A short break that has long been on my list, we finally planned a weekend getaway and made it to Sir Baniyas Island. Famous as a nature reserve that was established in 1977 for conservation purposes by Sheikh Zayed, the island is home to a broad range of animal species, both indigenous and foreign, and offering visitors a one of a kind experience in the UAE, the island also boasts the Anantara Desert Islands Resort & Spa.
The drive from Abu Dhabi city takes around 2.5 to 3.5 hours. There used to be flights that went directly from Al Bateen Airport but at the time of writing these are currently suspended to the island, though the drive is not bad. And as soon as you turn from the main highway onto the road that leads towards the jetty and see the colour of the ocean, you’ll know the trip has been worth it already.
Cars must be left at the jetty, and passengers bound for the island take a small ferry journey of 25 minutes across to the island.
Having envisaged a small, exotic paradise, I was a little surprised at how large the island actually appeared. In fact, Sir Baniyas island itself is 87km², making it even larger than the 67km² of Abu Dhabi Island!
Still, not all my hopes were dashed, as indeed, a fairly exotic paradise still awaited me…
The beaches around the island are beautiful, and despite the hotel pool heaving with overnighters, the beaches were absolutely deserted!
Wanting to fit in as much as possible during our two-night stay, we’d planned ahead and pre-booked some activities starting with an afternoon wildlife drive the very day we arrived.
Safari vehicles are widely used on the island for a number of the activities. The windows are open and the roof lifts up so you can be sure to get close up and unobstructed views of whatever you may be lucky enough to see.
Wildlife is literally everywhere on the island, and even before venturing behind the gates of the wildlife park we’d seen plenty of Sand Gazelles and Arabian Hyrax to name only a couple. Behind the gates, this must be about as close as you can come to a safari outside of Africa, where thousands of beasts including Arabian Oryx, Mountain Gazelles, Giraffes and even Cheetah now live.
If you’re wondering what animals like cheetah and giraffes are doing on an island in the UAE, then all will be explained on the tour, and there’s even a conservation tour for those who are specifically interested in more of the details about the work being done here. But what’s a Sheikh to do when he receives an animal as a goodwill gift from another country? Well, house it happily alongside the indigenous animals his conservation project is trying to help preserve of course!
Although seemingly quite flat from the road, the landscape does boast some impressive rock formations and offers a completely different perspective from high up.
Back at the hotel, there is so much more to choose from to do – this is definitely a place that you come to take part in activities. Whilst the beaches are beautiful and it’s great to spend some time relaxing, everything is geared more towards getting out and making the most of the landscape, whether on dry land or in the water. And there is something for everyone with history and culture tours (there’s an ancient Christian Monastery on the island dating back to 600AD), kayaking, diving, snorkelling, horse riding, archery, nature walks, wildlife drives and mountain biking among others…
Many of the activities do have minimum age ranges, although the island is really family friendly and kids aged one and up can go along on the wildlife drives. We also chose the easy mountain biking route so all three of us could take part – they have child buggies that fix to the bikes and can pull along behind mum or dad (dad was the lucky one in this case!).
One of the other highlights of our stay was a ‘Dine by Design’ private dining experience. As members of the DISCOVERY loyalty programme we’re eligible for heaps of perks through this, and it’s not just for Anantara Hotels, it covers a huge range of hotel brands from all over the world. So, not only did we end up with a rather impressive upgrade on check-in to a one bedroom suite and early check-in at no extra cost for our stay, but the Dine by Design dinner was also a ‘Local Experience’ we had earned as part of the programme. Basically, the more nights you stay in hotels that are part of the programme means the quicker you can climb the tiers and gain the benefits. Moving up from the entry tier to platinum level and becoming eligible for your first free Local Experience requires just 10 nights.
Perched on a beautiful spot overlooking the ocean, we arrived for an early dinner in time to sit back and relax and watch the sun set.
Our own personal chef was on hand to cook dinner for us – and what a feast it was! With cold mezze to start and an enormous mixed-grill of both seafood and meats for the main.
And the setting just became more and more beautiful as the sun went down and the mood lighting went on…
We stayed two nights on the island and were glad we did because there really is so much to see and do. It’s also a bit of a trek from either Abu Dhabi or Dubai once you’ve factored in the drive and ferry crossing, so I’d definitely recommend a minimum stay of two nights to be able to relax and make the most of it.