SIR BANI YAS ISLAND // As the plane approached, it dipped low enough for its passengers to be able to make out the shapes of turtles in the Gulf below. Their dark silhouettes offered the first taste of the wildlife to come over the weekend. When it was time to land, however, the Cessna Caravan headed not for the island's airstrip, but a sheltered bay that offered the calmest water. This was a seaplane, so instead of the screech of wheels there was a gentle splash, as the plane glided onto the water and towards the docks to unload its passengers.
In a nation known for airlines with global ambitions and an inventory of ultra-long haul aircraft, the government-backed Tourism Development Investment Company (TDIC) is offering guests at its desert island resort a taste of aviation's more humble roots. In 2008, the company purchased and flew over two of the Cessnas from North America. In May last year, it began operating flights from Abu Dhabi International Airport to Sir Bani Yas island.
The 50-minute journey, and accompanying tour over Sir Bani Yas, provides a bird's-eye view compared with the alternative - a flat, three-hour drive across Al Gharbia. TDIC also charters flights to Sir Bani Yas airport aboard a Bombardier Dash-8. "For us, it is about improving the access, as people can drive, but with the seaplane and the Dash-8, it means people can plan a good weekend with the schedule they've got," said John Rogers, the general manager of the Desert Islands Resort. "In addition, Sir Bani Yas is an experience-driven place, and seaplanes are unique."
Indeed, as the plane approached the island, it made a few fly-bys for those on board, allowing a closer look at the island's salt domes and mangroves, which provide sanctuary for flamingos. The flying experience to Sir Bani Yas can be summed up in two words seldom associated with air travel from the UAE - low and slow. The single turboprop plane flies at 120 knots, as opposed to 320 knots for the average airliner flown by Etihad or Emirates. Rather than climbing up into the troposphere, as modern airliners do, these planes make the trip to the western region at 5,000 feet.
The conditions offer good, long glimpses of the entire trip, from the city of Abu Dhabi and surrounding islands. From the first moments, passengers on a recent flight leant towards the windows, snapping pictures of the scene below. "Looking down on that water from 1,000 feet, it makes you want to go scuba diving," said Rick Reinke, a pilot for Empire Aviation, which operates the flights on behalf of TDIC. "You just don't get that experience in the UAE."
The best part of the trip, of course, is the water landing. "The guests love it, especially the families," said Suzanne Braund, Mr Reinke's co-pilot. "For the kids, it's a big thrill." The seaplanes used for the Sir Bani Yas service are the first in Abu Dhabi. Before this, Abu Dhabi did not have clear laws governing seaplanes, so TDIC worked with Empire Aviation and the Federal Aviation Authority to create new regulations covering the operation of seaplanes in the emirate.
According to Mr Reinke, there are three other seaplanes in the UAE, used by tours above Dubai by another operator. TDIC has offered summer travellers a promotion of Dh99 per person, one-way until Eid. Guests board the plane from the Royal Jet VIP terminal at Abu Dhabi airport. The lounge "gives guests a real sense of occasion when they visit the island", the state-backed company said. The flight also gives its passengers a sense of what aviation used to be like.
"Modern flight is taking off, and a minute later you're at 35,000 feet," Mr Reinke said. "It's all push-button. This is stick and rudder flying, where you can actually feel the airplane." The planes are lighter and as a result, they are more subjected to gusts, particularly in summer, when the heat creates thermal turbulence over land. Indeed, there were a few relieved faces on our flight, when the plane finished circling above the island and finally landed.