Secret Oman - Luxury Travel Magazine
The Secrets of the Sultanate
|By: Sean Mooney, Issue 44 – Spring 2010|
|(Oman, Arabian Peninsula)|
|LESS FAMOUS THAN THE UAE TO THE NORTH, LESS INFAMOUS THAN YEMEN AND SAUDI ARABIA TO THE WEST, OMAN IS THE SURPRISE PACKAGE OF THE ARABIAN PENINSULA. SEAN MOONEY REVELS IN THE COUNTRY’S ABILITY TO BALANCE MODERN LUXURY WITH ITS RICH HERITAGE.|
|Mention the Gulf States and most people immediately think of Arab monarchies such as Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Less often will their southern neighbour, the Sultanate of Oman, spring to mind. If it does, it probably has something to do with the country’s harsh deserts and the fossil fuels that lie beneath them. However, such a view of the place is not only misleading, it sells it short as a travel destination. For a start, Oman’s oil reserves are but a drop in the world’s ocean of the black stuff compared to those being tapped by its wealthier neighbours. Furthermore, its admittedly awe-inspiring tracts of sand are only a small part of the country’s varied terrain. Consider the barren yet majestic fjords of the Musandam Peninsula in the north, the lush monsoonal hills of Dhofar to the south and, in between, the Al Hajar mountain range rising to three kilometres above sea level at its highest point.|
Muscat is the first stop for most international visitors. Set against a dramatic backdrop of rugged coastal mountains, the Sultanate’s capital is less a city than a series of valley towns connected by highways. The eastern most of these is the old port of Muscat, where the country’s ruler for the past 40 years, Sultan Qaboos bin Said, has his main palace. The town is still surrounded by the old city walls and flanked by forts that date back to the Portuguese occupation of the 16th Century. Nearby Muttrah, situated on a natural harbour, is the commercial heart of the capital area with an exotic and wholly authentic souq, or market. Muttrah corniche is the place to be in the evening, when the locals come out for a seaside stroll, the men in their spotless long dress shirts (dishdasha), the women in colourful dresses (abaia) and head scarves (lihaf).
There are a number of superb hotels and resorts in Muscat, the best of them located by the sea. The Al Bustan Palace Hotel, which was once used to house visiting international dignitaries, has its own private beach. As does the impressive Barr Al Jissah Resort and Spa which is a short drive out of town. The 23-metre SY Azzura is a state-of-the-art sailing catamaran often moored in the resort’s rock-walled bay. With a draught of a mere 1.5 metres, she can enter shallow waters on dolphin-watching, diving and snorkelling cruises, or when taking groups to private beach parties or rooftop dinners in remote seaside villages (www.oceanblueoman.com).
Despite Muscat’s many charms, a trip to the interior should be on every travel itinerary. Several bespoke tour companies such as Hud Hud Travels (www.hudhudtravels.com) offer professionally guided, imaginative journeys that take in such treasures as the traditional mud-brick village of Al Hamra, the peak of Oman’s highest mountain, Jebel Shams, and the historic fort and walled town of Bahla. Thousands of monumental beehive and tower tombs are scattered all over the country, many of which are more than five millennia old.
A guaranteed highlight is a night under the stars in the Wahiba Desert. Its red rolling dunes have long been home to Bedouin traders. Although today the Land Cruiser has largely superseded the camel as their chosen means of transport, many Bedouin families still travel their ancestors’ routes across the desert to the port town of Sur.
Hud Hud Travels runs luxury camps in the dunes, their tents filled with rugs and cushions and lit by oil lamps and candles. These can also be set up on the edge of the great sand sea known as the Empty Quarter and by palm-fringed wadis (riverbeds) across Oman, including those in the country’s southern-most province of Dhofar. Here, annual monsoonal rains have softened the peaks of the local mountains to create gentle rolling uplands that are quite unlike anywhere else in Arabia. This makes Dhofar one of the most popular holiday destinations for Gulf Arabs, with thousands of tourists visiting the area in the summer monsoon period to escape the scorching temperatures experienced across the peninsula.
Dhofar’s capital, Salalah, is now a popular stopover on many cruise ship itineraries, with visitors drawn to the medieval Islamic site of Al Balid and the 2000-year-old harbour citadel at Khor Rori. A few hours’ drive inland is the ancient desert trading town of Ubar, now known as Shisr, which was a regular stop for the camel caravans that once exported Dhofari frankincense to the world.
And the world is once again discovering the exotic gifts that Oman has to offer. Its variety of landscapes and experiences, often free of crowds and over-exploitation, continue to surprise and inspire those travellers wise enough to explore the secrets of the Sultanate.
|AL BUSTAN PALACE INTERCONTINENTAL MUSCAT |
|Sometimes referred to as Oman’s “flagship hotel,” the 250-room Al Bustan celebrates its 25th birthday this year. It was originally built to accommodate members of the Arabian Gulf Co-operation Council and as such is seriously opulent. Think 80 hectares of ceramics, mirrors, fountains, arches and manicured gardens framed by mountains. It’s a must-see even if you don’t stay there. |
|Rates: From A$351 per person per night |
|SALALAH MARRIOTT RESORT |
|Having just opened earlier this year, the Salalah Marriott is one of the newest arrivals on the Arabian Peninsula’s luxury hotel scene. Set on the edge of the white sands of Mirbat Beach, about 80km east of Oman’s second city of Salalah, this low-rise resort has 170 rooms and 67 suites (including 51 beach chalets), a dive centre, treatment spa and biking and hiking trails. |
|Stay in the Presidential Suite between May and September and pay only A$360 per night|
|SHANGRI-LA’S BARR AL JISSAH RESORT AND SPA|
|Situated on the outskirts of Muscat, this three-hotel resort village couldn’t have a more stunning location. Sitting at the foot of a mountain range that overlooks a protected bay, the resort consists of three separate hotels spread across 50 hectares. The top-end 170-room property, Al Husn, features large rooms with balconies and terraces, an infinity pool and a private beach. With 12 private treatment villas, the property’s signature spa is reputed to be the country’s finest.|
|Rates: From A$379 per person per night|
|WHEN TO GO: Oman is best visited in the cooler months (October to April), as summer temperatures can be quite extreme. November to February is when it’s most comfortable, although if you want to see the Dhofar region at its lushest, you’ll need to travel there during the summer monsoon season, May to September. |
|GETTING THERE: Emirates operates 70 flights per week to Dubai from Brisbane, Melbourne, Perth and Sydney, and flies from Dubai to Muscat daily. Return airfares start from A$1,991 for Economy and A$7,891 for Business Class (including taxes).|