‘Is this a dream’ my five year-old son asked as we stepped out of Muscat airport into the warm Omani sunshine. I could see why he was confused - it was February and we had boarded our overnight flight from a cold grey London and were about to have breakfast under a bright blue sky.
Oman is one of the hottest destinations of 2022 — Oman Air is set to double the number of flights leaving from Britain for Muscat over the summer with that number increasing again for the winter season. For now though Oman still feels a hidden secret.
We landed in Muscat, the Omani capital, and headed to the Shangri La hotel which was less than an hour’s drive from the airport. The Shangri La is actually three hotels — the Al Waha, the Al Husn and the Al Bandar. For families the Al Bandar is ideal with a huge buffet restaurant — the kids breakfasting on pastries and pancakes while I enjoyed the parathas - and a beautiful swimming pool. My children were particularly taken with the lazy river (which technically is part of the adjoining closed Al Waha hotel) and they loved floating around the river in large inflatable rings while my wife and I soaked up the sun by the pool.
For those travelling without children the newly reopened Al-Husn offers tranquility and luxury. Guests have the option of being collected from the airport in a selection of classic cars or even — if money is truly no object — in a private helicopter that lands in a helipad on the hotel grounds. Oman is famous for frankincense, so ask for the signature massage at the hotel which uses the ancient oil.
It’s tempting to just laze by the pool and not bother venturing into the city but that would be a mistake. I took a half day city tour of Muscat with a driver who took me to the Grand Mosque. If you are planning to visit the mosque do remember to dress appropriately — my ten year-old daughter was wearing shorts and was told that would not be acceptable for entering the mosque. The mosque, which opened in 2001, is a spectacular sandstone building which can house up to 20,000 worshippers. The mosque was built from 300,000 tons of gleaming sandstone, a 40ft chandelier hangs from the ceiling, and on one wall is the second largest hand-loomed Persian carpet in the world.
You cannot visit Muscat and not visit the city’s souk — a labyrinth of alleys with merchants selling everything from fabric and spices to jewelry and crystals. The last time I was in Oman the souk was a frantic bustle of activity but with Oman only recently reopening to the world I now had the souk to myself with the traders only too willing to haggle down their prices.
Our family’s Muscat highlight was the morning we spent dolphin spotting. We boarded a speedboat from Extra Divers Qantab who are based at the marina only a short drive from the hotel. I had been told there was a good chance of seeing dolphins but nothing can prepare you for the sight of 200 dolphins — mostly spinner and bottle nose — leaping in the air and swimming alongside us. There were dolphins are far as the eye could see in all directions. It was truly magical and simply a Muscat must-do.
Oman has more than 1000 miles of beach but it is also a mountainous land. After our time in Muscat we drove more than 200 kilometres north with the scenery changing from modern Muscat to date plantations, ancient villages and medieval watchtowers. The temperatures dipped as we climbed higher up the Jabal Akhdar mountain range. The landscape here is a world away from Muscat and it offers a very different face of Oman.
We were staying at the Alila, which is built from dark limestone so that it blends in with the surrounding mountains. Most guests spend only one or two days up in the mountains which is enough time to enjoy the surroundings and the hotel. The food is particularly outstanding — do try the warm focaccia bread with hummus and honey dip which was irresistibly delicious. If you have children they will enjoy the butterfly trail — a guided walk where they can learn about the ancient history of the mountains. The stony ground we were walking on was once the ocean floor and along the trail we spotted fossils and pieces of coral that were more than 300 million years-old. For more adventurous types the hotel offers hiking trips including ones down the side of the mountain and into the mouth of giant caves. There is also a hot tub and swimming pool for those seeking less hair raising pleasures.
We left the Alila and drove back to Muscat for an hour and a half flight to Salalah. Most visitors tend to stay around Muscat but Salalah with its frankincense groves, coconut-fringed beaches is absolutely worth the effort of seeing. Those who do also have the chance to visit one of the most extraordinary places in Oman: the Empty Quarter, the largest uninterrupted desert in the world.
The Empty Quarter is 1000 km long and 500 km wide and the best way to see it is to hire an experienced guide. Ours was a former nomad who had been taking travellers to the desert since the Nineties. After loading up supplies for the night we drove past caravans of camels, mirages to our left and mini tornados to our right until we entered the mysterious Empty Quarter in late afternoon. The children raced up giant rust-coloured sand dunes and later we ate a barbeque dinner the guide had cooked under a huge sky slowly filling with the stars. The silence was overpowering. Those wanting the bare bones camping experience could sleep on mattresses under the stars. That had been our plan but my children found the heavy darkness a little unsettling so after dinner the guide drove us to the newly opened Arabian Sands camp — a no frills campsite, basically a few tents and a toilet, where we spent the night.
Our desert camping adventure over, we closed our time in Oman with a few days at the Anantara, a beautiful hotel with pool villas set among lush tropical gardens and a powder white sand beach that stretched as far as the eye could see. Our Omani adventure was ending as it had begun — in the warm water under a hot February sun — and as we prepared to return home, I was already dreaming of when we would next return.
Sarfraz Manzoor and his family travelled to Oman with Omantravel Ltd, an Oman specialist organising holidays solely to Oman for over 20 years. Visit omantravel.co.uk or telephone 0208 748 6630.