(Notes for the Abu Dhabi Bar Mitzvah)

Welcome to the Desert, Call Me Sir

Sir Bani Yas is not the name of a long lost Arabian Knight, nor of an Englishman hidden away in the caves of the Emirates’ Western Region. It is a sizable island 250 kilometers down the coast from Abu Dhabi, reachable only by boat, and just a short ferry ride off the one road to Saudi Arabia.

Check-in for the resort — it is (of course) a resort — is on the mainland, miles away from the 34 square miles of desert island that was once as barren as its neighborhood coastline. But in 1971, the late ruler and founder of the UAE, Sheikh Zayed, built a palace on a hilltop, imported his favorite African animals à la carte, and established the island as a national reserve. And that — as they say in these parts — was that.

The palace still stands guard at the island’s (contested) high point, where the countryside seems distinctly unlike almost anywhere else in the UAE: there are bumps. The terrain is craggy, the road winds, and trees blanket wide areas of the sweeping sandscape.

Of course, three million of those trees have been planted by hand in the past few decades, with a million more on the books. An above-ground irrigation system makes human involvement yet more obvious. Like the “Jimmy wuz here” spray-painted on the train tracks, the fences and thick black hoses come across loud and clear: Man wuz here. But that’s the way it is in the Emirates, nothing ever pretends to blend in. The message of Sir Bani Yas is not: Look at these giraffe, roaming amongst their natural companions in their natural habitat. Instead, the island says: These are giraffes. Aren’t they neato!?

With the resort not even a year old, though, the natural, manmade development is still mostly unspoiled by further manmade development. In a few years’ time, more traffic and private villas will make the park feel even more like a zoo, but until then, Sir Bani Yas Island treads a fine and bizarre line between real (they are real gazelles, doing what they really do) and fake (giraffes don’t normally eat from bales of hay).

The hotel is also gorgeous, with beds that make Kings look like they’re on Atkins, and without the kitschy tchochkes that tacky up many of Abu Dhabi’s hotel hangouts. The best activity arranged by the fun coordinators at the front desk (for “additional charge,” as they love to say) is the wildlife drive — an hour and a half, best at 7 a.m., into the heart of the park.

Towering red and gray hills made of salt mark the entrance to a dirt road that circuits fields of trees perfectly gridded in mathematically straight rows. I think they’re confused about what “wildlife” means — “it’s neater this way,” the guide says.

Fences also give the impression that some parts are even faker than they really are; it seems, from the look of a small cheetah inclosure, that both sides of a fence are part of separate pens. Really, one side is locked and secured, while the other is the whole rest of the island — free roaming territory for the other three cheetahs.

Past the front lawn of the hotel are immaculate but gritty beaches redolent of a time when sand was still just mashed up rocks, not powdered talc shipped across the desert in dump trucks. There are sandy colored breakers, too, that protect the hotel from the tiny waves (but still — waves!) that crash audibly against the rocky shoreline. But these, on inspection, turn out to be giant carpets stuffed with gravel.

It’s like nature, just comfier.

Some more photos:

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