I headed to the Shangri-La’s Al-Husn (which means ‘the castle’) hotel in Muscat straight from a tour of a very different castle — the 17th Century fort at Nizwa, deep in Oman’s dustbowl interior. Although we made the four-hour journey to the coast by air-conditioned 4×4, by the time I stumbled into the hotel’s serene, high-ceilinged lobby I looked, and felt, far too much like Lawrence of Arabia after a hard few weeks of desert warfare.
To the hotel staff’s credit, they showed no sign of noticing my dishevelled state, or the trail of red desert sand I couldn’t help shedding on the polished floors. Instead they welcomed us with a much-needed apple fizz (my travel companion, and cross-desert navigator, D, was in a similar state) and led us to our room with minimal fuss.
A room at Al Husn
All 180 rooms at Al Husn have views of either the pool or the sea, and we had a perfect little balcony overlooking the former. The hotel’s design offers a playful but tasteful nod to traditional Omani architecture, with crenellated roofs and domed ceilings, and ornate hanging lanterns. Our vast marble bathroom — stocked with an impressive range of L’Occitane products — was shielded from the rest of the suite by beautiful wooden lattice work.
Al Husn is one of three hotels forming the Shangri-La’s Barr al Jissah resort, tucked a few miles down the coast from central Muscat — Oman’s laid back capital, and one of the few places in the Gulf that still feels authentically Arab. There’s also a business hotel, Al Bandar, and Al Waha hotel — the ‘family friendly’ hotel that has drastically reduced the number of kids around to dive-bomb the infinity pool at Al Husn. Al Husn is the resort’s most luxurious offering, and after our desert adventures I was more than ready to be spoiled.
The infinity pool at Al Husn
I am not usually a big fan of resorts — but for the first time I almost felt I had to force myself out to explore the city. Barr al Jissah occupies a beautiful stretch of beach, where the bare golden hills plunge almost directly into the sea. I lounged for an afternoon on the beach, occasionally dipping into the sea to float lazily among the tropical fish, and discovered the unfailingly friendly but unobtrusive staff not only deliver ice cold water and juice in little individual cool boxes, but also bring round sharp fruit sorbets to cool down sun-scorched sunbathers. It’s these little touches that make all the difference.
Nothing can spoil a sunny holiday mood than realising that whenever you want a glass of water you are presented with a receipt to sign — so it’s nice that each room has a complimentary minibar stocked with soft drinks, beer and snacks, and each evening you can enjoy complimentary sundowners in the courtyard. When we ventured down for a glass of prosecco as the sun dipped into the Gulf, a couple of ‘oud players were playing traditional North African songs and gallantly ignoring the guests posing next to them for cheesy holiday snaps.
The resort at Barr Al Jissah
We reluctantly left the hotel on our second day to explore Muscat — we spent a few hours searching for the perfect khanjar (traditional Omani sword) in the picturesque Muttrah souq, and left with an antique coffee pot instead, and braved the heat to trace the old city walls that now enclose sparkling white government buildings.
An unfortunate incident — our car was blocked in its parking space by an inconsiderate driver — illustrated that traditional Omani hospitality hasn’t disappeared with modernisation. A handful of men who noticed our predicament stayed with us for two hours, regularly calling up the police to help identify the driver.
As a proud(ish) resident of a corner of Camden where the sound of sirens is the closest we get to birdsong, I found it quite incredible to be in a place so very safe that not only is it reasonable to call the police over a car-parking infringement, but the handful of Omanis had to spend several minutes conferring on what the emergency police number is. When a woman in an abaya sheepishly shuffled out of a wedding party to move her car, our companions were still there to wave us off.
The Shangri-La’s beautifully landscaped resort contains plenty to keep you entertained — 21 restaurants, a souq and Omani heritage village, a spa, a dive centre, turtle viewing and a 500m lazy river that’s definitely the best way to travel from one end of the resort to the other. But force yourself out at least once to explore what is undoubtedly the most charming town in the Gulf.