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Arabian ark an eccentric but brilliant getaway

TWO cheetah brothers bask in the sunshine, panting as they stretch their lean bodies gracefully in the heat. Giraffes munch lazily on foliage while nearby a sand gazelle with her young jumps among the trees. The only sound to pierce the silence is the peacock&rsquo;s call.<br /><br />I am lost in the scene until my driver and guide, Andre, notices an inquisitive and feisty-looking ostrich making a beeline for our vehicle and revs up. &ldquo;She&rsquo;s a cocky one, let&rsquo;s get out of here,&rdquo; he says, and quickly pulls away. As we drive back to the hotel a flock of flamingos takes flight across the lake, lending a splash of pink to the deep blue.<br /><br />Although the landscape may resemble the African bush, I am actually on a game drive in the Gulf state of Abu Dhabi, in the United Arab Emirates. The UAE is better known for glitzy Dubai, with its mega shopping malls, seven-star hotels and ski fields in the desert, but neighbouring Abu Dhabi, the capital and by far the richest of the seven emirates that make up the country, is currently using its oil wealth to put itself on the tourist map.<br /><br />As part of this drive, Anantara, the luxury hotel chain, has opened a five-star resort and spa on the desert island of Sir Bani Yas, which lies 170km west of the city of Abu Dhabi, just 9km off the coast. The island, which is home to a collection of rare and endangered animals, used to be a private nature reserve belonging to Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the former ruler of Abu Dhabi and the first President of the UAE.<br /><strong><br />MAJESTIC PAST</strong><br />A reminder of this majestic past remains in the two majlis, where the Sheikh would receive visitors, and a palace, which is staffed in case a member of the Royal Family wishes to drop by. Sir Bani Yas, named after the Bani Yas tribe the Sheikhs of Dubai and Abu Dhabi are descended from, is unusual in the UAE because it is a natural island formed millions of years ago, unlike Dubai&rsquo;s famous man-made islets, such as the Palm or the World. <br /><br />Hunters and gatherers and fisherman were attracted to Sir Bani Yas thousands of years ago and it was even described by British naval officers visiting the Gulf in the early 19th century.<br /><br />But the natural salt dome was transformed twenty years ago by Sheikh Zayed into a modern day Noah&rsquo;s Ark. The Sheikh, a keen conservationist, used irrigation techniques and land reclamation to make the island into a sanctuary for endangered indigenous species, such as the Arabian Oryx, which was declared extinct in the wild almost forty years ago. The landscape is dotted with olive trees, mango trees and vineyards but a close look among the bush reveals row upon row of green piping. Some 20m metres of piping are used to keep its 3m trees irrigated. <br /><br />Animals not native to the Gulf, such as gazelles, giraffes, emu and eland &ndash; a large antelope &ndash; also joined the ark after they had been given as gifts by other rulers. Suited to the desert heat these animals multiplied quickly, especially the sand gazelles, which usually give birth to twins. <br /><br />With no natural predators on the island, this led to a population explosion with more than 25,000 creatures roaming around. Many of the animals have now been removed, some released to the wild and others to breeding programmes in other parts of the world. <br /><br />In order to maintain the eco-balance for the 10,000 or so animals that remain, cheetahs are currently being introduced to the island and the chance of spotting one of these beautiful hunters adds excitement to any game drive.<br /><br />Although there were four cheetahs on Sir Bani Yas at the time of my visit only one had been let free into the park. This is because the cheetahs had been living in captivity at wildlife parks and were being trained to hunt so that they will be able to fend for themselves on their release. <br /><br />But it also meant I was able to watch two of the magnificent cheetahs, who were being tracked as they learn to hunt, at close range. Once all of the cheetahs have been released, six hyenas, who came to the island as babies, will follow.<br /><br />Visitors to the UAE can easily combine a long weekend shopping trip to Dubai or Abu Dhabi with a day or two spent relaxing with the wildlife on this magical island. <br /><br />Jebel Dhanna, where guests catch the fifteen minute boat ride over, is around a two and a half hour drive from Abu Dhabi or a four hour trip from Dubai. But those short on time may wish to consider a more adventurous journey, flying in by light aircraft to the recently opened island airport. <br /><br />Although designed in Arabian style, the hotel, which used to be guest house for the Sheikh&rsquo;s visitors, is also reminiscent of an African hunting lodge, with a library for guests to take a sundowner before dinner, and comfortable chairs on the veranda overlooking the lake.<br /><strong><br />TRADITIONAL SPORT</strong><br />Although the highlight of any visit is undoubtedly the game drives, guests can take part in a range of other activities, such as snorkelling, hiking, mountain biking and archery &ndash; a traditional Arabian sport &ndash; which are all included in the room rate. Yoga classes are also available for an additional fee or you simply chill out with a cocktail at the beautiful infinity pool alongside the beach.<br /><br />It was too hot during my visit in June to contemplate anything like mountain biking or hiking. These would be better enjoyed in the cooler months from October to March. <br /><br />But I did go kayaking which was great fun and snorkelling where I managed to swim with a sea turtle but was disappointed that dugongs, strange-looking mammals that are also known as sea cows, that live in the waters here, were nowhere to be seen. <br /><br />I wrapped up a strenuous day of activities with a Thai massage at the resort&rsquo;s excellent spa followed by a tasty meal of prawn tempura and Thai-style red snapper at Samak, the best restaurant at the hotel.&nbsp; Depending on the weather &ndash; it is way too hot to sit outdoors in August &ndash; guests can also enjoy a romantic candlelit barbecue on the beach.<br /><br />After two days in the peace and calm of Sir Bani Yas, I was refreshed and ready once more for the bustle, the bling and the skyscrapers of Dubai.<br /><br />Rooms start from &pound;260 a night for a double and go up to the &pound;2,000 a night for the two Royal Villas which sleep five and come with their own pool and 24 hour butler service. See: desertislands.anantara.com. <br /><br />Flights from Abu Dhabi take 50 minutes on 50-seater Bombardier aircraft and start at &pound;70 each way. They are operated by Abu Dhabi Aviation. See: www.adaviation.com.