It's less loud and proud than its UAE neighbour but Oman possesses a quiet, unique charm of its own. First Class travels to the rocky sultanate and discovers that it has lots to shout about.
With a beguiling topography, the Sultanate of Oman is a country rife with pristine turquoise waters, powdery beaches, serrated cliffs and undulating dunes. Sharing borders with Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Yemen, this former sleepy nation is creating slow but sure ripples in the realm of luxury travel.
Once revelling in relative isolation, this ancient Gulf state now wants a piece of the glitzy tourist action. However, unlike the rest of its neighbours, Oman's approach to tourism is carefully charted.
Muscat is the most cosmopolitan and densely inhabited city featuring an abundance of attractions including spectacular beaches and creeks, museums and traditional souks like the famous Muttrah Souk.
Anything blatantly ostentatious is eschewed in exchange for a refined yet austere chic. And yet, pomp is toned down without compromising on luxury.
Bragging 5,000 years of culture that includes Persian and Portuguese influence, this is a land where once the fabled Queen of Sheeba reigned and the legends of Sinbad originated.
Imbued with centuries of history, this Gulf state is the oldest independent Arab state in the world with an empire that extended all the way to Pakistan and Zanzibar.
Possessing a rich heritage of trading and fishing, this land of frankincense is now conquering obscurity and emerging on the radar of the glamorous jet-set coterie of travellers.
Oman's new beginning began in 1970 when the Sandhurst-educated Sultan Qaboos Bin Said assumed power by deposing his isolationist father. It was at this time that oil was discovered and the export of this has resulted in economic reform of the country.
A network of tarmac ribbons surfaced across the country, connecting segregated villages and dusty towns. With a galvanized economy, an influx of tourists was inevitable.
Driving across Oman, you encounter a scattering of ancient forts, ochre jagged mountains, verdant wadis and sleepy chocolate-box villages with welcoming citizens. In the main cities, the roads are devoid of flashy vehicles and the skyline bereft of spiralling towers.
Granted, Oman is a late-starter in the tourism race, but with a spate of unexpected delights, it's easy to get utterly smitten with this place.
One of the oldest capitals in the Middle East, Oman's capital Muscat lies serenely amid a warren of jagged mountains and dotted with minarets and ancient forts.
Artfully blending the old and the new, Muscat is the most cosmopolitan and densely inhabited city featuring an abundance of attractions including spectacular beaches and creeks, museums and traditional souks like the famous Muttrah Souk.
Located on the west of the Hajjar Mountains, this former capital of Oman is now a modest city bragging historical monuments including a restored 17th century fort and castle that dominate the landscape.
There is also a revitalised souk and a goat and cattle market. At the souk, visitors can browse through an array of antiques and handicraft - traditional Omani silver jewellery, leather goods, pots of honey, spices, saffron and the legendary cure-all - frankincense. Nizwa has a colossal dates market with approximately 40 varieties of dates grown from June to December.
Where to stay
Six Senses at Zighy Bay
Located on the Northern Musandam peninsula, Zighy Bay has fabulous sweeps of golden sand and untarnished, natural beauty. Once inaccessible due to the terrain, the new Six Senses Hideaway Zighy Bay Resort lets travellers explore the stark beauty of the bay.
Offering the perfect secluded escapade, the resort has a village-like setting with the dramatic Hajjar Mountains as a backdrop. There is also an innovative check-in feature with adventurous guests having the option to check-in by paragliding.
The villas have been recreated in an Omani style and every villa has a plunge pool, outdoor shower, terrace and a lounge area. Aptly called the hideaway resort, there's a butler on call 24/7 eliminating any need to emerge from a villa.
Guests have a host of activities to indulge in like beach volleyball, mountain biking, snorkelling, game fishing, turtle-watching and much more. A highlight of the resort is a ‘lofty' dinner for two at an altitude of 290 metres with breathtaking views of Zighy Bay.
Al Nahda Resort and Spa, Oman
This modern resort, 45 minutes from Oman's capital of Muscat, is designed to give you every opportunity for pampering yourself and improving your self image.At Al Nahda the emphasis is on health, fitness and well-being, based on holistic health principles.
You'll be pampered by a swathe of professionals who will supervise every stage of your programme and send you home with a new attitude to health and lifestyle.
Weight management, yoga and meditation, fitness and physiotherapy programmes are offered across 22 treatment rooms. The resort is set in 30 acres of lush botanical gardens in the vicinity of the historic town of Barka.
Around Musandam, rocky promontories jut out at precarious angles and whether you're swimming around grottoes or bobbing in the middle of the waters, a vista of bronze peaks, limpid sunsets and stunning fjords is absolutely stunning.
Bicycles and golf-carts are provided for getting around the resort if required. Sports facilities include a gym, pool, floodlit tennis courts, aerobics/dance studio and volleyball court.
Regular excursions and activities are on offer too, with camel and horse treks, ecotours, diving and adventure tours popular choices. Culinary enthusiasts can even opt to design their own menu with the resort's chefs from a wide range of restaurants.
The Chedi, Muscat
20 minutes away from the capital, The Chedi Muscat is an exclusive beach resort that offers top-notch facilities for the astute traveller. There's a sense of restrained opulence about The Chedi that makes for a refreshing change.
The Chedi has 156 rooms flaunting contemporary, low-key grandeur and some suites possess panoramic views of the glittering Arabian Gulf. With a private beach, two swimming pools and a water garden for all guests, languishing in relative comfort is a given.
The Chedi also features The Spa for guests to bask in supreme comfort after their senses are revitalised with special, Balinese treatments and organic products.
Shangri-la Barr Al Jissah Resort and Spa
The Shangri-La's Barr Al Jissah Resort and Spa features 680 rooms in three different hotels. This striking and hidden retreat has The Al Waha (The Oasis) which is ideal for families, the Al Bandar (the Town) is nestled in the heart of the resort and the decadent Al Husn (The Castle).
All rooms possess exotic Arabian nuances with some of the most dramatic views from Al Husn. With a spectacular location, this is true haven for the discerning traveller keen for some plush down-time.
For unwinding, there's the über-luxurious spa, Chi, which houses twelve luxuriously appointed villas with garden showers focusing on extravagant and relaxing treatments to harmonise your body and mind.
Guests can also enjoy amenities like the hydro pool, herbal steam room, tundra and tropical snail showers, ice fountain and a lounge area where lying languid is a welcome option.
The Barr Al Jissah Resort and Spa also offers a plethora of sumptuous dining options - from the Latin-influenced Samba at the Al Waha to fanciful Italian cuisine at Capri Court and Shahrazad for a touch of Morocco.
For those with a hankering for tapas, there's an abundance of these at Tapas & Sablah at Al Bandar featuring an array of Mediterranean and Asian tapas together with Arabic mezze. The Al Bandar also features The Long Bar for heady, signature cocktails and a nightclub, Xyro, for those who like kicking up their heels a notch.
What to do in Oman
But there's more to Oman than merely lying suspended in a soporific state, basking in the sun. Adventure abounds in this majestic land and adventure tourism is gaining ground. Numerous operators now offer treks through vertiginous trails (certainly not for the faint-hearted), cave excursions, snorkelling expeditions, dolphin-cruises and turtle-watching.
The lofty peak of Jabal Shams is often acclaimed as Oman's own version of the Grand Canyon. Meaning ‘Mountain of the Sun', the appeal of Jabal Shams lies in the astounding grandeur of its craggy contours and steep gorges. Trekking enthusiasts and geologists favour this landmark and savour an unparalleled dramatic landscape of rocky terrain.
Trekking is possible along the mountain ridges of Wadi Nakhr with well-marked routes and the canyon rim is 2,000 metres above Jabal Shams. Jabal Shams is a main attraction for overnight campers who are delighted to drift off underneath luminous stars.
En route whilst walking, one can encounter tiny centuries-old abandoned villages like Al Khateem. The trek, usually averaging three hours, is imbued with spectacular silence punctuated perhaps by an odd eagle looming overhead.
Diving into the abyss
A risky yet thrilling activity, cave diving and exploring has fired the imagination of cave enthusiasts and adventurers.
As veritable underground museums, these caves have an unspoilt environment for unusual species of flora and there are fabulous features like stalactites and stalagmites. Some of these are in a spectrum of brilliant hues lending the underground caves a magical experience.
Caves in Oman are allotted grades to define the challenge of the route together with depth of the caves. The most famous underground cave is the ‘Majlis al Jinn', which is the second-largest underground chamber in the world.This one is strictly for the professionals as it's a highly difficult cave to navigate. Another cave is the Hoti cave comprising of an underground cavern and subterranean lake system. Hoti cave's main chamber is roughly the size of the Al Bustan Palace Hotel's ballroom.
For those who prefer to steer clear of hair-raising dives, the Al Hoota cave offering spectacular interiors. Featuring an electric train and walkways, this visit is a memorable one as the cave is home to a fragile underground ecosystem.
Going down under
The waters around Oman offer majestic underwater experience. A snorkelling and diving adventure will unveil vast colonies of coral, vivid anemones, shoals of mesmerising fish and occasional glimpses of other marine life like turtles and dolphins.
Around the Musandam Peninsula, rocky promontories jut out at precarious angles and whether you're swimming around grottoes or bobbing in the middle of the waters, a vista of limpid sunsets and stunning fjords is absolutely stunning.
A number of operators offer diving and snorkelling expeditions including dolphin and turtle-watching excursions.
Where to eat
There's a wice choice of dining options in Oman, here's our top three luxurious picks featuring impeccable service and delicious meals:
The Tuscany Restaurant
For devotees of Italian cuisine, there's no going wrong at the lauded The Tuscany Restaurant. With a nod towards distinctive Tuscan interiors and the ceiling dome featuring a gorgeous mural of the sky, the menu is replete with delectable Italian dishes.
High on our recommendation list is the delicious prawn risotto and the desserts are equally scrumptious.
The Tuscany Restaurant Muscat Grand Hyatt Hotel Timings: Lunch - 12pm - 3.30 pm (everyday except Fridays); Dinner - 7pm - 11.30pm
To experience exemplary and traditional Moroccan cuisine, a must-stop is at Shahrazad at Barr Al Jissah Resort and Spa - Muscat's only Moroccan restaurant. Here, Maghrebian splendour abounds in the ambience and menu.
The tagines are divine and the must-try is the Lamb T'Faya that is simply suffused with succulence. Round off your meal with Moroccan tea delivered with panache by the waiters, all from Morocco.
Shahrazad Al Husn Hotel, Shangri La's Barr Al Jissah Resort & Spa Timings: Dinner - 7pm - 11-pm
With super-sophisticated interiors, a stunning courtyard for those who prefer dining al fresco and an open kitchen, The Restaurant is high on every gourmand's list.
Featuring a range of cuisines like Arabic, Indian, Mediterranean and Moroccan, all dishes here are imbued with heady flavours. Seafood aficionados will adore the king prawns coated in The Chedi sauce and the fantastic pistachio-crusted crab.
The Restaurant The Chedi, Muscat Timings: Breakfast - 7am - 10.30 am; Lunch - 12pm - 3pm; Dinner - 7pm - 11.30pm
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