A to­tally un­ex­pected Mid­dle East­ern gem

Claire Spread­bury finds that her pre­con­cep­tions about Oman are very wide of the mark and falls in love with its rugged beauty

Belfast Telegraph - Weekend - - TRAVEL -

In­ever thought I’d go to Oman, but for any­one in need of some win­ter sun, it’s a des­ti­na­tion that — sur­pris­ingly — takes some beat­ing. Sit­ting at the foot of the Ara­bian Penin­sula, it is a part of the Mid­dle East that I’d al­ways lumped in with Dubai and Abu Dhabi. But Oman, as I dis­cov­ered, is very dif­fer­ent. It’s beau­ti­ful, for starters. The ter­rain en­com­passes desert, riverbed oases and lengthy coast­lines on the Per­sian Gulf, Ara­bian Sea and Gulf of Oman. Far from be­ing a flat, bland blan­ket of desert, the coun­try’s Al Ha­jar moun­tains rise into the clear blue sky, mak­ing al­most ev­ery vista an ap­peal­ing one.

The Shangri-La Al Husn Re­sort & Spa, in Oman’s port cap­i­tal of Mus­cat, has no­ticed trav­ellers are keen for more ex­pe­ri­en­tial trips fea­tur­ing a lit­tle bit of lux­ury and a dol­lop of well­be­ing.

Here are four to blow your mind. 1. Snorkel for tur­tles with Oman’s only tur­tle ranger As dream jobs go, be­ing a tur­tle ranger has got to be up there, and Mo­hammed Al Hasani is Oman’s only one. He’s worked for Shangri-La since 2005 and has helped more than 70,000 baby tur­tles start a new life.

I found him at Al Husn’s pri­vate gem of a beach. Tak­ing the plunge, we grabbed our snorkels and flip­pers and Mo­hammed di­rected the stronger swim­mers straight into the path of a hawks­bill tur­tle — one of five va­ri­eties spot­ted here — glid­ing through the wa­ter.

I swam back to where my feet could just touch the bot­tom and floated around while fish swam right up to me. Sink­ing my face into the salty sea, I spot­ted black but­ter­fly fish, hang­ing out at the bot­tom of the rocks, and a shoal of slim wrasse shim­mied past. 2. Visit the beau­ti­ful Sul­tan Qa­boos Grand Mosque I wan­dered slowly, mouth agog, at the sheer beauty that ex­udes from Mus­cat’s Grand Mosque. Com­pleted in 2001, it’s mod­ern Is­lamic ar­chi­tec­ture at its finest, gifted to the na­tion to cel­e­brate Sul­tan Qa­boos’ 30th reign­ing year. Free to en­ter, ev­ery inch of the 416,000 square me­tre site is ex­quis­ite. Words can barely de­scribe the vi­brancy of the pure turquoise green in the in­tri­cately de­tailed tiling, and the stun­ning stained-glass win­dows. 3. Eat ed­i­ble flow­ers with the hottest new farm­ers in town Head­ing over to Yuzu to meet the Al-Said broth­ers was a real treat. Omar, Adam and Fa­har grew up in Oman, but were ed­u­cated in Lon­don, where they be­came food­ies.

But back at home, good restau­rants can be hard to find. Around 80-90% of food is im­ported here, which they be­lieve is a big prob­lem.

Their par­ents had an al­most un­used farm, so the boys set about be­com­ing farm­ers. They’re al­ready sup­ply­ing around 12 ho­tels with their in­gre­di­ents and are a gen­uinely ex­cit­ing new start-up. 4. Swim in a fresh wa­ter wadi for views you’ll never for­get If you go to Oman, the one thing ev­ery­one should do is go to a wadi — an oa­sis. We took a drive up into the moun­tains, and, deep in the val­ley, was a clear pool of wa­ter just beg­ging to be dipped into.

Be­neath a canopy, chefs bar­be­cued meat for our out­door feast and, after a swim, we sat on cush­ions on the floor, on a gi­ant tra­di­tional rug. We are a va­ri­ety of mezze — salad, hum­mus, samosas, rice, flat­breads and meat.

It was the per­fect way to spend the day, ex­plor­ing the real beauty of Oman.

WIN­TER HAVEN: Shangri-La Al Husn Re­sort; Mo­hammed the tur­tle ranger (top right), and (right) Oman’s Sul­tan Qa­boos Grand Mosque

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