Oman - a spa resort destination with a cultural mystique
I’m buried up to my neck in a rectangular pit of warm sand with slices of carrot covering my eyes, and after a shower will shortly be covered head to toe in cold yoghurt.
The experience, which all takes place underneath a cloudless azure sky, is certainly not my usual Sunday afternoon – and to my neighbours’ relief I won’t be trying to recreate it in my local park when I come home – nor is it some unique new kind of initiation ceremony.
Instead, it is the one-of-a-kind Ancient Egyptian Sand Spa at stunning resort Dunes by Al Nahda, a treatment that promises to imbue the body with minerals and “flush out every tiny vestige of harriedness and pain”.
The sensation of being enveloped in sand is surprisingly comforting and relaxing – and it’s one of the unforgettable experiences on offer at Dunes that is within easy reach by road from Muscat International Airport (“you should reach us before you complete watching an episode of your favourite sitcom”, the bumf says).
The luxury resort in the Sultanate of Oman is located on the edge of the Wadi Al Abiyad sand dunes and overlooking the mountains, and its communal areas include an open-air reception and bar/restaurant, as well as a tranquil pool with sun loungers and its own bar.
Separated by a path that follows the undulation of the dunes is the accommodation, a collection of “tents” – sizeable, sturdy huts whose opulent interiors include fabric-covered ceilings.
Among them are two in the “royal” category which each offer two bedrooms, living and dining areas, and their own private patios.
This all sits against the incredible backdrop of the latte-coloured dunes, which you can see from a much closer vantage point with activities including sand surfing and quad biking, although I opt to let someone else take control on a spot of dune-bashing, heading up and down the steep peaks and leaving sand clouds in our wake on a drive in a 4x4 that is just the right level of thrilling.
I also have a go at riding the in-house camel, clinging on as best I can as he saunters around the resort at the kind of lethargic pace I use when walking to the gym.
Camels are a key part of Omani life, and I watch some of his more energetic fellow “ships of the desert” racing on TV, a spectacle I find weirdly hypnotic. Some of the faster creatures can hit speeds of more than 60 kilometres an hour – like me heading home on foot for dinner after the gym – and fetch tens of thousands of rials.
Then there is the food, and we see the chef prepare that evening’s “shuwa”, for which meat is marinated in a host of spices before being wrapped in foil and date palm leaves and lowered into an underground oven to slow-roast over the next few hours.
That evening we sample the resulting dish, as we dine under the stars sparkling intensely in the inky black sky due to the lack of artificial light in the area, accompanied by shishas and the relaxing sounds of a harpist.
Earlier that day we had eaten at in-house restaurant Fleur, which serves both Omani and Western fare, and where the dishes we sample include an excellent selection of curry. Then there is breakfast, where from the buffet I wolf down ultra-smooth hummus and dates, which form a central part of Omani culture.
All in all the resort makes for an incredibly relaxing location and I don’t think I would ever tire of the calming effect of watching the striking views in every direction, and in particular seeing the sky’s hues change and the resort light up as the sun dips below the horizon.
Before arriving at Dunes we’d seen some of the local attractions, such as the spectacularly opulent, elegant and immaculate Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque, which can accommodate 20,000 worshippers and boasts a chandelier weighing nearly nine tons. It opened in 2001 and was built in just six years, an achievement I can’t comprehend given its huge scale.
There is also the labyrinthine souq that stocks everything from chewable frankincense to the traditional curved Omani dagger known as a khanjar which is worn at formal events and holidays, (which seems to me like their version of a sgian dubh), and features on the national flag.
There is also a wealth of silver jewellery and lanterns in a host of jewel colours. I even engage in some haggling with a shopkeeper over my purchase of a small jewellery box.
Over the course of the trip I learn more about the fascinating history and culture of the country, which since 1970 has been ruled by His Majesty Sultan Qaboos Bin Said who trained at the Royal Military Academy in Sandhurst.
Often billed as the oldest independent state in the Arab world, it has a population of about five million, with expats from an eclectic range of nationalities estimated to make up about roughly half that amount.
Our friendly local guides Abdullah and Aziz give us some insight into Omani life, showing us how to put on their intricate muzzar turbans and the complexities of local traditions, such as guests being welcomed with coffee and dates.
Dunes is part of Al Nahda Hotels & Resorts, and we visit another property in the group – the Al Nahda Resort & Spa – which also offers the chance to enjoy barbecue dining under the stars.
As for other Omani attractions on offer, there is scuba diving, caving and whale-watching, capitalising on its location on the southeastern corner of the Arabian Peninsula overlooking the Arabian Sea, the Sea of Oman and the Arabian Gulf.
I leave eager to return to a country that offers a vast amount to visitors, and would be both a great destination in its own right but also an excellent stopover for a few days either before or after a long trip – with shuwa, sand and souqs only scratching the surface of what this unique, under-the-radar destination has to offer.FACTFILE
Dunes by Al Nahda, Wadi Al Abiyad Sands, Barka, Oman, Tel: +968 9723 5700. [email protected], www.dunesbyalnahda.com. Luxury tent from £291 bed and breakfast (£389 full board) for two adults and one child under six.
Al Nahda Resort & Spa, PO Box 502, Barka PC 320, Oman. Tel: +968 2688 3710. [email protected], www.alnahdaresort.com. Executive suite from £115 bed and breakfast (£194 full board) for two adults and two children under 12.