SOUTH TO SALALAH

THE SUL­TANATE OF OMAN IS A LAND OF RUGGED MOUN­TAINS, SHIM­MER­ING SHORE­LINES, AND VAST, TRACK­LESS DESERT. THROW IN A PAIR OF SO­PHIS­TI­CATED NEW RE­SORTS, AND YOU’VE GOT THE MAK­INGS OF AN UN­FOR­GET­TABLE ARA­BIAN AD­VEN­TURE.

DestinAsian - - FEATURES - By Christo­pher P. Hill

The sul­tanate of Oman is a land of rugged moun­tains, shim­mer­ing shore­lines, and vast, track­less desert. Throw in a pair of so­phis­ti­cated new re­sorts, and you’ve got the mak­ings of an un­for­get­table Ara­bian ad­ven­ture.

“WEL­COME to the moon!” our driver Nab­han Said Al-Nab­hani smiled wanly over his shoul­der as we raced across the flat, sun­blasted wastes of cen­tral Oman’s Ash Shar­qiyah re­gion. It had been three hours since we stopped for lunch at Nizwa, and the ter­rain we’d been driv­ing through ever since—an end­less gravel plain bro­ken only by the oc­ca­sional dust-blown set­tle­ment or lonely road­side mosque—had in­deed as­sumed a lu­nar-like qual­ity. Or pos­si­bly Mar­tian? Ei­ther way, Nab­han had be­gun fret­ting that we might be bored, as though the monotony of the vi­su­als was some­how his re­spon­si­bil­ity. He needn’t have wor­ried: this road trip was my idea.

When I first de­cided to come to Oman to try out a pair of newly minted Anan­tara re­sorts, it seemed that fly­ing be­tween the two— one perched in the moun­tains out­side Mus­cat, the other in the south­ern port city of Salalah—was the only prac­ti­cal op­tion. Af­ter all, they were sep­a­rated by al­most a thou­sand kilo­me­ters of desert. Then one of the prop­er­ties sug­gested we add a cou­ple of nights to our itin­er­ary and make a proper over­land tour of it, bunk­ing down at an en­camp­ment in the fa­bled Wahiba Sands be­fore head­ing to Salalah by way of Duqm. It sounded like a fine plan. But my pho­tog­ra­pher friend Mar­tin and I could only spare one ex­tra night, putting the Wahiba dunes out of reach. So we set­tled in­stead on this mad dash through the moon­scape of Ash Shar­qiyah, which, af­ter a few un­re­mark­able pit stops and one re­mark­able sand storm, fi-

nally brought us into Duqm around sun­set. With that in­ter­minable stretch of as­phalt be­hind us, I steeled my­self for to­mor­row’s push to Salalah—an­other eight hours on the road. Oh, man.

Land­ing in Mus­cat

four nights ear­lier on an Oman Air flight from Jakarta, Mar­tin and I were whisked by chauf­feur-driven SUV into the ink-black foothills of Ja­bal Akhdar in the Ha­jar Moun­tains, a craggy lime­stone range that rises be­tween Oman’s cos­mopoli­tan north­ern coast and its desert hin­ter­land like a bul­wark. For cen­turies a strong­hold of tribal cus­toms and re­bel­lious imams, Ja­bal Akhdar was un­til 2005 vir­tu­ally off-lim­its to out­siders. Now, to judge by the im­pres­sively en­gi­neered, mil­i­tary-built mo­tor­way that winds 1,700 me­ters up to the Saiq Plateau, the area is be­ing groomed as a premier tourism des­ti­na­tion, with two in­ter­na­tional re­sort prop­er­ties al­ready in place: one man­aged by the Sin­ga­pore-based Alila group, and the newer, larger Anan­tara Al Ja­bal Al Akhdar, which bills it­self as the high­est five-star re­sort in the Mid­dle East.

Ar­riv­ing by night left me un­pre­pared for the view that filled the floor-to-ceil­ing slid­ing glass doors of my villa at day­break. The Anan­tara is built along the rim of a canyon in the heart of the Ha­jar mas­sif, it­self a spec­tac­u­lar ge­o­log­i­cal pileup of bare, con­toured gray­ish-yel­low lime­stone that was once part of an an­cient seabed. A strip of rocky ground is all that sep­a­rates most of the 115 rooms and vil­las here from the yawn­ing chasm, which gives way to an Old Tes­ta­ment back­drop of craggy mesas and de­files. You could take in this panorama from any num­ber of van­tage points at the prop­erty—the cliff-edge in­fin­ity pool, say, or Diana’s Point, a glass-walled plat­form built on the site where Diana, Princess of Wales is said to have stood in 1986 and lin­gered over the view her­self. But if, like me, you had a cliff-side pool villa and a pair of in-room binoc­u­lars at your dis­posal, you’d be tempted to spend hours ogling the vista from the pri­vacy of your own ter­race—or even your bed, for that mat­ter.

Spread across more than six hectares, the re­sort—de­signed by French-Moroc­can ar­chi­tect Lotfi Sidi­ra­hal’s Paris-based Ate­lier Pod— has an ar­chi­tec­tural aus­ter­ity that nods both to the lo­cal ver­nac­u­lar and the flinty moun­tain­scape. (“It looks like a mil­i­tary camp!” Nab­han joked later on the road to Duqm.) But this is tem­pered by el­e­gant in­te­ri­ors and fea­tures such as the riad-like court­yard off the lobby, where a cen­tral fire pit crack­les in the cool evening air; a con­i­cal tower (in­spired by a 17th-cen­tury cas­tle in north­ern­most Oman) that houses both a Moroc­can-style cock­tail lounge and Al Qalaa, the re­sort’s ex­cel­lent Ara­bian res­tau­rant; a cen­tral gar­den show­cas­ing lo­cal plants and herbs (ju­niper, camel grass, myr­tle, fig); and trick­ling wa­ter fea­tures that pay trib­ute to the tra­di­tional Omani ir­ri­ga­tion chan­nel known as falaj.

The cli­mate is an­other at­trac­tion, of­fer­ing a rel­a­tively cool respite for stay­ca­tion­ers from Mus­cat or guests ar­riv­ing from else­where in the Gulf re­gion. “It snowed in Fe­bru­ary, if you can be­lieve it,” one staffer told me breath­lessly. I had my doubts, but I couldn’t deny the pleas­ant tem­per­a­tures that greeted us on our April visit—not

AT WADI SHUWAYMIYAH, THE ROAD PLUNGED DOWN THE SIDE OF AN ES­CARP­MENT THAT COULD NOT HAVE BEEN ANY MORE DRA­MATIC

quite jacket weather at night, but never ris­ing above 25°C dur­ing the day. In other words, per­fect con­di­tions for the Anan­tara’s menu of out­door ac­tiv­i­ties (rock climb­ing, archery, ten­nis) and ex­cur­sions.

One morn­ing, a guide from the re­sort drove us out to Wadi Al Bawaarid for a hike down through the gorge, which took us along­side a dry riverbed and past still pools of al­gae-green wa­ter. An­other out­ing in­volved a walk through a se­ries of semi-aban­doned vil­lages not far from the re­sort. Their ter­raced gar­dens and or­chards are still be­ing farmed, but most res­i­dents have re­lo­cated in re­cent years to towns with mod­ern in­fra­struc­ture. Famed for or­chards that pro­duce pomegranates, wal­nuts, al­monds, peaches, apri­cots, and pears, Ja­bal Akhdar is per­haps best known for grow­ing da­mask roses, which come May blan­ket the slopes in vel­vety pink blos­soms. From the flow­ers, dis­tillers ex­tract high-qual­ity rose wa­ter for use in cook­ing, per­fume, medicinal reme­dies, and, more re­cently, in treat­ments at the Anan­tara’s sub­lime, ham­mam-equipped spa. For now, though, the vil­lage streets were de­serted, and I could only guess how this fra­grant har­vest would un­fold once the pick­ing sea­son be­gan.

Af­ter three days

at Ja­bal Akhdar, it was time to head south on the long road to Salalah. The ho­tel had or­ga­nized a car and driver through lo­cal tour op­er­a­tor Bah­wan Trav­els, and with Nab­han be­hind the wheel of a roomy, Wi-Fi equipped Nis­san Pa­trol four-by­four, we left the high­lands be­hind.

Twenty min­utes be­yond the foot of the moun­tain we stopped at Nizwa, a one­time Omani cap­i­tal built around a dune-col­ored fort

that played a piv­otal role in end­ing Por­tuguese dom­i­na­tion of the coun­try in the 17th cen­tury. With its crenel­lated bat­tle­ments, round cen­tral tower, and “mur­der holes” through which boil­ing oil could be poured on in­ter­lop­ers, the re­stored fort rightly at­tracts bus­loads of sweaty sight­seers from Mus­cat. As does the ad­ja­cent souk, where I bought half a kilo of dates to snack on in the car. The dates, as it turned out, were un­nec­es­sary, thanks to a huge and in­de­cently in­ex­pen­sive lunch at a road­side can­teen called Arab World. The meal in­volved big plat­ters of ten­der shuwa- style lamb slow-cooked with spices in a pit oven, bar­be­cued chicken, pump­kin-and-car­rot curry, and mounds of fra­grant biryani, all washed down by am­ple amounts of Moun­tain Dew, ap­par­ently one of the most pop­u­lar bev­er­ages in the coun­try. “Omani beer,” Nab­han called it.

That lunch car­ried us through the rest of the day, which fi­nally ended at Duqm, sit­u­ated roughly half­way down Oman’s Ara­bian Sea coast. Our stop here was purely a mat­ter of con­ve­nience; the town is boom­ing as a hub for oil ex­plo­ration and lux­ury hous­ing es­tates, but it has lit­tle to in­ter­est the trav­eler. It does, how­ever, have a cou­ple of de­cent beach ho­tels. Ours was the Park Inn by Radis­son, a lushly planted prop­erty that also rents out its chalets and apart­ment-style rooms to the ex­pat oil­men who con­gre­gate in its buffet res­tau­rant or pool­side bar at night. Af­ter the long drive through the bar­ren wilder­ness of Ash Shar­qiyah, it was all rather dis­ori­ent­ing. Per­haps dou­bly so when you throw in the strip of neon mood light­ing wrapped around my bed­stead. That said, I slept like a baby.

The fi­nal leg of the jour­ney went by faster than the first. One rea­son for this was Nab­han’s lib­eral in­ter­pre­ta­tion of high­way speed lim­its. “I used to drive rally cars off-road,” he told us mat­ter-of-factly as the speedome­ter climbed above 140km/h. An­other was the scenery. Be­yond the small fish­ing har­bor of Ras Sawqrah, where we stopped to check out the dhows moored be­hind a stone break­wa­ter, the sil­ver-blue ocean was now of­ten within eye­shot. Far­ther south, stands of aca­cia and cedar be­gan to color the land­scape. The road looped and zigzagged around sea cliffs and boul­der-strewn beach-

es. And at Wadi Shuwaymiyah, it plunged down the sheer side of a 150-me­ter es­carp­ment that couldn’t have been any more dra­matic, de­posit­ing us at an im­pos­si­bly long stretch of sand where dol­phins swam off­shore and flamin­gos waded in a briny la­goon.

Salalah lies in the south­ern prov­ince of Dho­far, fa­mous both for its 6,000-year-old frank­in­cense trade and the sum­mer mon­soon sea­son known as the Kha­reef, when wa­ter-laden winds trans­form the re­gion into one of the green­est places in the Mid­dle East.

As this was April, Salalah was still dry as a bone, though it hardly felt that way with all the re­flect­ing ponds and swim­ming pools and ex­pan­sive Ara­bian Sea views that greeted us at the Al Baleed Re­sort Salalah by Anan­tara. Opened just four months ear­lier, the Ja­bal Al Akhdar’s sis­ter prop­erty had al­ready se­ri­ously upped Salalah’s wattage as a lux­ury beach des­ti­na­tion. Be­yond the white­washed, fort­like bulk of its main wing, the re­sort un­folds along a palm-fringed beach­front in a se­ries of low sugar-cube build­ings that house the only pool vil­las in south­ern Oman. Th­ese come with siz­able court­yards, creamy mar­ble floors, jaunty tribal fab­rics, and a bath­room door from which you can walk straight from the shower into the pool. Af­ter the long ride from Duqm, it was pala­tial.

Food is an­other high­light. Our ar­rival co­in­cided with seafood night at Sakalan, the re­sort’s buffet res­tau­rant, and a stag­ger­ing dis­play of oceanic bounty. There’s a pool­side Mediter­ranean res­tau­rant too, as well as Mekong, serv­ing food from the South­east Asian coun­tries through which its name­sake river flows.

But one doesn’t come all the way to Salalah to nib­ble on pad thai or lounge by a pool all day. At least, we didn’t. And there is much to see nearby, from the frank­in­cense-per­fumed souk in town to Al Baleed arche­o­log­i­cal park right next door, a 60-hectare World Her­itage Site con­tain­ing the ru­ins of an an­cient port city that was once the cen­ter of the frank­in­cense trade. At the park en­trance there is also the Land of Frank­in­cense Mu­seum, with im­pres­sive ex­hibits about Oman’s ship­build­ing her­itage and the coun­try’s emer­gence as a mod­ern na­tion since 1970, when its cur­rent ruler, Sul­tan Qa­boos, over­threw his con­ser­va­tive-minded fa­ther in a palace coup.

For trips far­ther afield, ar­range­ments can be made with the re­sort’s so-called “Salalah Guru,” a lo­cally born guide by the name of Hus­sain Bal­haf who one morn­ing drove us out to see the blow­holes at Al Mugh­sayl be­fore tak­ing us to a de­serted beach for a swim and a pic­nic. There was even more to come the next day, start­ing with a visit to Wadi Dawkah, an ex­ten­sive grove of spindly frank­in­cense trees that shares its UNESCO list­ing with Al Baleed and the re­mains of a nearby me­dieval car­a­van oa­sis called Wubar. “There are many types of frank­in­cense tree in Africa, but th­ese are the finest, Boswellia

sacra,” Hus­sain ex­plained as he tapped a droplet of fra­grant white sap from a trunk for me to smell. “They are our trea­sure.”

The af­ter­noon ended with a drive out into the Empty Quar­ter, a vast desert that stretches across the bor­ders of Saudi Ara­bia, Ye­men, and the United Arab Emi­rates. Hus­sain drove the SUV as far as he dared into the hilly dunes and then we got out and walked up the high­est crest. There, with the set­ting sun col­or­ing the sand a bur­nished or­ange, the cool, rose-scented moun­tains of Ja­bal Akhdar seemed light-years away. To­mor­row we would head back to Mus­cat, and I was very glad that we’d be fly­ing rather than driv­ing. But an­other part of me didn’t want the ad­ven­ture to end.

PHO­TO­GRAPHS BY MAR­TIN WEST­LAKE

From top left: The cir­cu­lar tower at the Anan­tara Al Ja­bal Al Akhdar Re­sort; tea time at the same re­sort; over­look­ing the canyon be­low the Anan­tara Al Ja­bal Al Akhdar from its Diana’s Point view­ing plat­form.

Right: Cany­on­view rooms at the Anan­tara Al Ja­bal Al Akhdar Re­sort. Op­po­site, from left: The ham­mam at the Anan­tara Spa in Salalah; hik­ing along the edge of a wadi on the Saiq Plateau.

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