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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 ...

On safari

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 |

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Al Yamm villa at Sir Bani Yas Island

Dunes of the Empty Quarter seen from Qasr Al Sarab

Courtyard at Qasr Al Sarab

Eastern Mangroves