There was nothing unique about this brand of carefully choreographed serenity. Up and down the coast, holidaymakers were idling in the winter sun. Some dozed on sun-loungers; others jumped among the waves ambling in off the Indian Ocean. Only the “salaams” of the feather-footed towel attendants and the biblical hills rising behind the balconied windows betrayed the fact that this was a land ruled by a sultan and fringed by desert sands.
But as the chubby-cheeked child who had precipitated this brush with luxury crawled about on the manicured lawns, there was no use denying it — I was in a five-star resort in Oman, and I was succumbing.
This wasn’t the sort of holiday that I’m used to. I spent a glorious decade traveling in the cheap seats: 10 years of begrimed rucksacks and fleapit hotels, of 18-hour bush-taxi rides and pot noodles on the fly. For all that time, my long-suffering partner, Lucy, had followed my lead as I pursued offbeat adventures on the pretext of story-hunting and more than once made her sleep on a bench.
This time, however, we had the game-changing addition of our baby daughter, Lily, to consider. “You can’t climb mountains with a 6-month-old,” Lucy had said, reminding me, with that inexplicable feminine power of recall, of the numerous occasions amid the postnatal reverie when I’d promised to try soft travel.
Oman, which sits on the toe of the Arabian Peninsula, was a compromise. A safe and stable country that barely flickered during the ferment of the Arab Spring, it promised to be a relaxing place for a first family sojourn. But it also presented the opportunity to explore a relatively new and increasingly popular destination with grand ambitions. The Tourism Ministry’s target of enticing 12 million tourists a year by 2020 would put it in Egypt territory, big dreams for a state of 3 million people that many would struggle to identify on the map.
A holiday here was never going to be cheap. Predictably in a country whose earlier foreign interlopers came for the oil business, it’s the top-end hotels that are blazing the trail. With several of the usual suspects — InterContinental, Grand Hyatt, Crowne Plaza — already here, and more in the pipeline, this is a country that has set up its tourist stall and bedecked it in gold.
But if we were going to be inert for a fortnight, we rationalized, we might as well crack open the piggy bank and do it in style. By treating ourselves to stays in some of the luxurious resorts in and around the capital, Muscat, we’d have all the amenities we could ever need.
The question was: Could a country that bills itself as an oasis of Arabian calm and charm convert me to a more sedentary holiday?
We started with what seemed like a surefire bet. As we scrolled through various booking sites, one option stood out. “It is very kid-friendly,” opined one TripAdvisor reviewer. “Everyone there had four kids and was also pregnant. Even the men.”
This sounded biologically extraordinary but also perfect. The subject was the Barr Al Jissah, part of the Hong Kong-based Shangri-La chain and arguably Oman’s largest and most ambitious resort project to date. With more than 600 rooms, it’s actually three hotels in one, with Al Waha — “the oasis”— aimed at families.
Arriving there fresh off the plane, we spied it from the taxi window a good five minutes before we actually reached the door. This was a resort on a truly grand scale, with 124 mountain-rimmed acres, three crescent beaches, 15 bars and restaurants, six pools, a lazy-river water ride and its own pair of docile camels providing rides down the sand.
But before you conclude that Oman is just another purveyor of the behemoth developments you might associate with neighboring Dubai, where the view from your window is as likely to be dominated by an eight-lane highway as by the seashore, let me assure you that the Barr Al Jissah possessed certain advantages.
The setting, for starters, is staggeringly dramatic. An amphitheater of ochre-colored hills looms up behind the buildings, which appear to fit around rather than overwhelm the landscape. This juxtaposition of arid, wind-pocked sandstone and lush hotel grounds made it feel as though we were luxuriating in a desert oasis, promoting a sense of seclusion and a soothing proximity to nature.
Myna birds and Indian rollers with iridescent blue wings chirruped among the palm trees and bougainvilleas. The hotel even has a “Turtle Ranger” — not a nunchuk-wielding hero in a half-shell, but a fellow called Mohammed — to educate guests about the green and hawksbill turtles that alight on the resort’s beaches to dig the nests that yield 7,000 to 12,000 precious hatchlings a year.
Assuaged by these unexpected eco-credentials, I threw myself into doing nothing at all. The winter temperatures were glorious, never dropping below 75 degrees (in summer, Oman’s low season, it can top 120). On our second night, when it drizzled, the unfailingly lovely pan-Asian staff rushed about busily checking on the guests’ welfare as if a typhoon had just swept in.
How did such pampering sit with my intrepid traveler self-image? Most of the time I wasn’t fussed: It had a lazy river, for goodness’ sake; I’m only human! Besides, the Oman that we experienced away from the hotel did little to convince us that we should be doing anything other than taking things slow.
Muscat — which we visited on several excursions over the course of the fortnight — must have been frenetic once. From its central harbor, the sultans of old once held sway over a spice empire stretching from Pakistan to Zanzibar. But as we looked up at the forts that towered over the bay and peered through a railing at the gaudy Sultan’s Palace, that grandiose past felt inscrutable and tidied away. Neither the forts nor the palace were open to the public, and the Old Town that surrounded them, while pretty, was so devoid of citizenry as to seem like some Potemkin village.
Farther north, the city spread out in a patchwork of whitewashed neighborhoods divided by crenulated hills. Muscat’s history can be traced back more than 2,000 years, but only in the past five decades — since the discovery of oil near Fahud in 1964 irrevocably changed the country’s trajectory — has it expanded to suck in the surrounding villages.
When Sultan Qaboos, Oman’s classical-music-loving absolute ruler, overthrew his father in a bloodless coup in 1970, he opened the door to infrastructural development and foreign investment, but the city’s evolution under his stewardship has been gradual and conservative. Building colors are strictly regulated, and new construction is restricted to nine stories.
The result is a modern but understated city laced together by smooth highways and dotted with glossy vanity projects and hermetic, air-conditioned malls. For anyone uninitiated in the Arab world, it would be hard to think of a more user-friendly introduction. But I couldn’t help feeling that travelers in search of Arabian nights — the labyrinthine medina and the sheesha-smoke-wreathed bazaar — might struggle to slake their curiosity in Muscat.
There are still glimpses of a more exotic Oman: conclaves of men in brilliant white dishdashas and exquisitely embroidered musar turbans chatting over coffee; the muezzin’s call resounding through the narrow streets that lead down to the Muttrah waterfront. But the famous Muttrah Souq, a warren of covered curio stalls, is a relic hawking shawls and silverware to tourists. The superb Bait Al Zubair Museum, which preserves Oman’s traditions with enthralling displays of weapons, jewelry and tribal attire, provided echoes of an old culture that we couldn’t expect to encounter from the air-conditioned vantage of the coastal hotels.
As I browsed through its display cases, it struck me that this somnolent atmosphere plays into the resort’s hands — what worthwhile excursions there are nearby it can facilitate with arranged day-long tours. Meanwhile, the hours you spend on a sun-lounger are unlikely to be sullied by a nagging guilt that you should be out absorbing the city’s metropolitan hubbub. A sprawling resort outside Cairo would be vulgar. Here it seems oddly appropriate, in keeping with the paradox — Western amenity, Arabian texture — that suffuses the capital.
After a few days, with Lily settled, Lucy almost supine and my rapprochement with luxury already well underway, it was time to move — not on a clapped-out bus to some menacing hinterland. Instead, a 10-minute taxi ride up the coast to hotel No. 2.
“It’s our wow thing,” said Mish’al at reception, as I did what I can only assume most newcomers at Al Bustan Palace do, and gawped. Mish’al’s desk sat on one side of a cavernous octagonal atrium encircled by archways, each decorated with mother-of-pearl enameling and ornate woodcarvings. Cascading down from a 130-foot-high domed roof, a five-ton crystal chandelier sent light bouncing off the marble floor. I’d later learn that the same company that cleans the windows of Dubai’s 2,700-foot Burj Khalifa, the world’s highest building, is drafted each year to change the bulbs.
There can be few hotel entrances to rival it anywhere in the world, but any self-consciousness we may have felt at walking into such opulent surroundings with a 56-pack of diapers sitting conspicuously atop our gilded luggage-trolley was quickly dispelled by the presentation of a cuddly pink camel for the baby and fawning functionaries huddling around the pram.
If the atrium makes the hotel sound palatial, that’s because it is. A palace, I mean: Built in 1985, revamped in 2008, the hotel was commissioned by the sultan, and the ninth floor (as high as buildings get, remember) remains reserved for the royal household and visiting heads of state.
Although the location is less dramatic than the Barr Al Jissah, the hotel itself is infinitely photogenic, the interiors luxurious without being gaudy. The pool, with its geometric palm islands, is ravishing. It isn’t quite as family-focused as Al Waha — the kiddie pool, notably, was a functional oblong, an architectural afterthought. But this was searching for fault in an operation that oozes class.
In between snoozes and pillaging the award-winning buffet, I occasionally hankered for broader vistas. I thumbed “Arabian Sands,” the British explorer Wilfred Thesiger’s account of his adventures across the Empty Quarter, the world’s largest sand desert — with an area equal to that of France — that swallows vast tracts of the Omani interior. Thesiger spent five years traversing this dune-strewn wilderness in the company of Bedouin nomads, braving brigands, searing heat and camel flatulence on a pint of water a day, his philosophy captured in this masochistic mantra: “The harder the way the more worthwhile the journey.” I read these words with a cocktail in my hand.
Somewhat softer adventures do still supplement Oman’s tourist menu. From Salalah, Oman’s southerly second city, several agencies run Jeep and camel tours, plunging into the shifting sands that Thesiger traversed in the late 1940s. Closer to the capital, you can trek through the yawning gorges and cliff-lined oases of the 10,000-foot Jebel Akhdar massif, while the coral reefs off the Daymaniyat Archipelago are reputed to be scuba heaven. But babies aren’t too adept with an aqualung, so these were adventures for another time.
It would be pleasing to think that it’s this abundance of geographical riches that inspires the Tourism Ministry slogan, “Beauty has an address.” But it seems equally possible that it could have been coined in honor of North Ghubra 32, the address of the Chedi Muscat, our third hotel, where we stayed strictly in the name of research, of course.
Of all Oman’s plethora of bank-busting hotels, the Chedi could lay claim to being the most self-consciously stylish. While a visiting president might favor Al Bustan’s ninth floor, this is where your everyday Hollywood celebrity would stay.
The styling in the rooms was masculine and minimalist; the spa is a sybarite’s paradise. The suites, three-room sanctuaries surrounded by peaceful water gardens, are gorgeous, but you could sail the sultan’s 500-foot pleasure yacht through the hole they’d burn in your pocket. The shower gel is Bulgari; the Scandinavian water comes in funny canister-shaped bottles. Even the toothpicks are branded and menthol-tipped. All of a sudden, Al Waha felt like an egalitarian free-for-all.
Although the baby got another cuddly camel (and, unprecedentedly, her own set of toiletries), the Chedi’s target market is evidently more honeymooning couple than boisterous, inflatable-dinghy-toting family. Two of the pools — including the Long Pool, the Middle East’s longest at 338 feet — are adults-only, although the one children are permitted in is no less idyllic.
What did it tell us about the Oman that lies on the other side of the fence? Not a lot. There were pork products galore on the breakfast menu, and the staff positively plied us with booze.
Yet as a standard-bearer for Oman’s tourism potential, and of its ambition, it sent a clear message. Oman has the resorts, the peerless hospitality and the temperate winter weather to calm even the most itinerant soul.
Traveling would never be the same again. And I didn’t care.
Wismayer is a freelance writer based in London. His Web site is www.henrywismayer.com.