A year ago, on a crisp Wednesday morning, I was preparing for yet another attempt at Macarons, having failed the previous four times. My husband had just left to work and I was negotiating with Ali about eating his pancakes on his own. I heard the door unlock. Occasionally, my husband forgets something and he usually calls and asks to be at the door with whatever it is that he has left behind. That morning he stood at the door with our green suitcase. “Let’s start packing. We have to leave in half an hour.”
I love being surprised. Scratch that. I love the idea of being surprised. For should I know there is a surprise in store, then I will hound him (or whoever it is that has made the mistake of planning a surprise for me) every other minute asking what it is. My mind was blank and I cluelessly began gathering clothes. To which he remained tight-lipped. All he said is it would be cold so pack accordingly. I silently thanked the stars that I had fresh laundry. I was scurrying around the house, ticking off elaborate mental lists, just so I don’t forget any toddler essentials.
Ali, of course, was thrilled! We started driving and thought of where to stop for a quick breakfast. It would have to be something quick at the first fuel station. We seemed to be on a tight schedule and had to reach this unrevealed destination well before noon. Breakfast bought, we were driving in the direction of Abu Dhabi, when Ali got sick and started throwing up. Worried, we stopped and cleaned him up and I sat behind with him. But he wouldn’t stop. A couple more times, and the poor fellow slept out of exhaustion. He had woken up a bit earlier than usual and we guessed that he might be car sick.
Fast forward 11 hours, we were driving back to Dubai from Sir Bani Yas Island. His condition wasn’t any better and not having easy access to a hospital was a risk we weren’t willing to take. He was hospitalized with a stomach bug for 2 days. As we left for home, my husband and I caught it too. We spent the remaining days of what would have been our staycation, feeble and nursing each other into health. We even celebrated my husband’s birthday and the one thing I could make was a (disastrous) microwave mug cake.
Given the circumstances, albeit briefly the first time round, we were able to visit this desert resort twice in a span of a month. I will always be grateful to Destiny. She had checked us in during the morning and had arranged for us to visit the doctor available on the island. She was more than understanding of our situation. Hotel policies maintain that cancelled bookings cannot be rescheduled. When we were ready to check out, she asked us to contact her with dates when we would like to return and she would do the needful.
We had planned to spend Ali’s third birthday with his grandparents back in Trivandrum. We rebooked our dates to return to the island for the weekend right before our travel. This time around I was better prepared. On a Friday afternoon we arrived at the Jebal Dhana Jetty Terminal ready for a much needed break. Having been through the journey once, Ali anticipated that he would fall sick on the boat ride and we assured him otherwise. From Dubai, a ride to the Jebal Dhanna Jetty Terminal is close to three and a half hours. A 20 minute ferry ride transports you to the island shores from where you are driven to your property.
The resort has three properties you can pick from. The Desert Islands Hotel have rooms and suites with views of the Arabian Gulf. Al Yamm are private villas dotting the shorelines of the island. My husband had booked us at the Al Sahel Lodge. These African themed villas blend right into the desert plains where you find all the docile members of the island animals left to their will.
Here's a little video of our stay at the island. Do forgive my rather amateurish editing.
Half an hour later, we were checked into our rooms. One of the things we loved is how quiet it was! As it is our residence in Dubai, which is away from the city. But this is a desert island. There is beauty in stillness. The cool nip in the wind washes right over you silencing the drones of the endless mind chatter.
I was hoping I could take a dip in our plunge pool only to find Emus(!) casually sipping from our villa pool. The bellboy informed that these fellows preferred to drink only from the villa we were staying at and were given nicknames after the villa number. We were told that the hotel has a very strict policy of letting the animals be and not disturbing them in any manner.
My fear of animals meant I wasn’t comfortable at the proximity so much so that I closed the curtains. A few minutes later we heard a piercing cry. I opened the curtains to this breathtaking vision.
Have you ever been this close to a peacock? I vaguely remember a street vendor selling its feathers near the Mysore Palace on a road trip taken a decade ago. Words truly cannot describe its beauty and Ali and I stood in awe (and silence!) having seen one for the very first time. Ali was more than willing to warmly welcome it into our villa. A few seconds later it twirled around and shimmied off making a rather grand show of its cobalt and emerald feathers.
Considering it was quite a few hours of travel, we had a quick lunch and came back to our room with a grandiose plan of doing absolutely nothing. Painted stucco walls with framed beaded jewelry, wood and leather furniture, warm ikat prints and a massive woven thatched carpet were a few elements in our African themed room. The ceiling fan above the four poster bed was Ali’s favorite feature. On second thoughts, it was an ornamental giraffe crafted out of straw that was a few inches taller than him. During our stay, he pretty much ignored all the toys we had brought along and would even take it with him to bed. My favorite feature had to be a tie between the bay window seat and a massive freestanding bronze tub. The shower was tucked away in a corner separated by heavy salon doors straight out of a western movie. We put our feet up and watched Ali pace the villa dragging the suitcase with his giraffe perched on top. And before I could get to the tub, Thomas, Percy and James beat me to it courtesy Ali who gave them a thorough wash and scrub.
We slept in the next morning. Actually, the boys did. I was up earlier and enjoyed sitting by the window with only my voice in my head. I watched the sun awash the desert sands with its crimson pink rays. Every now and then, our resident peacock would seize the silence with its booming song. I was tempted to take a solitary dip in the plunge pool. But what if the Emus’ stopped by for a sip? That urge was quickly erased. I sunk back into the cushion and decided to enjoy the quiet for a while longer. I kept glancing at the clock to make sure we didn’t miss breakfast. We had booked the Nature and Wildlife drive before noon. After cajoling the guys out of bed, we were hurriedly getting dressed when the doorbell rang. The housekeeping staff wanted to know whether we wanted our villa serviced. After letting him know we would be out soon he says, “You have a guest today. Take a look.” Bewildered, I poked my head out of the door.
A few hundred meters away from the villas, a metal mesh separates the property from the wilderness. You would miss it considering the wild thickets growing around and into it. Catching sight of the lone giraffe, I caught my squeal right in my throat. We were expecting to see them on our drive today. And here was one right outside , which according to the staff, is an extremely rare sight!
Having finished breakfast, we set out on our first activity. We opted for the wildlife drive especially for Ali. Ours was scheduled at 12 noon right after we finished breakfast. We hopped on to our Land Cruiser (no glass panes on the windows!) and set off. Abdul, our guide, gave us a brief introduction about the geology of the island and what animals we would possibly spot on our drive today.
10 minutes in, we spotted two giraffes out for a snack and sip of water. Abdul tells us that they’re extremely shy creatures and camouflage amongst trees very easily. He barely finished his sentence when one of them promptly hid itself behind a cluster of trees. Had I not seen him before, I don’t think I would have able to spot him. Who would have thought a giraffe, out of all the animals, would be most likely to win a game of hide and seek.
This was probably the first time I was comfortable around animals. For the record, I have always hated trips to the zoo. When I was a child, it was mostly because the stench would have me gagging for fresh air. Now, I hate zoos partly still because of the same reason but it makes me uncomfortable seeing them entrapped. I am certain that the good ones take extremely great care of them. Yet, they’re not in their habitat and to cage them for us is something I have yet to come to terms with. Which is why I felt at ease here. As I mentioned before, the resort has firm policies about not disturbing any of the animals. We would find rabbits and Arabian Gazelles freely grazing on the hotel lawns. And of course, our resident Emus we had to share our pool with. The fact that they don’t fret and flee when we come near shows they’re comfortable too.
We were turning into the inner parts of the wildlife park when Abdul's phone rang. He sounded thrilled and informed us we were in luck. He picked up the speed, taking swift turns and then brought the vehicle to a stop. On the sand lay a fresh carcass of a gazelle, its insides exposed and missing limbs. Judging the swarm of flies buzzing over it, Abdul told out that one of the resident cheetahs would have made this kill less than half an hour ago.
Here he is resting after his meal. We were given firm instructions about not provoking them. For someone who is terrified of a puppy unleashed, I was remarkably calm being in such close proximity of a hunting animal while being seated in a vehicle with no windows.
Close to an hour later, we were driving back to the resort just in time for lunch. We had booked the Cultural Tour for 3pm. Every day after breakfast, we were allowed to take a few bread rolls from the breakfast spread to feed the birds. A few hundred meters away, swarms of birds and peacocks and peahens would surround us while Ali and his Daddy flicked bread. Some of these birds would catch the bread chunk in mid-air right before it hit the ground. Considering the number of peacocks swarming in the property, you would think you would be able to get your hand at a number of peacock feathers. But I didn’t find any. Once when we were walking back after breakfast, I saw a little girl waving one in the wind and wished I got one too. Having finished lunch, we were ready to board our vehicle for the Cultural tour. I squealed in delight.
Right underneath the steps were not one but four peacock feathers! I couldn’t stop smiling. After having settled into our seats, our guide introduced himself and said he has a surprise for us. He handed us a peacock feather. But it couldn’t hold a torch to the beauties I found. I showed him what I found and judging his surprised look, knew I had struck gold. He asked where I found these and I told literally at the doorstep of his car. He took the feathers and showed us the tips. They had blood on them and told us they were freshly shed and told us how to clean them. After reaching home, my husband dipped them in wax to seal it completely. I am pretty certain that not everyone can get their hands on such a souvenir.
I am glad we decided to do this tour. As an expatriate, I'm well aware that our time in this country is limited. But the United Arab Emirates will always be home. It is where I did my schooling and university and now raising a family. The late His Highness Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan brought this island to life with his immaculate foresight. The island is named after the tribe Bani Yas who were the first inhabitants of the island. It is claimed to be close to his heart as his forefathers inhabited the island where the the main occupations were fishing and pearl diving. He commenced the development of the island in early 1972. He envisioned a wildlife sanctuary and began breeding programs for the previously endangered Arabian Oryx, a year later. Until then it was hunted in the wild for its horns as trophies, its skin for water bags that would keep water cool in the scorching heat and for its flesh. The program was a success and in the subsequent years, a number of them have been released back into the wild. He continued to bring in more animal species into the island and countries around the Middle East, including Morocco and Egypt, began gifting native species to the island.
I’m wondering if you’re wondering why there aren’t any pictures of our meals. I kept my phone away at the table this time. I was already taking photographs and videos (especially of our boy) at every turn. The phone took a break when we sat down to eat and with a toddler, there is never a dull conversation. The breakfast buffet had a good spread that ticked off all the usual expectations. Live egg station, fresh cut fruits, crisps salads, deli meat options and a bread counter. And if you’re worried about food waste, I’d suggest you ask for a table outside. As you can see, the birds are so polite that they only swoop down only when you leave the table.
As far as dining goes, there are five restaurants across all the properties including a Middle-Eastern, Italian and Seafood restaurant. Keeping true to its surroundings, Al Sahel has an African themed restaurant. If you wish to dine at another restaurant in a different property, a shuttle will be arranged to transport you to and fro.
On our first night, we were informed that the Savannah Grill at our resort was hosting an outdoor BBQ event. Hands down, that was our favorite dining experience at the resort. Apart from an elaborate spread featuring recipes from the African continent, we could pick our meat of choice which was cooked on a live grill on and served at your table. The usual poultry, shellfish and red meat options with a few untraditional options including venison. I tucked into an East African prawn curry with steamed rice. Midly spiced with a rich coconut milk base, the flavors were resplendent of a Keralan fish curry. Minus the overcooked prawns. I’m assuming the prawns were cooked separately and then added to the curry. Yet, they had imbibed the curry flavors and were succulent.
Of course, I made my way through the dessert table. I was feeling rather full (I blame the venison) and decided to pick and choose through the options. The name cards were missing on the table, so I didn’t know what I was serving myself when I spooned out a particular sticky and rather plain looking pudding. But it had me at the very first bite.
I would say it was a Ratatouile moment. It tasted familiar and something from my childhood. Was it coconut? Does it have jaggery in it? It was buttery and sweet and spongy and would stick slightly on my teeth. I’m sure my husband was part embarrassed, part amused while I flapped my hands trying to nab the attention of the chef who was walking by. What is this dessert? Malva Pudding. And what is it made of? Coconut milk? No, what you’re tasting is Apricot. Apricots? I felt a bit defeated that none of my tasting guesses were right. I knew I would be baking this pudding in my kitchen very very soon. (Watch this space.)
This was something my husband looked forward to. During our stay, close to sunset we were brought these ginormous Macaroons. They’re about the size of my palm. It would arrive just warm enough to know that they’ve been freshly baked. I’d quickly prepare a tea and take my plate and seat myself by the window. A quick sip, a bite into the chewy coconut core, dusting off the crumbs and watching the sun go down. My idea of serendipity.
If I had to be very picky, there was one downside to the trip. When you travel with a toddler, keeping them well-fed and hydrated is, without a doubt, a priority. For a four day trip, we packed enough of his favorite snacks to last a month only because we weren’t sure what to expect for his meals. As parents we are mindful of where we eat out to include places where he can share our mains. In this light, to find chicken nuggets and frozen french fries on the childrens’ menu was disappointing. The night we ate at the Savannah BBQ, the children’ buffet options included these. If I’m not wrong, they had baked pasta too. Considering Ali loves grilled meat, he tucked in a grilled chicken skewer without difficulty. The second night when we visited the Italian restaurant, I was hoping there would be Gnocchi on the menu as he loves this dish. Unfortunately, there wasn’t. Chicken nuggets, fries and white pasta were the options on the Childrens’ menu again. However, as they did had a fire-oven, the menu included a mini Margherita pizza made from scratch. I’d be happy to see a menu designed for children with a bit more thought.