15 October 2009 by Pete Mathers
Five miles off the coast of Abu Dhabi, in the warm waters of the Arabian Gulf, lies an island resort that could change your perceptions of a Middle Eastern holiday. Who, for example, when asked to ponder the attractions of the previously sleepy capital of the UAE, would immediately think ‘safari’?
Yet Sir Bani Yas Island, a short plane ride from Abu Dhabi city, is one of the world’s most unusual offshore wildlife sanctuaries. Formerly the private retreat of the late Sheikh Zayed, the founder and first ruler of the United Arab Emirates, the island now boasts a boutique hotel and the Arabian Wildlife Reserve. Thousands of animals, many of them endangered, roam freely in its vast enclosures, and thousands more birds and millions of trees are given equal protection. That such an environment exists in an oil-rich Gulf state, normally better known for building indoor ski centres or gold-leafed hotels, is largely thanks to Sheikh Zayed, who indulged his passion for wildlife here for 30 years. He also built the island’s hotel, the only building for miles around, situated on a spit of reclaimed land at the northern tip of the island, with the Gulf in front and a lagoon out back.
The hotel, Desert Islands Resort & Spa, is now run by Anantara, best known for its beach resorts in Thailand and the Maldives, meaning the hotel’s Arabian atmosphere is tempered by a healthy dose of island-resort cool. In fact, the only thing typical of the mega hotels found elsewhere in the region is the scale of accommodations, all of which are equipped to the highest 5-star standard -rooms are nobody’s idea of small, suites are rather lavish and villas are downright palatial. From the lobby, packed to the rafters with Arabian, African and Asian artefacts, you can be gazing across the Arabian Gulf from your private terrace or balcony in just a matter of minutes. Staff throughout is extremely attentive and the swanky Thai-staffed spa offers original and personalised treatment techniques. And in contrast to most Gulf hotels, where you can swim or shop but do not much else, the dilemma here is which activity to try first. Choose from snorkelling, mountain biking, kayaking, archery, guided walks or game drives. If you do opt for a safari-style game drive then you won’t be disappointed. Wildlife in the reserve includes sprightly sand gazelles, the once-nearly-extinct oryx (there are at least 400 here now), blackbuck, barbary sheep, gemsbok, eland, giraffe and cheetah. The latter have caused some excitement in recent times, with the female cheetah, Safira -introduced to the island in May -mating with at least one of the two males, Gibbs and Gabriel, at their first time of meeting.
Cheetahs are not always easy to breed in captivity but authorities are already hoping that Safira might be pregnant. Furry cheetah cubs would not, however, be the only new addition to the Anantara family in the near future. Raising the bar for Abu Dhabi holidays yet again, Anantara’s Qasr Al Sarab Desert Resort is due to open in October. Deep amid the sand dunes of the Liwa Desert in the mystical Empty Quarter, made famous by the wanderings of epic adventurer Wilfred Thesiger who crossed the expanse in the 1940s, Qasr Al Sarab will appeal not only to those with nomadic aspirations, but also to the tastes of the most discerning travellers. One hundred and fifty rooms and a series of one- and two-bedroom villas boast private pools, outdoor terraces and covered day beds with jaw-dropping desert views. Jewel embedded silver and bronze chandeliers create warm silhouettes on the walls, gilded mosaics decorate the glassware and for those willing to pay for the villa experience, private butlers are just a whisper away. Experience seekers will have plenty to consider too, from camel treks along sandy desert trails to sand surfing, falconry and desert safaris by quad bike or 4x4. They could even arrange for a hot air balloon ride above the world’s largest sand dunes. The spa meanwhile has been designed along the lines of a hammam -a place of time-honoured rituals for cleansing and revitalising both body and soul -and offers such distractions as exfoliating sand baths and relaxing massages with Arabian oils. It’s hard to imagine a more romantic or exciting destination. Mind you, a few years ago, few people would have given credence to Abu Dhabi as a holiday destination whatsoever. Today, thanks to companies like Anantara and beautiful resorts like Desert Islands and Qasr Al Sarab, you’d be foolish not to give it serious thought as a luxurious winter-warming possibility.