For American travelers, Oman is an encouraging and reassuring place. An Arizona-size country in a strategic location at the mouth of the Persian Gulf, it is devoutly Islamic yet peaceful, prosperous and hospitable to Western visitors. On a recent trip, I strolled through the streets of the capital, Muscat; meandered along the narrow alleyways of its souk; and visited the huge Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque. I never felt ill at ease, and I encountered nothing but friendliness and polite curiosity.
Unlike neighboring Dubai and Abu Dhabi, Oman is steeped in ancient history and culture. The mountains on the edge of the famous “Empty Quarter” of the Arabian Desert were the chief source of frankincense — the aromatic resin used in religious ceremonies and consecrations — and its trade generated immense wealth for southern Oman for more than 1,500 years. And from the late-17th until the early-20th centuries, Oman was an important regional trading power, which controlled the eastern coastline of Africa as far south as its colony of Zanzibar, in present-day Tanzania.
Modern Oman, however, came into being with the discovery of oil in the 1960s. Although it has only the world’s 23rd-largest reserves of petroleum, the revenue has been sufficient to transform the country. The 4.6 million Omanis pay no tax; education and health care are universal and free; and all citizens become recipients of a government pension. This welfare state, combined with strictly controlled immigration and the autocratic but benign 47-year rule of Sultan Qaboos bin Said al Said, has provided Oman with a high degree of political and social stability. The Arab Spring that toppled or discomfited many long-standing regimes had little effect here.
Travelers come to Oman to experience a historic Arab capital; to visit spectacular castles and forts, including those at Jabrin and Nizwa; to hike and ride in the dramatic Al Hajar Mountains; to venture into the Arabian Desert; and to snorkel and dive in the pristine waters off the northern Musandam Peninsula. Alas, in much of the country there are no hotels of a Harper standard. Recently, however, resorts have opened in the Al Hajar Mountains within a three-hour drive of Muscat. One in particular had piqued my interest and seemed to merit investigation.
A subsidiary reason for returning to the Gulf was its newfound role as an important hub for American travelers on their way to India, the Maldives and East and Southern Africa. (Dubai is now the world’s busiest airport for international passenger traffic.) Chatting to fellow passengers on my Emirates flight from New York to Dubai, I discovered that several of them were on their way to Johannesburg. The Gulf airlines — Etihad, Qatar and Emirates — all have fleets of new aircraft and provide cabin layouts and in-flight service that are so superior to those generally on offer from other major carriers that many people are now prepared to accept longer journey times in order to travel in a significantly enhanced degree of comfort.
Muscat is a one-hour flight southeast of Dubai. The modern city has a population of approximately 1.5 million and is a sprawl of mostly white, low-rise buildings, which are spread across a coastal plain extending from the northern flank of the Al Hajar Mountains to the Gulf of Oman. Old Muscat and the atmospheric port district of Muttrah lie a few miles to the east. Nowhere in Muscat do you see the forests of towers that define the skylines of Abu Dhabi and Dubai.
On this occasion I had opted to stay at The Chedi Muscat, a 158-room resort located in the new area of the city, on 21 landscaped acres at the edge of the sea. The lobby is designed to resemble a huge Bedouin tent. There we sat on a divan for a while, sipping fruit juice, as the arrival formalities were painlessly completed. We were then escorted to our Chedi Club Suite. As the beach itself is an uninspiring stretch of brown sand, the hotel has been laid out around a series of water gardens. (There are three large swimming pools, including the aptly named Long Pool, at 338 feet.) Strolling beneath the mature palms, listening to the splash of fountains is one of the consistent pleasures of a stay at The Chedi. The setting is ineffably tranquil and soothing.
Our accommodations turned out to be on the second floor of a villa situated a three-minute walk from the main public area. Aside from a spacious bedroom and a separate living room (a total of 720 square feet), we found a private balcony (with two loungers) that overlooked a stretch of lawn, landscaped sand dunes and the glinting Gulf of Oman. The interior design was minimalist, in a style reminiscent of an Aman resort, with white walls, chiefly neutral colors and expanses of polished hardwood. High ceilings contributed to the feeling of space. The living room was a pleasant place to lounge against cushions with a book, while the bedroom came with a king-size bed and amenities that included a Bose music system and a Nespresso machine. A generous bath provided two vanities, a sunken terrazzo tub, a powerful walk-in shower and lavish quantities of Acqua di Parma toiletries. The lighting proved a little atmospheric for my taste, but it was adequate.
Muscat, like many Middle Eastern cities, has few upscale restaurants, aside from those in its hotels. (This dearth is due partly to cultural factors, as well as to restrictions on the public sale of alcohol.) In compensation, The Chedi offers no fewer than eight dining venues. The interior of The Restaurant is the work of well-known Japanese designer Yasuhiro Koichi. There Middle Eastern, European, Indian and Asian cuisines are prepared in four dramatic open kitchens. The Arabian Courtyard, open only in the cool season between October and April, offers mezze, kebabs and shawarma (shaved meats served with flat bread). Our favorite, however, was The Beach Restaurant, set beside the ocean. (Backed by the desert, Gulf countries traditionally found a primary source of food in the sea, and Muscat’s fish market is well worth an early-morning visit.) There we enjoyed blue crab served with truffled mayonnaise, enormous local prawns served with saffron rice, and grilled red mullet (here known as hamra). The menu is supported by an extensive wine list.
The principal amenity at The Chedi is its superlative 16,000-square-foot spa, which offers Ayurvedic and Balinese therapies, as well as indigenous treatments, in 13 treatment suites. An adjacent 7,500-square-foot fitness center is notably well-equipped. Overall, The Chedi Muscat is an extremely superior resort, with friendly and efficient staff, a distinctive character, idyllic grounds and a convenient location that is equidistant (a 20-minutes drive) to the airport and Old Muscat, with its souk, corniche and the sultan’s Al Alam Palace.
The serene atmosphere of the grounds; the choice of excellent restaurants; the superlative spa and fitness facilities.
The beach is unattractive, and the sea, because of the dark sand, is uninviting.
Both The Arabian Courtyard and The Beach Restaurant are closed during the hot summer season.
My other recommended property in Muscat, the Shangri-La Barr Al Jissah Resort & Spa, is situated on a shallow bay 10 miles to the southeast of Old Muscat. The three-hotel complex comprises Al Waha (“The Oasis”) for families, Al Bandar (“The Town”) for businesspeople and Al Husn (“The Castle”) for independent travelers. The latter is an opulent 180-room clifftop resort, centered on an infinity pool. The entire complex boasts no fewer than 10 restaurants, plus a spa with 12 treatment rooms. The Al Hajar Mountains here fall directly into the sea, so the setting is breathtakingly dramatic. And the beaches and the swimming are greatly superior to those at The Chedi; the sand is golden and the sea is an inviting turquoise. However, The Chedi is a much more intimate resort, as well as one that comes with a veneer of international style and sophistication.
The dramatic situation; the fine beaches and excellent swimming.
My recommended “Al Husn” is nonetheless part of a large rather impersonal complex.
The Oman Dive Center is nearby.
From Old Muscat it is a two-hour (100-mile) drive inland to Oman’s former capital, Nizwa. Oil wealth has constructed a straight and smooth four-lane highway that passes through a landscape of forbidding mountains and dense groves of date palms. Seventy years ago, when the great explorer Wilfred Thesiger was researching his celebrated book Arabian Sands, Nizwa was a remote and, for non-Muslims, dangerous place. Thesiger was warned to stay well clear. But today it is a safe and friendly city, which attracts visitors to its colorful Friday livestock market, as well as to its striking 17th-century fort (which has been sadly over-restored).
From Nizwa, another splendid new road winds up into the mountains in a series of hairpin bends. The Al Hajar range runs southeast for 300 miles from the Musandam Peninsula on the Strait of Hormuz to the port city of Sur, located where the Gulf of Oman meets the Arabian Sea. Its highest peak, Jebel Shams, rises to 9,000-plus feet. At lower elevations, the landscape resembles an inhospitable outer planet, with stark rocky ridges, precipitous gorges and sun-scorched plains devoid of a single leaf. But at 7,000 feet above sea level, traditional stone villages are surrounded by pear, plum, apricot, peach, walnut and pomegranate orchards. One such village, Al Aqr, is a center of rosewater production, and the pink damask roses grown on hillside terraces are harvested in April and May each year, before the summer heat reaches a crescendo. Cultivation has bestowed the name Jebel Akhdar, or “Green Mountain,” on this stretch of the Al Hajar range, but the peaks themselves remain brown and dry, even after the intermittent winter rains.
About 75 minutes after leaving Nizwa, we arrived at the entrance to the 86-room Alila Jabal Akhdar resort. Heading along a winding driveway, we caught sight of what appeared to be a traditional village, with squat rectangular buildings constructed from rough-hewn gray stone, perched at the edge of a stupendous canyon. The exterior of the property seemed austere, almost forbidding. Inside, however, the spacious lobby turned out to be a tour de force of interior design, with a huge central canopied fireplace, polished wood floors, outsize leather cushions and ornamental ironwork, complemented by colorful indigenous rugs and textiles, copper vessels, silver platters and handmade pottery. It has been a long time since I have received such an immediately favorable impression.
Having been greeted with exemplary politeness, we were guided along a stony path to our second-floor Jabal Terrace suite. This featured a king-size bed, local textiles, heavy studded Omani furniture, hand-painted wall motifs and leather curtains. The latter concealed a magnificent bath, with a pale stone floor, twin sinks set into a slate counter, a glass-walled shower and an oval tub carved from a block of cream-colored marble. Up a short flight of steps, an expansive private terrace provided a large curtained daybed, a small round dining table with two chairs and one of the most spellbinding views I have ever seen from a hotel room. In between jagged cliffs and fissured hills, an immense gorge fell away thousands of feet to a hazy and insubstantial horizon. The scale and drama of the landscape would not have seemed out of place in Arizona or Utah.
The primary restaurant at the resort extends onto an umbrella-shaded, glass-enclosed terrace with a similar view. The dinner menu offers international/Arabic cuisine, and on our first evening we enjoyed apricot and pistachio tabbouleh with orange blossom, and a matbucha salad of tomato, eggplant, herbs and spices. These appetizers were followed by smoked duck breast with house pickles, tamarind and spiced pine nuts, and loin of lamb with corn fregola, peas and pomegranate, accompanied by yogurt and a date sauce. Our meal was both imaginative and delicious, and the service was prompt and charming.
The main activity at Alila Jabal Akhdar is hiking, and the resort offers a wide variety of escorted walks suitable for every level of fitness, ranging from gentle strolls through rose terraces to demanding treks along steep and precipitous mountain trails. For the adventurous, guided climbs of surrounding peaks are also available. Cultural excursions to local villages, markets and historical sites will appeal to those less inclined to be strenuous. The property’s Spa Alila has seven treatment rooms and a Vichy shower and offers a menu that combines Asian (chiefly Balinese) therapies with ingredients made from local roses, juniper berries and Omani frankincense. And a spectacular outdoor infinity pool is complemented by an indoor heated plunge pool.
My three-day stay at Alila Jabar Akhdar was wholly insufficient, and I would happily have prolonged my visit for a week. This is an exceptional resort, with an extraordinary location, a refined aesthetic and friendly, well-trained staff. It alone would have made my trip to the Middle East worthwhile.
Rather than returning to Muscat and flying from there to Abu Dhabi (70 minutes), I had opted to continue my journey overland. This proved to be something of a mistake, as once you have descended from the Al Hajar Mountains, the dead-straight four-lane highway proceeds through a flat and featureless tract of desert. The only points of interest between Nizwa and the border — a three-hour drive — are the Bronze Age necropolises and UNESCO World Heritage sites at Bat, Al-Khutm and Al-Ayn. Fortunately, despite my misgivings, the immigration and Customs formalities were straightforward, and two hours after crossing the frontier, I reached the city of Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates.
The sensational scenery; the comfortable accommodations and delicious food; the extremely comprehensive and well-organized program of activities.
The main swimming pool is unheated and can be distinctly chilly.
The local rose terraces are at their most spectacular in April and May.
Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates
From there it was a two-and-a-half-hour drive directly south to Qasr Al Sarab Desert Resort, situated amid huge red sand dunes, a little more than 10 miles from the border with Saudi Arabia. The spectacular but supremely inhospitable landscape served as a film set for “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” and is part of the famous Empty Quarter, the world’s largest uninterrupted tract of sand. Built by the Abu Dhabi government at a cost of $5 billion, Qasr Al Sarab is nowadays managed by the Bangkok-based Anantara group. The property is literally palatial, as a collection of villas next to the main resort was originally reserved for the exclusive use of the emir. These are now known as Royal Pavilion Villas and come with butlers and private pools.
Most of the resort’s 205 accommodations are housed within a sprawling complex designed to resemble an ancient fortified desert town, with castellated ocher-colored buildings linked by a maze of stairs and walkways. Guests disinclined to walk are ferried around by a fleet of golf buggies. We had opted for a Deluxe Terrace Room, which came with a king-size bed, a rustic beamed ceiling, a tiled floor, an area rug and a serene palette of earth tones. Despite the remoteness of the location, the Wi-Fi and the television functioned perfectly. The comfortable bath provided twin sinks and a large, surprisingly powerful walk-in shower. Even amid the dunes of the Empty Quarter, water was available in abundance. The best feature of our accommodations, however, was the terrace, with two loungers, a dining table and cushioned alcoves that afforded a mesmerizing view out across the desert.
The principal public areas at Qasr Al Sarab are grandly appointed with expanses of marble and polished wood, brass lanterns, leather sofas and an eclectic array of paintings and drawings, chiefly of desert plants, birds and animals. The social center of the resort, however, is the large free-form palm-fringed pool, with a swim-up sunken bar and an adjacent restaurant, Ghadeer, serving Mediterranean and Arabic cuisine. The property offers a variety of other dining venues, including the casual all-day Al Waha and the rooftop grill, Suhail. Despite having nothing specific to complain of, I found our meals to be unremarkable. Surprisingly, despite its splendor, the resort does not offer anything resembling a sophisticated gastronomic experience.
Aside from lazy hours spent poolside or in the spa — which in keeping with the Anantara brand offers a preponderance of Thai treatments — guests can choose from a lengthy menu of activities. These include escorted desert hikes, camel treks, four-wheel-drive “dune bashing” excursions, biking on special “fat” tires, horseback riding, archery and falconry.
Ultimately, the thing I enjoyed most about Qasr Al Sarab was the location, and I never tired of lounging on my terrace and watching the sun set behind the majestic dunes. Although the staff were pleasant, I found the atmosphere of the property to be impersonal. A high proportion of the guests seemed to be expatriates, many of whom were enjoying a well-earned vacation after weeks spent laboring in Abu Dhabi’s oil fields. Despite its opulence, the resort lacks an engaging personality. It has the potential to be astonishing, but the reality fell way short of expectations.
The epic desert landscape of immense red sand dunes; the architecture, designed to resemble an ancient fortified town; watching the sunset from my spacious and tranquil terrace.
The lack of an exceptional restaurant; the impersonal atmosphere.
The best seasons for a visit are spring and fall. Summer is unpleasantly hot, with daily highs from May to September averaging in excess of 100 degrees.