It is a place where everyone knows your name. Within an hour of landing on this round, key-shaped island about 42 kilometres north-west of Jebel Dhannah in the emirate of Abu Dhabi, the residents of Dalma Island will know about you and want to show you around the last residential desert island of Abu Dhabi - where people are born, live, work, study and are eventually laid to rest.
Historically known for its pearl trading and diving, there is a legend of a buried treasure somewhere on the island, where sacks of pearls were hidden away by a "pearl pirate". There are also legends tied to a dormant volcano that is believed to have left behind a "museum of geological treasures".
The island belongs to the Desert Islands of Abu Dhabi Emirate, a conglomerate of eight islands that include Sir Bani Yas and six smaller, uninhabited and environmentally protected islands. It is also a place of archaeological interest, and for this reason a private tourist operator is encouraging people to visit the tiny island.
"It is the last of its kind," says Mariam Al Hosani, a 24-year-old Emirati from Dalma Island, whose family moved here from Sharjah in the 1980s.
"It is quiet, it is peaceful, with clean, fresh air and clean beaches. It is perfect for those that want to escape a city life and live within a close-knit community," she says.
The Al Hosani family is one of the main tribes living on the island that has a population of about 4,000, along with Al Hammadi, Al Qubaisi and Al Muraykhi.
The island is about nine kilometres by six kilometres and there are many theories about the origin of its name. One theory goes that it was traditionally popular with sailors, who stopped at the island for its plentiful supplies of fresh water - "dalu ma", roughly translates to buckets or carriers of water.
But before you actually get to this spot of land out in the sea that is more than 210km from Abu Dhabi island, there is a ritual that almost every Dalma resident and visitor must go through.
"As the time for the ferry looms closer, you watch the port official from your car, praying for his thumbs to be directed upwards," says Al Hosani.
"You are at the mercy of his thumbs. If the weather is bad, there is nothing anyone can do. We can't go back home."
On Sunday afternoon, Al Hosani was with her husband, a firefighter, returning home to Dalma Island after spending a weekend in Abu Dhabi city. The National was there at the invitation of Mishka Tourism, the private operators for Dalma, to visit this "vintage island". We, along with the Al Hosani family, decided to take the white-and-red ferry, Yameela, as it allows us to take our car with us. Yameela, along with another ferry called Al Gharbia, were introduced in 2010 and each can carry more than 25 cars and 200 passengers for the price of Dh20 per person and Dh100 per car. Before these boats came into service, there were smaller ferries and private boats. The new ferry is scheduled to run between the Jebel Dhanna port and the island three times a day (9am, 1pm and 6pm from Jebel Dhanna).
But that is not always the case, because of the weather. A ferry can get cancelled on short notice, much to the dismay of those who decide to use the seaway to get to the island. It takes between two-and-a-half to three hours on the E11 to drive along mainly two-lane roads from Abu Dhabi to the ferry site. There is also the option of flying out of Abu Dhabi airport with small charter planes but those, too, have limited timings and, if there are not enough passengers, the flights get cancelled - again, on short notice. Rotana Jet charges Dh200 per person one way and flies Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday, with a one-hour stopover at the island.
"Maybe because Dalma is not that easy to reach, it makes it more special," says Al Hosani, who admits that she will move off the island with her husband when their new government house comes through in Abu Dhabi.
"I am used to it, but then again, I have the option of living somewhere else. There is not much to do on the island except spend time on the beach with family."
Upon arrival, I was surprised. There is no small fishing village, nor many old houses. In fact, there's not very much to do at all; it's perhaps an ideal place to retire.
The island is modernised, with paved roads and new houses being built next to traditional homes - it is like a typical neighbourhood in places such as Bani Yas, Al Rahba and new Shahamah. There is just one mall - Dalma Mall - and unlike the typical mall, it has just a handful of small, unbranded shops such as a toy store, phone shop and a co-op for groceries and gadgets.
Local restaurants such as Lebanon Palace and Delma Ice Cream Zone are popular hang-out places and it is not uncommon to see people with their laptops. If you are vegetarian, bring your own food; there are very limited options besides fish dishes and local restaurants may not meet everyone's hygiene standards. There is internet and mobile services all across Dalma (with the exception of 3G service) although the mobile phone network regularly switches to Qatar's as you walk around the edges of the island. There are no cinemas and only a few very basic children's playgrounds.
The single hotel on the island is the Delma Motel. More than 25 years old, the motel is more like a two-storey dormitory in serious need of renovations.
"We are revamping the motel to bring it up to standards - like we are adding cameras, fire exits and bringing in new furniture and repainting the whole place," says Ahmed Malallah, who has been the motel manager for the past nine years.
There are 18 rooms and four chalets - or rather, four tiny houses along the beach. The motel is the biggest hurdle in the island's move towards becoming a tourism destination, with leaking washrooms, torn floor carpets and walls in need of painting. Staying with a family or on one of the much better hotels in Jebel Dhanna would be more comfortable for UAE tourists who are used to five- if not seven-star accommodation.
"We rarely had any people coming before the newer and bigger ferry was introduced. It is only recently we are getting tourists from different backgrounds coming to visit the island," says the 42-year-old Emirati, who was born on Dalma and has lived there ever since.
The manager warns that Dalma Island is not the "luxury" island like its neighbour, Sir Bani Yas; it is instead a "Shaabiya" - a traditional community.
Indeed, there are no infinity pools, spas or giraffes roaming the island. Malallah says there are plans to build hotels and "modern facilities" but it will take time. The development of Dalma Island is part of a bigger government plan to develop Al Gharbia within the Abu Dhabi 2030 vision.
"It is OK. You have all that in the city, you can come here for something different," says Malallah
When not running the motel, Malallah can be found out at sea fishing. "Every kind of fish you can imagine, you can probably catch here. It is all fresh and clean fish here," he adds.
Visitors can meet and interact with the fishermen who are found at their boats at the main dock or selling fish at the Dalma souq.
The best parts about Dalma Island are its residents. Both the Emiratis and expats, such as Fathy Mohammed Abdullah, make it one of the friendliest places to visit. Abdullah, an Egyptian archaeologist, came over for a visit in 1993 to check out the artefacts and historical sites and never left.
"I love it here. There is something beautiful in every corner of the island if you look close enough," says the 50-year-old, who lives on Dalma with his wife and six children, all of whom were born on the island at the Dalma Hospital.
Abdullah works as a tour guide with Mishka Tourism and likes to take visitors around to his "geological museum" along one shore of the island.
"Look at these beautiful rocks," he says, pointing out various sized and coloured quartz, iron oxide and haematite rocks. He says the island is a heaven for rock collectors.
Everyone on the island knows Abdullah and welcomes whoever he brings as "new friends".
"You can hike here along the hills and you can see the head of the volcano. You can chat to the locals and sip coffee against the backdrop of the sea," he says. "Pearl divers still come to this island to look for pearls. It is a blessed island and only when you come here and walk along its shores, you understand what makes it special."
Walking around the lush island, meetings its people and forgetting about everyday luxuries, does leave a lasting impression on its visitors. It is also one of the few places where one can truly feel the changing seasons. But it might be a while yet before the tourist season really hits Dalma Island.
Historical sites on Dalma Island
- The Museum of Dalma, which includes ancient artefacts such as a collection of charred date stones dating from the late 6th to early 5th millennium BC representing some of the earliest evidence of the consumption of dates in Arabia
- Three old mosques, all about a 100 years old, belonging to renowned figures of the island. The Al Muraykhi, Al Dawsari and Al Muhannadi mosques have traditional architecture and various decorative carvings
- An archeological site with human remains that date back more than 6,000 years
- A dormant volcano surrounded by various types of geological formations
-Fishing, pearling and boat-building industries