Escape to a desert island – visiting Sir Bani Yas
“How much does one giraffe eat?” asked the small Emirati boy. “About 75 kilos per day” replied Johann our safari driver. Murmurs of surprise from everyone in the car as we watched three of the tallest animals in the world lollop along in front of our jeep heading towards their feeding area.
We were mid-safari on Sir Bani Yas island (meaning dome of salt) just off Abu Dhabi’s Western coast, the former private island of Sheikh Zayed, late, revered first ruler of the United Arab Emirates. A private Majlis at the highest point of the island is still frequented by the present Sheikh and groves of olive, tamarind, pineapple, mango, banana, apple, orange and lemon trees provide fruit for the palaces. Three types of date palms grow there too and I can vouch for their exquisite sweetness and texture as they are offered as a welcome in reception along with cardamom scented Arabic coffee.
How would you fare if you were stranded alone on a desert island? As a regular listener to Desert Island Discs, I’ve noticed that there are three answers to Kirsty’s question. Some people absolutely dread being on their own and would miss civilisation unbearably, others look forward to the challenge of self-sufficiency and usually plot how they would engineer their escape, the last group welcome tranquility and the appeal of solitude. After a really hectic spell I was definitely in the latter category. Luckily my desert island would be complete with five-star hotel, so I headed off from Dubai for a simple if boring drive of three and a half hours for a weekend ‘staycation’. Ferries run about every 2 hours to take you on the 15 minutes transfer to the island (your car is safely parked in a special place by the dock).
There are three places to stay on the island and a driver took me to Desert Islands Resort and Spa. The hotel entrance is fringed with a lake dotted with flamingos, while the guest rooms look out on the sea. All three resorts are run by Anantara and the decor of the lobby is African game lodge meets the Far East, which means there’s a touch of elegance but cosy at the same time.
I wandered down to the beach where a row of sea defences, speckled and mottled from the lapping water, looked like the emerging coils of a gigantic sea serpent. Reporting for duty at a cooking lesson at the Samak seafood restaurant actually meant that I dressed up in an apron and a chef’s hat and watched while the real chef cooked and then he looked on as I ate it. Worn out by all the excitement I poured fragrant oils, from the little urns provided, into steaming hot water, lit a candle (how thoughtful), had a warm bath and an early night.
Breakfast is served in the Palm restaurant and the lighting is a little weird – much better to sit outside. A gargantuan buffet with every item you could conceivably desire covers at least a third of the place, from cronuts to Bircher muesli via Arabic style laban, olives and cheeses to a full English and more. Many people looked as though they were hunkering down to stay and eat for hours. However, my date with Johann was on the horizon so I ordered from the egg cooking station. There’s an omelette they do in Middle Eastern hotels where they add chopped onion, tomato, cheese, herbs and chilli. This set me up for anything the wild animals could throw at me.
Looping our way through the game reserve in an open sided jeep in early light meant we were up close and personal with hundreds of gazelle-type creatures who were milling around waiting for their feed. Sheikh Zayed saved the Arabian oryx (Al Maha), from extinction when he created the reserve. It’s the national symbol of the United Arab Emirates. He also rescued the black-faced Blackbuck (this curly horned mammal can run at 90 km per hour), the Mountain gazelle (Al Domani) and the Sand Gazelle(Al Reem) ; copious numbers mixed in with deer and other breeds were pottering about munching. They are also munched… more of that later.
The ‘greening of the desert’ was a Sheikh Zayed initiative and the island is planted with thousands of Sidr and Do’ani trees in neat rows (to facilitate irrigation). Grass is planted for grazing and this whole micro-climate attracts a wonderful array of bird-life. Other rulers started to give gifts of animals to Sheikh Zayed and our next aim was to track down some of the big game. The sight of a row of Reticulated giraffe, purposefully moving their impossibly long legs in rhythm was thrilling. They seemed so at home in the landscape and completely ignored us as we parked up close to them while feeding. Ostrich and more assorted gazelle mingled in while osprey glided overhead.
A young male cheetah rested on a hill gazing out over the landscape. He’s one of five who roam the reserve although he has his own fenced off territory to prevent over breeding and excessive fighting (a cub was killed a while back). The cheetah help keep the exploding population of gazelle – now far from extinct – in check as they hunt for their food.
General Manager Mark Eletr takes me for lunch over at the Olio Italian restaurant at the nearby Anantara Sir Bani Yas Island Al Yamm Villa Resort. Thirty private villas cluster around a low-level, Mediterranean style building fronted by a serene, uncluttered (minimalistic?) beach. It’s comfortable, tranquil and elegant without extravagance. There are no real surprises on the Italian menu but the Chef, who has an international pedigree but talks in a voluble Italian accent recommends the special of day. We gaze out over the white sea and azure waves, pausing only to shoo away an overenthusiastic bird which looks like a fluffy grouse which scuttles onto our table now and again. Chocolate volcano cake to follow? Oh go on then.
Lying on a massage table the window to the beach veiled by a gauze curtain and the waves audible through the plinky-plonky spa music was the perfect thing to follow lunch. You could even have your massage on the beach itself in an Arabian style tent. Stress and computer work goes straight to my shoulders so I’ve road-tested many, many massages over the years and this was a good one.
It would have been foolish to ignore Mark’s recommendation of Amwaj for a sundowner and I lost count of the photos I took of the dramatic colours over the ink black lapping sea in the sweep of the bay while sipping an excellent Negroni. A fire pit was lit against the chill of the evening, the soundtrack was relaxing funky jazz, but eventually I tore myself away to eat authentic Middle Eastern food on the terrace.
Up at dawn the next morning, I walked round the lake and followed a group of gazelle trotting ahead at a wary distance. Flamingos were silhouetted against the rising sun and I counted five heron swooping up and down on the water. It was utterly peaceful and the 5km solitary amble the perfect foil for the noise and lights of Dubai.
At breakfast, I had my own wildlife display when jays spotted the remains of my poached eggs on toast. I sat very still and watched as they got braver and braver, one hiding behind the teapot and then popping out to dive in for the spoils. The lady who said she was afraid of animals while on our safari would have hated it but this feeling of being on the edge of nature was the highlight of the stay for me.
My room on the ground floor opened onto a small terrace and when I wasn’t eating, drinking or communing with nature, the warm sun, pleasant breeze and sound of the birds all did their stress-busting magic.
One last meal, which sadly was a bit rushed due to my imminent departure by ferry was nevertheless really special. The Al Sahel Villa Resort is within the reserve itself and another small collection of private villas in surroundings modeled on the African bush . My table at the Savannah Grill restaurant looked out onto an area of trees and bush grass where it’s possible to book private dining at night. Gazelle grazed leisurely on the lawn, a peacock wandered over to inspect me and any thoughts that a bobotie spring roll might not work as a concept or be too greasy evaporated as I took a bite.
The return journey by chauffeured four-wheel drive and ferry had all the services of a short flight, with a departure lounge and baggage handling. I even had someone to load my bag into my car on arrival. My desert island experience renewed my mind, body and spirit, the kilometres slipped away and it was a bit startling to find myself back in Dubai’s chaotic metropolis.
There are many reasons why you’d visit Sir Bani Yas Island. As well as the wildlife and safari, you can kayak or play tennis. There are bikes for hire for a whizz round the island, they’re the ones with a motor for those who want to save their legs. You can dive offshore, go horse-riding and of course there’s the spa. You can even take a tour of the remains of a Christian monastery dating from the 6th Century.
Is it a culinary destination too? I ‘d expected standard hotel fare, a quality international menu without any excitement. In fact given my frazzled state they could have served me Marmite on toast all weekend and I’d have been happy. There was an element of the same old, same old, but with a noticeable difference. The island isolation seems to have unified the culinary team to meet the demands of the guests above and beyond the norm (you can’t go down the road for an alternative so the chefs try to make something you’ll like). The ‘ceviche’ at the Samat restaurant was precooked as most of the guests don’t like raw fish (sadly I do!). They did however make the most delicious steamed sea bream however and do not serve endangered hammour on any menu for environmental reasons. GM Mark told me that they couldn’t ignore the issues faced in the seas lapping at their shores. Big tick of approval there.
The Middle Eastern food at Amwaj was really well executed showing off the talents of Lebanese chef. It wasn’t the hummous, muhamarra and Dijaj Meshwi that showed off the high quality here although they were all delicious. It was the spankingly fresh salad of whole lettuce, cucumber, tomato and herbs demonstrated respect for good ingredients. The cocktail list (to go with the setting sun and fire) was excellent, but the Lebanese wine the only palatable red choice by the glass (a Portuguese Merlot? seriously?). It’s worth visiting the Olio and Savanna restaurants for their settings alone but the enthusiasm and skill of the head chefs shone through in the dishes I tasted. The filled seafood pasta flavoured with squid ink by the Italian chef was outstanding especially when watching the waves lapping at the shore a few metres away.
Savanna was a place I could have taken root at and spent the whole afternoon watching the gazelle graze, the peacocks wander and the long grass wave in the breeze. I thought the bobotie spring rolls sounded odd but ordered them anyway and was won over as the thin, crisp, perfectly dry pastry crumbled to reveal a spicy, meaty filling paired with a homemade fruity chutney. The strength in the hotel team is that several of this band of mixed nationalities and backgrounds have worked together for years within the region and patently love what they do. A special mention has to go to one chef who popped up whenever and wherever I ate (his name and title was so complicated but he’ll know who he is) . He appeared late at night down at Amwaj to make sure everything was OK and made a superb poached egg for me for breakfast.
The hotel was relaxed and informal for families and kept thinking how much my girls would have adored this trip when they were younger. My visit in January meant that the hotel was quite quiet and there was a crisp breeze coming off the sea – it gets hotter and busier as the weather warms up but like most UAE dwellers, I get enough sun. For me it was the ultimate weekend decompression chamber, getting closer to nature, peace and solitude in comfort and style.
I was a guest of Anantara for the weekend (excluding the Spa), all opinions my own. Find more details about the resort here. It’s possible to fly to the island from Dubai with Rotana Jet but they didn’t respond to my enquiry.