INTO THE AZURE

Susan Kuro­sawa joins a dol­phin-watch­ing cata­ma­ran cruise along the coast of Oman

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Holidays Afloat -

THE sleek white sail­ing cata­ma­ran glides out of the crowded Bandar al-Rowdha ma­rina with barely a rip­ple. The sea is the palest aqua­ma­rine, the French cap­tain wears pressed whites and the cham­pagne is on ice. How Lifestyle­soft­heRichandFa­mous is this? We could be liv­ing it up on the French Riviera, were it not for the rocky yel­low coast­line, the for­ti­fied head­lands and the black-robed women on shore min­gling un­der the date palms.

We are just out­side Mus­cat, cap­i­tal of Oman, and I am an in­ter­loper in this luxe sce­nario thanks to an in­vi­ta­tion from Aus­tralian-Omani Clara Zawari, who, with her sis­ters, runs the char­ter boat com­pany Ocean Blue In­ter­na­tional.

The 23m cata­ma­ran Az­zura, built in France and sailed from La Rochelle to Mus­cat late last year, is the com­pany’s first main ven­ture. Kit­ted out in white and a bright blue-green that echoes the sea be­yond, Az­zura has plenty of shaded seat­ing but am­ple space on its 110sq m flat deck for par­ty­ing un­der sail. This morn­ing dol­phins are on the sight­see­ing menu and soon we see a school of about 20 arch­ing and leap­ing through the wa­ter be­side sev­eral tuna fish­er­men in a de­cidely an­cient row­boat.

They are spin­ner dol­phins, those ir­re­sistible ac­ro­bats of the ocean, and they de­light us with their cir­cus-wor­thy per­for­mance. I wish they would bow-ride with us but they are headed out to sea, som­er­sault­ing as they go.

Clara says there are hump­back and minke whales to be spot­ted from Fe­bru­ary to April, and her clients have the op­tion of char­ters to private beaches (with a shal­low draught of 1.5m, Az­zura can nose into bays and coves) or sun­set sails to cap a day in Mus­cat. Itin­er­ar­ies can be tai­lored to suit but you need a group of friends or fam­ily to share costs and make it eco­nom­i­cal.

Feel­ing dulled by the mid-March heat, it is a re­lief to be aboard Az­zura. We are at the south­ern reaches of the Gulf of Oman and above the Tropic of Can­cer. If we were to keep sail­ing south we would reach the Ara­bian Sea, a name evoca­tive of traders in cargo as pre­cious and oth­er­worldly as frank­in­cense. I look at a map and there are fur­ther prom­ises of dol­phins; lit­tle draw­ings show them leap­ing across a light blue back­ground, all the way down to the border with Ye­men. Off the point of the Ras al-Hadd penin­sula is a draw­ing of a tur­tle; this is the an­nual mi­gra­tion des­ti­na­tion for thou­sands of green tur­tles that swim here from the Ara­bian Gulf, the Red Sea and the East African coast. Ap­par­ently 275 of Oman’s beaches are nest­ing grounds for five of the seven recog­nised species of sea tur­tles.

A light salty breeze is in our faces and the colour of the sea has dark­ened to an im­prob­a­bly rich turquoise. It seems ut­terly ex­otic to eat dates and stick­ysweet halva as the su­gar­cube-white houses of Mut­trah and the fish­ing vil­lage of Sidab pass by.

We round a head­land be­yond Sidab to Al Jis­sah Bay where the three ho­tels that make up Shangri-La’s enor­mous Barr Al Jis­sah Re­sort and Spa are spread along the beach. It was dam­aged dur­ing a cy­clone in mid-2007 but, from the sea, with its flat roofs, blocky fortress ar­chi­tec­ture and earthen colours, the re­sort looks like a lost city carved into a hill­side; I ex­pect to see In­di­ana Jones ap­pear with ru­bies in his ruck­sack and a whip at the ready.

Oman, the oil-pros­per­ous sul­tanate to the east of the United Arab Emi­rates and Saudi Ara­bia, of­fers a sur­pris­ing num­ber of op­tions for hol­i­days afloat (and sub­mersed) along its 1700km coast­line that curves down from the north­ern­most Strait of Hor­muz. Or at least I am sur­prised by the pos­si­bil­i­ties; like many Aus­tralians, I tend to think about snorkelling and div­ing in strictly trop­i­cal terms. But Oman of­fers dive sites around the warm wa­ters of Day­maniyat Is­lands Marine Re­serve in the north, where ze­bra sharks, gi­ant mo­ray eels, green tur­tles and shoals of sar­dines and fusiliers swim in vast num­bers. Even dur­ing Jan­uary, the coolest month, wa­ter tem­per­a­ture is a cosy 20C.

And off the port of Mus­cat there is good div­ing, too, in­clud­ing the wreck of the al-Manasir, a for­mer troop car­rier. In the south, near Salalah, there are more 19th and 20th-cen­tury wrecks.

All dives are from boats, my guide, Saif, tells me; most sites are within an hour’s ride from shore and wa­ter vis­i­bil­ity is usu­ally about 10m to 12m. But the denizens of the deep will have to wait for an­other visit. Az­zura is head­ing back to Bandar al-Rowdha and my map will then take me in­land, where its lit­tle pic­tures of camels and oryxes beckon.

Check­list

Full-day cruises aboard Az­zura depart the ma­rina at Bandar al-Rowdha at 9.30am on Satur­day, Mon­day and Wed­nes­day (re­turn­ing at about 3.30pm). Two-hour sun­set cruises depart Ma­rina Bandar al-Rowdha at 4pm Sun­day, Tues­day and Thurs­day. More: www.ocean­blueo­man.com. For in­for­ma­tion on tour­ing in Oman, in­clud­ing dive itin­er­ar­ies: www.oman­world­tourism.com.

Az­zura pic­tures: Tony Gower

Rock steady: Shangri-La’s Barr Al Jis­sah Re­sort and Spa, above; Az­zura sails past fish­ing vil­lages and an­cient forts that line the coast near Mus­cat, right; aboard Az­zura, be­low

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