By Hayley Coyle, Lifestyle Editor
The Sultanate of Oman is a magical place of shifting light and endless, unspoiled desert.
But the giant sand dunes and scorching expanses of sand give way to the Al Hajar mountains making it a country of two very different tales – desert life versus hillside farming.
Unlike the concrete jungle and man-made spectacles of Dubai or Abu Dhabi, Oman is a much more authentic Arabian experience. The landscape is free of skyscrapers and if you venture into the mountains, abandoned villages and the modest working homesteads paint an honest and almost melancholy picture of what life is like for the typical Omani.
Though Oman is an ‘absolute monarchy’ reigned over by Sultan Qaboos, it is within one of the top 100 safest countries in the world, and its ruler advocates modernisation and religious freedom – so visitors from the West are very welcome.
The Luxury Chapter’s base for our Omani adventure was Dunes By Al Nahda, in the South Bathina region – roughly one hour drive from Muscat airport. It is a splendid 50-plus luxury tent resort and spa and they’ve got the combination of luxury meets Bedouin chic spot on.
We were ferried from the airport in a brand-new 4×4 that looked like it could smash the steepest of sand dunes and as we approached our abode for the next few nights, the tents were silhouetted against the sky – so far, so lovely.
We were greeted by a fragrant hot towel and a refreshing glass of watermelon juice and our arrival was timed just right to see the striking colours of the sun setting. We would recommend trying to arrange your flight so this is your first experience of Dunes.
The resort is spread over 17 acres and the tents are clustered up a winding hill – like a super duper VIP camp. Each free-standing suite houses a king size bed, locally sourced furnishings and smells divine. Dunes use local exotic oils to keep your sleeping space sumptuous. And the rustic concept of a tent doesn’t mean dodgy plumbing or an outhouse. Each comes with a sunken bath, rainforest shower, top quality toiletries and the fluffiest of towels.
Dunes is pure romance and for those seeking a truly intimate experience spa treatments can be booked in your tent. We went for the Liquid Gold scrub and massage, a perfect end after a day of travelling. Our skin sparkled.
The food at Dunes is splendid. The chefs at Fleur Restaurant take their job seriously and nothing is too much trouble. The ethos is that every guest has a unique experience so menus can be adjusted accordingly. Meat lovers will be in heaven. There’s a definite South Indian influence and grills and spices feature heavily.
Our first meal was a local speciality called Shuwa. Lamb is marinated in oil and spices then wrapped in palm leaves and cooked in an underground kiln for 24 hours. It was served on a giant platter for sharing on a bed of rice, peppers and hard boiled eggs. Simple but flavoursome. Dunes also have an impressive wine list – connoisseurs won’t be disappointed – and we enjoyed champagne and a fine, full-bodied Bordeaux with supper.
The famous Omani dessert Halwa might not be to everyone’s taste but is certainly worth trying. It’s a warm concoction of almonds, rose water, saffron, caramelised sugar and butter – a bit like a very fancy rice pudding!
If sun worship is your thing Dunes has a luscious infinity pool with a swim-up bar and cabanas. The view there at sunset is a prime Instagram opportunity. The vibe is Ibiza day party with soft house music but so accommodating are the staff at Dunes we’re sure they would pop on any tunes you wished.
For a special culinary treat Dunes can organise supper under the stars for a traditional Omani feast. Sit on cushions and eat as much mixed grill as you can in true Arabian Nights style. Top it all off with fruit-flavoured Shisha or a top shelf brandy.
The staff are impeccably trained and knowledgeable about all the fare that’s on offer and genuinely want to know you’ve enjoyed their efforts. Other treats to try are their South Indian coffee, breakfast Dosa and sun-downer canapes. All delicious.
Dunes is the ideal destination for honeymoons – private, glamorous and unique. This isn’t a party hot spot though and big rowdy groups might be better off in the capital.
Families are catered for though with various activities on offer throughout the day. We tried quad-biking in the sky-high dunes (not for the faint of heart) and adrenaline junkies can also have a go at sand boarding or dune bashing. You can even enjoy a spot of golf and the resident curmudgeonly camel Abdullah will be happy (sort of) to take you for a ride round the property.
Day trips are also available and no visit to Oman is complete without taking in the Grand Mosque in Muscat. It’s open daily until 11am and the chandelier in the main hall is breathtaking. It’s the second biggest in the world and is made with 600,000 Swarovski crystals. It even has a small staircase built within it so someone can keep all 100 lamps always a-glow.
The mosque itself is magnificent and can accommodate up to 20,000 worshipers at a time. The 4,200 square foot floor is covered by a single carpet that was handwoven by hundreds of women. (Remember though that in keeping with local customs women over the age of 12 must cover their heads, arms and legs.)
After the mosque, a jaunt to the Souk is a must for some trinketeering. Stand your ground and haggle hard – it’s expected and is part of the experience. We came away happy indeed with cashmere pashminas, pure perfume and leather goods for a fraction of the price you would pay at home.
Oman is a destination for the discerning traveller. The locals are proud, welcoming and open, the food top-notch and you’re guaranteed sun all year round.
If you want something more from your Middle Eastern experience than gargantuan shopping malls and skyscraper brunches, then Oman is the place to be.
Dunes by Al Nahda:
Luxury Tent: From OMR 149 BB Nett for 2 adults and 1 kids below 6 years in existing bedding
Luxury Tent: From OMR 199 FB Nett for 2 adults and 1 kids below 6 years in existing bedding
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