The first thing to say about Oman is that the sky is absolutely cloudless and so blue that it seems artificial. On a journey that takes us from the ocean to the mountains to the desert and back to the capital, Muscat, through changing landscapes and along open roads, the sky is the constant.
When we arrive at the village ofQantab in the early morning, it’s a deep purple brimming at the edges with the coming dawn, a silver crescent moon and a single star pinned above the dark sea and the shadows of limestone cliffs. Later, on the water, the sky is brilliant and big. The sea, reflecting its colour, is a sparkling vivid turquoise.
We’re in a speedboat whipping north on the lookout for bottlenose dolphins, which are frequently spotted along with smaller spinner dolphins in the Gulf of Oman. Extra Divers Worldwide runs dolphin-watching tours twice a day, as well as snorkelling and scuba diving excursions in the area’s rich waters. The marina is a quick shuttle ride from the lobby of Al Husn, the most upscale of the three hotels that make up Shangri-La’s sweeping Barr Al Jissah Resort.
We are not disappointed. The wild dolphins are spirited and fearless, swimming so close to the boat that you could lean over and touch them if only they would slow down. When two fishermen approach our captain hunting the same tuna the dolphins eat, he points them in the direction of the pod we’ve been following, and hands the men bottles of water and snacks to sustain them in their work. “They’re my friends,” he says easily. “We help each other.”
In the evening, we visit the bustling port district of Muttrah, where seagulls wheel over the harbour, in which Sultan Qaboos’ royal yacht is docked, and residents stroll along a picturesque promenade. At the souq, where lanes radiate from a central dome like the spokes of a bicycle wheel, we are sold.
It’s February when we visit and luckily we’ve just missed an especially cold snap. We arrive at Alila Jabal Akhdar after a pleasant three-hour journey to warm sunshine and a refreshing breeze. We’re out on the hotel’s main viewing deck before they can even check us in, awed by the landscape’s magnificence— the plunging canyons, azure sky, the arid plateau with tufts of juniper trees and, on and on, like mythical beasts, the shapes of other mountains in the distance.
The eco-friendly retreat is accessible only by four-wheel-drive vehicles (there’s a police checkpoint at the bottom of the 50-minute climb to turn back unsuitable machines) and the rewards are worth every steep switchback and unexpected donkey crossing. It’s the only hotel this high and certainly the only luxury property for miles—at least until Anantara’s Al Jabal Al Akhdar Resort opens later this year. At times it’s so quiet and the eye can travel so far that the experience of just sitting on your balcony, and looking, and listening, feels transformative.
The Alila’s thoughtful stone and wood design was inspired by the nearby abandoned village of Sirab. The trek there, which takes you along a rocky, dry riverbed, is not the stroll we imagined and requires good shoes, but if you’re reasonably fit and not bothered by the goats that inhabit the valley, it’s a must. For those who’d prefer to relax, there’s an open-air yoga deck, heated indoor and outdoor pools, a wonderful spa, and plenty of comfortable spaces in the suites and villas to curl up and read.
To refresh yourself after an energetic hike, the perfect elixir is a glass of pomegranate juice at the Rose Lounge. One of the hotel’s two F&B venues—the B being a recent development, as the resort did not originally serve alcohol—the lounge named for the flower that blankets the slopes between March and May. These are harvested to make rosewater, a staple of Omani households used to perfume the hands after meals.
While we’ve experienced no shortage of Arabian flavours on our travels, specific Omani cuisine has proved to be elusive. Our attempts to seek it out have been met with bemusement and suggestions that we dine at Lebanese, Moroccan or Indian restaurants instead. Majid, a member of Alila Jabal Akhdar’s capable team of concierges, explains that local food is very simple, usually fish or meat with rice. Our dinners at Juniper, the hotel’s restaurant, feature tagines, biryanis, cous cous, barbequed meats and vegetable soups, all well portioned and delicious.
The sultan of Oman has celebrated the ancient capital of Nizwa as “the citadel where the glory of our country originated… which has been the home of great leaders and the sanctuary of intellectuals, scholars, poets and men of literature.” A visit to Nizwa and its fort is certainly a worthwhile day trip from the Alila. The ochre-coloured fort complex, built of stone and saruj (a kind of traditional cement), gives a fascinating insight into Omani history, as does the Nizwa bazaar, which is at its most vibrant during the weekly goat auctions on Friday mornings.
There are few other tourists when we arrive at midday and we often feel we have the labyrinthine heritage site to ourselves. The castle, which was constructed in the 9th century and expanded in the 17th, houses a small, informative museum. As well as the displays, fascinating stories are to be found in its walls and floors, in the “murder holes”, for example, through which boiling date juice (the fruit grows abundantly in Oman) would be poured on invaders.
The sky expands as we leave the mountains for Wahiba Sands, the land of the Bedouin. Here is the Arabian desert of our imagination, where towering dunes of fine red sand undulate beneath a sheet of striking blue. Camels appear as we drive along the unpaved road to Desert Nights Camp, the scene unfolding like a picture book come to life. The creatures are larger and more graceful, less goofy, than we’d expected. The camp is comfortable rather than opulent and the service is good. A schedule of activities, including quad biking and camel rides, is offered at check-in, where we are welcomed with dates and Omani cardamom.
(Text by Samantha Leese, Photo by Stefan Oechsner; Julien Capmeil/Art partner licensing/raven & snow (diver))