Oman is on a mission to double its tourism in just six years
Just metres beyond the hotels infinity pool is the edge of a cliff that gives way to an enormous canyon that stretches towards the horizon. This is one of the highest points in the Middle East – 2,000 metres above sea level – and if you dare to venture over this precipice you can make your way, tightrope-style, across a series of steel cables running across the mouth of a cave.
Clipped on for safety, this via ferrata (or iron path) offers intrepid climbers of mixed abilities (even beginners can have a go) the chance to traverse sections of seemingly perilous limestone rockface in Omans Jabal Akhdar mountains, before returning to the resort for a nerve-calming gin and tonic (gin is a popular drink at the resort given the juniper tree is native to these parts).
We are staying at the Alila Jabal Akhdar, which opened in 2014, and is about two and half hours by car from Muscat International airport. The journey takes you along sweeping newly built roads that look down on arid passes, dry and almost completely devoid of life after four years of very little rain. Although the Alila is in the “Green Mountains”, so called because these cooler parts have a history of agriculture, most of the country is desert, which is why it has doubled as a simulation site for astronauts preparing to go to Mars.
Oman may not be the first place you think of when planning a holiday but there has been a push from the government to foster tourism as a new pillar of its economy, one otherwise reliant on oil and natural gas. In March, it introduced a new e-visa application system for people from the UK (costing 20 rials/£39 for a 26B tourist visa), meaning you no longer have to queue for one when you arrive at the airport. At the same time, it unveiled a gleaming new terminal for international flights. Costing $1.8 billion, it is capable of accommodating 40 flights an hour (both British Airways and Oman Air fly nonstop from London).
By 2020, the Sultanate of Oman hopes to welcome 5m visitors a year (up from 3m in 2016), and there are plans to build dozens of new hotels. Properties such as the Alila Jabal Akhdar, as well as the Six Senses Zighy Bay and Anantara Al Jabal Al Akhdar, all from international brands, have worked wonders when it comes to putting the destination on the map, especially when its surrounded by less liberal, more unstable countries that dont hold the same appeal. Positioned on the Arabian Peninsula, Oman is bordered by Yemen, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, while across the Gulf of Oman is Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan. However, this wealthy, peaceful stronghold is fast becoming a bastion for luxury lifestyle and outdoor adventure.
The Alila is a stunning retreat that embodies both these qualities, as well as architectural sensitivity to its otherwise uninhabited natural environment. The 84 rooms – all of which are suites – occupy clusters of low-rise stone and timber villas, built in the old style using locally sourced materials and traditional techniques. Surrounded by wild grasses and pomegranate trees, each has a private wooden balcony facing the gorge, plus free wifi (note that all video calling is blocked in Oman), minibars and generous bathrooms with freestanding tubs and rainshowers.
Merchant in his shop in the Souk of Muscat
Upon arrival we were greeted by a man in a flowing robe and turban who served us fresh cardamom coffee and dates. Once settled in, between feasting on a lavish buffet breakfast in the morning and a menu of sumptuous Arabic cuisine after sundown (think hummus, tabbouleh, beef tagine and roasted fish), we indulged in heady spa treatments using oils imbued with frankincense, juniper and rose, and took part in outdoor yoga sessions on a panoramic deck, cooking classes and geological walks. In the evening, theres stargazing and the opportunity to watch movies on a huge al fresco screen with flaming torches providing illumination among the rocks.
After three nights, we moved to the similarly high-end Anantara Al Jabal Al Akhdar, about 30 minutes drive away. (Its so remote that water cant be piped up here – it has to be delivered in tankers every morning.) More modern in design but softened by gardens, this resort opened in 2016 on an equally vertiginous site on the rim of a canyon. Along with 82 rooms it has 33 pool villas, which offer dazzling vistas and the luxury of complete privacy, as well as several restaurants and a superb spa.
Like the Alila, one of its standout features is a programme of daily activities, from archery to mountain biking. The Anantara also has its own 200-metre via ferrata for horizontal scrambles intermixed with ladders and vertical stairs, as well as abseiling and a one-hour climbing route that finishes with two terrifying zip lines. We signed up for the “Three Village Hike”, which takes you through old mountain enclaves and terraced farms irrigated in the traditional way by channels known as “falaj”. From the hotel, you can see their landscaped terraces cut into the cliffs, where roses, which are harvested to make rose water, blossom in April.
Leaving the mountains, we took in an early-morning animal auction in Nizwa that takes place every Friday, winding up at about 8.30am, before heading into the desert. While many tourists might feel happy about hiring their own car, you need an expert driver in a 4×4 to navigate the dunes. We stopped at a garage to have some air let out of our tyres in a dusty bedouin settlement (these people are rich now and are spending their money building palatial homes on the edge of the desert), before forging off-road in search of our camp. Along the way we passed camels and got a dose of adrenalin with some impromptu “dune bashing” where we drove at high speed up and down the giant hills of sand.
Its seriously hot out there – about 46 degrees in early May – so its no wonder the camps close for the summer. One of the more luxurious oases is the Dunes by Al Nahda but it had already shut when we visited so we made an overnight stay at 1,000 Nights in Wahiba Sands, which proves a little more basic but does have air conditioned tents, as well as a couple of villas, and, mercifully, a modest swimming pool. The highlight is driving to the top of a dune to watch the sun set.
Having ticked off mountains and desert, we drove back to Muscat, about four hours away, for a day by the sea before flying home. One of the citys most famous sites is the Sultan Qaboos Grand mosque but we chose to unwind at the new Kempinski hotel, which opened this spring. In true Middle Eastern style, its an expansive palace of cool marble and glass, with 310 rooms and suites, ten restaurants and bars, a bowling alley, cigar lounge, two outdoor swimming pools and its own beach.
Lying in the shade with an ice-cold G&T, I wondered where else in the world I could have had a week like this.
Experience Oman experienceoman.om
Alila Jabal Akdhar alilahotels.com
Anantara Al Jabal Al Akhdar anantara.com
1,000 Nights Desert Camp thousandnightsoman.com
Kempinski Muscat kempinski.com
Ground transport zaharatours.com