Oman’s cinematic beauty
For those in search of the otherworldly, this is the place
Just four hours from Muscat lies the immense desert of the South Bathina region of the Sultanate of Oman, it’s cinematic beauty and rolling, towering, rust-coloured dunes offset by a cloudless pastel blue sky. We’ve been playing on the sand dunes – vast miles of them – on our quad bikes for hours, zooming up and down the colossal mounds.
Taking a deep breath, I summon up the courage to make it to the tip of a very high peak, pushing top speed, in order not to run out of momentum and find myself stuck half way. Flying up is one thing but descending the vertical banks is quite another – it’s not for the faint-hearted. Once back on a level plain, I switch off the engine to enjoy the silence of the surrounding sea of golden sands of the Wadi Al Abyad, absorbing the panoramic views as far as the eye can see.
Below, Dunes by Al Nahda, the sumptuous, tented resort spread over 17 acres, sits right in the heart of the desert and blends perfectly into the sands on which it is built. Overlooked by the majestic Al Hajar Mountain range, this desert kingdom is gloriously remote and within easy reach by car from Muscat International Airport. For those in search of the otherworldly beauty of the alluring, expansive sandscapes, this is the place.
Dunes is home to 50 octagonal tent-inspired draped abodes, all are free-standing with hanging lanterns, air conditioning, wi-fi and glorious sunken tubs, while the Royal suites offer private dining and patios. With candle-lit pathways, a standout wellness haven, plus nine-hole sand bunker golf course, sand boarding, kite flying, dune bashing and camel rides - it’s impossible to take a bad picture here.
Voices echo across the sand, but it’s impossible to tell where from. Starting the quad back up, we soon discover a group of Omani thrill-seekers en masse, racing each other in fancy Mercedes G-Wagons, up and down, around and around, partaking in the local sport of dune-bashing. We pull up and enjoy the mesmerising stunts as they try to force their vehicles to conquer the glittering sand castles. I’m told by our guide that spectators regularly sit on fold-out chairs and picnic blankets at weekends to take in the performance and that many of the thrill seekers camp in dunes overnight, star-gaze and party, before repeating again the following day.
You’ll be windswept, covered in sand and ready for some downtime, so pass the time back at Dunes swimming, reading and sleeping under the sun before cooling off by plunging into an infinity pool that spills into the dunes. Be sure to head over to the spa for an out-there treatment at the award-winning URU Spa and opt to be buried alfresco in sun-baked sand. Yes, really. The connection shared with this treatment is heat — and using the earth’s natural elements to heal the body and relax the mind.
Rather than skin-scrubbed raw procedures, their remedies promise to bathe the body with restorative minerals. There’s a no roof spa for massages out in the open air (note: in the scorching summer months of June to August, this is only available outside the hours of 10am-5pm). In-room treatments, intoxicatingly named ‘Liquid Gold’, ‘Start Dust’ or ‘Arabian Nights’, consist of local scrubs made of delicious concoctions of yoghurt, olive oil, honey and cucumber, dates and orange.
Al fresco dining is the way here, be it by the pool, on the vast terrace, or barbeques on the sand. Start with a sundowner by the pool then meander the twinkling path for supper. An abundance of lounging cushions, carpets and blankets in a kaleidoscope of hues, artfully arranged on the sand awaits. I dine cross-legged surrounded by candles as the relaxing notes of a harpist dance through the night air before floating away into the desert. It’s the very definition of atmospheric.
We had previously seen the chef prepare the evening’s “Shuwa”. The meat is marinated in many spices for 24 hours before being wrapped in foil and palm leaves and lowered into a smoky underground oven to slow-roast over 12 hours. We feast on the succulent meat – it just falls off the bone. Although this is the Gulf, alcohol is certainly not banned here. Champagne flows and an extensive wine list and shishas will carry you through to the early hours – dancing barefoot on the sand is definitely encouraged.
If you’ve room, recover the next morning at the in-house restaurant Fleur, which serves both Omani and international breakfast fare, from Arabian, American and Continental styles - Chef makes requests to order. Opt for traditional and sample the hummus, minced beef, spiced beans and flatbread platter.
Before arriving at Dunes (part of Al Nahda Hotels & Resorts) we’d visited the opulent Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque where the welcoming scent of freshly cut grass and hibiscus flowers envelop the senses. Accommodating 20,000 worshippers and boasting a Swarovski chandelier weighing over eight tonnes, lavishly decorated carvings, calming water features, and one of the world's largest Persian carpets, it is a sight to behold. Soon after we head to the local Souq and get lost in the Aladdin's cave of traditional and local Omani products and crafts - think daggers, clothes, carpets, spices, herbal medicines, silver crafts and jewellery and local pottery.
We also visited another property in the group. The boutique Sahab Resort & Spa is situated 2,000 metres above sea level and is part of the Western Al Hajar mountain range which stretches for hundreds of kilometres across northern Oman. The temperature is considerably lower here than the heat of the desert. You’ll be revived with mountain air. This is a resort that has been developed with mountain views in mind and uninterrupted blue sky beyond and offers a pleasant array of studios, suites and family apartments, many with private terraces and balconies.
On the Saiq Plateau, a fertile and generative region for crop cultivation overlooking a canyon sprinkled with Omani villages, gardens and farms, Jabel Akhdar is two hours from Muscat International Airport.
Farmers here can cultivate fruit including pomegranates, figs, walnuts and plums and they also grow the rose to make the intoxicating rosewater – famous for beauty and medicinal purposes - it permeates almost every aspect of Islamic culture. March and April are good months to walk through irrigated, perfumed gardens and watch the petals being harvested for rosewater using centuries-old techniques.
Local flavour can be found outside the resort’s walls – as can curious, smiling locals. Excursions to abandoned crumbling villages, hiking the rocky panorama of rugged mountain trails of ancient olive and juniper woodlands and visiting local rose farms are laid back activities – alternatively, scrambling through canyons, cycling climbs and mounting running are just as popular.
In 2018, the country introduced its own mountain ultramarathon, UTMB by Oman which pursues age-old paths that once linked mountain villages. This year will welcome the Haute Route – made up of varying distances, alarming descents, brutal climbs and breathtaking views, some of the most spectacular coming courtesy of the sea. Oman has a rich maritime history as a naval empire and the country’s 2,000km coastline offer opportunities to dive and snorkel with sea turtles, dolphins, rays and whale sharks.
Nature has left her footprint in the rocks of Sahab as we snap some photos of the 270 million years old marine fossils located in the hotel walls and gardens (the hotel has been built around a fossil bedrock). I can make out the shapes of ancient dolphins and turtles – it’s incredible to think this high-up region was once under sea.
The tranquility of the mountainside pool, the rocky, barren landscape, surrounding hill contours dotted with pomegranate trees and local farm animals perched precariously on the mountainside munching plants are all Insta-worthy shots. As is the dipping sun painting an ember glow across the rock (locals climb the jagged sides every evening to find a seat and watch the sun go down) and the morning sun, is like peachy gold dust. The loudest sound you’ll hear is your breathing. It’s beautifully still, day or night. Sahab certainly offers clear night-time views of the stars making it a paradise for celestial enthusiasts and stargazers.
The food sings with local herbs and the chef’s menu is prepared by a chef who had previously won the Omani version of MasterChef. Think simple honest cooking: Arabian soup, rainbow-coloured salads, Omani prawns, grilled hammour fresh from the waves and slow-cooked speciality meats, aka traditional Omani Shuwa, washed down with free-flowing wine.
For a soothing refuge the morning after a rum-soaked night in the Bar, be sure to nip across to the spa and zone out with a deep-tissue massage using warm oils packed with natural ingredients and pressure-point manipulation. It left me so floppy I stumbled to the sunlounger to sleep the sleep of the gods.
Oman encourages you to stray from the well-trodden travel path. It’s a place that has resisted high-rise hotels and is dotted with historic old forts and towns - you can still see the Arabia of 100 years ago. What really hits home here is the sense of peace, stripped-back happiness and blissful outdoor life – a playground for those with excess energy. It’s wide-open spaces, rich heritage, embracing people and pride in its ancient past make it a very special destination.
Cox & Kings (0203 642 0861, coxandkings.co.uk) offers four nights at Sahab Resort & Spa on a full board basis and 3 nights at Dunes by Al Nahda on a half board basis from £2,395 per person (two sharing) including all private transfers and return economy international flights with Oman Air.