A quiet paradise

A quiet paradise

Yasmeen smiles seeing the worried faces of the few passengers on board. She is barely 20 years old, but she knows these waters so well. Her father and her grandfather before him are sea people living in the nearby Delma island.



by

Silvia Radan

Published: Sun 26 Jun 2011, 12:45 AM

Last updated: Tue 7 Apr 2015, 8:02 AM

“They know so many stories about these places, some of which happened to them,” she almost thinks aloud.

Yes, the sea is rough today, but the catamaran taking tourists from Ruwais mainland to Sir Bani Yas island resort is a new strong boat that could probably cope with a lot worse than this. With Yasmeen’s stories about the island the 20-minute voyage passes in a flash. As soon as we dock, our young guide takes us to a small gallery room, where we can learn some more about the place we are about to visit and where we can write our name on a small piece of paper.

“For each written name we will plant a mangrove tree,” she explains.

Yasmeen is one of the first three guides now training with Tourism, Development and Investment Company (TDIC) on Sir Bani Yas, after completing a tourism and English language course on her home island, Delma.

“I told my father I really love this work I’m doing and he understands and doesn’t mind me working and living on Sir Bani Yas,” she says.

“In fact, he is helping me a lot with information and stories about the island.”

The size of Abu Dhabi city, the 87 square kilometres Sir Bani Yas is the largest natural island of the emirate, about twice the size of 43sqkm neighbouring Delma, one of the very few islands in these waters still inhabited.

Carrying the name of Bani Yas tribe, of whom Al Nahyan royal family belongs, the fresh water wells on the island had long dried and for years the island remained deserted. This was not the case in ancient times, though, as human settlement dating back to the Bronze Age has been proved in the 36 archaeological sites found on the island, including a pre-Islamic 1,000 years old monastery.

Believed to be founded in the late 6th century AD and abandoned around 750AD, following the arrival of Islam, the monastery is the only early Christian site in the UAE. Its location on the east edge of the island, facing the sea, reinforces the reasoning that its existence was a strategic one, being on a major sea trade route from Mesopotamia, through the Arabian Gulf, to the south-eastern Arabia and beyond to India, China and the Far East. The Christian monks living here were involved in pearl trading, the waters around Sir Bani Yas remaining famous for pearls until today.

With the natural pearl industry being “killed” by the invention of cultured pearls, the island lost its lustre and appeal to traders. It was only 25 years ago that Sir Bani Yas returned to the radars of people’s attention. When the last Arabian Oryx was extinct from the wild, the late president Shaikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan brought a few specimens on the island, trying to save them. He also had about three million different trees planted here, including ghaf, palm, cedar and miswak, the toothbrush tree. An impressive two-and-a-half million of them survived, among them being the olive orchard that surrounds the royal palace.

The animal sanctuary also grew, both with indigenous species and other African and Asian animals, including Shaikh Zayed’s favourite, the giraffe. The scheme was so successful that 10,000 animals have to date been relocated and freed onto the mainland.

For the past few years, the island has once again been transformed, this time into a heaven for tourists. As part of its Dh11.5 billion desert Islands tourism development, which will see Delma and six small sandy islands turned into eco-glamorous destinations, TDIC already placed Sir Bani Yas on the world atlas of exclusive resorts. There is an Anantara hotel and spa here, swimming with baby sharks through coral reefs, cruising around the island on boat or sea plane and the ultimate adventure: spotting cheetahs during the wildlife safari drive.

“And this is not all. We are also going to have Al Yamm and Al Sahel lodges, which will open later this year,” reveals Christian Oliver Herbert Zunk, general manager of Anantara Desert Islands Resort and Spa on Sir Bani Yas.

“There will be 30 villas altogether, Al Yamm right by the sea and Al Sahel in the greenery, where animals come for grazing.”

A 350 capacity convention centre, ideal for team building gatherings, conferences with a view and romantic weddings, as well as a sport water centre with an indoors scuba diving school are also planned to open this October.

For the time being, the Anantara resort only has two restaurants, the Samak, a Thai seafood fine dinner, and the Palm, an all-day international dinning place, but with the new lodges there will be new options boasting Italian, Arabic, South African and Indian menus.

“The first thing I did since I came here was to open the Al Shams beach bar,” says Zunk.

“There are just a few Arabic style sofas, which we place right by the beach, every day at 6pm, and people can sit, have shisha, have a drink and just watch the sunset.”

An outdoor cinema is another form of evening entertainment that screens one or two movies every night. And that is about it. No clubs, discos, live music, big parties or anything loud. Since the resort is centred on nature, nothing too disturbing is being done, so nights are for sleeping and mornings are for walking, cycling, canoeing or swimming. No wonder, this is the ideal hideaway for people in need of city break.

“Most of our guests come here for a quite weekend. The majority, about 70 per cent, are Emiratis, but we also have a lot of Germans, Asians and other GCC nationalities,” points out Zunk.

Even now, in the hot law season, the occupancy of the 64-room hotel reaches an average of 60 per cent, most weekends being fully booked. Once the lodges are opened, TDIC and Anantara are hoping to attract a lot more holidaymakers from abroad, for longer, 10 or even 14-day packages.

With new animals planned to be brought on the island — although the cheetahs and the hyenas will remain the only predators — with deep-sea fishing soon to be added to the activity list, with sailing boats available for hire, with archery and wadi walks added to the daily fun, with luxurious spa pampering and gourmet surprises such as salt tasting (the black smoked French salt is truly unforgettable), there will be little possibility of running out of things to do on Sir Bani Yas.

And, in the words of Yasmeen, this is a great place to work, let alone a great place to visit.

“We have our own accommodation on the island, where we can invite family and friends sometimes, we have our own chef, whom we challenge occasionally with certain dishes — but every Friday he makes very good Biryiani — we have our own fun like parties, pool table, Internet and personally, I’ve made great friends here,” says Yasmeen as the catamaran cruises smoothly on the much calmer waters on the way back to the mainland.

It’s been 24 hours of discovery, relaxation and pure joy. We didn’t spot the island’s VIP residents, the cheetahs, but this is just one more reason to return!

silvia@khaleejtimes.com


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