x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Anantara Desert Islands Resort & Spa

From the outside, it was disappointing - a pink-coloured, green-roofed, four-storey building with white uPVC windows. Once inside, however, it's a different story.

The hotel's terrace features a pool and sunbathing area.
The hotel's terrace features a pool and sunbathing area.

Our package included transfers from Abu Dhabi, so we were picked up at 6am and driven all the way to a comfortable new reception area next to the jetty at Marsa Jebel Dhanna. The journey was smooth and, as we didn't have to worry about losing our way, we snoozed most of the time. There was a short wait before the boat arrived, and the reception area contained a kitchenette and fridge, so we expected to be offered a drink. We weren't, so we started making our own tea and coffee before a man appeared and somewhat grudgingly brought it to us.

From the jetty we were taken across in a boat to Sir Bani Yas Island. After we arrived at the harbour we were taken briefly to the visitor centre there, where, in a rather tokenistic nod towards the environment, we wrote our names on pieces of paper so that mangroves could be planted in our name. We arrived at the hotel 10 minutes later. From the outside, it was disappointing - a pink-coloured, green-roofed, four-storey building with white uPVC windows. Once inside, however, it's a different story: the large lobby is both grand and snug, with dark woods, rugs, deep sofas and reading lamps. Staff were relaxed and welcoming.

If you want to visit Sir Bani Yas Island, you have no choice but to stay in this hotel: day trips are not permitted and the cost of a room here includes two activities, including a game drive, snorkelling, kayaking, hiking or archery. The hotel sits on the island's northern side, with a not-particularly-attractive beach on one side and a very beautiful flamingo-filled lake on the other. I found the landscaping - grassed lawns and lots of non-native plants - pleasant but rather incongruous.

The hotel has 64 rooms, including two suites, four one-bedroom villas and two two-bedroom villas. Ours was a ground-floor twin room: large, with access to a small terrace at the front. The rooms are probably the best thing about this hotel and we enjoyed hanging out in ours - because of the bad weather we experienced, we probably made more use of it than most. There was a comfy, colonial feel to it, with its chaise longue by the window, and a rattan-style ceiling with a central fan. The beds - in our case two singles which were more like doubles - were sumptuous, with a good variety of large pillows; ideal after a long day of island touring. Because there were few people about, even when we had the terrace doors open - we could see the sea and hear the sound of the waves at night - it still felt private. Although it was windy, our outside terrace was sheltered enough to be used. There was free wireless broadband, which is always welcome.

The hotel staff were all very pleasant, although the service in the Palm - the all-day dining and buffet restaurant - was slow, particularly at breakfast when we were in a rush. We frequently had to hunt for a staff member to lay the table on the terrace, and they seemed to take their time doing it. When we ordered tea, we were given cups rather than a pot. Getting the attention of staff at the various restaurants and bars was harder than it should have been.

When I visited, most of the other guests seemed to be couples or families - both from abroad and from within the UAE. At the very pleasant outdoor terrace in front of The Palm restaurant, there were sometimes a few too many nannies and young children to allow a thoroughly relaxing atmosphere.

For this type of hotel, the food seemed average: the buffet breakfast in The Palm was just about what you'd expect from a five-star hotel, although the orange juice tasted watered-down and the hot food selection, although extensive, didn't seem to change much. Here, buffet lunches were better than a la carte: the fresh tuna from the menu was dry and covered in raw sesame seeds. The Samak Seafood Grill, however, a seafood restaurant next to the beach, lived up to expectations: fresh fish, properly cooked, moderately priced.

Our room: spacious, comfortable and private, with the sound of the sea in the background. The spa: although it has only four treatment rooms, the Safaa spa lives up to the high standard expected of the high-end Thai chain Anantara, which runs this resort. The 60-minute Thai massage banishes stress and tiredness and induces pure bliss. The breezy terrace next to the entrance to the hotel was a stylish and comfortable meeting point: with a view over the lake behind the hotel, it's a good place to watch the sunrise.

The weather. On both occasions I visited, the weather was too rough to allow for snorkelling or even swimming from the hotel. Even if we had swum, two huge sausage-shaped sand bags obscured part of the shoreline. I didn't like the fact that so many of the activities offered to visitors - snorkelling, kayaking, archery - were weather-dependent and liable to be cancelled at very short notice. On our last morning, we were abruptly summoned to check out of our room two hours early as our flight had been rescheduled because of high winds. Neither of these points was strictly the fault of the hotel, but the experience comes as a package.

Weather permitting, a break here is worthwhile. You can escape the crowds of the city, fill your lungs with fresh sea air, see wildlife in a way you can't anywhere else in the region and relax in a luxury hotel at the end of it all. If you are lucky, you can kayak and snorkel too, but all the staff supervising these activities need to treat guests as paying customers with high expectations and limited time, rather than as a captive audience.

Double rooms cost from US$442 (Dh1,624) per night including taxes, breakfast and two activities per person, per day, including game drives, game walks, kayaking, snorkelling and mountain biking. Desert Islands Resort & Spa, Sir Bani Yas Island (www. desertislands.anantara.com; 02 801 5400). rbehan@thenational.ae