With faux wind towers giving it the appearance of a storybook stronghold from One Thousand and One Nights, Anantara's Desert Islands Resort & Spa stands alone on the shores of Sir Bani Yas a large island in the Persian Gulf, lying just 5 miles (8 km) off the coast of the emirate of Abu Dhabi. And in truth, there is a whiff of fantasy about this sand-colored, 64-room property, fringed by cobalt-blue sea on one side and, on the other, a saltwater lagoon fronting desert scrubland and a jumble of rocky central hills.
Remote Sir Bani Yas was once the private domain of Sheik Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan, ruler of Abu Dhabi and co-founder of the United Arab Emirates. He irrigated much of its barren landscape and created his very own wildlife reserve, initially for endangered regional species like the Arabian oryx and both mountain and sand gazelles, but later for many African animals, including giraffes, ostriches, elands, gemsboks, blackbucks and striped hyenas, all of which remain to this day. (See pictures of luxury private islands.)
The island is now open to the public, accessible in four hours by land and sea from the capital, Abu Dhabi, or by a short flight from Abu Dhabi airport. Those who can afford Desert Islands' considerable comforts are treated to five-star splendor inspired by a mélange of exotic themes part Bedouin, part African, with a hint of East Asia and 19th century colonial style. Safari game drives allow close encounters with a host of beautiful beasts (just don't expect Tsavo or Kruger), and multiple soft-adventure activities are also on offer, from fascinating wadi walks to mountain-biking, kayaking through mangrove lagoons and snorkeling with coral-reef denizens you'll probably swim with turtles and if you're lucky even glimpse the rare dugong. This is an imaginative alternative to the usual formulaic resort. Book yourself some Arabian nights.