Unraveling Oman’s Enigma

After three days at Jabal Akhdar, it was time to head south on the long road to Salalah. The hotel had organized a car and driver through local tour operator Bahwan Travels, and with Nabhan behind the wheel of a roomy, Wi-Fi equipped Nissan Patrol four-by-four, we left the highlands behind.

Setting tables at Anantara Al Jabal Al Akhdar’s Al Qalaa restaurant

Twenty minutes beyond the foot of the mountain we stopped at Nizwa, a onetime Omani capital built around a dune-colored fort that played a pivotal role in ending Portuguese domination of the country in the 17th century. With its crenellated battlements, round central tower, and “murder holes” through which boiling oil could be poured on interlopers, the restored fort rightly attracts busloads of sweaty sightseers from Muscat. As does the adjacent souk, where I bought half a kilo of dates to snack on in the car. The dates, as it turned out, were unnecessary, thanks to a huge and indecently inexpensive lunch at a roadside canteen called Arab World. The meal involved big platters of tender shuwa-style lamb slow-cooked with spices in a pit oven, barbecued chicken, pumpkin-and-carrot curry, and mounds of fragrant biryani, all washed down by ample amounts of Mountain Dew, apparently one of the most popular beverages in the country. “Omani beer,” Nabhan called it.

At a camel farm near Salalah

That lunch carried us through the rest of the day, which finally ended at Duqm, situated roughly halfway down Oman’s Arabian Sea coast. Our stop here was purely a matter of convenience; the town is booming as a hub for oil exploration and luxury housing estates, but it has little to interest the traveler. It does, however, have a couple of decent beach hotels. Ours was the Park Inn by Radisson, a lushly planted property that also rents out its chalets and apartment-style rooms to the expat oilmen who congregate in its buffet restaurant or poolside bar at night. After the long drive through the barren wilderness of Ash Sharqiyah, it was all rather disorienting. Perhaps doubly so when you throw in the strip of neon mood lighting wrapped around my bedstead. That said, I slept like a baby.

The bedroom of a canyon-side pool villa at Anantara Al Jabal Al Akhdar

The final leg of the journey went by faster than the first. One reason for this was Nabhan’s liberal interpretation of highway speed limits. “I used to drive rally cars off-road,” he told us matter-of-factly as the speedometer climbed above 140km/h. Another was the scenery. Beyond the small fishing harbor of Ras Sawqrah, where we stopped to check out the dhows moored behind a stone breakwater, the silver-blue ocean was now often within eyeshot. Farther south, stands of acacia and cedar began to color the landscape. The road looped and zigzagged around sea cliffs and boulder-strewn beaches. And at Wadi Shuwaymiyah, it plunged down the sheer side of a 150-meter escarpment that couldn’t have been any more dramatic, depositing us at an impossibly long stretch of sand where dolphins swam offshore and flamingos waded in a briny lagoon.

A staffer at the same resort

Salalah lies in the southern province of Dhofar, famous both for its 6,000-year-old frankincense trade and the summer monsoon season known as the Khareef, when water-laden winds transform the region into one of the greenest places in the Middle East.

Kebabs with kabsa rice at Al Baleed Resort Salalah by Anantara

As this was April, Salalah was still dry as a bone, though it hardly felt that way with all the reflecting ponds and swimming pools and expansive Arabian Sea views that greeted us at the Al Baleed Resort Salalah by Anantara. Opened just four months earlier, the Jabal Al Akhdar’s sister property had already seriously upped Salalah’s wattage as a luxury beach destination. Beyond the whitewashed, fort-like bulk of its main wing, the resort unfolds along a palm-fringed beachfront in a series of low sugar-cube buildings that house the only pool villas in southern Oman. These come with sizable courtyards, creamy marble floors, jaunty tribal fabrics, and a bathroom door from which you can walk straight from the shower into the pool. After the long ride from Duqm, it was palatial.

Terrace seating at an Al Baleed Resort villa

Food is another highlight. Our arrival coincided with seafood night at Sakalan, the resort’s buffet restaurant, and a staggering display of oceanic bounty. There’s a poolside Mediterranean restaurant too, as well as Mekong, serving food from the Southeast Asian countries through which its namesake river flows.

Spa sessions at the Anantara Al Jabal Al Akhdar begin with a serving of rose tea

But one doesn’t come all the way to Salalah to nibble on pad thai or lounge by a pool all day. At least, we didn’t. And there is much to see nearby, from the frankincense-perfumed souk in town to Al Baleed archeological park right next door, a 60-hectare World Heritage Site containing the ruins of an ancient port city that was once the center of the frankincense trade. At the park entrance there is also the Land of Frankincense Museum, with impressive exhibits about Oman’s shipbuilding heritage and the country’s emergence as a modern nation since 1970, when its current ruler, Sultan Qaboos, overthrew his conservative-minded father in a palace coup.

For trips farther afield, arrangements can be made with the resort’s so-called “Salalah Guru,” a locally born guide by the name of Hussain Balhaf who one morning drove us out to see the blowholes at Al Mughsayl before taking us to a deserted beach for a swim and a picnic. There was even more to come the next day, starting with a visit to Wadi Dawkah, an extensive grove of spindly frankincense trees that shares its UNESCO listing with Al Baleed and the remains of a nearby medieval caravan oasis called Wubar. “There are many types of frankincense tree in Africa, but these are the finest, Boswellia sacra,” Hussain explained as he tapped a droplet of fragrant white sap from a trunk for me to smell. “They are our treasure.”

The afternoon ended with a drive out into the Empty Quarter, a vast desert that stretches across the borders of Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and the United Arab Emirates. Hussain drove the SUV as far as he dared into the hilly dunes and then we got out and walked up the highest crest. There, with the setting sun coloring the sand a burnished orange, the cool, rose-scented mountains of Jabal Akhdar seemed light-years away. Tomorrow we would head back to Muscat, and I was very glad that we’d be flying rather than driving. But another part of me didn’t want the adventure to end.

The Details
Getting There
Oman Air connects Muscat with several major Southeast Asian cities, including Manila, Jakarta, Bangkok, and Singapore; it also operates multiple daily flights between the Omani capital and Salalah.

Where to Stay
Anantara Al Jabal Al Akhdar Resort
968/2521-8000; doubles from US$350.
Al Baleed Resort Salalah by Anantara
968/2322-8222; doubles from US$376.
Park Inn by Radisson, Duqm
968/2208-5700; doubles from US$153.

Local travel specialist Bahwan Tourism (968/2465-4140) can organize everything from dolphin watching to desert excursions.

This article originally appeared in the August/September 2017 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“South to Salalah”).


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