For a beach getaway the newly opened Zaya Nurai Island is hard to beat.
With its powder-white sand, swaying palms and still waters it offers a
soothing contrast to the urbanisation of Abu Dhabi’s city centre and
yet it’s just a 10-minute boat ride from Saadiyat Island (Abu Dhabi’s
developing creative hub where a Louvre is set to open at the end of this
year and a Guggenheim is expected in 2017).
My biggest dilemma here is whether to spend the afternoon enjoying a
spa treatment in the privacy of my spacious villa (with its own pool ready
and waiting for a post-treatment dip), or whether to take to the warm Gulf
waters for a catamaran cruise or snorkelling session. It would be easy to
spend a few days here barely in contact with another soul if I take advantage
of the bespoke dining experience where the chef whips up an exclusive
gourmet meal of grilled meats and Arabic side dishes, including creamy
hummous and flavoursome cheese sambousek (pastries), to enjoy al fresco
on my villa deck as the sun sets. Castaway paradise indeed.
Mirage at the oasis
I’ll be honest – there are better desert experiences to be had than the
well-worn tourist tracks of sunset desert safaris. It’s quite a drive (about
150km south west of the city) although an easy one – but keep an eye
out for the occasional camels crossing – to the Liwa Oasis, a green belt of
date farms and rustic Bedouin villages which offers a rare insight to local
life beyond the glittering city lights.
Along the way, make a stop at the Emirates National Auto Museum,
home to the private car collection of Sheikh Hamad Bin Hamdan Al
Nahyan. A highlight of the collection is the giant Dodge truck built to
eight times the standard size – it’s actually a towable caravan with a four-
bedroom apartment in its tray.
About 20 minutes beyond the towns, driving into what seems like a
vast and barren desert landscape Qasr Al Sarab (Palace of the Mirage)
emerges like a magic castle from the red dunes.
All rooms and suites boast panoramas of the incredible Empty
Quarter, the largest sandy expanse in the world. The serenity and beauty
of the dunes that stretch off into the distance and change colours rapidly
with the moving sun.
Again, it pays to wake early to take a sunrise tour (in small groups of
less than 10), just a 15-minute drive from the resort, to admire the view
and perhaps some shy Arabian gazelles. There’s plenty of time to nap
later on a sun lounge beside the resort’s pool.
Cruise the forest
Tucked between Abu Dhabi’s main island and Umm Yifenah Island is
the Eastern Mangroves forest, home to more than 100 species of birds
and aquatic life. A tranquil kayak cruise is a good way to view it and
departs from the Eastern Mangroves Promenade. I arrived just as the sun
was rising (again!), when birds are at their most lively and the city is at
its most quiet.
Thankfully, it’s not necessary to be an experienced kayaker to join the
tour with Sea Hawk Water Sports – the guide of our small group was
more than happy to explain the basics and help along the way. Gently
winding through the aquatic pathways lined with green mangroves, it
didn’t feel like we had spent two hours on the water by the time we made
it back to the promenade. At the water’s edge there are a few eateries
such as Café Blanc, which serves up mezze, and Flooka, a seafood
restaurant with a view of the mangrove forest from its patio, in the new
Eastern Mangroves Promenade development.
Etihad Airlines will start new direct flights daily between Brisbane and
Abu Dhabi from June 2015.
| BNE May/June 2015
Camel rides can be booked from the lodge
View from Zaya Nurai beach villa
Al Sahel villa, Sir Bani Yas
Eastern Mangroves Resort
A falconry display at
Qasr Al Sarab is a must-see