Sir Bani Yas, United Arab Emirates

Photo: Ismail.alghussein (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons
Photo: Ismail.alghussein (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
From your plunge pool, you have a panoramic view of the grassy savannah. Four sand gazelles graze silently. Their twitching ears show that they’re completely aware of their surroundings. Salt domes stand in the distance. You’re trying to cool off, though relief probably won’t come until the sun begins to set. The wispy clouds aren’t offering any help. It certainly feels like you’re in Africa. But you’re not.

You’re on Sir Bani Yas, an island 60 miles southwest of Abu Dhabi. The largest natural island in the United Arab Emirates was an empty desert until the 1970s. Then Sheikh Zâyed bin Sulṭân Âl Nahyân, the founder of the UAE, created a wildlife reserve. Visitors first saw the free-roaming animals during weekend tours. Their popularity lead to the Anantara Al Sahel Villa Resort, where you’re now staying.

Your light-filled villa is both rustic and chic. The thatched-roof building is decorated with earth tones, wooden furniture, and even a carved wood tub. Comfortable seats litter the patio. The plunge pool, already a great spot to watch for animals, will be perfect for stargazing later. After you explore the rest of the island, of course.

Photo: Anantara Hotels, Resorts & Spas
Photo: Anantara Hotels, Resorts & Spas

Go on a wildlife drive to see the world’s largest herd of Arabian oryx, plus striped hyenas and giraffes. Your driver points out cheetah tracks, though the big cat stays out of sight. An ostrich surprises everyone when her head pops out from around a tree. You shock a flock of Barbary sheep when you go mountain biking to the other side of the salt-domed hill. During high tide, go kayaking through the bird-filled eastern mangroves. Then take the shuttle over to the beach to watch sea turtles and dolphins play just offshore.

Back at the resort, try to hit the bull’s-eye from 30 meters away during archery practice. Watch a cria—that would be a baby llama—follow its mother from the pool’s ledge. Try not to jump when you notice a massive gemsbok staring at you. Sip an Arabian herb-filled aperitif as the temperature finally starts to drop. Eat spicy Jordanian bread, biltong-crusted venison carpaccio, and Mozambican peri-peri chicken livers outside at the Savannah Grill. The flickering candlelight plays tricks with your animal-focused mind. And return to your plunge pool to watch for shooting stars. They’ll still amaze you after everything else you’ve seen today.

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