Jenny Southan stays cool in the desert as she explores the great outdoors of Oman
I am standing on top of a sand dune at sunset, the wind whipping swirls of grit into the air off the rippling ridge, the sky a hazy pink beyond. My feet sink gently into the sand as I look out, noticing a camel making its way down the face of a dune beyond. Down below is our camp, a cluster of palms and cineraria trees providing shade for an emerald swimming pool in an otherwise barren landscape. The 45-degree heat of the day has subsided and, as night draws on, it gets more comfortable. Once the sun has slid behind the horizon I get back into the white 4×4 that drove me up here and descend precariously back down the steep side of the dune to the Thousand Nights (thousandnightsoman.com) oasis where I am staying.
The Middle Eastern country of Oman is predominantly desert (about 80 per cent), with the rest occupied by mountains and stretches of coastline. Sharqiya Sands alone, where I am, covers about 12,500 square km. Closed from May until August, when it is too hot to bear (temperatures often reach 55 degrees), during the rest of the year the camp has air-conditioned tents, as well as a handful of villas, available for visitors to spend a night and get a feel for what Bedouin life is like. In more recent times, many of these nomadic Arabs have grown wealthy from trading camels (those bred to race can sell for up to £200,000, my tour guide Ali tells me). Before going off-road and heading into the desert, I see numerous new-build mansions being built by Bedouin families, whose tents have been given a serious upgrade.
Unlike the emirates of Dubai and Abu Dhabi, which have rapidly converted desert into metropolis, Oman is seeking to attract tourists to its natural wonders and outdoor pursuits. Just two years ago it received three million visitors, but it is aiming for five million by 2020. It is part of the Sultanate of Oman’s drive to diversify its economy, which, at the moment, is reliant on oil, gas and agriculture (dates, limes and coconut palms primarily, as well as frankincense and damask roses, mainly
for domestic use).
In the spring, the capital saw the launch of a new US$1.8 billion terminal at Muscat International Airport for international flights (both British Airways and Oman Air fly nonstop from London), and a new e-visa application system for people from the UK (costing 20 OMR/£39 for a 26B tourist visa), meaning tourists no longer have to queue for one when they arrive. Nearby is the 310-room Kempinski Hotel Muscat, which was unveiled in April, and has a huge outdoor pool by the beach. However, I want to get out of the city to explore the Al Hajar mountains, a few hours’ drive away, where the four-year-old Alila Jabal Akhdar (alilahotels.com) resort is located, 2,000m above sea level.
In contrast to the desert camp, the air around the Alila is cool and clear, and the terrain Mars-like and rocky, with the exception of straggly juniper trees and clumps of tall grasses. Upon arrival at the hotel’s reception, I am greeted by a man in a floor-length robe and neat embroidered hat, who serves me fresh squishy dates and cardamom coffee from a silver pot (the Omanis take hospitality very seriously). I am immediately impressed by the hotel’s architecture, which has combined local stone and timber beams to construct a low-rise complex of buildings in which the 84 guest suites are located. Mine has
a particularly stunning view of the awe-inspiring gorge that the hotel is built on the edge of.
You can, of course, come here to relax by the pool and read whatever thriller you picked up at the airport – or you can take advantage of the array of exciting outdoor activities on offer. For daredevils, the Alila can arrange climbing experiences for people of mixed abilities on the property’s very own via ferrata (“iron path”). Once you have your helmet and harness on, you can work your way across the yawning mouth of a cave sunk deep into the limestone cliffs below thanks to a 20m-high tightrope wire that’s been pegged in place. You can also sign up for canyon walks, abseiling and treks to the floor of the valley.
About half an hour’s drive away is the Anantara Al Jabal Al Akhdar (anantara.com), another high-end hotel perched on the edge of a canyon. It also offers its own 200m via ferrata, plus a couple of zip lines and the option of mountain biking and archery. However, I decide to set off with a guide down dusty paths to explore a trio of largely abandoned villages carved into the hillside, following a trail that takes me down steep stone steps, following a traditional ‘falaj’ irrigation system of small channels that deliver water to the rose terraces. In March, the flowers are harvested to make rose water, a precious commodity in these parts. For many decades, the region has been so fertile it earned the name Green Mountains, but an ongoing drought has left it looking parched. There is still a dramatic beauty to the place, though, and it leaves me wanting to come back for more – perhaps next time for a spa retreat at the Six Senses Zighy Bay.