A short break in the Sultanate
In Oman, you can pack a lot of sun, sea, and especially sand into a long weekend
Oman ? Do you mean Amman, Jordan ? That’s often the response when people mention the Sultanate of Oman, a country of 2.7 million people bordering Yemen, Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates. The Irish, sometimes mistaken abroad for the Dutch (Holland did you say?) will sympathise with Omanis, who have other reasons to think their land is misunderstood, under appreciated even. Less wealthy than Saudi, not so brash as the UAE , peaceful compared to Yemen, and more liberal than all three in terms of customs and dress code, still Oman is considered a little off the beaten track. With about 2,000 km of coastline and spectacular mountain and desert landscapes , it is gearing up to attract more visitors, both to the coastal capital Muscat, and the northern town of Salalah, where the Frankincense trees grow. Winter and early spring are a good time to visit. Right now it is about 28 degrees. After April, temperatures soar into the 40s.
On a recent visit, the days were warm and balmy, but night falls fast and early. There’s no twilight. One minute the sun is glowing on the horizon, the next it has dipped from sight and suddenly it’s dark. Three hours from Muscat, in the Al Wahidi desert, we watch the sun go down from the ridge of a dune, where we’re relaxing after some dune bashing. It’s not an Olympic sport but it’s fun. We’d earlier noticed the vertical tracks ploughed through the dunes at the edge of the desert . What do they do, throw themselves over the edge of a dune without worrying how steep it is on the other side? Essentially, yes. For this, you need a four-wheel drive in manual and sturdy seat belts. We give it a go.
Rashid, our driver and skilled dune basher, makes us strap ourselves in tight. He drives straight up the face of the nearest dune, and then skids along the edge for 100m or more at an angle that sends sand spraying against the windows. Then he throws the jeep over the edge and we’re hurtling down the other side and up again. It’s laddish and fun and far more difficult than it looks.
Later we have a Lawrence of Arabia moment, trying to navigate the dunes on foot, which is almost impossible. The further up you climb the deeper you sink into sand that is sensuously soft, and, once the sun has dipped, extremely cold.
It’s time to head back to camp. We’re at a Hud Hud camp, a nomadic-style settlement that is set up just for our group with some, if not all, of the comforts of a five-star hotel. Big comfortable bed, check, flickering lamps, check, gourmet food, check, alcohol, er no . . . not allowed – but plenty of tea, hot running water, well, yes, but not for very long. It’s heated up by the staff, decanted into a gourd that feeds a makeshift shower of the light sprinkling variety, but anyway, who really wants to take their clothes off in the dark and cold outdoors. No one in our group it seems, and so we head for the communal tent where tea is served .
There are fleecy blankets to wrap up warm in the low slung sofas and cushions that get everyone relaxed and talking, while the big plates of hot nuts quickly attract visitors – desert gerbils that look a lot like mice and scuttle over and up our legs. More worrying perhaps than the gerbils are the thunder box style toilets which sit on the sand without the benefit of plumbing. A jaunty seaside type spade effectively deals with the situation.
Dinner under a canopy is a feast starting with prawns in garlic and chilli, then an intricate lamb dish that’s been cooking all day and is accompanied by dhal and rice. Then there’s cake and ice cream, followed by coffee, and afterwards we pull our chairs up to the campfire, look up at the stars, and have a drag or two of the shisha pipe which sends a smoked apple fragrance through the air.
It would be nice to go native and sleep under the stars, but our individual, woven goat hair tents await, with those splendid beds. For privacy you just drag across the flap of the tent and say goodnight. Inside, with the candles doused, it’s profoundly dark and later there are odd scuttling noises that one doesn’t dare investigate.
Next morning, it’s lovely to be sitting surrounded by desert, having cereal and orange juice and toast with Bonne Maman jam. We could stay here all day, and people do. That kind of solitude is what Hud Hud clients crave, according to Eric Walters, an Anglo Swiss director of the company which mainly caters for groups of friends and family looking for a quiet, meaningful experience. One guest spent Christmas in the desert alone, having booked the camp for just a party of one.
Later that day we arrive back at our base, the Chedi resort in Muscat, where most of the guests look to be European couples and families escaping the cold. The six-and-a-half hour flight from London Heathrow arrives in the early morning, and early check-in is allowed. After a quick unpack you can be poolside facing the vast expanse of the gulf of Oman, dotted with freight ships and oil tankers. The 21-acre resort has almost 400 meters of private beach front, most of it empty. Other guests are slow to appear and there are plenty of empty sun beds all day long. This, it turns out, is just one of three pools and we’re soon lured off to one of the hotel’s big attractions, the long pool, which, good as its name, stretches to just over 100m . Next to it is the gym, the largest and best equipped this reporter has ever seen, with personal trainers to whip one into shape, or at least help off-set the effects of the buffet.
Arriving on a Friday, we had a chance to try a lunch buffet with dishes that spanned the entire Middle East, with some excellent Indian cuisine thrown in for good measure, along with amazing seafood – heaps of prawns and lobster and fresh whole fish, marvellous breads, cakes and chocolates from an in-house team of French patissiers. Champagne flows through lunch and it’s interesting to note the number of local people who have shown up for lunch, or to do business in the shady seating areas afforded by the grounds.
As journalists on a press trip, we’ve been treated to extra large rooms on the periphery of the resort, overlooking lush gardens and the sea. They have beds heaped with exotic cushions, baths that are big enough to seat six, big sitting rooms and balconies, and enough drinks and snacks to host a party every night. Nice , but we preferred the standard rooms that are in the main body of the hotel, close to the action of the restaurants, the terrace cafe, and the large, fabulously exotic lobby with its oversized hanging lamps and excellent shop selling designer resort wear and jewellery.
Outside the gates of the resort, the city of Muscat stretches in all directions – low rise, ice cream coloured buildings as far as the eye can see, but no glittering sky scrapers. The landscape is controlled, like all things in Oman, by Sultan Qaboos, a man who everyone wants to tell us about. Like Catherine the Great, he is known to dress up anonymously at night and drive through the city, stopping to talk to citizens, finding out what they need – whether it be a job, a car, or even just a new set of clothes. Every wish, we’re led to believe, can be granted by the Sultan. One thing that each and every citizen gets, on reaching his or her majority, is a plot of land on which to build a house of their own. The location of the land is a lottery. It could be in a nice suburb, it could be in a town, or it could be on top of a mountain. Or by the sea. “But none would want that,” an Omani told me. “Seaside houses are not what people want. They could be swept away.”
The plot allocation system accounts for the large number of walled sites that can be seen throughout the countryside, as people claim their plot, even if it will take years for them to build on it.
The Sultan also provided the funds for Muscat’s star attraction, the Opera House, a superb edifice built in a traditional style, with the finest materials from Carrera marble trimmed with gold and the most luxurious carpets and the twinkliest crystal chandeliers. The ushers wear gorgeous traditional dress. The acoustics are the envy of opera houses everywhere, we’re assured.
Muscat has other highlights – the Grand Mosque; the souk with its heaps of Frankincense and Myrhh and its trinkets in copper, tin and gold; the sophisticated Amouage perfume showrooms, where you can buy heady fragrances suitable for Arabian nights. But the majority of the guests at the Chedi are happy to stay put, according to sales manager Simone Broekhaar. “They come here to spend time together, or with their families, and often they don’t do very much.” Neither did we. The hotel has enough interesting things going on to occupy a few days. By dusk, hundreds of candles transform it into a romantic landscape. There’s a lively cocktail bar and a superb fish restaurant by the water’s edge that is considerd one of the best in all Oman. After two days, we reluctantly make for the airport. It certainly is possible to have a long weekend in Muscat, but if you want to do it properly, check in for longer. And mind the buffet. It’s deliciously lethal.
Oman Air flies daily to Muscat from Heathrow. From approx £600 return.
WHERE TO STAY
The Chedi Muscat, 18 November Street, dd133 Al Khuwair, Muscat, Tel: 00968 245 24400
Doubles range from €417 per night for a standard room to €1,052 per night for a suite. All prices include breakfast. firstname.lastname@example.org
Hud Hud organises bespoke camp breaks for small and large groups. Prices vary depending on the number in the group, but start at about €350 per night, per person. hudhudtravels.com
Orna Mulcahy travelled as a guest of Oman Air and GHM Hotels