Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Luxury Active Breaks in Abu Dhabi

Abu Dhabi is a stunning place to visit, and especially pleasant in the winter months. It’s a city which has changed out of all recognition in the past 30 years with more and more great tourist attractions being built to complement its modern skyline. Places like Ferrari World and Yas Waterworld are making the headlines as some of the top tourist attractions in United Arab Emirates.

But what does Abu Dhabi offer those who want an active outdoors break, in a really luxurious setting, away from the hustle and bustle of the modern skyscraper downtown city of Abu Dhabi? Desert Islands Resort and Spa is an ideal match to these needs. Set on the magnificent 87 square kilometre Sir Bani Yas island, just off the coast of mainland Abu Dhabi near Ruwais, about 160km east of Abu Dhabi city, Desert Islands Resort and Spa offers guests 5 star luxury in an idyllic setting, with a host of great and unique daily activities.

What is Sir Bani Yas Island?

A little bit about the history of the island the luxury resort.
Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the much loved late founder and president of the United Arab Emirates (Abu Dhabi and the 6 other previously autonomous Emirates joined to become the United Arab Emirates, under the guidance of Sheik Zayed, just over 41 years ago) first developed the wildlife reserve on Sir Bani Yas Island in 1971. One of the main aims was to ensure the survival of Arabia’s endangered species, like the famous Arabian Oryx (the island is now home to a unique herd of over 500 Arabian Oryx, and is releasing animals back the wild on the mainland.

About 50% of the island is allocated to a unique 4100 hectare wildlife reserve, which is home to around 10,000 free roaming animals, from over 30 species. Its inhabitants include Arabian Oryx, Giraffes, Hyenas, Cheetahs, Ostriches and numerous breeds of Gazelles to name just a few. You will notice during your visit to Sir Bani Yas Island that ‘unique’ is a word which crops up quite a lot.

In the 1990’s the island was first opened to tourists at weekends, and these tours quickly became so popular that visits had to be booked months in advance. The Abu Dhabi Tourism Development & Investment Company (TDIC) have now taken the role of developers of the Desert Islands as a tourism destination.

Conservation and local habitat protection remains the key aims. In one year alone over 10,000 animals from Sir Bani Yas Island were released back into the wildlife reserves in the Liwa Desert, on the Abu Dhabi mainland. An 8 km no-fishing zone is strictly enforced around the island to protect the island’s marine. This in turn
provides an excellent habitat and safe breeding zones for turtles, dugongs (a manatee like marina mammal related to the elephant) and dolphins. Off shore navigation routes have been specifically designed to reduce the impact of maritime traffic on the island’s dugong and sea turtle populations.

Several million plants and trees have been planted, serviced by over 80km of irrigation pipes, as part of the late Sheikh Zayed’s ‘Greening of the Desert’ programme.

But enough of the great green stuff, what is there to do? What are the digs like? And how do you get there?

Things to do on Sir Bani Yas Island

This was the key draw to the island for YouGoDo, we wanted to enjoy the famous great climate and hospitality of Abu Dhabi, but enjoy an active luxury break. And we got
exactly what we were looking for! The resort utilises its great assets like the local geography, its island setting and offshore reefs and the unique wildlife park to offer many great eco friendly, fun activities.

In our two days on the island we hiked the wadi, rode horse back on the islands trails, mountain biked through the wildlife, witnessed the islands wildlife on an early morning safari and took in the reefs offshore on a snorkelling expedition! And there was plenty left to go at, had we had more time to enjoy the island.

The resort’s team of friendly knowledgably guides are all great fun, and add to your experiences. And for all of the activities we tried, there appeared to be no minimum group size – if there was only one for mountain biking, off you go with the guide! So no need to force the grumpy teenage kids into activities they do not want to do, or take granny mountain biking, just to make up the numbers!

The island places an emphasis on its nature inspired environmentally friendly activities, and there is an office dedicated to explaining the options to guests and scheduling any activities you want to try. It’s not a hard sell operation, so if you simply prefer to lie on a sunbed by the excellent infinity pool, with drinks and snacks from the great poolside bar, then that’s fine! But we were here to get active!

First up on my itinerary was the Wadi Walk, a gentle walk with Kate, the UK guide and her Arabian colleague, through a wadi (an ancient river bed carved out by the rapid waters which fall fast, but very infrequently here in the Middle East). Good fun and gentle exercise with great scenery, including plenty of interesting archaeological formations, some fun shapes and a host of animal remains. The walk is within the wildlife park. Remember, if you come across a cheetah or hyena it’s not important that you could out run either of these predators, it’s just important that you are faster than the others on your tour!

Wadi Walk done, it was time to head back and relax for an hour by the pool.

Next up we were off with Michele, to the Sir Bani Yas Stables to have a go at horse riding. This was the second time I had ever put my leg over a horse! I prefer a motorcycle with lots of horsepower and a good set of brakes! But, egged on by the giggling wife and two teenage daughters, here I was on a horse for the second time in my life (and the second time in a week – my first go was on the back of ‘not so fast fred’ in the Hunter Valley in Australia just a week before). What a great way to see the park and animals, with the amusing Rock Hyrax, providing us with much amusement as they scuttled about on the floor, ran, climbed and jumped between trees. There was loads of Rock Hyrax about, an animal which looks like a 2 foot long guinea pig and is apparently related to the elephant. Gazelles where also abundant as we trotted back to the stables. Great fun, and a great, responsive and well behaved group of horses.

My mount, the ex thoroughbred (can you be an ‘ex’ – I guess he still was a thoroughbred) called TJ, did a grand job, and much to my relief the overhead military jets buzzing about that morning did not bother him one bit!

Back to that pool and time to relax a little more before my final activity of the day.

Next up was the Mountain Biking with South African Ted. The island offers numerous choices of routes to suite the abilities of the riders. I opted for a non-too technical 18km ride. A really enjoyable ride with great weather (January) and great scenery including the reserve’s wild life like ostriches, gazelles and hyrax. We covered a good mix of climbs and downhills, gravel and sand, and single track and off road car trials. Highly enjoyable.

This was the last activity of the day, well the last strenuous activity of the day, wining and dining is another favourite activity of mine and the evening did not disappoint!

Day two and an early start to the morning with a dawn Nature and Wildlife Drive (safari). This morning our guide was the excellent Chatty Matty, the man who put the ‘Wuss’ into Worcestershire (on account of the fact he was still feeling the cold, even wrapped up in a big jacket as it was only 21 degrees!). An early start as the sun was rising, but well worth the effort, as the photography (another favourite activity of mine) opportunities with the low light were stunning. This was the
highlight activity for our younger daughters, a great drive through the wildlife reserve, during which we spotted most of the key wildlife roaming freely within the park. Ostriches, Arabian Oryx, Gazelles, Giraffes, Cheetahs and Hyenas all kindly put in appearances.

Then back for an excellent breakfast buffet (good job I did the mountain biking yesterday!) and another relaxing few hours by the infinity pool, before we headed off to the eastern reefs for a spot of snorkelling. All kitted up, we headed out from the beach, with my daughters thinking about nothing else except the possibilities of seeing a reef shark! Luckily they did not show up! Unfortunately high winds the day before had stirred up the bottom a little so visibility was not so good, but a great trip with some great marine life, including plenty of colourful exotic fish, on show in places.

We were out of time - some of the other activities we did not have time to try included sailing, archery, kayaking, scuba diving (coming soon) and falconry.

What are the digs like?

Accommodation on the island is currently limited to the Desert Islands Resort and Spa, with new Villas and Lodges due to open in the near future. But this is not hardship! The Resort and Spa, and old favourite private island home of the late Sheik Zayed, is a stunning place to stay. The winner of several notable CondeNast Traveller’s awards, the Anantara operated 5-star Desert Islands Resort & Spa is a truly unique and luxurious place to stay.

Its old house history gives it a unique luxury feel, with interesting areas like the big old library, teens club and ‘souk’, and a corresponding lack of a stuffy ‘check in’, adding to the welcoming homely big old villa feel. The food and customer service are all absolutely excellent. But this is an activities website so I won’t linger too long on the accommodation!

It’s probably sufficient to state that the worse bit of our trip to Sir Bani Yas Island was packing up to leave, after 2 excellent days at the Desert Island Resort. The resort won the much coveted Bell family ‘best place we have been this trip’ award, with 4 votes out of 4, topping the league table from the 8 great locations we had stayed at, on our round the world 3 week tour! We really would have liked to stay longer!

Getting to Sir Bani Yas Island

There are two options for guests wanting to visit the island, boat or air. For those travelling by car or taxi, Sir Bani Yas Island is approximately 8km from Abu Dhabi’s western coastline, in the Al Gharbia region, about a 250km drive west from Abu Dhabi City. A boat service takes guests to the island.

The other option, which we took, is to take one of the excellent regular Rotana Jet flights from just outside the centre of Abu Dhabi City. This service, which runs several times a week, is a small personal jet service from the Al‐Bateen Airport. The flight takes about 35 minutes and offers passengers great views of Abu Dhabi City and the gulf coast line, before offering an aerial view of Sir Bani Yas Island as you come into land. The flights are amazing low cost and highly recommended!

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