The real thing: Why Oman is the Middle East’s sweet spot

The real thing: Why Oman is the Middle East’s sweet spot

Omani kids

Money shouts, wealth whispers. And Oman has such a wealth of stunning sights and world-class hotels on offer that it hardly needs to scream about it.

The destination has been quietly but inexorably building its reputation as the go-to place for authentic luxury in the Middle East, and things are only going to get bigger – literally.

The last few months have witnessed the opening of 1,400 new hotel rooms, and there are more to come, with a handful of huge new resort developments due over the next four years.

What’s the attraction?

Oman’s appeal is multi-faceted. It has a strong, authentic Arabian culture, yet one that is open and friendly to the West. It has a wealth of sights and activities – from deserts, forts, souks, mosques plus a beautiful coastline of fjords and sandy beaches – but its hotels are exceptional enough to attract guests on the strength of their stay alone.

Access is easy too. Oman Air operates a daily direct flight from Heathrow. Departing at 10.30pm and taking less than eight hours, clients can wake up ready for a whole day in their destination – especially if they’ve decided to upgrade to the airline’s award-winning business or first-class services.

British Airways and Etihad fly via Abu Dhabi, and Emirates via Dubai, which provides useful connections to UK regional airports.

Emirates Tours reports that sales to almost all its Oman hotels are up. “This is primarily due to the number of strong offers that have been in the marketplace since the beginning of the year,” says Beth Alcorn, product and marketing manager.

“The Six Senses Zighy Bay is our top-selling property in the region. Its position is cemented by a fantastic ‘stay five nights and pay for three’ offer, with complimentary half board, which can save a couple more than £2,000.” Emirates offers a five-night package with this deal from £1,299 in September.

The 124-acre Shangri-La Bar Al Jissah Resort and Spa is home to three luxury hotel. Al Bandar is the central hotel with the largest number of bars and restaurants, Al Waha the family-friendly property (now with indoor and water play areas), and Al Husn a six-star, adults-only retreat with infinity pool and private beach. Facilities and excursions are extensive, with a new daily sailing programme for adults and kids.

The Chedi is another high-end favourite, with a minimalist look and a new spa open since June 2011. There are deals at these properties too – Gold Medal is offering four nights for the price of three at The Chedi until the end of September, and seven for the price of six at the Shangri-La from September 1 until December 22.

Clients can do a fly-and-flop-plus itinerary, with a few excursions to get a flavour of Oman, or tour around to see even more of the country’s cultural side. Kuoni has included a small group tour for 2012 in its new Arabia brochure, based on the popularity of its private tours.

Cox & Kings has a number of private and escorted touring itineraries, and now the operator is adding two twin-centre options, combining the country with Zanzibar or the Maldives.

Oman highlights


Muscat

Bustling and modern with plenty of sights including the splendid royal palace, flanked by twin forts, and the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque – third largest in the world, and open to non-Muslims.

Also suggest a walk through one of Oman’s parks or along the corniche, shopping in the Mutrah Souk or visits to the Amouage perfume house or the Bateel date factory.

Wahiba Sands

Just three hours from Muscat and very popular with visitors, this desert consists of more than 7,700sq miles of shifting sand dunes, some 150 metres high.

Visitors can explore the dunes and wadis by jeep or camel, and can stay overnight either in Bedouin tents or in a luxury tented camp – check out Desert Nights Camp, 1000 Nights Camp and Hud Hud Travels.

Forts

Oman’s interior is home to many forts. Nizwa’s is the largest on the Arabian peninsula, and the former capital city is home to a souk renowned for silver, brass and copper goods.

Pottery is best at nearby Bahla, home to Oman’s oldest fort. Jabrin Fort has detailed carvings and elaborately-painted ceilings. Even beach bunnies can get a fort fix – Nakhal Fort is only an hour from Muscat.

Turtles

Ras Al Jinz – a few hours down the coast from Muscat – is Oman’s most famous turtle haven, with 30,000 green turtles nesting on the beach. There’s a well-run visitor centre to help tourists and turtles alike.

The Shangri-La Bar Al Jissah Resort has a dedicated turtle ranger to care for the green and hawksbill turtles that nest on its beaches, and can arrange for guests to help release baby turtles.

Musandam

Nicknamed the Norway of the Middle East for its mountains and fjords, the Musandam Peninsula is divided from the rest of Oman by the United Arab Emirates and can be reached by a short flight or ferry ride.

Clients will want to take a boat trip in an Arabian dhow. The diving and snorkelling are great, with colourful reef fish and larger specimens such as barracuda and whale sharks.

Salalah

The south of Oman is less visited but provides a great contrast to the north. It receives monsoon rains between May and September, so the long white beaches are backed by lush greenery – and by the boswellia sacra trees, the sap of which is used to make frankincense.

A dhow floats in a fjord of the Musandam Peninsula, Oman
A dhow floats in a fjord on the Musandam Peninsula

New hotels


Late last year, the 97-room Rotana Hotel Muscat opened in the city centre, and this year has seen the launch of the 268-room City Seasons Hotel and the 153-room Tulip Inn in Muscat’s diplomatic quarter.

In the mountains outside Muscat, guests can now stay at boutique properties The Sahab Hotel and The View. The latter is a tented eco-retreat, the former a small hotel with a pool.

Looking further ahead, there are major resort developments featuring residential properties, marinas, golf courses, retail, restaurants and hotels on the horizon. Many are located on the coast outside Muscat. The Wave will be home to a Fairmont hotel and a Kempinski, due to open in 2013.

Jebel Sifah will host a Four Seasons, a Banyan Tree and an Angsana resort, slated for 2014, alongside the boutique Sifawy Hotel, which opened in June.

Another development, Al Madinah A’Zarqa, will be home to an Anantara property. On the south coast at Salalah, the Salalah Beach project will welcome properties from Rotana, Mövenpick and Club Med.

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