Its brash neighbour may be photogenic, but the temperate highlands of Oman will soon have you reaching for your sketchbook, finds Chris McCall
I like to think I know a thing or two about mountain scenery and its ability to leave you staring open-mouthed. I’ve trekked through Glencoe and lunched in Lausanne. But nothing could prepare me for the view from my bedroom balcony in Al Jabal Al Akhdar. Perched in Oman’s Hajar mountains, the five-star resort is the highest in the Middle East. Across the canyon you can spy ancient terraces built into the craggy rock and tiny whitewashed houses dotted along the summit, all sitting under a dazzlingly clear blue sky. There’s no need for coffee in the morning when you can open your curtains and drink in this kind of vista.
We had been driven from Muscat along a series of increasingly steep mountain roads. This was no ordinary airport transfer. Oman’s capital sits at sea level and we had 2,000m to climb. It was a January morning yet the sun was splitting the sky, much to my Caledonian wonderment. While the hillsides were barren, our driver assured us that come the summer they would be carpeted in lush green. I was content to sit back and enjoy the ride. The flight from Heathrow, via Oman Air, the country’s flag-carrier, takes under eight hours. Omani hospitality – nothing is too much trouble for guests – thankfully extends to its aircraft. I was rested and looking forward to reaching the summit.
Opened in 2016 by the Anantara chain, Al Jabal Al Akhdar looks from the outside like an ancient palace that has undergone a 21st century refurbishment. Inside, it boasts a level of luxury fit for any sultan. If the view from your room isn’t impressive enough, you can always admire it from a different angle while bathing in the clifftop infinity pool. It was close to this spot that a young Charles and Diana visited in 1986, long before the resort was built, with the future monarch reportedly keen to sketch the surroundings. Courting couples now have the option of reserving a private table at what the hotel has named Diana’s Point – a viewing deck that stretches to the very edge of the mountain.
Oman is often described as the hidden gem of the Middle East. Its strategic coastal location, looking across the Arabian Sea towards Iran and India, means it has been an important trading state for centuries. It shares a border to the north with the UAE – both Dubai and Abu Dhabi are a short plane ride away. The Emirates, with its skyscrapers and penchant for all things flash, is a relative newcomer in this part of the world. Oman has undergone significant investment in the past 40 years but still retains an old world charm and authenticity lacking in its brash neighbour.
This is a country that challenges your preconceptions about the Middle East. Expecting nothing but endless miles of desert? Oman boasts mountains to rival the Alps. Worried about uncomfortably high temperatures? Those high peaks mean much of the country luxuriates in the balmy mid 20s while the rest of the Arabian Peninsula watches the mercury climb above 40.
Political unrest is a distant memory here. Stable government and a welcoming attitude towards outsiders have made Oman a trusted friend to western governments as well as its Arab neighbours. Factor in the always smiling Omani people and it’s surprising this place isn’t already an established destination for UK travellers.
Al Jabal Al Akhdar offers a range of outdoor pursuits. A trek through the mountains to explore the ancient hillside villages is a must. But most thrilling of all is the resort’s climbing experience – 200 metres of via ferrata along the Green Mountain. You don’t need any prior climbing experience to enjoy this protected route, or “iron road”. You’re securely strapped into a safety harness and resort guides are on hand to offer encouragement as you make your way from one foothold to another. Despite the nerve-wracking heights, I was surprised at how much I enjoyed myself. “You’ve done this before,” my instructor Ali said with a grin. I thought back to a childhood spent scrambling around the Fife coastal headlands – perhaps the ideal preparation.
Oman is not all mountains, however. A short internal flight from Muscat takes you to Salalah, the largest city in southern Oman. We would be staying at Anantara’s beachside resort, Al Baleed. The first in the region to boast private villas complete with their own pools, it is the ideal location for couples in search of a romantic getaway or families looking to explore Oman’s culture.
The resort’s luxury spa provides the perfect excuse to discover more about southern Oman’s most famous export – frankincense. The aromatic resin is tapped by slashing the bark from the Boswellia sacra trees that grow around Salalah. When made into oil, it makes the ideal accompaniment to a relaxing massage. The unmistakable smell of frankincense stays with you long after.
It’s worth noting that in the summer visitors head to Salalah to escape the heat during the khareef – or monsoon – season. The area’s microclimate means that from July to September you can expect grey skies and rain. That might not appeal to Brits looking for sunshine, but it’s a godsend to expats stuck in baking Dubai. Visit Salalah at any other time of year and you can be guaranteed blue skies, unspoilt beaches and temperatures in the high 20s.
While Oman is a conservative culture, foreign visitors are embraced. Hotels are fully licensed – the wine list is what you would expect from a five star resort – and Salalah’s private beach allows Western swimwear.
Taking the time to visit the two Anantara resorts is worthwhile to experience everything this unique country has to offer. If you enjoy outdoor pursuits as well as world-class opulence, there are few places to match it. And if you’re looking for a beachside holiday with a touch of class, Salalah has you covered.
This Middle Eastern gem is unlikely to remain hidden for much longer.
Nightly rates at Anantara Al Jabal Al Akhdar start from £364 on a B&B basis in a Premier Canyon View Room.
Nightly rates at Al Baleed Resort Salalah by Anantara start from £225 in a Premier Sea View Room.
Oman Air flies to Muscat twice a day from London Heathrow and daily from Manchester Airport. Onward flights to Salalah from Muscat are available seven days a week. Return economy fares from London or Manchester to Salalah are available from £550. For more information or to book, visit www.omanair.com