Discover Oman

Oman-Montage

Courtney Maggs-Jones discovers the Sultanate of Oman, where rich cultural traditions meet modern luxury 

From bubblicious brunches to The Burj Khalifa, via six-wheeled gold Mercedes trucks racing lime green Lamborghinis, there’s no doubt the UAE is synonymous with luxury and excess. But that doesn’t conjure up the Arabian mystique I’ve  always longed to experience. I want to hear kaman violins and darbuka drums playing traditional music as I sip Arabic coffee; the air scented with frankincense.

Thankfully, the Sultanate of Oman proves to be exactly what I’d hoped for. Peaceful; stable; embracing the modern world whilst upholding traditional culture.

Shopping and sea views

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Image shows the Bait Al Luban restaurant

Muscat’s bustling Mutrah Souk is one of the world’s oldest; a labyrinthine network vending colourful Omani and Indian artefacts and spices. As I emerge, clutching the obligatory hookah pipe and dates, my vision is commanded by huge ships docked in the bright-blue Mutrah Corniche port – the Sultan’s two personal yachts and several cruise ships amongst their number.

The latter are a reminder that Oman is primed for luxury tourism. As the most-visited Gulf cruise destination (attracting up to 200,000 visitors annually), the Sultanate is currently building a second, larger port.

As we eat a lavish lunch at traditional restaurant Bait Al Luban, whose name means ‘the frankincense house’, Oman’s historic East African and Indian trading links are evident. A feast of slow-cooked meats and biryani is followed by potent Arabic cofee that’s sufficiently strong to see us through the rest of the day.

We’re driven along a dramatic coastline to Shangri-La Barr Al Jissah, a resort and spa comprising three hotels which share almost a mile of private beach, and boast a host of eateries – from the traditional
Al Tanoor through to the casual Surf Café and cocktail hotspot, Piano Lounge.

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Al Waha, Oman’s first dedicated family hotel, is the largest amongst the Shangri-La collection; formed of a series of interconnecting rooms, numerous pools, play zones, and a Lazy River.  The Arabian styling and arched windows of Al Bandar, the resort’s central hotel, are in keeping with Muscat’s traditional architecture. Rooms with private balconies or terraces overlook palm groves and the sea, and a cove where Shangri-La upholds amazing turtle conservation work lies just next to the hotel’s beach.

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Shangri-La’s third property, Al Husn, is designed to reflect the opulence and grandeur of the royal palace and grand mosque. Made up mainly of suites, it features a stunning private courtyard which leads to its own lagoon-like cove; complete with two beaches and VIP sun lounger service. We recline, lazily watching dolphins and dhow shing boats, following the sun until it sets spectacularly over the mountains.

Desert adventures

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Image shows the Al Thowarah hot springs

Al Husn has given us a taste for the magnificence that we witness on an expedition to take in some of Oman’s grandest architectural creations. We visit The Royal Palace, The Muscat Royal Opera House, and the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque of Muscat. The latter is one of the Middle East’s largest, and its shiny marble courtyard, football pitch-sized carpet, and 1,100 lamp chandelier are all something to behold.

A knowledgeable guide will help you get the most out of Oman and, on a Toyota Land Cruiser trip, ours doubles as a dune- bashing instructor. We drive into the desert, transitioning from new motorway to dirt track, taking in a series of old forts en route.

We’re promised magical hot springs, but, although Al-Kasfah’s water is warm (as is the climate!), it’s also surrounded by public baths and toilets. But, when we reach the Al-Thorwarah spring, my disappointment evaporates. A beautiful injection from the barren hills gives way to a gentle stream that’s home to a vast school of doctor sh that nibble gently at our toes. The waters of the small falls and plunge pools above the stream are pleasantly warm and, we’re told, have healing powers.

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Image shows dunes near Al Nahda resort

We pass scattered towns and villages between the hills and Muscat. Then, slightly off the beaten track and into the desert, we reach the five-star Dunes by Al Nahda resort, made up of decadent Bedouin tent ‘pods’. As we dine on an Indian-influenced menu, the veranda restaurant’s 360° views of the dunes and mountains takes my breath away.

Diving and dining
Our whistlestop trip heads further north; taking us to the Millennium Resort in Al Mussanah, a beautiful marina which makes a sea-facing room a must. Dawn breaks, and we board a diving boat. A couple of miles out, the excited captain points towards a pod of over 50 spinner dolphins, all playing up to the human visit. We spot massive turtles, moray eels and lion fish darting amongst the coral as we coast around the islands. Then, with the fleeting sighting of a huge whale shark, the day becomes even more magical.

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We return to Muscat for a final night at the Crowne Plaza, where the low-lit pool offers the vibrant, relaxing welcome of a Mediterranean resort, before we head to dinner at The Cave in the Darsait Hills. The venue’s name makes me wonder whether it will suffer from trite theming, but it merely refers to the architectural style within a three- floor complex which comprises seven distinct restaurants.

Bird’s eye views of Muscat City and Ruwi are almost as overwhelming as the wealth of dining choices. We could opt for the slow-cooked meats known as ‘shuwa’ at Al Manjur, enjoy an oceanic feast at Harbour, get a taste of India and the Far East at Asiana, check out Clouds and the Clouds Terrace for Mediterranean and Lebanese cuisine, eat traditional Italian food at Rossini, go exotic with Riox’s Brazilian menu, or dine and dance in Rumba Latina’s casual environs. As it’s the end of the trip, we plump for Al Manjur and an authentic Omani experience.

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Image shows The Muscat Royal Opera House

Ultimately, The Cave, Muscat and Oman as a whole all strike an alluring balance between tradition and modernity; embracing luxury whilst keeping a keen eye on the preservation of historical culture. My Arabian nights (and days) have been filled with peace, beauty and discovery of a location with a rich heritage – this trip has proven as magical as I’d hoped.

Make it real

  • Five nights in Oman from £799 per person (saving £400 per person), staying three nights at the Crowne Plaza Muscat and two nights at Millennium Al Mussanah Resort, on a bed & breakfast basis.
  • Includes flights from London with Oman Air and return airport transfers. Departing June 2017. To book call 020 7644 1770 or visit holidayplace.co.uk.
  • The Holiday Place has been creating award-winning experiences for over 30 years. Their holidays range from luxurious to adventurous and cater for all budgets and requirements.
  • For further information on Oman visit omantourism.gov.om.
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