The allure of Southern Arabia’s thoughtful new luxury resorts

New villas on Sir Bani Yas Island are only the beginning. Jack Dyson discovers desert sands in the Arabian Peninsula shifting to reveal fantastic accommodations and experiences that bridge the gap between luxury and eco-chic – with complete credibility

The Anantara Sir Bani Yas Island Al Sahel Villa Resort, near Abu Dhabi, will open later this year
The Anantara Sir Bani Yas Island Al Sahel Villa Resort, near Abu Dhabi, will open later this year

I wonder what Wilfred Thesiger would make of it all. The British explorer’s description of the deserts of southern Arabia as “a bitter, dessicated land which knows nothing of gentleness or ease” encapsulates what has, in truth, always been a profound part of their singular allure. Of course, all that changed with the oil trade, its beneficiaries and the attendant opulence: a glut of global fashion brands and 24ct-gilded surroundings to accompany the trail that leads to the well-documented Burj al Arab and the Emirates Palace. Even old hands could be forgiven for thinking that, for better or worse, it was only going one way. Or was it? A closer look reveals a seam of thoughtful luxury accommodations that dovetail neatly with the wilderness, with more on the way.

Driving down Oman’s coast from the capital, Muscat, there is a swift road that skips over wadis and along the foothills of Al Hajar Ash Sharqi to Ras al Jinz Turtle Reserve, out on the Arabian Peninsula’s easternmost point, where the Gulf of Oman meets the Arabian Sea. Dhows are still made and repaired the old-fashioned way in the villages here, ready to be kitted out as pleasure boats. Two fishing vessels – about average size for Padstow – sit unused in the harbour, grounded because their catch was too big. Instead a flotilla of small launches motor out before dawn each day to catch shark, mahi‑mahi and tuna. They’re all back for now – the fish market is just winding down as the midday temperature rises. Incongruous but delightful, goats recline in the picnic shelters, enjoying a siesta in the shade as we drive on to Ras al Jinz.

The lobby of the Anantara Sir Bani Yas Island Al Yamm Villa Resort, near Abu Dhabi
The lobby of the Anantara Sir Bani Yas Island Al Yamm Villa Resort, near Abu Dhabi

On a map it’s a fairly plain-looking elbow of land, a nearly 30-mile stretch of coast that has been turned into a nature reserve. A simple hotel, built in 2008, was added, followed by a museum housing ancient Omani relics, and in January this year, the scene was markedly improved by 12 eco-tents. If not flat-out luxury, they are clean-lined and comfortable. Accommodation here is in any case secondary; what makes Ras al Jinz truly remarkable is the wildlife that it protects: the green turtles that return to their birthplaces to deposit eggs in deep pits.

These turtles, an endangered species, have been doing this for at least 5,000 years. And they’re big; adults can reach lengths of as much as 1.5m. The scientific centre, which houses both the hotel and museum, has been designed and built specifically to block all ambient light from the land. After dark, I join a small group and we troop down to the beach together, led by our guide, Saud, along a path illuminated by a full moon.

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He beckons us over to a round crater, 1m deep and 2m across. We stand around it in solemn, almost reverent silence, punctuated only by the odd hiss of a beautiful female, laying the last few of her 120 or so ping-pong-ball-sized eggs. She must be exhausted, having clambered all the way out from the surf, but she will carefully cover these, fill in the nest and then dig another pit – a decoy – a few metres away before hauling herself back to the water, leaving a trail like a digger’s caterpillar track. My eyes get accustomed to the play of light on the beach; eventually I see first two, then three, then a handful of other huge turtles flapping their way steadfastly up from the sea. In total we count 35. Swamped by waves or lying still and covered by sand, they look just like boulders. There’s not a patch of beach that doesn’t have the telltale crater of an old nest on it.

There is another tour before dawn, a smaller one exclusively for guests of the hotel. We’re very lucky, and as light slowly begins to tint the sky, we see hatchlings wiggling and skittering into the water. The beach is littered with bits of soft shell from where they have escaped their subterranean nests. The footprints of a fox crisscross the beach ominously – only a few hatchlings from each nest will escape predators. “It’s about the natural balance here,” says Saud. “We don’t stop the birds or the foxes if we find them. All we’re really trying to do is protect them from man.” And it’s working. In the past few years, the decline in nesting has stopped and turtle numbers are beginning an aptly slow turnaround. As the sun rises, I roll up my trousers and walk up the shoreline, dodging waves. It’s like a first‑world-war battlefield, craters everywhere. The last few turtles are making their way back to the sea. It’s not a scene I’ll forget in a hurry.

Baby green turtles at Ras al Jinz, Oman
Baby green turtles at Ras al Jinz, Oman

While Ras Al Jinz is a pioneer, guarding a millennia-old scene and raising local awareness, it is not alone. Follow the peninsula to Abu Dhabi’s western border and you’ll find a new initiative, fizzing with luxury but also, importantly, laurelled in serious ecological and wilderness-protection credibility: Sir Bani Yas Island, home to the emirate’s ruling family, who are of the Bani Yas tribe. The island was established in 1971 as a wildlife reserve, a core part of the late Sheikh Zayed’s “greening” vision, in which areas of the desert were reclaimed and a safe haven was provided for Arabia’s endangered animals and plants.

It’s a captivating concept made possible by the sheer amplitude of resources that the Emiratis can direct at various problems. Decades later, and the intensive ecology and conservation work is bearing fruit. Traces of man – old pipes and so on – are being removed; the feel of the island is settling into a land with its natural potential fulfilled. Mangroves are now fully established, protecting the coast and creating environments for fish to breed. And where once Sir Bani Yas was open to weekend visitors, it now boasts a suite of eco-sensitively designed retreats that are managed by Anantara Hotels, Resorts & Spas, each of which makes the most of the extraordinary landscape, its flora and fauna in a different way.

The Anantara Sir Bani Yas Island Al Yamm Villa Resort entrance
The Anantara Sir Bani Yas Island Al Yamm Villa Resort entrance

Half of the island is given over to the Arabian Wildlife Park, where around 30 species of mammal, indigenous to the region, are allowed to roam – including the Arabian oryx, previously extinct in the wild and one of the island’s great successes. They are joined by giraffe, antelope, flamingo – even northern cheetah, which help to control numbers (a slightly more elegant solution than a cull). The hills are peppered with frankincense trees, agave, Christ’s-thorn and citrus. The wild honey from the island is exquisite.

And amid all this are the secluded resorts. With the airstrip here just a 25-minute flight from Abu Dhabi (around an hour from Dubai, with water taxis also available), Sir Bani Yas has regular groups of interested weekenders. A good mix of Emiratis, expats and tourists, they are here for the game drives, nature trails and other experiences you’d normally only expect further south in Africa, as well as spa treatments and swimming pools.

Luxury eco-tents at the Ras al Jinz Turtle Reserve
Luxury eco-tents at the Ras al Jinz Turtle Reserve | Image: Ras Al Jinz Turtle Reserve

Serving all three resorts on the island is a new state-of-the-art water-sports and dive centre, every piece of gear sparkling. Here, as in the wildlife park, the emphasis is on education. They have dugong (sea cow) nearby, much to the delight of snorkellers and scuba divers, but the real attraction is game fishing. “We measure, weigh and photograph. It’s all catch and release with barbless hooks,” explains the centre’s director, Conrad Greenshields. “With sailfish, we tag and release, as stock is so low. Nearby there are a couple of deliberate reefs – something like 32 wrecks marked. We’ve only had time to dive around eight of them, so we’re still finding spots.”

I’m staying on the eastern side of the island at the Anantara Al Yamm Villa Resort. Opened in July, its 30 villas stretch along the shore, havens of comfort, with thick pisé (rammed-earth) walls and wood-coffered ceilings; they look onto the mangroves and the lagoon, or the beach and the Arabian Gulf. And whereas on the mainland one constantly runs the risk of being somewhat over-opulenced, the balance here is just right. Clean lines, carefully chosen furnishings, a dipping pool outside my room – all is chic and fresh, with a warm personality. Most of the fruit and vegetables served at Al Yamm come from the palace gardens on the island itself – an unexpected treat. There are golf buggies on offer to whizz guests from place to place, but in the evening, I instead walk up the beach to the restaurant; with so little light pollution, the stars are spectacular.

Sand gazelles on Sir Bani Yas Island
Sand gazelles on Sir Bani Yas Island | Image: Alamy

The next day, I go exploring: nature and wildlife drives; a look at the remains of the old monastery; a spot of archery. As a private island, Sir Bani Yas has a natural quarantine as well as markedly less negative outside – and human – impact, says Aimee Cokayne, the island’s conservation manager. Among the region’s indigenous species, her favourite is the striped hyena (which enjoys the brilliant subspecies name hyena hyena sultana). “They’ve loads of personality, and you can witness behaviour and vocalisations that would be difficult to experience anywhere else. This species is also extinct in the rest of the UAE, so Sir Bani Yas is the only place in the country with free-ranging striped hyena.”

With such a wealth of conservation value, the island’s third resort should be a real treat. Due to open at the end of 2013, the Anantara Al Sahel Villa Resort will actually be inside the boundaries of the wildlife park and among the animals. Rangers will be on hand to lead walking and driving safari-style outings – as well as to escort people around or wrangle errant animals such as sand gazelles, Hyrax and peacocks.

Pool villa at the Anantara Sir Bani Yas Island Al Yamm Villa Resort
Pool villa at the Anantara Sir Bani Yas Island Al Yamm Villa Resort

The villas are a luxurious mix of sustainably designed, thatched north-African mud huts with vaulted ceilings and stone floors. What makes them special, though, is their setting – they all border an oasis of long savannah grass that goes back at least a kilometre, perfect from which to spot grazing animals. Like Al Yamm, it will be open only to families with children of 12 and up, to keep it exclusive, explains Steven Phillips, general manager for Anantara Hotels, Resorts & Spas on Sir Bani Yas Island. “What I’d like to see is people moving around the island – spending a couple of nights here, then going to Al Yamm for a few nights. There’s lots here that you can’t do anywhere else.” He must have a fascinating job, dealing with animals, guests and ecologists in turn.

Next to the main building is an outdoor barbecue pit surrounded by a rock formation; called Boma, it will be adjacent to the Savannah Grill restaurant and offer views of the grasslands and the sand gazelles. It’s another subtly calibrated indulgence, set against a backdrop of carefully tended wilderness – and an unexpected but delightful new paradigm for this part of the world. Sir Bani Yas could well be an experiential tourism game changer for the Emirates; in the meantime, though, it’s already a new sort of oasis in the desert.

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