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Gateway to Arabia

Oman is a charming introduction to the Middle East, says Charlotte Metcalf

16 September 2009

12:00 AM

16 September 2009

12:00 AM

My five-year-old daughter was already complaining of tiredness and her father was looking thunderous. We had just boarded the flight for Muscat and I was beginning to wonder if eight hours in the air for a three-night stay with two children under eleven was sane.

A day later and my whimsical decision to visit Oman proved a wise one. On the south-east edge of the Arabian Peninsula, I was expecting a country similar to Saudi Arabia but Oman is very different. It is relaxed and welcomes visitors — of its 2.5 million people, 500,000 are foreigners. If you’re thinking about visiting the Middle East but worry about hostile locals or ideology, then Oman is the place to go. You can drink, women drive and it is quite common to see them with their heads uncovered. Indeed there are now four female ministers (the first was appointed five years ago) and Oman sent the first female Arab ambassador to Washington.

Sultan Qaboos deposed his father in 1970 and has systematically modernised his rugged country, spending untold billions on schools, hospitals and the world’s fourth largest mosque after those in Casablanca, Medina and Jakarta. He has also invested in one of the world’s finest hotels, the Inter-Continental Al Bustan Palace.

The Al Bustan, meaning garden, stands on a jasmine-scented site, lush with flowers and date palms fronted by a kilometre of private beach. There are three swimming pools: a huge, award-winning infinity pool, containing floating, flowering islands of palms and fountains, a lagoon with in-pool loungers and a children’s pool. The hotel has 250 suites and rooms, including eight presidential suites with butlers and private dining facilities. There is also a ninth floor reserved for kings and heads of state at the Sultan’s exclusive invitation. Except for the Sultan’s personal staff, absolutely no one has access to this floor, which only serves to intensify the hotel’s mystique.

The hotel reopened last November after a two-year refurbishment under the meticulous supervision of the Sultan’s decorators. It is impossible to put a price on this sumptuous interior. In the towering atrium are intricate wooden panels inlaid with mother-of-pearl and gold, a carved crystal fountain and an 18-metre chandelier of Swarovski crystal that took five months to assemble and is so heavy that the dome had to be fortified to hang it. Dismissing the hotel as glitzy and ostentatious misses the point: the beauty of the gardens and the quality of the service rescue it from vulgarity. I and my family have never been so comfortable or made to feel so welcome anywhere. There are four restaurants of a superb standard but what impressed me most was breakfast. Often an uninspiring buffet of tired pastries and tinned or wilting fruit, here was a beautifully presented spread, indeed fit for a sultan, with a dazzling choice of delicious treats from pomegranate smoothies and chilled shots of gingered fruit juice to scrambled eggs with chillies and freshly baked bread with home-made fig jam.

We hauled ourselves away from our luxurious base to explore what we could of Oman in two days. The Grand Mosque alone is worth going to Muscat for. It is audacious in both scale and splendour. It holds 20,000 worshippers. It boasts the largest chandelier in the world, made in Germany. It took 600 Iranian women three years to weave the single gigantic ornate carpet that covers the main prayer hall. The marble is Carrara, the teak Burmese, the glass French, the clocks Swiss and the tiles Turkish and Iranian. Even the children were captivated by its beauty and size.

From Muscat we drove high into the rugged West Hajer mountains to see some of Oman’s ancient, and now immaculately restored forts. We saw Nakbal, Nizwa, and Bahla, but my favourite was the great round fort of Jabrin. This was July and in the searing 46°C heat it was an ambitious itinerary with two little girls, but the ten-year-old loved the forts, with their gory tales of combat and siege, their secret rooms, dungeons, battlements and slits for pouring scalding honey on enemy heads. When I balked at leaving the five-year-old asleep in the unlocked car, explaining you could be arrested for that in Britain, Qais, our guide, looked astonished. ‘It’s completely safe here,’ he said. ‘No one would ever dream of harming a child.’ Indeed the greatest danger the children faced during the entire trip was when goats tried to nibble their picnic up in the mountains.

Oman is no Dubai — it is blissfully devoid of skyscrapers and giant shopping malls. Instead, Sultan Qaboos has cleverly created an accessible portal for any Westerner curious about Islamic and Arabic culture. The warmth of Omani hospitality and the policy of openness make this an easy country to negotiate, while its rich history and culture make it fascinating to explore, even for children. Simply put, Oman is a gentle introduction to Arabia that educates, inspires and charms.

Four-day itinerary from £1,498 per person based on two people sharing, including two nights B&B at the Al Bustan in a Garden View Room and one night B&B at the Golden Tulip on the Forts excursion, economy flights with Oman Air, transfers, private guide and driver courtesy of Zahara Tours.

Abercrombie & Kent T: 0845 618 2212

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