An Arabian adventure through mountainous terrains, freshwater lagoons and ancient culture awaits discerning travellers in Oman, writes Olenka Hamilton
At Anantara’s newest resort, in Oman, yoga takes place every morning at sunrise on Diana’s Point, named after Diana, Princess of Wales, who visited the spot with her then husband, Prince Charles, in 1986. It is a platform that extends forbiddingly over the edge of a cliff into a canyon. ‘Let’s take a moment to channel Princess Di,’ says Daz, the resort’s improbably serene Balinese yogi, as he casually bends himself in half. At 2,000 metres above sea level in the Saiq plateau, which is also home to Oman’s Ministry of Defence, Anantara Al Jabal Al Akhdar Resort is the highest five-star resort in the Middle East and one of the highest in the world. It is a faraway land, largely unpopulated and famous for the sweet-scented damask roses that cascade down its precipitous mountainsides.
The two-hour drive uphill from Muscat to where the hotel sits secluded on the rim of a vast canyon is singularly hair-raising. Along snaking roads that have been newly carved into the barren mountainside, where fig trees, olive groves and ancient abandoned villages pepper the landscape, the journey can be done only in a four-wheel drive because the roads are so steep. Trailing behind a windswept goat in the back of the pick-up truck in front for most of the ride, our ears popped repeatedly, the air thinned and the temperature dropped ten degrees. All the while, the goat just sat there, indifferent to the vertiginous expanse unfolding before us. Al Jabal Al Akhdar, which translates as ‘The Green Mountain’, turns from arid beige to luscious green during the rainy season, which falls between August and September.
We were greeted on arrival by wistful scents and flavours reminiscent of One Thousand and One Nights — rose water, pomegranates, fresh dates and sweet musky frankincense — but everything else about the resort feels utterly modern. ‘It’s not like Dubai here,’ explains Ekta, the resort’s PR manager. ‘There’s no over-the-top gold décor, but a simpler, pared-down style.’ The scale of the place is nothing short of imperial, though, much like the surrounding terrain — and that goes for the villas, which are vast, as well as the span of the resort. And the contemporary take on luxury isn’t putting anyone off, least of all the new generation of Middle Eastern royals who are regular guests. Indeed, while we were there, the son of a United Arab Emirates sheikh had reportedly taken over the resort’s three-bedroom villa, which goes for more than £4,000 a night; he was spotted the same evening kicking back in the bar in his tracksuit. Meanwhile, the crew of Top Gear, including Matt LeBlanc, were celebrating in Al Maisan, the resort’s main restaurant, after racing a £2 million Bugatti Chiron up the side of the mountain.
It’s no surprise: as is characteristic of the Anantara group, the reverential yet discreet service and supreme comfort are without question fit for a king. Sommeliers have been flown in from France, masseurs from Thailand and chefs from Sicily, complete with their grandmothers’ pizza recipes. Meanwhile, in the resort’s communal areas, which line the canyon’s precipitous verge, a Jacuzzi bubbles away, and under a cloud of steam I meet Paul Stibbard, avid Spear’s reader, former Spear’s Wealth Management Award nominee and Oman veteran — clearly a man of good taste. Later that afternoon, opting out of abseiling, which doesn’t mix well with vertigo, I instead take a cultural tour with mountain guru Bikky, a former IBM and Tata engineer from Southern India, who has climbed the Himalayas. Amused by my aversion to heights, he feeds me dates and cardamom coffee and guides me up cliffside staircases made from natural fossils and through three ancient tribal villages. We pay a visit to the home of the old gentleman who weighs rose petals and distils their water in an old clay oven.
It would have been very hard to leave the clean air and comfort of Al Jabal Al Akhdar if Anantara’s second Omani residence had not been our next stop. Just a short flight from Muscat, Al Baleed Resort Salalah is sandwiched between the Arabian Sea and a freshwater lagoon in Salalah, the capital of southern Oman’s Dhofar province, near the border with Yemen. A complete contrast to Al Jabal Al Akhdar, the area is known for its banana plantations, unspoilt and deserted sandy beaches and prodigious sea life — ‘It’s a terrible day out if you don’t catch at least 20 fish,’ says Al Baleed’s general manager, James Hewitson. Salalah, too, is transformed between June and September — the best time to visit — when the monsoon khareef season, which is unique to the region, turns the mountains and desert green.
The style is again unpretentious and minimalist, but with the required regal touches: vast towering archways painted white jump out against the background of blue sea and sky, and colourful tropical plants. And a life-sized portrait of the Sultan of Oman hangs in the lobby, which is painted gold and looks out on to the deep blue infinity pool, which runs straight into the turquoise sea. Unusual touches include a Thai foot bath on arrival, a pillow menu in every bedroom, where options include everything from ‘cervicalopedic’ to ‘contour massage’, and daily petits fours, which you can eat from the comfort of your private pool. Of the rooms and villas available, while guests from the Gulf Cooperation Council countries opt for the closed villas, which offer total privacy, European guests tend to favour a sea view: which means you walk out on to your terrace and straight on to the beach.
Hewitson, who has run a number of luxury hotels from Thailand to Dubai, was brought in as ‘task force manager’ in 2013 to oversee what was a monumental construction project. They flattened the beach — which is pristine — and had 691 palm trees brought in to line the drive and the resort’s walkways, as well as 17 miles of rope to decorate the entrance hall and material for 26 water features and numerous tropical gardens. But of everything at Al Baleed, Mekong, the Vietnamese, Chinese and Thai fusion restaurant on-site, is his pride and joy, and understandably so. We barely came up for air as we went from the pho to the Pu-pu platter to the green tea semifreddo popsicle dessert; all were perfection.
Al Baleed is the first luxury resort in the region and Europeans are catching on quickly, though Americans can still be put off by the proximity to Yemen. But Oman is a peaceful country in spite of its location, Hewitson says. Which resort is better? It’s impossible to say, because they’re so different. Al Jabal Al Akhdar offers pure mountain air, scenic walks and matchless views, while Salalah’s beaches, vegetation and slightly warmer climate make it the perfect seaside holiday spot. If you have the time, you should visit both.
Room rate from £278 per night
Anantara Al Baleed Resort Salalah
Room rate from £225 per night
Olenka Hamilton is staff writer at Spear's
This article was first published in the Spear's Travel Guide 2018, our guide to the world's best luxury hotels, resorts and HNW travel services. Visit www.spearswms.com/travel for more