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Oman is mesmerising. The moment I stepped off the aeroplane, I fell for the sultanate.
Having experienced the magic in Jerusalem, Bethlehem and the unique vibrancy of Qatar, I was both excited and anxious about my next Arabian adventure, in Oman.
Our journey begins when Badar, our guide for the first 24 hours, beautifully adorned in a traditional dishdasha, offered my companion, Liv, and I a cooling hand towel and bottles of water and directed us to a fairly serious-looking 4WD, a hint for the terrain that lay ahead.
A seamless two-hour transfer south-east from Muscat airport into Wahiba Sands and acres and acres of sun-scorched desert, finally took us to our home for the night, Magic Camp.
A number of high-end desert camps have launched in recent years, each offering something different. Ours was totally ecological – no running water or electricity – using solar power for the lanterns, so perhaps aimed at the more adventurous guest.
The camp consisted of a spacious tent large enough to stand up in, thoughtfully arranged with a comfortable camp bed, tealight lanterns and beautiful silver Omani table. A chill-out, shaded from the blistering sun by a large teepee, housed a scattering of dark red cushions and intricately-woven Omani rugs.
While local villagers, or ‘berbers’, prepare a scrumptious dinner of chargrilled chicken and rice seasoned with herbs, Liv and I blend in with the locals, trotting happily around the camp on a couple of moody camels.
Fast-forward eight hours and we arise at 6 am, naturally, without an alarm, having slept soundly, gazing miles and miles across the dunes while eagerly awaiting the morning sunrise.
If you ever wondered what it might be like to walk on the moon, the Al Hajar mountain range and the extraordinary scenery surrounding the sleepy, authentic village of Jabal Akhdar could conceptualise the fuzzy image in your head.
Our next stop is at Alila Jabal Akhdar. Perched atop the canyon, 2,000 m high, it’s is a place of intense serenity and beauty. A sort of non-hotel, better described as a large rambling home, which nestles comfortably into its surroundings, low-rise and with jaw-dropping panoramas across miles of cavernous gorges and gnarly grey canyons.
You would never know it but the resort boasts 84 suites and two 2-bedroom villas. When we stayed in November, we were deposited in a superb horizon-view suite, which benefits from the glorious afternoon sun, enabling us to make use of the very private wooden balcony.
Earthy shades of wood and local black stone are complemented by extravagantly designed Omani rugs and elegant but simple furnishings. The hotel’s devotion to ecological responsibility is simply staggering.
Too many sustainability awards to mention have been scooped up since the hotel’s birth five years ago and a carefully considered engagement programme offers local villagers skills and jobs.
The facility incorporates an on-site water treatment unit feeding irrigation and landscaping, while solar panels generate about 65 per cent of the hot water supply. Metals, wood and other building materials have been recycled and used in the construction process. This is seriously impressive stuff.
Juniper, the resort’s main restaurant, a beautiful, light-filled space elegantly decorated with Omani artefacts and traditional paintings, offers a creative menu that focuses on relationships with local farmers.
Head chef Alex Ensor has brought traditional age-old Omani recipes to life by injecting global techniques. We wolfed down delights such as Omani spiced slow-cooked lamb with fresh al tzmat dukkud sauce, and roast chicken with bjarat spice, pumpkin and saffron and tomato-infused potatoes.
Scattered on the terrace surrounding the spacious pool, wooden sunbeds each possess a remote control which, upon gently pressing, immediately summons one of the charming and impeccably turned-out waiters who will pander to your every whim. Strawberry pomegranate juice? No problem.
A visit to Spa Alila is a must. The 100 per cent natural and organic products have been carefully created in Bali only for Alila and somehow leave you feeling otherworldly while earthy scents of frankincense and juniper berry waft through the seven treatment rooms and chill-out lounge. Ideal for family celebrations and parties, and set slightly away from the main hubbub of the resort, are two rather fabulous single-storey two-bedroom villas. Each one has wrap-around terrace, offering commanding views of the canyon and the perfect spot to sip a drink gazing into the last of the day’s yellow and orange-tinged sun. Truly magical.
For the truly adventurous, experiential traveller, an overnight stay at Misfah Old House, near Nizwah, is strongly recommended. Two sets of guests had gushed about a recent visit and we wanted to know more: a pleasant change, I imagine, from the usual luxury hotel experience; our new friends described an evening of total Omani immersion. How wonderful. A simple bed carefully arranged upon a mattress on the floor of a traditional mud house, dinner served on the rooftop, with miles-and-miles of steep agricultural terraces as your view. Minimal mod-cons available. And, wait for it: no Wi-Fi – bliss!
A little higher up the mountain still and we arrive at Anantara Al Jabal Al Akhdar, our home for the next two days. A ginormous super-resort standing proudly on the precipice of yet another insanely beautiful canyon. Serious brownie points go to the smiley activity team who have spent yonks curating and testing the numerous experiences which can be arranged and tailored to each guest, such as archery, cultural hikes to abandoned berber villages, sunrise yoga, tennis, Omani cookery classes and the extra special signature ‘Dining by Design’ concept – where guests are invited to choose from various seasonal menus and dine on Diana’s Point, a precariously positioned ‘sky jetty’ protruding off a cliff ledge, where England’s Princess of Wales sprinkled her magic over 30 years ago.
Our superstar hero, the resort’s marketing manager Jessi, turned her hand to practically anything in the name of guest satisfaction. Impromptu pool villa photoshoot with a giant inflatable Pegasus? Check. Traversing the nerve-racking Via Ferrata canyon face with full on rock climbing gear? Easy peasy.
Following an eventful day, my leisurely visit to the spa – wellness being a department Anantara’s Thai heritage excels in – was well deserved. A divinely energising foot massage was given by the sweet but strong South African Lee Ann, using smoothing pink Himalayan salt granules.
The resort’s principal dining room, Al Qalaa, housed in an elegant tower, conjures magical thoughts of the great Omani architects of yesteryear. We feasted on a sumptuous Omani-Arabic fusion tasting menu, which celebrates the rich culture and abundance of local, seasonal produce, such as nourishing Middle Eastern lentil soup and perfect charcoal-grilled fillets steaks.
Wrapping up our magical adventure we check-in to The Chedi, an iconic and opulent Muscat mainstay, which has been wowing its international clientele for too many years to mention. Set just outside the city, occupying a glorious spot beside the Gulf of Oman, a scattering of traditionally designed, bright white suites and rooms fill a 21-acre oasis – perfectly manicured gardens, towering palms and tightly-trimmed pea green lawns. By day, we tucked into superb Japanese sashimi and sliders beside the uber-glamorous long pool – we’re talking a whopping 103 m here, hobnobbing with the Euro jetset and UAE-based expats. By night, we casually inhaled apple shisha from wacky-coloured pipes at the wonderfully eclectic Kargeen in downtown Muscat.
Think of The Chedi as a sort of Four Seasons without the marble, possessing the familiarity and welcoming coziness of a private members’ club. A laid-back, smiley but attentive team float around, methodically going about their daily chores.
An invitation to dine at the resort’s main restaurant (one of six) with the charming sales director, Deepak, sees us chomping away on locally caught yellow fin tuna steak and authentic Arabic slow-cooked lamb. The next morning, we have an appointment at the 15,000 sq m spa, a serene space which blends ancient healing rituals of the East with ultra-slick design from the West. It’s an absolute must; the ultimate in spa wow factor.
The only thing to prise us away from the sheer comfort of our beautifully spacious Chedi Club Suite were the complimentary beverages and canapés served in the Club Lounge each evening. A cosmopolitan crowd gathers nightly, elegantly attired, to sip expertly muddled beverages while the echo of the gentle waves hit the sandy shore close by. If paradise exists, I think we might just have found it.
* Timmy Coles-Liddle is the founder of NINE, a private concierge club, which provides tailored travel solutions to individuals and families globally – nineconcierge.com
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