When you think of the United Arab Emirates, the image of idyllic islands and wildlife safaris, is not something that you would immediately associate with this desert country. Yet 170km South West of Abu Dhabi, lies the natural haven known as Sir Bani Yas Island (صير بنى ياس).
The island lies 9km offshore from the coast of Al Gharbia and measures 17.5km by 9km. Originally used as a retreat for Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan, he established a wildlife reserve there in 1977 which has now become the tourist attraction that can be visited today.
The name Sir Bani Yas originates from the Bani Yas tribe & the focal feature of the island is its huge salt dome, formed millions of years ago when the minerals were pushed through the earths surface to create the mountain you see today.
Your journey to Bani Yas Island begins on the horrific E11 truck road that leads from Abu Dhabi city all the way to Saudi Arabia. The road comprises of just two lanes , lots of trucks and a 100 km/h speed limit – counter this with some truly awful drivers and you have a recipe for disaster! The drive to the Bani Yas ferry from Abu Dhabi is certainly not a pleasant one and will take between two and three hours. The island is not signposted until you get very close to the ferry terminal, so don’t think that you are going the wrong way, just head in the direction of Ruwais and Jebel Dhanna and eventually the brown tourist signs will magically appear.
With the arrival of the brown signs, the excitement of nearing your destination sets in. As you drive on a causeway out to sea, you encounter some of the most pristine white sand and turquoise waters that you will ever encounter. The silhouette of Sir Bani Yas Island appears on the horizon and then you will feel the luxury creep in. This was our first visit to an Anantara hotel and it will definitely not be our last. The waiting room for the boat was very decedent and the check in process is completed here also. You leave your vehicle in the undercover parking and your bags are taken to the boat for you.
The boat is quite small and takes about fifteen minutes to reach the island (if you really want to splurge, or don’t have much time, there are daily flights from Abu Dhabi with Rotana Jet). The boat travels along the South side of the island and you will see beaches, palm groves and a wind turbine that provides all of the islands power. Once the ferry has docked and you have disembarked, the first thing you must do is sterilize your shoes, to prevent disease reaching the wildlife. You are then whisked on a short bus ride to the north side of the island where luxury awaits you in the form of the Desert Islands Resort.
Located on a spit of land, wedged between a flamingo filled lake and the Arabian Gulf, this 64 room hotel is half colonial Africa and half traditionally Arabic designed… and it is amazing! With huge hanging lamps and canopies draped from the high ceilings, it really is something that needs to be seen to be believed. The staff are all exceptionally friendly and will provide you with a tour of the hotel before taking you to your room. All of the hotel rooms have beautiful seas views, looking out over the swimming pool to the sea.
The hotel is a beautiful place to explore and the hallways that lead to the rooms are punctuated with beautiful lounge areas for relaxing, which are reminiscent of a safari lodge (preparing you for what is to come with the activities on offer). There is much to explore within the hotel grounds from a beautiful spa, to a free kids club, teens club and brilliantly equipped gym facing the ocean. Though, best of all is the beach which is completely natural and very deserted – we were the only ones on the beach at the time of our visit and had a great time looking at the amazing shells and strolling amongst the free roaming gazelles, who appeared to love playing in the sand. The beach is backed by he pool area which is stunning, with an infinity pool that gives the illusion that you are swimming in the sea, as well as an abundance of sun-loungers, cabanas and day beds.
There is also the option of staying at the Al Sahel or Al Yamm villas which are also owned by Anantara and offer a far more luxurious experience (if that is even possible)!
Sir Bani Yas is definitely an outdoorsy location and this is reflected in the activities on offer, from kayaking the islands eastern mangrove forests, to mountain biking through the geological rock formations unique to the area.
For something slightly less active there are the options of archery or a spot of deep sea fishing. Or for thrill-seekers you can try land sailing or snorkeling, where you have the opportunity to see dolphins and sea turtles.
In the winter months there is the option of horse riding and for culture vultures you can visit the monastery to see the remains of this early Christian site dating back to the 6th century AD. The monastery was abandoned by the monks in 750 AD following the arrival of Islam, and is the only Christian site in the UAE, making it of great historical importance.
Recently awarded the ‘World’s Leading Sustainable Tourism Destination’ at the 2014 World Travel Awards. More than half the island makes up the Arabian Wildlife Park, one of region’s largest wildlife reserves and the reason most people come to Sir Bani Yas… The nature reserve was opened up to tourism in 1998 and is an ecologists dream. The area is larger than Abu Dhabi island and contains over 10,000 free roaming animals and 2.5 million trees – all of which have been introduced to the island.
The wildlife drive is a very authentic experience, travelling through the reserve in seven-seater 4×4 vehicles with open sides and a retractable top. Having been to Tanzania to safari in the Serengeti, we can confirm that this is a truly authentic experience, very similar to an African safari. With the grasslands and acacia trees, you really could be in the African savanna, as you spot oryx, sand gazelles, peacocks, deer, hyenas, jackals, giraffes, ostrich and (if your really lucky) cheetahs.
As you criss cross the island along numerous dirt tracks you will travel through a varied landscape, from pristine sandy beaches, to ocean mangroves and even mountains formed when minerals (such as salt) were pushed skywards from more than 6km underground. The landscape feels very lunar as if you are in another world.
We did two wildlife drives (one early morning, and one late afternoon) and saw different animals on each. We were also pleased to note that the drives don’t follow the same routes, so you see different areas of the island depending on the time of day you visit. There are also a few opportunities where you will be allowed to get out of the vehicles and take a stroll, we were allowed to disembark for photos on top of the mountain to enable us to see the spectacular island panoramas. We were also allowed out once more close to the giraffes which was an amazing experience.
The widlife drive is certainly a great adventure and you will soon forget that you are in the UAE as you pass herds of animals feeding at a waterhole or a herd of Arabian oryx skipping across the sand. The cheetahs, though free roaming, are in a separate area of the reserve where they can hunt for themselves, and it was a great experience to see them in such close proximity.
Sir Bani Yas Island is home to many animals that are classified as critically endangered such as sea turtles, sand gazelles, urial sheep, barbary sheep and the Arabian oryx. Great efforts are being made to breed and preserve these species for future generations & you will occasionally see some of these animals within individual enclosures where they are kept separate from the other animals to prevent cross-breeding.
The breeding programmes on Sir Bani Yas have been extremely successful and the number of oryx for example has increased from just twenty to currently over two hundred. Over the past year, animals from Sir Bani Yas Island have been released into the wild, such as the one in the Liwa desert, designated specifically for Oryx.
If you want to get even closer to the animals then you can participate in one of the nature walks, where you can stroll with the giraffes, as a guide explains to you about the natural flora and fauna. This would be a great activity to participate in if you are visiting in the near future, as a baby giraffe was born just last week.
There is also the option for a self-guided nature walk without a guide. This follows a 5km route around the lake situated in front of the hotel, and you will be able to explore the mangroves and spot flamingos at your own pace.
If you just want to kick back and relax the resort has some amazing restaurants. We visited during Ramadan so not all of the facilities were open but we ate breakfast in The Palm restaurant which had some of the freshest food we have eaten in the Emirates and a large selection of items to choose from – a great way to start the day. We also dined at Amwaj which is the islands premier Arabic restauarnt – the food here was delicious, though portions were on the slightly small side. If feeling particularly lazy (like us) the room serve menu is also excellent & the food is delivered to you on a small table complete with table cloth so you can dine in your room in comfort.
Overall we can’t recommend Sir Bani Yas Island enough, and although it may seem expensive the experience is unparalleled. The resort is elegant and luxurious, the staff really pamper you, and it is the perfect place for a relaxing retreat. We know we will be returning very soon.
- LOCATION: Al Gharbia, Western Region, Abu Dhabi (GPS: 24.213877, 52.589939)
- PRICE: If booked well in advance (or out of season) rooms at Desert Islands can be found for approximately 800 AED per night, or 1,200 AED per night inclusive of selected island activities.
- SUITABLE FOR FAMILIES: Absolutely, children will love the isolated sandy beaches and the opportunity to get close to the wild animals.
- HANDY TIPS: Ask for Mahmoud as your wildlife guide. He is a very friendly man and is very knowledgeable about the island and its inhabitants.
Book this hotel: http://www.hotelscombined.ae
All views within this blog are our own and all photographs are © Out & About UAE, unless otherwise stated.