As pleasant as our digs are, we’re soon off to see more of the island’s main attraction—the animals. Our guide, a friendly South African transplant named Ted, takes us in an open-topped jeep on an eventful journey through the island’s back roads, where in a matter of minutes we’ve spotted clusters of stocky white Arabian oryx, mountain gazelles, and, perched casually on a few square centimeters of mountaintop, shaggy Barbary sheep. To this mix of desert wildlife has been added a host of imported species—giraffes, peacocks, llamas—bringing the total animal population to more than 15,000. Some were gifts to Sheikh Zayed, others introduced for the creation of the Arabian Wildlife Park, which encompasses about half of the 87-square-kilometer island.
As we round a corner, Ted cuts the engine and whispers, “Cheetahs!” And there they are, two of the island’s star predators, their long bodies stretched beneath a low-lying bush. We’ve already been spotted, and two pairs of smoldering amber eyes survey us coolly. Kieran is un-fazed. “They look just like big house cats,” he says.
It’s an apt enough description, but the gazelles are probably less sanguine—the cheetahs hunt freely among the non-endangered variety. Besides that, life on Sir Bani Yas seems pretty good, and the animals’ general lack of apprehension is reflected in the nonchalant way they remove themselves from the path of oncoming vehicles, nibble at the resort’s carefully groomed foliage, and practically rub up against diners at the semi-alfresco Savannah Grill & Lounge. We’re reminded of this again early the next morning, when Kieran’s dip in the plunge pool is in-terrupted by the arrival of a peacock that struts around our deck like he’s the one paying for the room.
Thankfully, Sir Bani Yas offers more than just assertive animals. The island’s wide-open spaces and rocky topography make it an ideal venue for adventure sports, including kayaking, hiking, and land sailing. Not being overly intrepid types, we opt for a “short” nine-kilometer mountain-bike ride. Our wheels regularly get mired in patches of fine sand, making it tough going, but the views from the ridges are worth it: tawny hills descending into broad flatlands framed by an azure ocean. We pass cliffs that are testament to the island’s geological diversity, with exposed layers of bruise-purple gypsum and sparkling quartz. On the highest hill stands the white beacon of the late Sultan’s majlis, or meeting place, where invited guests are treated to dates and a stand of trees has been planted in the outline of a giant coffee pot, visible to incoming aircraft as an expression of welcome.
In fact, the island has a long tradition of welcoming visitors, as we learn with a visit to its most famous historical site. In addition to the tribes that settled here thousands of years ago, Sir Bani Yas was a key stop on the sea trade route that linked Mesopotamia to Asia. In 1992 excavations unearthed the remains of a Christian monastery thought to date back to 600 A.D., one of the region’s most significant archaeological finds. Now sheltered from the harsh sun and surrounded by a wooden walkway, its outlines emerge like bones from the parched soil. The grooves for a ladder that once ascended its bell tower and the traces of a fire pit are still clearly visible. In the dwindling light of evening and the desolate surroundings, it’s an eerie place, heavy with the solitude its residents must have sought here.
Other remnants of the island’s ancient past survive too, such as the centuries-old salt mines. But for the most part, Sir Bani Yas is a realm of reinvention. The planting and the introduction of new animals continue apace; the government will not be satisfied, it seems, until the island is something of a Garden of Eden. There’s no question that some elements are contrived. But I recall our guide Ted commenting that he’d spotted more butterflies than ever this year, meaning they’ll help pollinate the plants, increasing the humidity and encouraging even more growth. Nature, it seems, may be beginning to take over what technology and relentless ambition started.
It’s a three-hour drive from Abu Dhabi to the Jebel Dhana Jetty, where a short boat ride (complimentary for Anantara guests) will take you to Sir Bani Yas. Flying is also an option: the island’s airstrip is served by thrice- weekly Rotana Jet (US$130) flights from Abu Dhabi’s Al Bateen airport.
Where to Stay
Anantara operates three luxe resorts on the island, with rates from US$350 per night, double.
This article originally appeared in the June/July 2014 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“Arabian Safari”).