Al Sahel Villa Resort - Sir Bani Yas Island
Escape to Adventure
I love vacationing. It turns out, surprisingly enough, that I have a knack for it. I can sleep on airplanes and I love the sound of busy train stations or the endless miles of a road trip. I love history and sightseeing, and I completely trust the 'live like a local' mentality. Relaxing is always fine too - provided I can sprinkle in some adventure.
Sir Bani Yas Island is one of eight islands that make up the Desert Islands in Al Gharbia, the Western Region of Abu Dhabi. The island itself gets its name from the Bani Yas tribe who first inhabited Abu Dhabi.
There is a one-of-a-kind reserve which cover nearly half of the 87 square kilometers that make up the island. The rare and endangered species are a testament to the ideals and vision of Sheikh Zayed and the people of the UAE who have continued the work into the 21st century in the practice of conservation.
For we tourists, Sir Bani Yas Island is a relaxing playground full of rugged adventure. It’s a quick 4 hour drive from Al Ain, making it a great escape destination for a long weekend. However, if you prefer, there are also flights that operate from both Dubai and Abu Dhabi as well as fast ferries. So, whether it is land, sea, or air – you can get there easily.
We drove. Reaching the end of the Jebel Dhana jetty, the embarkation point to the island, each guest traveling to the island must first check in with the Anantara representative prior to boarding. The trip by ferry is complimentary and takes 10-15 minutes.
Disembarking at the pier of the island is where the adventure begins. From this point, each member of the island resort staff seems to be at your service. Our luggage was loaded into a car and we were whisked away to our resort via private driver.
Wildlife encounter or Beach bliss
There are 3 different choices to stay on the island, all of which are managed by Anantara. While all of the choices are luxurious, extra consideration needs to be made as to which spectacular view or close encounter with wildlife best suits your taste.
The first option is the Desert Island Resort & Spa. This resort is located on the North shore and is best described as the 'hotel' option on the island with its 64 rooms and suites. The infinity pool and tennis courts, the spa and amazing dining, cover all the bases and leave little to be required.
The second option is the Al Yamm Villa Resort. This resort is located on the Eastern side of Sir Bani Yas and occupies, what some say, the most stunning beach of the entire island.
The private villas are primarily situated along the beach, although there is a handful that overlook the lush mangroves to the south. The central lodge features an Italian-style restaurant and a lounge with relaxing, billowing curtains around the terrace that further emphasize the island paradise.
The third option is Al Sahel Villa Resort on the West side of the island. Each villa reminds you of an African gaming lodge where you wake up to a view of free-roaming wildlife. The 30 villas, all with a thatched roof, brushed copper basins and tub, and pillow-soft beds, are nestled in a grassy oasis of the Wildlife Park with 1 and 2 bedroom options.
On the rear terrace of each villa there is a small plunge pool where you can enjoy getting away from the sun but not miss any of the relaxing views of gazelles, ostriches, Oryx, or Antelope as they graze on the grass and trees nearby. Villa number 72 was my ‘home on the range’, if you will, for the next 3 days.
Arriving in the front vestibule, my traveling companions and I were met at the front desk by Assistant Front Office Manager, Mohammed Natsheh who greeted us with a hearty handshake and welcome drink. After checking in and getting settled into the villas, we made our way back to the lodge for dinner at Savannah Lounge and Grill, which offers a tantalizing selection of African inspired cuisine.
I started with the 350g T-Bone of Wagyu Prime Beef, which was accompanied with confit onions, garlic sautéed baby potatoes, and a choice of sauce. Dining on the patio with soft, torch lit lighting even more enjoyable. The calls of peacocks nesting in the nearby trees and occasional rustle from the tall grass at the edge of the lodge reminded us that we were not in our backyards at home.
At 6:45am we were still wiping the sleep from our eyes while we waited at the Lodge for our guide to take us into the park for our Nature and Wildlife Drive.
Our guide for the morning, Johan Wessels, arrived promptly at 7am. We climbed into the 4x4 Safari vehicle and after a short drive, entered the wildlife park through the secured gate.
The endangered Arabian Oryx were intermingled with the Mountain Gazelle and Sand Gazelles, which together make up half of the 13,000 animals of the island.
We pressed on in search of the 5 cheetahs and a giraffe or two. The giraffes came slowly into view as we drove across one of the plains. Striding casually towards our vehicle, they didn't seem to mind that we were there and passed so close we could nearly reach out and pet it.
We found 2 of the cheetahs lounging out of the morning sun. A valiant attempt was made to locate the others, but as I'm sure you'll agree...these are wild animals and they tend to move around. After coffee and a pastry on the top of the mountain in the middle of the park, we made our way back to the lodge for a proper breakfast.
The rest of the day was at our leisure to explore the island before dinner. Our chosen destination for the afternoon was Al Yamm Villa Resort. We notified the front desk and transportation was arranged for us.
Poolside beverages and nibbles from Olio, the Italian restaurant at Al Yamm, were the perfect way to spend the afternoon. Dinner that night was slotted for Al Shams restaurant at Desert Islands Resort and Spa.
Al Shams offers Arabic and Lebanese culinary delights that combines relaxed island living with elegance for both the dining and nightlife they offer. We opted for al fresco dining on the terrace, as temperature outside was just right to rendezvous at the bar with a signature cocktail or sun-downer in hand before sitting down to dinner.
The wicker fans spun slowly overhead while the menu was perused over. Dinner options are more traditional but vast. I started with the chicken vermicelli soup with some fried Arabic bread and lemon and finished off with Samak Harra. The catch of the day was marinated with herbs and served with a lightly spicy harra sauce and rice. But if that doesn't tickle your fancy, other options available range from beef burgers to shawarmas.
We ended up staying for a while. Ordering another ‘adult beverage’ from the bar and enjoying the sea breeze that was helping to keep the ice in our beverages from melting so fast. Shisha is available for those who are interested.
The following morning we were up early again for our scheduled Wadi Walk. Senior Adventure Guide Matt Bottomer was waiting for us at the lodge as we arrived, ready for some exploration.
Throughout the 45 minute hike, Matt explained some of the history of the island, both geologically and more contemporary. We were on-foot and in the same realm as the animals so a particular heightened sense of awareness was apparent in everybody. However, Matt assured us that nobody had ever been attacked by one of the islands secret scavengers, the Striped Hyena.
The walk passes through the salt dome hilltops in the middle of Sir Bani Yas Island where Matt pointed out fossils and minerals unique to the island.
We returned to the lodge for breakfast and decided that the rest of the morning should consist of us taking advantage of our splash pool on the deck of our villa as the multitude of animals made their way past - and onto - our property.
Ostriches strolled by seemingly unaware that we were bobbing in the water yards away and the occasional Gazelle wandered by as well. It was soon made apparent that if we weren't lounging in the water, they would wander right up to the patio door of the villa and peer inside – as it happened to the guests next door.
Our afternoon activity of horseback riding was scheduled for 4pm. Tailored to meet the skills of each rider, the horses do come from a variety of backgrounds and represent different breeds from around the world. Each guest is provided with a helmet and boots but keep in mind that shorts and loose clothing is not permitted, so dress accordingly.
For our last night, we had made reservations at Amwaj, the seafood dining destination adjacent to the Watersports Center. The cozy oversized chairs create an intimate dining experience on the terrace that can be extended once the plates are cleared away and the bonfire is lit. If you ask them for marshmallows for roasting you won't be disappointed.
For dinner we chose the seafood platter for two. Amazing! More than enough for two people, we indulged ourselves with grilled king prawns, calamari, mussels, grilled lobster tails, fillets and scallops. After dinner we lounged by the fire for a bit and partook in a drop or two from the impressive cellar.
Feeling that we weren't ready to return to reality just yet, we stopped into the lounge at the lodge at Al Sahel when we returned for a nightcap under the billowing curtains of the terrace. The haunting calls of the peacocks had all but stopped at the late hour, but we knew things were still out there from the noises in the distance.
More time was certainly needed on this amazing island; my adventurous spirit still feels things need to be discovered. Boarding the ferry to return us to the mainland only emphasized the idea that I would have to return someday to finish the other activities that are on offer.
From exciting sporting activities like mountain biking, land sailing, scuba diving and deep-sea fishing to discovering more about the history and culture of Sir Bani Yas, there’s so much to see and do that we didn't even get the chance to look into most of it. When you stay at the truly unique Anantara resorts of the island, you have to go back...there's no way around it.