Discovering an Omani Paradise


Discovering an Omani Paradise

High in the mountains of Oman and along its pounding shoreline, I stumbled onto an unexpected slice of heaven thanks to a friend’s recommendation. I even sprang for a few extra amenities for a mash-up of pauper meets paradise.

I first visited Oman in 2018 after regularly making one- or -two-day stopovers in Abu Dhabi, Dubai or Qatar to break up long flights between Europe and Asia. And although it is about a one-hour flight from those bustling and scorching cities, Oman can feel almost removed from time, whether you are in the Hajar Mountains that cut a swath across the country’s northern edge or dipping into the roiling waves of the Arabian Sea farther south.

I had read about the country’s wild and often empty coastline that stretches nearly 2,000 miles, but mountain hiking in the Gulf region was a new experience for me. What I discovered was a cinematic, “Dune”-like landscape of deserts, mountains and rugged canyons punctuated by centuries-old terrace farming. The scenery then plunged into the vast wasteland of the Rub’ al-Khali desert (“the empty quarter” in Arabic) and rivaled anything I’d ever seen.

Bordered by Yemen, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, this country of nearly 4.7 million was transformed over the decades by Sultan Qaboos bin Said, who died in 2020. He had ousted his father in a bloodless coup, backed by the British, to embrace modernism — and scads of oil and natural gas deposits — in 1970.

The country has a fascinating maritime history — the Omani empire once stretched as far south as Zanzibar in the late 17th century — and a relaxed and accepting vibe rooted in Ibadism, which is often seen as a more moderate branch of Islam.

It has seemingly maintained political neutrality for decades, despite being situated in an at-times-volatile region. The northeastern tip of Oman is about 1,500 miles from Sana, the capital of Yemen. Salalah, nearer to Yemen in the south, is about 900 miles from the mouth of the Red Sea, a body of water in which attacks on cargo ships have been reported. (The U.S. State Department currently advises “increased caution” for travelers and Britain says “travel advice for Oman could change at short notice.”)

And old-world charm lingers across Oman, especially high on Jabal Akhdar (loosely translated as “green mountain” in Arabic), one of the highest peaks in the Hajar range, 70 miles southwest of the capital, Muscat. Although these mostly limestone mountains are typically barren and beige, lush green farms inspired the name. (Imagine the rice terraces of Bali on the sides of bone-dry rocky canyons.) Snowfall in winter and the mist from clouds captured in the high peaks create precipitation, and the country’s intricate “aflaj” irrigation systems, thought to date to antiquity, maximize the impact of water in this forbidding landscape.

Local growers sell their garden bounty to residents as well as to resorts, including the Alila Jabal Akhdar, which says most of the food on its menu is grown on the property or purchased from terrace farmers.

At the Anantara Al Jabal Al Akhdar, perched atop a plateau at 6,500 feet above sea level, hikes or bike rides in the mountains and valleys are offered on organized tours. At an overlook called Diana’s Point, where Diana, Princess of Wales, once stood to stargaze, you can hear the Muslim call to prayer echoing from two villages several times a day.

Both resorts, with rooms starting around $500 to $600, offer guided walks to 400-year-old abandoned villages with breathtaking views across the emptiness of the rolling canyons.

Although I flew on a commercial airline to Oman, visitors on a bigger budget than mine have the option of paragliding in. The Six Senses Zighy Bay offers the option of a birdlike arrival from a nearby mountaintop on the last leg of a two-hour drive from Dubai International Airport.

Nestled among the canyons flanked by the turquoise waters that define Oman’s narrow, northernmost tip off the Strait of Hormuz, this resort has come to define Omani isolation in the most exclusive way, with rooms starting at about $1,500. (It’s known as a celebrity honeymoon getaway spot, including for Nick Jonas and Priyanka Chopra in 2018, and Lindsay Lohan spent part of her pregnancy there last year.)

Farther south, the virtually undeveloped Arabian Sea coastline attracts a big European crowd in winter, and in the summer Gulf residents flee the searing heat for the monsoons that drape this coastline in mist. The climate allows for miles of coconut palm trees and banana trees that serve as a sort of tropical backdrop to the never-crowded beaches.

Salalah, the main city on the southeastern tip of Oman, is home to several resorts, but its crown jewel is the Anantara Al Baleed with its sprawling beach and private villas with plunge pools, which will set you back about $650 a night. Regular rooms start at about $350 to $375. (About an hour’s drive east of Salalah, the Alila hotel group, a Hyatt luxury brand, has opened its second property in Oman, on the isolated Hinu Bay).

A visit to the Anantara Al Baleed in December offered a study in tourism meets local color. Four camels frolicked in the surf one day to the delight of a few of us splashing about in the water. Two days later, dozens of fishermen casting handmade nets caught thousands of sardines, hauling them on their backs from the unforgiving waves and onto trucks. The resort is adjacent to the Museum of the Frankincense Land, which offers a fascinating peek into the history of this coveted aromatic resin that was once as prized as gold.

Most trips to Oman, including mine, start in Muscat, which has its charms despite Dubai-like traffic and urban sprawl. My two-day stop included attending a performance at the Royal Opera House Muscat, which was a complete revelation to this lifelong opera fan. Tours of the venue are also available for about $7.50. Built in 2011, its layers of white stone and marble arabesque arches evoke a grand Middle Eastern citadel. In my black jeans, blazer and tie, I felt a bit frumpy rubbing elbows with perfectly coiffed men in traditional dishdashas (the white gownlike formal attire) and massars (the colorful embroidered cloth headdresses).

Even more opulent is the city’s lavish Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque with its 8.5-ton crystal chandelier and expansive carpet said to have taken four years to weave by hand. The mosque opened to all in 2001 to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the sultan’s reign.

But I wanted to get out of the city and into the nature I had heard so much about. I booked a car and driver (for about $120) to take me three hours into the wild landscape the next day. It was like being transported to mountains on the moon, but in a luxurious four-wheel-drive vehicle on smoothly paved roads. My driver, Saud, navigated the meandering coastal highway past azure shorelines with massive rock formations jutting like islands out of the sea, eventually turning right for the steep road into the rugged Jabal Akhdar.

Saud told me that in his youth, he and his grandfather had traveled on camelback from their terrace gardens to Muscat twice a year to sell fruit, vegetables, garlic and roses. Theirs was a two-day journey, and along the way they snacked on pomegranate seeds. Now, some 50 years later, Saud drives tourists who want to hike across the empty canyons of his youth and enjoy the foods from these gardens in the sky.

That evening at dinner, my salad was sprinkled with pomegranate seeds. In the warmth of the cozy dining room of the Alila Jabal Akhdar, I thought of Saud and our drive to a slice of paradise. I’ll probably never paraglide into Oman, but I did feel like I had arrived on the wings of something fine.

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