REGISTER/LOGIN | ADVERTISE | CONTACT

A TREAT FOR THE SENSES

Published: Monday, January 30, 2017    



By Emma Procter


Quiet and unassuming, Oman has long existed somewhere in the shadows of its boisterous neighbours – and yet the country’s landscapes, resorts, and abundant nature leave a lasting impression

Afew years ago – after a chilly cross European business trip taking in Austria, Germany, Denmark, and Sweden – I found myself on the way home to Dubai eagerly anticipating some relaxation in the sun and a bit of UAE-style pampering.

However, hours after landing I received a phonecall that I was expected in Muscat, Oman the following day for a media review. “Great,” I thought. “Three days in the middle of a deserted, dusty rock when all I want is a spa treatment – and possibly a brunch.” I’d never been to Oman, and I wince at my ingratitude now, but how could I know it would be the start of a serious love affair...

SOMEWHERE OVER THE MOUNTAINS

To get to Muscat, the capital of the Sultanate of Oman, from the UAE, you either drive through or fly over the pretty Hajar Mountain range. And almost instantaneously, you feel you're in a different world.

On my frst trip as an Oman newbie, I was lucky enough to stay at the stunning fve-star Shangri-La Barr Al Jissah Resort & Spa – beautifully located between a dramatic backdrop of rugged mountains and the pristine waters of the Sea of Oman.

Set on 124 acres of stunning scenery, it is home to three spectacular hotels: Al Waha, ‘The Oasis,’ a family destination; Al Bandar, ‘The Town,’ at the heart of the resort and ideal for leisure and business travellers, and Al Husn, ‘The Castle,’ the most exclusive retreat providing the highest level of luxurious hospitality for discerning travellers.

Lucky old me stayed at Al Husn and it was there that my love affair with the country began. Not just because of the grandeur of the hotel itself, but because I used the time to explore nearby Muscat city and soak in the unique Omani culture.

RETURNING TO THE SCENE

They say never go back to a place you really enjoyed because it can’t live up to the memory. This was on my mind last November when I flew once more to Muscat for a two-night stay at the Shangri-La hotel.

I must stress that Oman has a wide range of breathtaking resorts, and journalists really shouldn’t play favourites. Explore them all is my advice – but there is no doubting that the Shangri-La’s mysterious, slightly isolated location gives it an edge for global travellers.

In reality, the resort is only 15 minutes from the old city of Muscat, the Ruwi business district, and is within easy access to Muscat International Airport – it just somehow feels cut adrift.

The lobby smelled as wonderful as I recalled due to the wafting frankincense, and the staff managed, once again, to hit that sweet point between being helpful and too attentive.

EXCLUSIVITY, PEACE, AND QUIET

The 180 rooms and suites Al Husn offer Shangri-La's highest level of service and amenities. These are amongst the largest and most luxurious in Oman, with a décor inspired by royal Arabian palaces and accented by authentic Omani artworks.

A major highlight, and one that I took advantage of as often as possible, is that guests at Al Husn can enjoy access to a private 100-metre beach, as well as enjoying complimentary mini-bar, daily complimentary afternoon tea and a predinner cocktails and canapés service.

Whilst there are no children's facilities in Al Husn, kids can enjoy facilities such as the Lazy River, children's pool, play room and water aquatic play area in Al Bandar and Al Waha hotels. Children below 16 are not permitted to use the private beach or Al Husn pool.

For nature lovers, the area is a marine life haven and if you are lucky you will see dolphins out in the distance, or even turtles on the shores – as well as incredible fsh as you go for a snorkel. The waters are also very clear, much more so than the UAE.

DINING WITH AN OCEAN BREEZE

There are several excellent restaurants and bars right across the resort and a stroll along the beach allows you to pop into wherever you fancy. A big recommendation is seafood eatery Bait Al Bahr, a wooden boardwalk style restaurant specialising in freshly caught fsh that you can choose for yourself and have cooked to your liking while you enjoy gazing out into the shimmering sea. I had turbot with a light, creamy hollandaise sauce and spinach. It was simple, straightforward, and delicious.

Back at Al Husn, one evening I was treated to an evening brunch style affair at Sultanah Restaurant which spilled out onto a terrace overlooking the whole resort. With flaring grills and expert chefs on hand, it was simply spectacular. This is also the venue for breakfast and is designed to be reminiscent of a luxury ocean liner, complete with portholes and a long deck-like eating area.

ONE HAMMAM TO RULE THEM ALL

An experience I was desperate to revisit was a Royal Hammam treatment at the resort’s revered CHI The Spa. Even if the thought of scrubs and mud is not usually your thing, I’d urge you to try it one time – it will fx ninety per cent of all the things that ail you (probably).

A traditional therapy with deep roots in the Middle East, the Hammam here utilises traditional black soap and eucalyptus essential oil. The treatment deeply cleanses by using a combination of intense steaming and scrubbing that leaves the skin totally renewed.

It’s authentically done at CHI and not for those afraid of getting a full head-to-toe work-over. A good tip is to book this therapy at the start of your stay as it leaves your skin nice and even and in prime condition for sunbathing.

THE WHOLE OF OMAN IS A MARINE LIFE HAVEN AND IF YOU ARE LUCKY YOU WILL SEE DOLPHINS OUT IN THE DISTANCE, OR EVEN TURTLES ON THE SHORES

AU REVOIR... FOR NOW

I left the hotel, and Oman, with the usual wistful feeling. You quickly get used to the elegance and drama of men in the Omani national dress of a dishdash (a floor-length robe which appears dazzlingly white) and gorgeously ornate headgear. As well as the occasional, slightly unnerving, traditional curved sabre the khanjar.

There is an unmistakable, almost Mediterranean-esque ‘Mañana, Mañana’ (‘tomorrow, tomorrow’) approach to life in Oman. But really, why do we all rush around so much? Why not just take in life and enjoy it?

My only consolation for leaving this most alluring of countries once again was a plastic bag rammed full of frankincense resin from the souq – so I can evoke nights in Oman any time I choose.

GO EXPLORE

For such a small country, there are plenty of fascinating experiences to be had all over Oman. Here are some highlights.

JEBEL SHAMS, AL HAJAR MOUNTAINS

At over 3,000 metres, Oman’s highest mountain Jebel Shams is located in northeastern Oman north of Al Hamra town. It is best known not for its peak but for the view into the spectacularly deep Wadi Ghul lying alongside it. The straight-sided wadi is known locally as the Grand Canyon of Arabia as it fssures abruptly between the flat canyon rims, exposing vertical cliffs of 1,000 metres and more. Until recently, there was nothing between the nervous driver and a plunge into the abyss but now an iron railing at least indicates the most precipitous points along the track and a couple of rough car parks along the rim pick out some of the best viewpoints into the canyon.

BAYT AL ZUBAIR, MUSCAT

In a beautifully restored house, this privatelyowned museum exhibits Omani heritage in thematic displays of traditional handicrafts, furniture, stamps and coins. The museum has recently evolved into the cultural centre of Muscat, hosting many international exhibitions of contemporary art in Gallery Sarah within the museum's grounds

SULTAN’S PALACE, MUSCAT

If you stand by the harbour wall on Mirani St, the building to the right with the delightful mushroom pillars in blue and gold is Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al Said’s palace. On the inland side, an avenue of palm trees leads to a roundabout surrounded by grand royal court buildings and the new national museum.

GRAND MOSQUE, MUSCAT

Quietly imposing from the outside, this glorious piece of modern Islamic architecture was a gift to the nation from Sultan Qaboos to mark his 30th year of reign. The main prayer hall is breathtakingly rich. The Persian carpet alone measures 70m by 60m wide, making it the second largest hand-loomed Iranian carpet in the world; it took 600 women and four years to weave.

MUTRAH SOUQ, MUSCAT

Many people come to Mutrah Corniche just to visit the souq, which retains the chaotic interest of a traditional Arab market albeit housed under modern timber roofng. Shops selling Omani and Indian artefacts together with a few antiques jostle among more traditional textile, hardware and jewellery stores. Bargaining is expected although discounts tend to be small. Cards are generally accepted in most shops, but bring cash for better deals. The main entry is via the corniche, opposite the pedestrian traffc lights.

ROYAL OPERA HOUSE, MUSCAT

The understated marble exterior of this relatively new cultural hot spot belies the magnifcent interior of inlaid wood and Arabesque designs. Even if you're not intending to catch a show, it's worth stopping by to admire the beauty of the building and enjoy window-shopping in the adjacent Opera Galleria Arcade.

AQAH CASTLE, SALALAH

This small but well-preserved castle in the greener south of Oman was built in the 19th-century. With a furnished interior, video display, excellent signage, craft shop and an accompanying booklet explaining the history of this sardine-producing town, this is one of the best fort museums in Oman.

SIGNATURE SCENT

Oman smells wonderful – that’s just a fact. This is largely down to its abundance of frankincense trees, the resin of which can be bought cheaply in all the main souqs. The hotels even waft its aromatic fumes around their lobbies, leaving guests feeling calm and slightly bewitched. Oman has a reputation for producing frankincense trees that deliver the highest-grade resin, the stuff reserved for royalty. For Omanis this is not a mere tree, but an embodiment of culture, history, sociology and geography. So, if you are visiting, stock up.
 
Tools
Print This Page
 
Email a Friend
Contact the Editor
 
Bookmark
     
Share
Facebook
 
Twitter
 
del.icio.us
Yahoo
 
StumbleUpon
 
Newsvine
Google
 
Reddit