Just back from an action-packed trip to Oman, our Middle East & Europe expert Ali shares her travel tales...
The “ship of the desert” is a much revered animal in Oman and represents prosperity. A couple of camels can buy you a house in the countryside....a future brides’ dowry could include a camel or two....they are therefore very well looked after and travel in style and are fed the very best fruit, nuts and honey – better than the family eat.
Stepping out of Muscat airport at 08:30am, I am hit by an already oven-like 33 degrees celcius! My driver Ali leads me to our 4x4 “camel” who, from this moment, became my friend, ally and cool haven on this, my Arabian Adventure. Anyone that knows me knows I have come to appreciate the luxury hotels we are fortunate enough to visit and stay in, so knowing this trip involved ‘camping’ and ‘tents’, I was in fear of being so far out of my comfort zone........
I began by getting to know the City Camel, who is patient, reliable, sleek and obedient as it waits in the heat whilst I visited the sights. The stunning Grand Mosque where the sheer beauty and size of the carpet and Swarovski crystal chandelier in the main prayer room took my breath away, the Al Alam Palace of Sultan Qaboos Bin Said, which you cannot go inside but is very pretty from the outside – which would have been great if my camera had not got all steamed up in the heat! The Bait Al Zaibair Museum gives an interesting look into the past and history of the Omani people and then Muttrah Souk to a great place to buy souvenirs including some frankincense crystals and burner. Each time, our trustworthy camel is waiting and welcomes me back with cooling comfort. Of course, I had to fit in the hotel visits too with a lunch further south of the city at the Sifawy hotel which is on a new development soon to welcome the big names like Banyan Tree and Four Seasons, so will be interesting in the coming years. The Intercontinental is the oldest hotel in the city centre and right next to the Opera House, so a great location. The Grand Hyatt is also nearby and works well for families. The Chedi is also in town and right on the beach and was definitely my favourite for the understated luxury and low level, spread out buildings and rooms. The Shangri-La ‘s Barr Al Jissah Resort comprises of 3 hotels and offers something for everyone; Al Husn for couples and honeymooners, Al Bandar for business and leisure and Al Waha for the families. A really great resort in a private location right on the beach.
The city camel also ventures out along the motorway to visit the forts and villages closer to the mountains. Nakhl fort is huge and the hot springs are worth dipping your feet in – just watch out for the nibbling fish! Rustaq fort is also huge, but has been closed for renovations and the re-opening date is as yet unconfirmed. The temperature hit a punishing 41 degrees – not ideal for sight-seeing! Up in the mountains at Wakan village was much cooler and a great way to see how the local people live – they all own cars, so getting supplies is not a problem.
The Mountain Camel is more dexterous, agile, strong, smart and tough. It negotiates streams, steep gravel unpaved roads and the winding bends of the mountains. After stunning views we reached the 2000m peak only to headed back down to visit the palm tree-filled town of Al Hamra. Back up into the Green mountain and my hotel for the night on the Jebel Akhdar plateau – the Sahab which had a small pool, was clean and comfortable and provides a set 4 course menu for dinner, along with the great setting and views. Before heading to the desert, we visited another village in a sea of date palms, Nizwa which also houses the huge round fort tower and a great souk where silver is (dangerously) good value, as well as lots of other pottery and artisan wares.
The Desert Camel is smooth, controlled, skilful and yet also playful! And after stopping to let some air out of the tyres, the ‘ship of the desert’ was ready for some dune-bashing.....which was........fantastic fun!! My first and distinct memory is the pure sand colour of the top of the dune against the vivid blue sky. I admit I was holding on for dear life, but it was fantastic to watch the sand fly up the sides of the car and then ‘drift’ down each dune so elegantly afterwards! Ali said he always does a test to see if the clients enjoy it and then knows how high/fast to go. After visiting a Bedouin camp for coffee and dates, we made our way to the Desert Nights Camp...where all my fears.....were completely unfounded!! My ‘tent in the middle of nowhere’ was a solid structure with tent-like roof housing a luxury bedroom with separate living room area and a en-suite bathroom. The mini-bar was a treat too, and although contained no alcohol, I later found they do serve it in the bar and restaurant! Sadly, a small sandstorm meant I did not see the sunset and would recommend staying 2 nights here for this reason, as well as take the quad bikes out, go camel trekking. Dinner was a great selection of salads and freshly cooked meat or fish on the BBQ to order. Accompanied with a glass of wine, and this was a real treat. A last drink sitting on my bean-bag on my terrace and I realised this was the highlight of my trip and I could not wait to come back!
The next day we headed towards the coast with a stop at the amazing Wadi Bani Khaled, an oasis of natural pools and rocks. I had wanted to swim, but as more and more groups of men arrived with their cool boxes full of meat (not beer of course!) for BBQs. I did dip my feet in and again had another foot-nibbling experience from the fish! After a visit to the seaside city of Sur and the last remaining Dhow (local boat) factory, we arrived at Ras Al Jinz Scientific Centre, which I knew was fairly simple accommodation, but I was looking forward to the experience. After a visit of the museum and a good dinner with plenty of choice, I gathered with the others for the 9-11pm turtle visit where we saw a mother laying her eggs (around 100 at a time!), but she took longer than expected to cover them and return to the sea. Back for 5 hours sleep, then up again at 4am, the morning shift is worth getting up for as it gets light quite quickly and you can see more and also take photographs (without flash as it can blind the turtles). We again saw a mother laying her eggs, some baby turtles heading for the water and also a mother returning to the water, which was quite emotional. It is definitely worth the experience and great for families as the children loved the experience.
Nearing the end of my trip, it was time to head back to Muscat with a stop to visit the beaches along the coast, including the beautiful sandy Fins beach, where the Beach Camel showed its patience, dislike of sand in every bolthole and limits of capability of how close to the sea it wants to go, just resting in the heat and hoping not to get stuck! The coastline with the mountain backdrop is stunning and as yet still quite undeveloped, although this may change in the coming years as the tourism increases. Ali recommended stopping at a shop called Bateel, which sells a huge variety of dates in nice packaging, so great for presents! My last night was at Al Bustan Palace, a huge and very grand building where the top floor is reserved for any visiting dignitaries, royalty, prime ministers etc and is the reason the hotel was first built. The lagoon-access rooms are great as you can step straight from your terrace into the lagoon pool in front of the hotel. I enjoyed a last fantastic meal at a local Omani restaurant, Kargeen, with Arun from Zahara Tours who had organised this amazing trip for me.
I extended my trip by 2 nights to visit the Musandam region of Oman which is a separate peninsula surrounded by the UAE and had to fly to Dubai and then drive for 2 hours over the border into Oman again, which was a bit strange, but very worth it! The new wing for the paraglide had made it through customs, so I was able to enjoy this amazing experience and welcome to the Six Senses Zighy Bay Resort! It was everything I expected – top luxury, large bedroom, huge bathroom with sunken bath, separate rain shower and outdoor shower, a large living room area as well as an outdoor terrace, pool, covered sitting area and a little ‘room’ with ‘rattan’ sides – really cosy and sweet. There is also a door for beach access. The food was fantastic with the largest buffet choice for breakfast I have ever seen and the spa was of course the usual amazing experience that comes with the Six Senses brand.
Overall, this has to be one of my best trips to date, not only because I conquered many fears in coming way out of my usual comfort zone, but also because I learnt so much and realised how much more you can get from an experiential holiday than just a beach holiday; you see and experience so much in a foreign land and culture that takes you completely out of your own world and opens your mind to new experiences. Every day was an adventure and I loved it! Oman is really growing as a tourist destination and has so much to offer. With the new airport due to be finished at the end of 2014/2015 and the big names looking for the best spots to put their hotels, I am sure everyone will want to come and visit this amazing country with its interesting culture, kind people and diverse landscape.
If you fancy dipping into Middle Eastern culture and dipping your toes into Wadi Bani Khaled like Ali, take a look at our sample itineraries to amazing Oman and let us make a luxury tailor-made holiday for you.