A sparklingly clean city full of high rise buildings and enormous shopping malls was what I was expecting of Abu Dhabi. Something similar to Dubai with a slightly less Western influence – but other than that, my debut trip to the United Arab Emirates’ capital was to be a voyage of discovery. There were sights I had on my to-do list: the Grand Mosque, the new Louvre Abu Dhabi (just days earlier the most expensive painting in the world – Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi – had been acquired by the city's Department of Culture and Tourism, and was destined take up residence in the art world’s newest internationally significant museum). And I was hoping there would be time for a little bit of history – to discover how the city, less than 50 years old, had come to be, and what life had been like for the Bedouins who had called the place home in a time before oil.
The Louvre Abu Dhabi is an impressive building
But while the sights and tourist trips which I managed to cram into my first day in the UAE were both breath-taking and impressive, and the history lessons learned at the Qasr Al Hosn visitor centre fascinating, this was to be a different trip to Abu Dhabi. One focussing on things most people would never associate with the Middle East: safaris, giraffes, cheetah and turkeys were on the agenda on the private island of Sir Bani Yas, a three-hour drive from the city.
The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque is awe inspiring (and requires culturally appropriate clothing)
Sheikh Zayed was a man I learned a lot about in my first 24-hours in Abu Dhabi. When oil was first discovered by British prospectors, it was Zayed – universally revered for his wise decisions, kind approach and great love of animals – who managed to unify his people and create the UAE – ensuring smart negotiations and prosperity. When not busy overseeing the creation of his new united federation, Zayed had conservation on his mind. Animals and plants were of enormous importance to him, and an island 250km from Abu Dhabi city became his personal passion project.
Sir Bani Yas is a salt dome island. Wildlife abounds in the waters around it – reefs home to colourful fish also attract larger sea creatures such as dolphins and turtles. But the lack of native fauna and flora was nothing to defeat this resourceful sheikh, who set to work not only building palaces on the island (once home to an early Christian monastery), but also a wildlife reserve. The lack of rain meant every plant (there are now several million trees) had to be individually irrigated to survive, so hundreds of meters of hosepipes were laid allowing vegetation – from date palms to frankinsense trees – to spring up on the 87-kilometre-square site.
Wildlife abounds on this unnaturally green salt dome island
After vegetation, could come animals. The Arabian oryx, threatened with extinction, was one of Sheikh Zayed’s first concerns, along with other endangered species from the Arabian peninsular, and further afield. 47 years later, and now home to three hotels, Sir Bani Yas is literally brimming with wildlife and gifts from far and wide, combined with a still-growing conservation effort – means the animals in residence in this unnaturally green oasis in the desert is bizarrely diverse.
I arrived on the island on a boat operated by my hotel, the Anantara’s Al Sahel Villa Resort. Our transfer across the island to our luxury complex took us straight through the wildlife reserve. Animals come first here: the maximum speed limit is 30 mph – beneath the maximum speed of the island’s slowest animal, so theoretically one could always escape. In reality any driver on Sir Bani Yas will be hoping for this outcome, as the resident police force, who presumably have very little to do other than keep an eye out for roadkill, will treat any traffic accident very seriously – punishable by a hefty fine and jail time.
A nature walk on the island is a great way to spend an afternoon
Gazelles and deer of all sort abound, and look somewhat at home in their sandy environment. The most extraordinary things to come face to face with in this Middle Eastern island retreat are giraffes and cheetah, the latter once native to Arabia and on the island as a natural predator to help control populations of smaller animals. Sir Bani Yas is an extraordinary and quite remarkable place. Relaxing on the deck of my private villa, lounging on a sunlounger, wildlife was all about. Peacocks came to sip from my plunge pool, while gazelles skipped through the arid expanse,and birds called to each other from the trees.
A friendly peacock liked to sip from my plunge pool
Safaris here feel like a mid-way point between a drive in a safari park and a true African adventure. The giraffes are more easily spotted than in the wild, as there are feeding areas they naturally congregate round at dinner time. But while that feels slightly less ‘natural’ than visiting the majestic creatures in their native environment, the reality of a group of five giraffes wandering past you almost at stroking distance does not fail to inspire awe.
Sunrise on our morning safari was worth getting up early for
The initial sight of row upon row of irrigated trees can make you feel as if you’re on the set of a movie rather than in a natural paradise, but the more you learn about Sir Bani Yas island and its founder, Sheikh Zayed, the more it gets under your skin. There’s a wonderful quirkiness about an island with conservation aims at its core, which is currently home to a large group of turkeys – not the most likely spotting on a safari trip – courtesy of a foreign dignitary who felt compelled to donate to the cause, while perhaps not quite understanding the island’s aims!
The sun sets on our Arabian safari adventure
Sadly for us, snorkelling and diving was off the agenda due to unusually high winds but the seas are, I’m reliably informed, full of amazing fish and coral along the dolphins which we were lucky enough to be accompanied by the following day as we returned on a boat to mainland. Time on Sir Bani Yas is peaceful beyond even your wildest dreams– the skies full of stars, the mornings alive with bird call and the food at the three Anantara Hotels simply delicious. In fact by the end of our stay we had to start bribing the amazingly enthusiastic cooking and waiting staff to bring us less to eat – because once the array of Arabian (or Italian, or African...) fare was brought to the table, it was impossible not to over indulge!
After a couple of days of total R&R on the island, city life once again beckoned and once safely back on terra firma we transferred back to Abu Dhabi city and returned to the 5 star Eastern Mangroves Hotel and Spa, another Anantara property. The city’s vertiginous skyline presides over the mangrove forests in this more residential zone of the city, and again the food was to die for (and after an all-you-can-eat buffet that included sushi, Thai food and the most incredible desert table I’d ever witnessed, at one point I wondered if I might!).
The spa offers amazing treatments (the full hammam experience, while not exactly relaxing, was certainly invigorating and after coffee and salt and goodness knows what else had been vigorously rubbed into my body, my skin felt softer than I think it ever had done before). This was a different Abu Dhabi to the one I had imagined. In fact in my whole time in the city, I never once stepped foot inside a shopping mall. And while the sparkling high towers and expensive cars played constant reminder that I was indeed experiencing life in the UAE, this was definitely not a holiday I had expected – in a very pleasing way. So much so that I’d definitely advise making sure you take a walk on the wild side if you find yourself in the Middle East, because you definitly won’t regret it.
Etihad airways has three flights a day to Abu Dhabi from London and offers the city as a stopover on longer haul flights. London to Abu Dhabi city takes just over 7 hours. Flights are also available from Manchester and Edinburgh.