x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Sir Bani Yas doubles as Adventure Island

Anantara's new luxury hideaways - Al Yamm and Al Sahel - on Sir Bani Yas island have activities ranging from archery and mountain biking to wadi-walking and snorkelling. Dive in.

Five-star options: The swimming pool and unspoilt beach at Anantara Al Yamm Villa Resort on Sir Bani Yas island. Courtesy Anantara Hotels, Resorts and Spas
Five-star options: The swimming pool and unspoilt beach at Anantara Al Yamm Villa Resort on Sir Bani Yas island. Courtesy Anantara Hotels, Resorts and Spas

There aren’t many hotels I actually miss after returning home. The Al Yamm and Al Sahel villas – at once cosy and spacious, but, above all, quiet – are both in this category. A weekend here felt like much more than the 48-hour escape it was. It was my third visit to Sir Bani Yas, the first being in 2009 and second in 2011. Since then, the 87-square-kilometre island has opened a new watersports centre and stables, and the long-awaited Anantara Al Yamm and Al Sahel Villa Resorts, which take the hospitality on the island to a new level of luxury and exclusivity.

There’s also been something of a revolution in transport. Rotana Jet now operates five 30-minute-long flights a week from Abu Dhabi’s Al Bateen Airport, and from Dubai. If you live in Abu Dhabi, a lot of time is saved in not travelling to the international airport, and on airport procedures. Within an hour of leaving the office I was taking off on a 50-seater ERJ 145. Passports are needed to fly, but you don’t need to go through immigration, and Al Bateen Airport is so small, you’d struggle to find it stressful.

On arrival on Sir Bani Yas, while most of the other guests pile into a bus destined for the Desert Islands Resort & Spa by Anantara, the island’s first and biggest hotel on the north coast, I’m met in a new Toyota Land Cruiser by Hashim, from Kerala, who informs me and the two other guests who have jumped aboard that he’s already collected our luggage (we’d forgotten about it), and before we know it, we’re on our way, gliding silently along a new tarmac road to Al Yamm on the island’s east coast. Hashim runs us through the latest wildlife statistics: 11,000 animals of 15 types; 36 giraffes and five cheetahs (“We had seven cheetahs, but two female babies got eaten”).

At the delightfully intimate main building, I’m given a yogurt-and-mint drink before taking a quick look around: there’s a small library in the lobby, a bar with a sun deck and an Italian restaurant with a sheltered courtyard. Al Yamm consists of 30 villas, some on the beach and some facing the mangroves. Mine is facing a gloriously barren beach. Before I unpack, I get changed out of my work clothes, throw open the back doors and head off down the beach for a walk before sunset. The sand on the beach is coarse, and strewn with sponges, shells and corals, and there’s a shallow reef running along it. A couple in the next villa have two young children, a result of the hotel recently changing its no-child policy. While some will rue the lack of quiet, it’s nice to see the toddlers exploring the rock pools with their parents.

As the sun comes down, several timid gazelles venture down to the edge of the beach. The narrow road running behind the resort has no traffic on it at this time, and it’s great to know that, because of the island’s location and the way it’s set up, there will never be hordes of people here. At the other side of the main building is a mangrove lagoon, another great place to watch the sun set behind the hills. Dinner is at Olio, the hotel’s only restaurant. The food isn’t yet as good as the restaurant looks – with a pizza oven and a partly open kitchen displaying high-end Italian products, I am disappointed to find that the chef’s special pizza is chewy and stodgy. A lobster fettuccine is better, but the pasta could have had more bite. The tiramisu is the best of the lot.

Back in my room, I notice that it smells slightly of chemicals, but I’m too tired to move. I’m told the next morning that it was sprayed with insecticide two days before my visit, but that the chemicals used are safe. It’s the only major drawback in the villa, which is otherwise all-singing, all-dancing – blinds and curtains to block out the light, outside lights that actually switch off, a gorgeous big bed with a view of the sea (and the sound of the sea if you choose to sleep with the doors open). I’m not as keen on the saloon-style swing doors to the shower, or the fact that the hot water runs out before the bath is full.

After a buffet breakfast the next morning, I’m picked up at 9am by Ted from South Africa, who’s here to take me on a 90-minute mountain bike ride across the island (all the activities on the island, which – with the exception of watersports – are now run by Anantara, are 90 minutes). We start at the main hotel on the north coast and head inland, both on the road and off. The “off” parts are surprisingly difficult, as what looks like hard soil or rock is soft sand. “Use a low gear and use the momentum to push on through it,” says Ted as I come to a grinding halt. I tell him my days of BMX-ing are over, so he chooses a route more suited to my abilities. This, it turns out, doesn’t mean that there’s no off-road, or uphill. I’m huffing and puffing after a climb in the foothills of the island’s salt domes and Ted says that he gets many guests, used to cycling on flat roads, who suddenly realise they aren’t as fit as they thought. Luckily the way back is mostly downhill. We’re not in a part of the island where there are dangerous predators, which is good to know, and the only wildlife we see are gazelles, oryx, eland and hyraxes, which look like giant guinea pigs.

Next, it’s off to Al Sahel, situated on the western side of the island in the Arabian Wildlife Park, which now takes up roughly half of the island’s total area. The resort itself is fenced from predators, but there are free-roaming gazelles, peacocks and plenty of other bird life.

There are 30 private villas here too, some facing a sizeable slice of heavily watered, composted and fertilised grassland and the others facing a more barren landscape of dry earth and ghaf and acacia trees (the unsightly black plastic piping that feeds most of the trees on the island with water has been buried underground).

Yet before I’ve even settled into my villa, it’s time for another activity. This time it’s archery with Mustapha from Morocco. I have the range all to myself and use both recurve and composite bows, the latter being more powerful (and more painful, rebound-wise). I hit the target around 20 times before declining Mustapha’s offer to set up the mobile target farther back: my arms are already tired and I’m keen on a swim before sunset (these activities are a great idea, but they do eat into your villa time).

The main building is relatively understated, with tasteful interiors and African-themed furniture and decorations, such as handmade Botswanan baskets covering the hallway. The swimming pool area has something of The Flintstones about it, and when the second staff member in a row makes a joke about the gazelles on the lawn being lawnmowers, I wonder how this could ever compete with a real African safari. Yet Johnannes from Namibia, who takes me to my thatched-roof, mud-coloured villa in a golf buggy, tells me that “this place is just like home”. I’m not going to contradict him.

I watch the sunset on the deck over-looking the grassland “savannah”, which actually could pass for a slice of Africa. There’s something life-affirming about the presence of a large number of (relatively) free-roaming wild animals, and other guests return from their game drives beaming from the experience.

Dinner is in the “African concept” Savannah Grill – thankfully, the concept is fairly subtle – where I’m served delicious Wagyu tenderloin, asparagus and mashed potatoes. The Jordanian restaurant manager seems to have a good grip on things and I’m impressed at the level of service and quality of food, just two months after opening.

On the way back to my villa I’m able to admire the stars before having an early night. It’s a good thing I do because I’m woken at 5am the next morning by the resort’s handsome peacocks calling just outside my room.

The next morning it’s time for another activity – a wadi walk with Mustapha and a Swiss couple from Zurich, who are enjoying a rest after a cruise around the Gulf. “It’s a bit strange having Africa here, but then a lot of things are strange down here,” she says. “Before the cruise we stayed at Anantara The Palm in Dubai, which is like Thailand – this is also strange.”

After a 10-minute drive in one of the resort’s game-drive vehicles, Mustapha leads us into a maze-like landscape of gullies formed by the weather. “Hundred million years ago this island was part of the mainland, but it was under water,” he says. “Then the Earth’s crust moved upwards and we are left with salt that contains iron, copper, magnesium, sulphur, limestone, lots of mixed rocks. They change with the rain and erosion, so the landscape is never the same. Sir is a Khaleeji Arabic word for ‘dry, salty land’, and this is where the island got its name from.”

The highest point on the island is only 134 metres, but there is a surprising variety of trails to follow in the area. As we scramble downhill, Mustapha shows us crystalline gypsum, which looks like glass, and dark, heavy haematite. Green, yellow, red and brown, the colours of the rocks and their formations are interesting in themselves, but we come across the bones of dead animals, including gazelles, who “come here to die”. We also find a large mortar shell from when the island was used as a British Army base, from between 1940 and the late 1960s.

From here it’s straight on to my last and final activity, a snorkelling trip from the island’s watersports centre, which is run by the Abu Dhabi-based Al Mahara. I’m given a wetsuit and diving boots to change into before I jump on a speedboat with Peter, who takes me to one of the best nearby snorkelling sites, a 10-minute trip directly offshore. While he admits that the snorkelling here isn’t as good as in Musandam, Oman, as the corals suffer from bleaching, he’s taking me to a wreck near Gasha Island. It’s my first-ever wreck, and Peter seems surprised. “What a shame you have never dived on a wreck before!” he says. “This was an old towing barge that hit a reef and sank. Now it’s a nice, crusty old wreck.” We anchor close by and swim over thick beds of seagrass to reach the looming mass. The visibility is great – about 30 metres – and I’m hoping to see dugongs, turtles, dolphins or at least rays, but have to content myself with the large fish huddled around the wreck and the rock-like corals surrounding it – hammour, golden trevally, angelfish and batfish. The water is a bit choppy, so Peter doesn’t let us get too close, but after swimming around once he does allow us to swim through the centre. “If it was calm, I’d let you go inside,” he says. “We are lucky here because this is a protected area. No fishing is allowed, so there’s plenty to see. There’s also a reef going right round that island.”

Alas, there’s no time for any more. My 48-hour trip is up and it’s time to head to the airport.