1 December 2009 by Duncan Mills
Away from the hustle and bustle and ski-high development so common in other parts of the Arabian Gulf, the Sultanate of Oman comes as something of a refreshing surprise.
In the capital, Muscat, traditional whitewashed buildings reflect the hot Arabian sun just as effectively as the glass skyscrapers of Dubai, but are far more pleasing to the eye. Built no more than a few storeys high, they are as much a part of the landscape as the rocky crags and dipping valleys that form the dusty and dramatic Hajar Mountains rising out of the Gulf of Oman. And the Sultan, it seems, likes it this way. Just a few days before my arrival in Muscat,he was said to have spotted an overly tall building project from his motorcade:the next day the culprits had been identified, relieved of their duties and work discontinued.
And tourism is taking off as visitors seek a gentler option in the region. It is becoming a popular getaway for Western expats, and Dubai number plates outnumber local ones in the car park of the Chedi Hotel, as I arrive for a few days guaranteed sunshine at the end of another wet English summer. It’s the holiday of Eid-al-Fitr at the end of Ramadan and, like me, Dubai workers have come to recharge their batteries. You can see the stress lines on their faces as they arrive, which soon disappear as the Chedi works its charm, soothing the soul and slowing time to a gentle heartbeat.
I am met by porters wearing turbans and with khanjars, the trademark curved Omani daggers, tucked in their belts.The main lobby area is an open space that feels like a wondrous Bedouin tent, with a lofty canvas roof rising high above six large mattresses topped with cushions, lit by 30 lanterns. Archways lead through to the open-plan restaurant, where waiters with hands-free earpieces relay orders discreetly to the chefs at each of four open kitchens, busily at work creating great food – from fine breakfast pastries to sumptuous evening feasts. The beach restaurant sets the same exacting standards, serving top quality seafood: a rich lobster risotto, locally caught turbot and delicious fresh clams.
The guest rooms and suites are in sugar-lump buildings on a strip of land behind the beach front, set among lush green lawns like golf fairways, but without a hint of a divot anywhere. My suite has a large sunken bath and twin sinks in the bathroom, plus two preprogrammed iPods that you can use with a state-of-the-art Bose docking station in the room or take down to the pool. Dark brown and cream tones set the mood, with a hint of warm orange from the bedside lighting. When I was shown to my room a complimentary bottle of champagne was already on ice in the lounge area, candles flickering gently as the air-conditioning circulated. Bliss. Outside, there’s a small terrace set among the shallow pools, palm trees and short hedgerows, with wicker chairs and braziers that can be lit at night. But by day most guests are poolside, letting their troubles float free. Small birds peck at seeds on the lawns, but apart from the occasional chirrup, all is tranquil.
For the Chedi is all about relaxation. By the two swimming pools (one designated as adult-only and positioned just 50 metres from the lapping sea) are loungers and bed-sized mattresses laid out in straight lines, under equally-straight sunshades. The colours reinforce the calmness: green grass, white buildings, blue sea. Simple but incredibly effective. Elsewhere on site there’s a small library and a spa – should you wish to take your state of relaxation to its zenith.
Further down the coast, the Shangri-La Bar Al Jissah Resort and Spa comprises three hotels, ranging in price and comfort. At beach level, the Al Bandar and Al Waha hotels are more family focused,with a fun water ride, the Lazy River, connecting its swimming pools, and comfortable sunloungers overlooking the beach. Both also have a good choice of restaurants and bars. Above the beach, where turtles come to lay their eggs in January, is the third hotel. Al Husn – ‘the castle’– is a rose-red building on the headland above the bay. A self-styled ‘six-star’ hotel, its guests have use of the facilities of its sister hotels, plus a private beach, personal butlers and lavish private suites with balconies looking out to sea. Indeed, my walk-in wardrobe was so vast that I wondered if I’d find my way out again.
The Al Husn certainly has all the features you could possibly need: a private gym, a library, a refreshing outdoor swimming pool and a cigar lounge with 51 brands of puritos to savour, among the many facilities. The suites are rather swish too, with plasma TVs, complimentary mini-bars, guest toilets and super kingsize beds. There was also a daily replenished selection of dates, pastries and other fancies laid out on silver platters which, eaten from a lavish chaise-longue, felt rather like an ongoing Roman feast.
And yet somehow it all felt a little forced, almost too much attention if you like. Knock,knock, ring ring….Would we like our bags unpacked? Our sheets pulled down? A drink or a snack? A reservation for dinner? The moon on a stick perhaps? I know, one shouldn’t grumble. After all, overly attentive staff are surely far better than inattentive ones. And some of the service was genuinely top-class.
To be fair, the Al Husn was just reopening – the air of wanting to please everyone was tangible – and it was Eid, so bookings were required to ensure a table. It just felt as if it was trying a little too hard. Meals in one restaurant were ‘culinary journeys’, while the Sultanah restaurant – designed like a modern cruise liner – invited diners to ‘step out of your everyday world’. The piano bar, however, was delightful. As was the Shahrazad restaurant, which served excellent Moroccan cuisine and had genuine atmosphere, with secluded alcoves and musicians playing lutes gently in the background. That was more like it, a little more what I was after. I was in Oman after all.