INTO THE AZURE
Susan Kurosawa joins a dolphin-watching catamaran cruise along the coast of Oman
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.
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.
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