Enjoy the beauty of Sir Bani Yas with a new regional cruise ship
Guests who cruise the Arabian seas on board the 18-deck MSC Fantasia are on a vessel so enormous that it boasts a 4-D cinema, a mini golf course and a basketball court.
This luxury has now been extended onshore thanks to the first dedicated beach stopover in the region for cruise-ship passengers which has been introduced on Sir Bani Yas.
The island, 170km south-west of Abu Dhabi city, is a pristine wildlife sanctuary that is now also home to a 1.3km white sand-and-shell beach developed exclusively for cruise-ship passengers.
Its launch comes exactly a year after the opening of Abu Dhabi’s first cruise-ship terminal, in Mina Zayed.
“We will be bringing more than 70,000 passengers to Sir Bani Yas Island this season, and this number will be doubled and tripled in the future,” says Captain Mohamed Juma Al Shamisi, the chief executive of Abu Dhabi Ports.
“For Abu Dhabi, and in particular the Western Region, this means a lot.”
The 39 cruise ships that will visit the island this season will anchor 750 metres off the beach, and passengers will sail ashore in their ships’ tenders.
“The cruise passengers are the only guests using the beach and, as a result, we can tailor the facilities according to the demands of the ship,” says Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority’s Destinations Communications manager, Neil Carney. “They can bring their own catering, and can brand the area with their own tents, flagpoles and other bits and pieces.”
The beach is complemented by a lush mangrove lagoon, where cruise passengers can spot nesting ospreys or flamingoes while they kayak or paddle-board.
When they arrive onshore, the visitors can read all about the “salt dome island” in a historical exhibition that leads to a spacious welcome gazebo, where they can rest their sea legs with a mocktail in hand.
Parasols, wooden sun loungers and freshwater showers are dotted around the beach, which is divided into sections to suit the needs of different clients. To one side, there is a children’s play area and an inflatable aqua park with floating mats for families, while in a more remote section, spa services and cabanas are set up for those seeking more blissful indulgence.
The largest section of beach is dedicated to leisure activities, such as beach volleyball. If cruise passengers would rather go inland to explore, activities ranging from horse riding to mountain biking are available, courtesy of Hala Abu Dhabi, the Abu Dhabi tourism arm of Etihad Airways.
So far this season, eight ships have visited the island. Hala Abu Dhabi’s chief, Chris Hunter says that the most popular excursion so far is the safari, which takes in the island’s 4,100-hectare wildlife reserve.
Do the cruise passengers find it strange to find African animals, including giraffes, cheetahs and ostriches, roaming on an island in the Arabian Gulf?
“Yes and no,” he says. “They also understand from their guide that in actual fact, cheetahs were native to the region but then became extinct, which is one of the reasons why Sheikh Zayed had wanted to create this sanctuary, back in 1977.”
People on Hala Abu Dhabi’s mini island tour might also be surprised to discover that the island is where the first Christians settled in the UAE, in the seventh century.
“Archaeologists are still going through that area,” says Hunter. “It’s a covered site, and there’s a viewing platform so the cruise passengers can actually see the mosaics that have been discovered there.”
American cruise operators Crystal Cruises and Seabourn Cruises also have ships scheduled to stop at Sir Bani Yas this season, but the MSC Fantasia is one of the more regular callers, stopping there every week after it leaves its home port in Abu Dhabi, before sailing on to Dubai, Muscat and Khor Al Fakkan.
However, as on all cruises, passengers are at the mercy of the elements – and at the beach’s recent grand launch, the MSC Fantasia’s 4,363 passengers were stranded on board due to high winds, which meant the ship’s tenders were unable to safely transport them to shore.
“It’s really frustrating,” says Hunter, looking at the ship from the beach.
“This is the first time this has happened and, like with anything new, you learn from it. We should be able to bring in an alternative for cruise-ship passengers to disembark to the lagoon side, where there is potentially less wind.”
Hunter adds that the possible environmental effect on the lagoon’s rich marine life will be taken into account from any options explored.
Updated: December 21, 2016 04:00 AM