A green oasis on a desert island in the Arabian Gulf, Sir Bani Yas Island -- about 150 miles west of Abu Dhabi -- is the site of the only private beach resort for cruise ships in the region. It provides a welcome alternative to the shopping malls, grand mosques, theme parks and dune bashing at the heart of excursion programs in the Gulf's other ports of call.
Natural geological forces created the salt dome island millions of years ago, and its name originates from the Bani Yas tribe who first inhabited Abu Dhabi. A ruined Nestorian Christian monastery dating from 600 A.D. is the oldest of 42 archaeological sites on the island.
Sheikh Zayed, the late ruler of Abu Dhabi and founder of the United Arab Emirates, established a nature reserve on the island in 1971 and began work that has involved the planting of several million trees and the introduction of species including giraffe, cheetah, hyena, ostrich and oryx. It's not quite a self-contained ecosystem -- some 73,000 miles of pipeline water the trees, while feed is left out for the animals, although the cheetahs hunt the gazelle, nonetheless.
The 16-square-mile Arabian Wildlife Park occupies about half of the island and now contains more than 10,000 breeding animals and 170 species of bird, including peacocks and flamingoes.
MSC Cruises was closely involved with the Abu Dhabi Tourism & Culture Authority in the creation and construction of the facilities on an island that houses a wildlife park for a collection of endemic Arabian species. The only other visitor facilities on the island are three luxury resort hotels, operated by Thai group Anantara, and a small airstrip.
The beach resort was built on an artificial spit of sand connected to the main island by a short causeway across the lagoon. It houses the only facilities -- apart from shore excursions -- for visiting cruisers. There are about 2,000 sun loungers and plenty of shade.
The main season for cruises in the Gulf runs from November to March. Cruise lines visiting Sir Bani Yas include MSC, Costa, P&O Cruises, Celebrity Cruises and occasionally, Seabourn. There is never more than one ship per day at the resort -- which is definitely a bonus for most visitors.
--updated by Sue Bryant, Cruise Critic contributor
Ships anchor a short tender ride from the island and ferry passengers in to a jetty. Queues can build up for the last tender back and there's no shade in the waiting area on the jetty. The small jetty, within easy walking distance of the island facilities, can accommodate two tenders at a time.
The beach resort is split into four separate areas along its mile-and-a-half stretch. Visitors arrive by tender at the central Al Maha district, which houses the administrative offices, excursion sales desk, tour dispatch, medical clinic and bathrooms.
To the right, backed by the road leading to the causeway and the rest of the island, is Al Ghazelle with three bars and a covered barbecue area. The beach itself is packed with sunbeds and sun umbrellas, and the area behind it has courts for football, volleyball, basketball, tennis and other sports.
On the other side of Al Maha is Llama, the section devoted to families. It, too, has a covered barbecue and two bars, but there is also a covered area for young children to play in the shade. The water sports station on the lagoon side of the beach provides mangrove kayaking, snorkeling, paddle boarding and floating mats. Some cruise lines require water sports equipment to be booked in advance.
Beyond Llama, the Al Reem district is reserved for suite guests and those prepared to pay extra to rent a cabana, or sheikh bed, which comes with bottled water and a selection of snacks. Some cruise lines offer beach spa treatments, chargeable to your cruise account.
The whole beach area offers free Wi-Fi, with a strong signal.
Treat Sir Bani Yas as a day off from the intense sightseeing on an Arabian Gulf cruise. Take a guided tour to see the wildlife before relaxing on the beach with a barbecued burger and a cold beer, or book a water sports activity -- there's very little else to do here other than chill.
By Official Tour: Beyond the beach, access to the island is by official tour only. Visitors may not wander around at will. For example, if you want to make a private visit to one of the Anantara resorts for lunch, you will need to arrange for its staff to pick you up at the dock and get you back in time for departure.
By Shuttle: Some cruise lines offer a shuttle to the larger of the resorts, Anantara's Desert Islands Resort & Spa, as a shore excursion.
You can charge drinks to your cruise account and activities, like kayaking or safari drives, are prebooked through the cruise line as shore excursions.
Should you arrange privately to have lunch at the Anantara Al Yamm Villa Resort (+971-2-801-4200) or the Desert Islands Resort & Spa (+971-2-801-5400), the currency is United Arab Emirates dirhams (AED). For current currency conversion figures, visit www.oanda.com or www.xe.com.
All the safari guides and water sports instructors on the island speak English.
Highlighting the cruise line private island feel of Sir Bani Yas Island, all food and drink on the beach is brought from ships and served by ship's crew. The three main beach areas each have their own bar and barbecue areas; drinks are charged to passengers' onboard accounts and the food tends to reflect what you'd get in the buffet on board, with extra barbecue items like burgers, chicken and steaks. Some cruise lines arrange special events; Seabourn, for example, uses the Sir Bani Yas day for its signature Caviar in the Surf event, weather permitting.
The Anantara resorts might take the occasional booking from cruise passengers making private visits and offer restaurants with Italian, Middle Eastern, African and seafood themes. Some cruise lines also offer a beach day at Anantara's Desert Islands Resort & Spa as an excursion, in which case you can buy lunch there.
If you're looking to pick up local souvenirs to take home as gifts, make sure you do your shopping in other ports of call. Right now, there's nothing for passengers to buy on Sir Bani Yas Island other than high-end souvenirs from the gift shop at Anantara's Desert Islands Resort & Spa.