bu Dhabi may be the largest of the seven states that make up
the United Arab Emirates but it still packs a lot into its island
capital city of the same name, a gleaming metropolis of towering
skyscrapers, designer shopping malls and luxury hotels. But beyond the
must-see attractions that include the Emirates Palace and Sheikh Zayed
Grand Mosque, a stroll along the Corniche and shopping ’til you drop at
the new Yas Mall (attached to Ferrari World), there’s a very different side of
Abu Dhabi to discover ...
I’d heard about the legendary Sir Bani Yas long before I set foot on the
island. With its savannah grasslands, free-roaming cheetahs and giraffes
and African-inspired glamping tents, it is hard to believe I’m not in the
heart of Africa itself.
Sir Bani Yas is about 250 kilometres from Abu Dhabi, a 30-minute
flight from the International Airport or about two and a half hours
by car and a 20-minute boat ride, and is named for the native Bani
Yas tribe of the area. The island’s former owner, Sheikh Zayed bin
Sultan al Nahyan, (founding father of the UAE) began to turn it into a
conservation area in the 1970s to preserve indigenous flora and fauna –
and a few exotic imports.
The results speak for themselves: sitting on the deck of my private
tent-cum-villa at Al Sahel Villa Resort (one of the three luxury Anantara
properties on the island), decorated with wood and African-inspired
décor, shy Arabian gazelles amble past in small groups while a flock of
guinea fowl make full use of my private plunge pool.
In the morning hotel staff bundle us up in Jeeps to tour the landscape
and it’s worth the early rise to learn about the history of the island, the
conservation projects and, even if through still tired eyes, to look out for
the elusive resident cheetahs and giraffes. For the remainder of the day
there are other activities such as hiking, land sailing and kayaking to pass
the time but at sunset, a falconry display is truly spectacular. Two expert
falconers explain the traditional Bedouin practice of bird training before
releasing their own birds into the air where they fly in lightning-fast circles,
at the command of their masters, for the delight of spectators below.
BNE May/June 2015 |
Al Yamm villa at Sir Bani Yas Island
Dunes of the Empty Quarter seen from Qasr Al Sarab
Courtyard at Qasr Al Sarab