The Omani Tourist Board has as its slogan ‘Beauty has an address – Oman’, and it’s really not wrong as Liz O’Reilly discovered on a recent trip.
Much as I love Bahrain for its feeling of home and the friendliness of the Bahraini people, there is something special about Oman with its dramatic mountains and lush greenery.
After a busy few weeks at work, to say my travelling companion and I were looking forward to a weekend’s getaway would be something of an understatement. We took an afternoon flight and just an hour and a half later touched down in the land of green turtles, monsoon and the Queen of Sheba.
I love that, in Oman, the taxi counter at the airport tells you the cost of your journey before you step on board. And, at 15 riyals for a trip of almost 50 minutes, getting to our destination in the Al Hajar Mountains was very reasonable.
We stayed in Al Husn, Shangri-La Barr Al Jissah’s stunning ‘Castle by the Sea’, the most exclusive of the resort’s three hotels, where guests have access to a child-free infinity pool and private beach – something of which my frazzled mum mates have declared themselves extremely jealous.
Our first evening was spent enjoying Omani lobster accompanied by barbecued local tuna and Wagyu beef on the terrace of the international à la carte restaurant, Sultanah. We were delighted to find we’d arrived in time for the weekly jazz night, the strains of the double bass and sax adding to the already super-chilled atmosphere.
After an extremely comfortable night’s sleep (shame the pillows wouldn’t fit in my suitcase), the next morning saw us heading out to meet Mohammed Al Hassani, the region’s one and only turtle ranger.
Shangri-La Barr Al Jissah lies along a stretch of Oman’s coastline where both green and hawksbill turtles come to nest. And it’s Mohammed’s job to help visitors enjoy a unique turtle experience without putting the endangered creatures at risk.
Females will cross thousands of nautical miles, returning to the beach of their birth to lay their eggs in a deep hole they dig in the sand with their flippers. Once laid, mum returns to the water and the eggs are left to incubate for around 60 days before the baby turtles hatch and set out on their perilous dash to the water – the bit everyone wants to see.
Mohammed showed us several nest sites where, below the sand, the eggs were heating up and the babies preparing to make their debut. He keeps track of when each batch was laid and each nest is labelled with an approximate hatching date. Sadly, no babies showed their faces during our trip but that’s a great excuse to return (our next visit’s already booked).
I was fascinated as to how one gets to be an official turtle ranger and, while showing us round the impressive marine education centre that’s due to open for World Environment Day in June, Mohammed explained that he’s been rescuing and looking out for turtles since he was 12 years old.
Born in a village a few minutes along the coast, the local environmental agency was aware of his work and when Shangri-La was looking for a turtle specialist he was, of course, the logical choice for the job – now it was my turn to be just a little bit jealous.
Driving round the beaches with Mohammed we spotted the lazy river kids’ ride at the nearby Al Bander Hotel. Designed especially for families, this part of the resort has a full-on entertainment programme and we vowed to take an early morning ride on one of the blow-up river tubes.
However, since our trip was all about relaxation, our next stop had to be Chi, The Spa. So luxurious is this tranquil haven that you don’t just get a treatment room but rather a whole villa, complete with Jacuzzi bath! I opted for a medium-firm massage with almond and bergamot oil which left my skin feeling silky and my legs akin to jelly.
Not wanting to waste the feeling of total relaxation, we headed to Al Husn’s private beach for a couple of hours of total chilling before heading into Muscat to explore the traditional Muttrah Souq.
For those who have only ever experienced Bahrain’s souq, this place is a joy. Filled with tiny alleyways and interesting little shops, here you can find everything from a cooking pot to an Aladdin’s lamp. We stumbled, almost by accident, on one store filled with bins and shelves teeming with old, tarnished silver.
After several minutes of determined rummaging, I’d found earrings and a bracelet which shone brightly after a quick wipe with a silver cloth by the shopkeeper. To determine the price he weighed my choices and then it was down to some serious bargaining; I thought I showed a remarkable talent for barter until I later saw my travelling companion walk away with a gorgeous sapphire necklace for less than half the original asking price!
Like souqs the world over, Muttrah does have its fair share of what we used to call “lookey, lookey men”, those who will try and entice you into their shops with promises of pashminas, lamps, bangles and assorted other tat. But it also has a huge number of proper, traditional vendors from cloth sellers to stalls piled with gold and frankincense — and probably myrrh too, had I but looked.
We dined on the corniche at a restaurant just upstairs from the souq entrance called, imaginatively, the Cornish Restaurant. The shish tawook and hummous were divine but the waiter grumpy. I’d recommend it if you don’t require your service to come with a smile.
Back at the hotel, we considered checking out some of the many entertainment options; there’s a bar with live music and more than 20 food and drink outlets to choose from. But, after a long and busy day, I was more than happy to settle down on the balcony with a nightcap to listen to the waves crashing onto the nearby headland.
Situated in a sheltered bay, Shangri-La Barr Al Jissah looks like a traditional Arabic town; it’s on several levels to take account of its mountain setting and feels very secure. But all the rooms have sea views and, as you look out to the Indian Ocean, you’re very aware that the wild depths are never far away.
I’ve dived off Oman before, and can highly recommend it, but this time I was looking for adventure above the waves. Next morning saw me heading to the Extra Divers Centre for a dolphin safari.
The marine life along this coast is rich and varied and we set off in a speedboat in the hope of spotting some of it. I’m a big fan of dolphins in the wild but, if you take this sort of trip, you must be aware that they are just that — wild — and they may not choose to grace you with their presence. Which is what happened on this occasion.
I’d been booked on the early morning tour, which did come across Flipper and friends. However, having overslept, I took the later trip and spent a very pleasant but, sadly, dolphin-free couple of hours experiencing life on the ocean wave.
Back at the resort we headed back to the beach and spent a delightful couple of hours chilling before it was time to head back to the airport. We’d been in Oman just 48 hours but it seemed like we’d been a world away.