Jewel on the Omani coast
By staff - Thu Jul 14, 7:58 am
With wine glasses full and a selection of seafood delights on our plates, we’re sitting on the roof terrace of the Bait Al Bahr restaurant enjoying an idyllic introduction to the best of Omani cuisine and culture.
Like its neighbour Dubai, the sultanate is keen to attract Western holidaymakers.
But whereas the former is big and brash, screaming for attention with its giant skyscrapers and ostentatious resorts, the latter is a much more traditional and restrained affair.
They’re seemingly a world apart in their outlook, but only an hour by plane. And their proximity is being exploited by tourism chiefs who are keen to boost growing numbers of visitors further.
Emirates runs daily services to Dubai from Newcastle Airport and regular transfers from there to Muscat, the Omani capital.
After a few days with the family enjoying adrenaline-charged thrills and spills, why not kick back in style in dramatic desert surroundings? It’s certainly an attractive prospect.
Part of the luxurious Shangri-La chain, the 125-acre Barr Al Jissah Resort and Spa comprises three hotels and is a 45-minute drive from the airport.
The five-star Al Bandar is our home for three nights. Translated as The Town, its ornate architecture takes its inspiration from old Muscat.
The focal point of the resort, guestrooms have a balcony or terrace with views of the sea, garden or swimming pool.
Al Waha (The Oasis) is family-orientated, while Al Husn (The Castle) is aimed at an exclusive crowd.
After our action-packed stay in Dubai which saw us take in the Aquaventure water park and iFly indoor skydiving experience, our first afternoon at the Barr Al Jissah afforded a welcome opportunity to recharge our batteries.
And what a way to recharge them – stretching back on a comfy lounger as the sun beats down and the blue waters of the Gulf of Oman lap the pristine beach in front of us.
As the gentle waves break on the sand, an attendant ventures over with a coolbox full of bottled water to quench our thirst.
With a smile and a warm greeting from each member of staff you meet, there are no concerns over the standard of service.
But a family holiday could turn fractious if the younger ones have nothing more to do than watch their folks top up their tans. Fear not, the resort has a number of enchanting activities on offer.
One of the most popular is the chance to watch sea turtles hatch on the beach and make their way into the water.
Turtle ranger Mohammed Al Hasani is on hand to explain the finer details and will even text guests through the night if they are keen to see grown-ups coming ashore to nest.
As the dozen or so hatchlings inch their way down the beach after sunset, children screech with delight as they get within touching distance of the adorable creatures. Should the turtles make it into adulthood, it is the resort’s sands that they will return to when they are ready to lay their own eggs – impressively navigating their way by the stars.
During turtle season (January until July) up to 100 will visit the area, laying a total of around 10,000 eggs.
At 1.2metres, green turtles grow to be the largest of those found in Oman but they are classed as an endangered species. By contrast, Hawksbill turtles are among the smallest at just 80cm.
And the chance to get close to nature doesn’t end there as daily whale and dolphin cruises are also run by the resort. At sea for up to two hours, you’ll get close to any number of the playful mammals.
A word to the wise, though, it’s best to have a good night’s sleep and make sure you’re well hydrated before setting off.
With the temperature soaring above 40ºC, several of our party (including me) began feeling a touch nauseous as the small boat bobbed up and down.
However, that wasn’t enough to take the shine off an otherwise enjoyable experience.
Back at the hotel, the Lazy River is a more sedate way to enjoy a splash. Running for around 250 metres between Al Bandar and Al Wahar, guests drift leisurely on an inflatable tube for the duration of the 20-minute ride.
The system of controlled currents is inspired by the centuries-old falaj system that sent fresh water to remote Omani villages.
If the youngsters want to enjoy some time on dry land then there’s the supervised play of the Little Turtles Kids’ Club and a host of climbing frames and drop slides in the Adventure Zone.
On our final morning, we took a 20-minute drive into downtown Muscat to visit Muttrah Souk.
Spices, oils and frankincense hang in the air as stall holders and shopkeepers sell a selection of jewellery and traditional clothing such as dishdashas and embroidered kumahs.
Of course, as with markets the world over, there are also plenty of knock-off Ray-Ban sunglasses, designer T-shirts and Spongebob Squarepants backpacks!
After another afternoon in the sun, we dined at the Al Husn’s award- winning Moroccan-themed Shahrazad restaurant.
For those who haven’t read the legendary Arabian Nights tales, Shahrazad is the storyteller who escapes the fate of being beheaded by the king by recounting one thousand and one thrilling adventures – educating him in morality and kindness before becoming his queen.
Thankfully, the food was as good as the centuries-old tales and the exquisite setting was equally as breathtaking.