Sir Baniyas Island, one of the few natural islands in this part of the Middle East, is around three hours drive from Abu Dhabi and four hours drive from Dubai. The uneventful ride culminated at the Jebel Dhanna jetty where I parked my car, checked in at the Anantara arrivals lounge and waited for the ferry that would take me to Sir Baniyas Island. I was half hour early which meant that I could take some time to relax in this little lodge which was quite comfortable and a safe haven from the heat outside. Guests were served complimentary coffee, tea and soft drinks as well as cookies. The actual journey by ferry was around 25 minutes. As we disembarked from the ferry on the island, I spotted many dhows – a dhow ride was one of the 20 activities that guests on the island could take.
On Sir Baniyas Island are the Anantara Resorts with three distinct themes – Desert Islands Resort & Spa by Anantara are popular with families, Al Yamm Resorts with a Mediterranean theme have villas opening directly to the beach, and Al Sahel Villa Resort with an African theme and situated in the centre of the wildlife park. For this trip, I was staying for two nights at Al Sahel Villa Resort, but for the spa treatment the next day, I took complimentary transport to Desert Islands Resort & Spa by Anantara. Indeed, complimentary transport made it easy for guests to travel among the three resorts.
I got into the van that would take me to Al Sahel Villa Resort. We passed by many animals that roamed freely, though I was yet to spot the cheetah that day. I did see many species of deer, gazelles and birds. The ride was another 25 minutes as vans are only allowed to go up to 30km/hour. Before we pulled up to the gate that allowed us access to the villa resort, I spotted a hyrax, a little animal that shares the same gene pool as that of an elephant but is as small as a rat.
The Reception Area
Just two minutes later, the van suddenly pulled up at the main building of the villa resort. Closeby, there was a beautiful gigantic sculpture of two giraffes. Gazelles were grazing at the entrance, and I felt as if I was welcomed by nature itself.
Genesis, a staff member, welcomed us warmly. He handed each one of us a cool towel, one that I gratefully accepted. The entrance to the reception was shaded and had greenery lining the pathway. Inside, there was a round table with ghahwa for those who preferred traditional Arabic coffee, but I chose the cool drink which was a sweetened African drink with a hint of honey.
The Africa themed vibe was apparent in the main building which was home to a huge reception area, the breakfast space called Savannah Grill, as well as the lots of seating. I love brightly lit buildings where natural light is taken advantage off, and in this case, the glass ceiling beamed down enough sunlight as I sat down to get checked in by Nuru, a friendly staff member.
The sand coloured walls and corridors had a light-hearted character about them, each featuring some aspect of traditional African culture. From art in arresting colours to woven baskets lining an entire wall, from wooden shields stacked beautifully in a corner to sculptures and jewellery. Upon enquiry, I was told that all original art, crafts and sculptures were sourced from different parts of Africa. I love hotels that have found a way to bring a sense of ‘home’ and ‘belonging’ by incorporating art themes with cultural stories. And Al Sahel Villa Resort has achieved just that.
The African theme continued to the Savannah Grill and Lounge area, the breakfast area which is also in the main building of the resort – wooden shields, masks, sculptures of tribes and daily African life.
The dining and lounge areas extended into the outdoors with and more seating spaces marked with rattan tables and chairs. Peacocks, small birds and gazelles were not shy to come up close as the patio opened into the green areas behind the main building block. What an amazing way to begin the day, having a coffee while meditating in nature while in the comfort of Savannah Grill.
The Villa experience
I was led to the Savannah Lounge where Nuru checked me in. He drove me to the villa in a golf buggy. We passed by arid land where desert trees grew but also the sight of gazelles and peacocks, which I would get used to, was a novelty. Later on, I was to try walking from the reception to my villa. It took about ten minutes! That’s how vast the villa resort grounds are, but I loved the act of just slowing down and taking in the scenes of nature.
Al Sahel Villa Resort has both one bedroom and two bedroom villas. Mine was a one bedroom but spacious and well-lit with natural light. The villa design is Arabian themed, with the thatched roof that was used in ancient days of Arabia. There was a little shaded entrance to the villa. The front of the villa had a grey wooden ledge which I realised later concealed the bathroom view, as the windows in the bathroom spanned from ceiling to floor.
The grounds around each villa are also quite spacious, being separated from each other by lots of greenery in order to keep the experience of being in nature as optimal as possible.
In the patio at the back were rattan chairs and lounge beds as well as a small plunge pool where a huge dragonfly dozed in the summer heat. Having never been close to the animals and birds before (except for pet dogs and cats of course), I didn’t sit outside for too long. I definitely found the grounds of the villa very calming that at one point, I wanted to turn off my mobile phone and tune in, instead, to the birds chirping and peacocks cackling so loud that I actually thought it was a hungry cat mewing for some milk.
The villa’s interior decor was very subdued which help me relax a bit more. After all, I had travelled for a total of six hours with an early morning start. High ceilings accommodated an ornately decorated fan. The stone floors helped cool me down as I walked barefoot while discovering the facilities of the villa. The four poster bed with soft pillows had pretty bed covers that were no doubt made from woven African fabric. It was the focal point of the villa, the little sitting area on the left, close to the refreshments and minibar, while the study desk was on the other side of the bed, with the corridor leading to the shower room. At the refreshments counter were complimentary bottles of drinking water, an espresso maker as well as a bowl of green apples. Walls had beautiful artworks showcasing traditional African jewellery. Again, the way the villa was designed was to accommodate natural light into different corners of the room.
The little corridor close to the study led to a massive bathroom whose walls are opened on two sides so that you can slide the doors and you can easily into a separate shower room. Quite unusual. The full length windows feature carried on into the bathroom area. But what got my attention was the beautifully designed bathtub in beaten copper coloured metal. As I was taking in the view of the bathroom that breathed luxury, two peacocks perched on the grey ledge outside and jumped to the roof for a while, something that one would never come across in daily life!
My impression so far was that Anantara has done a splendid job in bringing to life elements of culture as well as taking their hospitality to the next level while creating such a relaxing yet luxurious space at Al Sahel Villa Resort.
Dinner was a Boma BBQ (put link) after which, a golf buggy took me back to the villa and I slept real well; that’s how comfortable the bed was.
Breakfast, the next day
The breakfast buffet consisted of a lavish array of fresh fruit platters, Arabic breads and cheese plates. However, as I was still full from the previous night’s African themed dinner, I opted to go light with a small helping of cereal and watermelon. I also had a couple of waffles with maple syrup and then had Chef Thomas Gamin make me an omelette. I also wanted to investigate the grounds a little more before I took transport to the spa.
I didn’t have time to take a plunge in the pool or lay on the lounge, but the view was spectacular. With a lifeguard keeping an eye on me as I took a couple of pictures, I spotted sparrows taking small gulps of the water from the pool as the temperatures climbed. I knew that I would be happy to lay on the lounge, work at my laptop while facing the view of the grasslands where gazelles and even a duck or two wandered freely.
Activities on the island
The resort has planned a variety of activities for the guests depending on what their interests are. Watersport galore or inland activities such as biking, nature hikes, cultural tours and wildlife. You could also try horse riding, falconry and archery as well as the new pearl diving activities. For this trip, I went on the cultural and history tour as well as the wildlife tour. My connection to nature and ancient history of the land just grew by the minute.
For the wildlife tour, I opted to take the 6:30 am slot, simply because I was told that as it’s cooler, the chance of spotting many species was higher. My guide, Kate, was right! The island hosts a conservation programme and over the years, many endangered species such as oryx, have been reintroduced successfully into the wild.
Once I got into the jeep, I was not allowed out again, which made sense. The safety of guests was paramount to the guide especially as I was to spot cheetah feeding on a gazelle and I was a bit afraid of the sharp horns of animals. No killing is allowed on the island thus allowing the natural cycle of life to go on in the wild. Spotting the ostrich, giraffe, a variety of deer, and birds as well as the three cheetah made my day.
The history and cultural tour was a 1 ½ hour drive through the island. Marlene, my guide, knew her history well and shared it with passion. Falcon Heights gave a bird’s eye view of how the Baniyas tribe caught falcons in order to train them. We also came across burial sites where the graves of the Baniyas Tribe were still preserved. Another finding was a Christian monastery dated back to pre-Islamic times on the island, around 650 AD. Only stones remain but you can see the outline of the monastery. Found pottery have been safely moved to Abu Dhabi for display at a museum. Finally, I got to visit the majlis of the late His Highness Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, who is fondly remembered as the Father of the Nation. He held his meetings in this spacious majlis where the cool breeze would refresh guests. It was also very quiet – a pin drop silence – that I almost forgot that shortly it would be time to get back to the villa, check out and head back to the mainland.
Where : Anantara Sir Bani Yas Island Resorts
12452, Al Ruwais – Abu Dhabi – United Arab Emirates
Phone: +971 2 656 1399
Note – The critic was invited by Anantara Sir Bani Yas Island Resorts. But all the opinions expressed herewith are her own.