Travel News

The Sheikh’s Dream

This former royal residence, off the coast of Abu Dhabi, has been transformed into a luxury island resort – complete with its own wildlife sanctuary and ‘green mountain’.

As soon as you arrive on the desert island of Sir Bani Yas, after crossing the azure waters of the Arabian Gulf, you can't help but fixate on a single question: "What," you'll inevitably ask yourself, "could possibly live on this place?"
Your initial impression of this new resort island 250 kilometres from Abu Dhabi is that nothing could possibly survive such a seemingly inhospitable and parched landscape - even if it wanted to.
And then you walk into the visitors' centre where you are asked to sign your name on a small biodegradable tag. The tag will, you are assured, be attached to a mangrove that will be planted in one of the island's lagoons in your name.
And there you have it: the first sign of life.
Those of us who have grown up in cities close to or on the coast have a natural predisposition to equate the desert with nothing but barren emptiness. The fact that Sir Bani Yas - Abu Dhabi's newest luxury resort island - is literally teeming with life comes as a delightful revelation.
While Sir Bani Yas at first challenges the senses, it doesn't take long to appreciate its stunning arid beauty and natural geographic wonder. The rugged allure of the parched landscape is offset magically by the pristine serenity of the Arabian Gulf, its crystal-clear waters leading to a soft horizon of baby blue and sunset turquoise.
Sir Bani Yas was established as a nature reserve by the founder of the United Arab Emirates, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, who viewed the island as a jewel in the crown of his oil-rich kingdom. While he imported many of the island's animals - including giraffes - from Africa, Sir Bani Yas is also home to many indigenous creatures such as the scimitar-horned oryx - a species that is critically endangered in the wild. Sheikh Zayed also declared the seas around the island a marine park. The subsequent fishing ban means that today these waters are literally jumping with fish and other marine creatures. It's a paradise for divers and snorkellers.
And snorkelling is just one of the activities available to those who stay at the island's first luxury boutique hotel, the Desert Islands Resort & Spa, which is managed by Thai hospitality group Anantara and opened last October. The 64-room resort has already won plaudits from the Australian expatriate communities of Abu Dhabi and Dubai, but word of mouth is also winning it a reputation as a 'must-do' destination for travellers from Europe and the antipodes.
Situated on the northern side of the island in what was once a guesthouse for Sheikh Zayed, whose family still maintains a palace on the island, the accommodation includes four beach villas and two royal villas, each with their own private gardens and splash pools, and is characterised by an understated Middle Eastern elegance and comfort.
The grand entrance hall of the fully refurbished building is a breathtaking Arabian Nights production of billowing overhead hangings, kilims and elaborate Bedouin lamps. The resort is set within newly plantedgardens focused on a tasteful blue-tiled swimming pool right on the edge of the beach. It's a great spot for some serious horizontal time.
While the resort aims to provide a holiday experience of regenerative R&R and pampering, the focus is also on a range of outdoor activities including snorkelling, kayaking, wildlife encounters - by foot and aboard a converted four-wheel-drive - and mountain-bike riding.
Start, as we did at sunset, with a drive through the wildlife park. Sheikh Zayed originally conceived of the nature reserve to ensure the survival of some of Arabia's more endangered species. Today's Arabian Wildlife Park takes up half the island - we come across a herd of about 400 Arabian oryx, said to be the largest in existence, and spot some of the 170 or so species of birds that have been seen on the island.
En route to the giraffes, dozens of pretty (but none too bright) sand gazelles bounce across the dusty track before us. We spot a few elusive spotted deer from India, but it's a no-show for the reclusive hyenas. Then we stop to watch the herd of easily spooked African eland. They are the biggest antelopes in the world and, despite their massive bulk (some weigh more than a tonne), can jump more than two metres high.
Taking the wildlife drive or riding a mountain bike is the best way to appreciate the effort that has gone into revegetating Sir Bani Yas. Close to three million trees have been planted across the island and all are watered by an elaborate irrigation system that runs - like the rest of the island - from desalinated water pumped from the mainland.
Desalination is just one of the measures that aim to make Sir Bani Yas an ecologically sustainable - and unique - holiday destination. The island houses one of the region's only wind turbines, which power some of the resort's facilities; plans are afoot, meanwhile, to introduce more solar energy measures.
We stop on one of the highest points outside the gates of Sheikh Zayed's majlis, or 'meeting place' - a type of smaller (though the term is relative) day house for entertaining away from the palace. Legend has it that Sheikh Zayed wanted something green upon which to rest his eyes while at the majlis and so a nearby hill was irrigated and planted with green foliage. Cost, of course, was no consideration for the royal family; cast your eye to the sea beyond what is now known as 'Green Mountain' and you'll see why. For there is the Ruwais oil refinery, which produces more than 100,000 barrels a day. Do the sums.
A measure of any luxury resort in the world is its spa facilities, and Anantara's Safaa Spa combines the best massage techniques with aromatherapy, detoxification and deep-tissue remedies. Its ambience is such that, by the time you lie on the table, prone to the bony fingers, elbows and, in my case, feet of your practitioner, you may well be asleep.
The resort's two restaurants, its deli and bars offer a choice of dining styles from fine à la carte and family buffet to poolside snacks. After dinner at the Samak seafood grill and a good night's sleep, I joined a kayaking expedition (no experience necessary) through the island's abundant mangroves. The mangroves are regenerating beautifully here, their roots punching through the surface of the clear water as the first sign of foliage adorns them.
We saw perhaps half a dozen stingrays and countless flashes of tiny flying fish. The highlight, however, had to be a flock of flamingos in low flight just beyond our little flotilla.
Sir Bani Yas is one of eight islands that have been opened to the public under the development of Abu Dhabi's Tourism Development and Investment Company. The others are the Discovery Islands east of Sir Bani Yas and Dalma Island to the north-west.
"There will be more development on some of these islands, but the concept is really to ensure that whatever is done will be ecologically sustainable - for example, some of the islands are breeding grounds for turtles and various species of birds, so they won't be developed," says Lars Nielsen, marketing manager of the Desert Islands group.
In the middle of the last century, Abu Dhabi was little more than a small village. Today, thanks to massive oil and gas revenues, the Emirates' capital city is booming, although it has always been seen as the second city to Dubai.
But things are changing and Abu Dhabi is now emerging as a cultural and tourism powerhouse consistent with its new status as a leading economic force in the Arab world. So much so that by 2012, Abu Dhabi will even boast its own Guggenheim and Louvre museums.
Getting there from Australia once involved time-consuming and tiring transfers. But the Emirates' national airline, Etihad, now runs a direct Sydney to Abu Dhabi service and plans to begin direct flights from Melbourne in March.
Anantara, meanwhile, offers a direct seaplane service from Abu Dhabi International Airport to Sir Bani Yas, which means that less than a day after leaving home, the Australian traveller can be lazing by the pool at Desert Islands Resort & Spa or paddling through the mangroves.
By opening up an island of such extraordinary beauty, Abu Dhabi is destined to enter a new phase of its short but eventful life. And life is what Sir Bani Yas is all about. Even if you can't see it at first.