Tapping into memories of her eclectic, global upbringing, Lesley McKenzie revisits the romance of her childhood playground on the southeast coast of the Arabian Peninsula, beautiful Oman.
You don’t have to spend much time in the Sultanate of Oman before realizing you’ve come upon the jewel in the crown of the Middle East—a serene and tolerant country where the abundance of natural beauty is matched by the overwhelming displays of hospitality. My family came to this conclusion more than 30 years ago, when my father’s work brought us to this corner of the world from 1983 to 1989, relocating from Europe. My brother and I spent our formative years of an idyllic, carefree childhood here, with a house on the beach, family weekend adventures in the desert and an all-around priceless education in food, culture and travel. 25 years later, I returned to rediscover the charm of this coastal kingdom that has permeated my mind and formed the backdrop of almost-dreamlike memories. From the charming seaward capital of Muscat to the towering desert dunes and the blossoming Jabal Akhdar Mountain, complete with its first luxury resort, here’s how I fell in love with Oman once again.
For most travelers, the first port of call in Oman is the capital of Muscat, also the seat of the government and the Sultan Qaboos bin Said al Said, who came into power in 1970. For more than forty years, Omani nationals have revered their forward-thinking and generous ruler, who is credited with, amongst other things, bringing stability, healthcare and education to the region. Al-Ayam, the Sultan’s ceremonial palace, is one of the city’s star attractions, and locals are always on the lookout for his super-yacht moored in Sultan Qaboos harbor along the corniche of the old city, known as Muttrah. Visitors also flock to this part of town for the famed Muttrah Souk (a childhood favorite), laden with local curiosities—think traditional carpets, frankincense—as well as cheap trinkets and curios.
Other must-sees around town include the elaborate Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque, which was completed in 2001, and is home to the second-largest carpet in the world (housed in the men’s prayer hall), accompanied by one of the world’s largest chandeliers. Meanwhile, The Royal Opera House of Muscat, which was commissioned by the Sultan and completed in 2011, reflects the ruler’s commitment to culture and classical music. The largest venue of its kind in the Middle East and a grand ode to Omani architecture, the complex, complete with landscaped gardens and a luxury shopping mall, opened with a performance by Placido Domingo and continues to draw world-class acts today.
There is no shortage of five-star accommodations in Muscat, but for the toniest reservation in town, head fifteen minutes outside central Muscat to the Shangri-La’s Barr Al Jissah Resort and Spa. Built into cliffs, this seaward sanctuary is home to three separate but equally stunning hotels inspired by traditional Dhofari architecture: the family-friendly Al Waha; the business traveler-minded Al Bandar; and, the most luxurious of all, the adult-only Al Husn. Here, guests can indulge in a wealth of amenities. I made the most of Al Husn’s exclusive beach—including more than twenty on-site restaurants, lounges and bars for a well-rounded dining experience and CHI, The Spa, an oasis of pampering offering a wealth of outdoor and indoor treatments in the privacy of a designated spa villa.
The grand dame of local hotels, the Al Bustan Palace, A Ritz-Carlton Hotel is the go-to hotel for visiting dignitaries, thanks to the ultra-private top floor designated for use by the Sultan only. Opened in 1985, the 250-room hotel was a beloved local destination for my family, with many weekends spent lounging on the hotel beach and dining al fresco poolside. The property has undergone a number of extensive renovations since then, while preserving its majestic air and sense of exclusivity that continues to set it apart from its peers.
Muscat’s temperatures can soar above 100 degrees in the summertime, so plan accordingly. Still, a new resort in Jabal Akhdar Mountains in the Al Hajar range, located approximately two hours outside Muscat, is luring visitors year round with its pristine wilderness, spectacular views and, most importantly, cool temperatures—which can vary up to 20 degrees from the searing desert conditions below. The site of an Omani military base and observation point, Jabal Akhdar was closed to outsiders until the turn of the century, when Sultan Qaboos opened it up to visitors. It didn’t take long for people to figure out the area’s true tourism potential, but building a lavish resort in this rugged terrain—accessible only by one very windy road—was no easy feat. Lucky for me, one company was up for the challenge, and now the mountain can be experienced in all its glory at the recently debuted Alila Jabal Akhdar resort, the area’s first luxury escape.
Built from locally sourced stone and mimicking the area’s traditional architecture, this LEED-certified property reflects the beauty of its rugged surroundings. Each of the 78 suites and villas boasts spectacular views of the mountain gorges and cliffs, as do the property’s restaurants: Middle Eastern-inspired, Rose Lounge and Juniper. The on-site Spa Alila is also at one with the area’s nature, incorporating locally grown ingredients such as frankincense, juniper berry and rose into its signature Asian-influenced treatments and products.
A day is perfect for exploring the area and its agriculturally sustained villages. I was set on visiting the famous rose gardens of Al Ayn and visiting nearby Diana Point, a spot known for its breathtaking views and named after the late Princess Diana, who paid a visit to the region when I was a child. At the time, I, along with several hundred other children, was tapped to wave a welcoming British flag outside the Sultan’s palace for her arrival with Prince Charles.
For day-trippers willing to trek to the foot of the mountain (about an hour-long drive from the resort), there’s the promise of Wadi Beni Khalid, an oasis nestled amidst area plantations that lures both locals and foreign travelers 365 days a year with its palm-tree lined swimming hole. For history buffs, there’s Nizwa, the former capital of Oman and home to Nizwa Fort, a 17th-century castle surrounded by souks brimming with the area’s signature pottery, not to mention Bedouin silver and, on Fridays, a must-see traditional cattle market.
No trip to Oman is complete without a visit to the Wahiba Sands, a desert region approximately 140 miles outside of Muscat, distinguished by its vertiginous, undulating waves of red sand dunes. Growing up, a visit to this area translated into a traditional camping trip. Today there are a handful of options to explore the sands in style. Ideal for families, there’s Desert Nights Camp, a sprawling retreat with 30 permanent, charming Bedouin-style structures—and a restaurant, bar and recreation room to match. Located seven miles into the desert in a valley of dunes, the camp offers the comforts of electricity and running water (though unreliable at times). From this point, visitors can explore the surrounding desert through a variety of options, from dune buggies to camel rides, courtesy of the local bedouins and shepherds whose humped herds roam freely around the camp.
For the more adventurous traveler, Hud Hud Mobile Camp is a luxury camping experience, with destinations throughout Oman, including the Wahiba Sands. Private camps are erected for each traveler or group, according to their preferences, group sizes and needs. Deep in the desert (for my stay, we traveled 25 miles off the main highway), these exclusive camps are set up using traditional bedouin fabric tents, imbuing the experience with a sense of authenticity. Each camp comes with a dedicated, professional staff, who are as adept at turning out world-class meals on a portable stove as they are in delicately handling and shooing away pesky nighttime visitors, such as scorpions and camel spiders. In addition to my plush private sleeping quarters and tented bathroom and shower (note that everything was lit by candle or solar power), my arrangement also featured a tented lounge outfitted with traditional Omani throws and pillows that provided an opportunity to kick back and relax with a book in hand and escape the daytime heat.
And that night, when I stood atop a dune and watched the sun sink into the desert, I felt a familiar sense of childlike wonder and a flood of memories, reminding me why it was so good to be standing here with my feet buried in Omani sand, once again.
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