Oman’s selection of overnight oases is expanding fast as its tourism industry blossoms. The scenic, safe and sunny sultanate offers travellers a taste of the real Arabia combined with a gorgeous coastline of sandy bays and scenic cliffs. Its biggest asset is its natural beauty – in Oman you can scale mountains, luxuriate in green oases, watch the sunset on a sea of sand dunes, camp beside a phosphorescent bay or go off-road to wild desert frontiers.
There’s a flurry of new hotels due to open in Oman in 2017, including new offerings from deluxe brands Jumeirah and Kempinski. But the country already has the makings of a high-quality holiday destination, with a visitor-friendly capital, excellent infrastructure and a few smart international beach hotels occupying little enclaves along the country’s shores. Luxury resorts have started popping up in the most awe-inspiring spots – on a plateau of the high Hajar mountains, in a subtropical oasis or among mighty desert dunes.
I’ve yet to travel to Oman’s most fabled beauty spots – the Musandam Peninsula in the north and subtropical Salalah in the south – but I checked out a few places to stay in central Oman and around the capital Muscat on a recent trip.
Desert oasis – Dunes by Al Nahda
For a true Arabian nights experience, staying over at Wahiba Sands or Dunes by Al Nahda desert camp is an absolute must. Dunes is a short jaunt from the capital, around an hour-and-a-half by car north-west from central Muscat. A jeep or landcruiser is needed for the journey, as while most of the drive is via modern roads, the final leg is a bone-juddering crawl along the gravelly floor of Wadi Far. It’s all worth it though, to see the gigantic orange dunes rising miraculously from the rocky desert like silky shifting mountains.
Arriving at the chic dining area on a high hilltop beside the dunes, it’s clear this is glamping not camping. I was treated to a five-course gourmet meal and it was hard to believe it had been prepared in the middle of the desert. The air is cooler up in the camp and breezes stir from the desert floor sending updrafts of dust-fine sand into your face and food. At eye-level, vultures circle the valley. Guests stay in a cute collection of white marquees with air-con, en-suites, flat-screen televisions and comfy-looking double beds facing out onto the dunes. The camp has three categories of room, all with mod cons, but the best tents have their own separate chill-out area and a window on the mini-mountains of sand outside.
By day, Dunes is like a desert adventure playground, where you can go crashing about on the camp’s quad bikes. It’s also a popular dune-bashing spot, although bashers be warned I saw one vehicle get stuck half-way up a dune and reverse back down. Personally I was happy peddling up and down the resort’s paths on one of the camp’s free bicycles – really fun on the way down, but tough on the calf muscles on the way back up.
At night you are treated to a dazzling sky of infinite stars. There’s a romantic gazebo for star-gazing, low lamp lighting and even a spa. But the place is at its most magical at sunset, when the sand and sky blaze pink, purple and red.
Room with a view – Crowne Plaza Muscat
Looking like a luxury cruise ship lodged on a clifftop, the Crowne Plaza hotel’s proximity to Muscat’s sights and view across the vast silvery Al Qurum bay make it a good base for a couple of days exploring Muscat. Muscat’s amazing Royal Opera House is nearby, while old Muscat’s souk, corniche, eateries and museum is only a short way south.
Some people visit the Crowne Plaza in the evenings simply to enjoy a drink and the view from the hotel’s bar terrace. There’s also a pleasant pool area perched just above a private sandy cove should you wish to lounge in the sun, go for a swim or cool off in the Arabian Sea.
The international four-star has sleek ocean-facing rooms with walk-in showers, well-stocked mini bars and free snacks like crisps, fruit and nut-filled dates. The cushioned double beds have crisp cotton sheets perfect to collapse onto after a long day touring the city, and there’s a free Elemis relaxing room mist to help you nod off. Though rooms have floor-to-ceiling windows, some don’t have balconies, so it’s worth requesting one on booking.
Beach hub – Shangri-La Barr Al Jissah Resort and Spa
Shangri-La Barr Al Jissah clusters around a picturesque shore of deeply-indented cliffs and soft sandy bays close to the capital city. It’s actually three hotels in one resort – family-orientated Al Waha, luxury Al Bandar and top-end adult’s only Al Husn, which has an idyllic private cove.
Wandering through Al Husn’s arabesque arches and fountain-filled courtyards – all marble floors, large dimensions and glittering chandeliers – it’s easy to imagine you are in one of Sultan Qaboos’ lavish Arabian palaces. Guests stay in chic modern rooms with large balconies. Bathrooms have walk-in showers and big baths with latticed screens that can be pulled back to enjoy the view while you relax in the tub.
Down on the beach, Al Husn’s guests have access to deluxe cabanas with waiter service and coolers full of iced juices, Evian face spray and water. Soft peach-hued sand shelves into a calm clear cove sheltered by sandstone cliffs pitted with crab-haunted caves. There’s a picturesque sea arch piercing through to the other side and at high tide you can snorkel in the bay to see schools of glass fish darting through the shallows as well as larger species. If you are very lucky you might see a turtle, as there’s a hidden turtle nesting beach tucked between the rocks. Apparently at high tide you can often spot them to the south side of the main sweeping bay. In fact, the Shangri-La has its own turtle conservation and education centre dedicated to helping protect and nurture turtles in the Arabian Sea.
Guests at one hotel are entitled to use the buffet restaurants and facilities at all the hotels, including Al Bandar’s pool with its own snaking lazy river, and the on-site souk. Free non-motorized watersports such as kayaking, hobbiecats and snorkelling are also available from the kiosk on the wide sweeping sands of Jissah Bay. To really appreciate the Sea of Oman’s abundance of marine life, you can go scuba diving with Oman Dive Centre in the marina nearby. Guests can also make reservations for pampering at the tiled jasmine-scented Chi spa with steam rooms, plunge pools and private treatment areas – though it was fully booked while I was there.
Food is high quality and varied across the resort, with a rotated menu, live cooking stations and barbecues. From the rooftop bar with mood lighting to the Al Husn’s lounge filled with coils of frankincense and cardamom-scented steam from ornate coffee pots, there are plenty of places to chill out inbetween basking on the sun-baked beaches.
Aquatic adventure – Millennium Resort Mussanah
Beside a peaceful sweep of sand about an hour’s drive north of Muscat, the Millennium Resort is a little beach haven close to the wonderful warren-like forts and green oases of Oman’s Batinah region. But the beauty of staying at the Millennium Al Mussanah Resort is having Oman Sail’s world-class dive centre and marina right on your doorstep, giving you direct access to the Gulf of Oman’s exceptional watery wonders whether you are a qualified diver or first-timer.
Oman Sail’s dive expert Richard took me on a half-day voyage to dive in the Daymaniyat Islands, which is a UNESCO-protected marine reserve. The boat was followed by a huge pod of dolphins, and the coral reefs were remarkably healthy and vibrant, with clouds of bright tropical fish, sea horses, cuttlefish, rays and turtles. A whale shark even paid a visit, though I didn’t see it myself. It was an invigorating experience and one of my holiday highlights. Oman Sail also offers other watersports such as windsurfing, and I saw a large group of billowing brightly-coloured sails out on the open water.
The Millennium Resort itself has all the four-star facilities you need for a pleasant stay. There’s a decent buffet restaurant with a good selection of fresh food, a shisha bar where you can sit out on the terrace with a fruit-flavoured water pipe taking in the waterside view, and a hotel bar with a happy hour and well-made cocktails. The swimming pool and sun terrace sits right behind the beach, and there’s a well-equipped gym, tennis courts, and mini golf should you be so inclined. Rooms are modern and clean with huge comfy beds and balconies. Half of the rooms face inland though, so be sure to request a sea view when you book.
Best of the rest
For a serene, luxurious escape the Chedi Muscat is a chic beachside retreat with gorgeous arabesque architecture, perfect for a romantic couples’ holiday. It has a similar appeal to Shangri-La’s Al Husn but the beach is not quite as stunning.
If you want to spend more than a day exploring the fascinating historic town of Nizwa to the west of Muscat, the Golden Tulip Nizwa is the only hotel. Fortunately it’s an attractive place with smart rooms and a pool. There’s an AirBnB available for folks who want to overnight in the nearby hidden desert oases of Birkat Al Mawz. It’s run by a wonderful ex-pat American couple whose home backs on to an old falaj waterway and ruins of an old adobe village climbing up the hillside to a small fort.
Down in Oman’s southern tropical region of Salalah, which explodes in a profusion of emerald green during the summer monsoon, a new Anantara resort has recently opened – Al Baleed Resort Salalah – with beachside rooms and luxury villas with plunge pools.
In Oman’s northern Musandam Peninsula, fabled for its mystical fjord-like beauty and separated from the rest of the country by a slice of the UAE, there are a few special places to stay. I have it on good authority that Six Senses Hideaway Zinghy Bay is an exceptional resort in its own beach enclave.
For a cooling foray into Oman’s high and mighty Hajar mountains with precipitous ravines that feel as if you are teetering on the edge of the world, stay at the luxury Alila Jabal Akhdar hotel perched atop Jabal Akhdar – Arabic for the green mountain.