@example.com