The silence is deafening. It’s partly the loss of pressure in my ears, as I’ve just driven to a height of more than 2,000 metres in 45 minutes. The twists and turns of the 55-kilometre road that takes you from the foot of Jebel Akhdar – “green mountain” – to the cliff edge on which the Alila hotel stands are also discombobulating. Then there’s the scenery – while not exactly the bright green of the tourist brochures, the landscape looks and feels Mediterranean. The dry mountains are studded with wild olive, juniper and acacia trees and some old crumbling farm buildings are surrounded by terraces; the temperature, unbelievably, is up to 20 degrees cooler than Abu Dhabi, Dubai or Muscat.
On this particular evening in mid-October, it’s 15 degrees outside on the terrace. I’ve just watched a blazing sunset that looks like the explosion from an atomic bomb – a huge white orb surrounded by orange and yellow, the effect amplified by a slight haze. Soon it’s gone and below me is a huge, deep, dark chasm. Wadi Al Hijri isn’t as deep as the nearby Wadi Ghul at Jebel Shams – known as the Grand Canyon of Arabia (Jebel Shams, at 3,005m, is Oman’s highest mountain) – but it’s on a similar scale. The crags, ridges and steep drop-offs remind me of the south-western United States.
The Hajar Mountains were formed around 70 million years ago, when the Arabian plate pushed north into the Eurasian plate, forcing an enormous upheaval of undersea rock, mainly limestone, forming the mountains and wadis. The Alila hotel – the Singaporean luxury group’s first property in the Middle East – is fashioned partly using this rock, and the landscaping fits almost gingerly around the enormous boulders and slabs still littering the Earth’s surface.
Alila means “surprise” in Sanskrit, and, given the company’s usual role in managing boutique hotels and resorts in Asia (of its 10 or so properties, most are in Indonesia), this is certainly a departure. Owned by Omran, the Oman tourism management and development company, it’s part of a drive towards promoting “memorable tourism experiences in harmony with Oman’s fragile environment and natural resources”. Given that all the resort’s water has to be hauled up the mountain by tanker, I’m not sure about this resort’s eco credentials, but it’s certainly been sensitively designed and the sense of place is genuinely affecting. It’s also provided a lot of local jobs – many of the staff, including my room butler Majid and the “leisure concierge” Salem Al Owaimari, come from the immediate area. They are highly articulate and well turned-out, and it’s not uncommon to see some of them walking to work along the mountain road each morning.
As night falls, from my balcony I can see the lights of small towns and villages twinkling in the distance, but there’s no other light pollution and no sound. Out on my balcony, it’s a rare event to witness this kind of stillness: I can hear no animals, no birds, no hum of electricity or traffic. Only the buzz of a mosquito in my ear sends me back inside to a hot bath that has been prepared for me using bath foam, virgin coconut oil, almond extract, vitamin C and a sprinkling of rose petals from the hotel’s rose garden.
In the restaurant, Juniper, there’s a delicious buffet dinner overseen by an American chef – salads of black-eyed beans, mouhammara, labneh with nuts, fatoush, sun-dried tomato hummus, beetroot with grapefruit and feta cheese, home-made flatbread with zaatar pesto and pine nuts. Mains include beef in a barbecue mushroom sauce, vegetable saffron rice, chicken in black bean sauce, and others. It’s too cold to sit outside (I’m wearing a skirt and T-shirt, so I sit indoors; fortunately, there’s no piped music but we are entertained by an Irish harpist living in Muscat – a soothing spectacle (there’s no alcohol served while I’m there, as the resort was in the process of obtaining a liquor licence; there’s a wide variety of freshly blended non-alcoholic cocktails and fresh juices).
My night is untroubled by noise (even the air con is quiet) and when I wake up early the next morning the high pressure system in the atmosphere has trapped a small cloud mass over some nearby peaks, which look like they’re hiding under a blanket. After breakfast on the terrace – I choose fresh orange and watermelon juices, whipped into a froth, fruit and Greek yogurt (there are three types) coffee and sourdough toast with pesto, tomato and cheese – it’s time to take on the mountains with Salem and his 4x4. A 27-year-old from the nearby Saiq Plateau, he points out when we set off that the temperature is only 17 degrees and that all year round, it never goes above 35.
Born in a remote village and now settled in the Sayh Qatanah, Salem tells me that back in the 1980s, his mother died within an hour of giving birth to him – “there were no hospitals and no help” – but that things have changed now, although in most villages, people are related and still use a community means of resolving disputes. There’s a sense of geographical and cultural separateness, and of attachment to the land and the seasons, which has been lost from most other parts of the region; its fragility is part of its attraction.
Salem explains that tourism only really began in Jebel Akhdar around 10 years ago; before that, it was mostly a military area and until 2005 visitors needed a permit to pass the checkpoint. Despite this, some 10,000 people live permanently in the area, making their living mostly from farming goats and growing pomegranates, apricots, grapes, walnuts, peaches, quince, apples, pears, garlic and the famous Jebel Akhdar roses (spring-time, March to April, is flower season).
We stop at a makeshift market in Sayq and the only items on sale are pomegranates, grape juice and rose water. They are not cheap – large pomegranates sell for one rial (Dh10) each – but, Salem says, “these are the best pomegranates in the world”. Cracking one open, I’m surprised to find that there is very little of the white membrane usually found in the fruit, meaning that you can eat them quickly and almost like an apple.
We park the car in the scenic cliffside village of Wadi Bani Habib before walking downhill along small pathways and aflaj – traditional irrigation channels – through autumnal orchards to see various abandoned hillside villages, such as As Sab, which, Salem says, may soon be restored. Some of the handsome buildings look like they once had wealthy owners, so this is an exciting prospect. With such places and the surrounding wadis, caves, villages and views, this could be somewhat like hiking in Nepal.
We don’t have more than a couple of hours, so we drive back to the Saiq Plateau from where we can look across at a striking panorama of ravines and cliffs, so stark and sheer they look like a 19th-century landscape painting. We descend down an unsealed road and a few dozen switchbacks to the pretty village of Masirat Al Rawajih, at the foot of the mountain at the confluence of two vertiginous wadis. There’s no tourist infrastructure here, and official guidance urges visitors to be respectful; one wonders what will happen if large groups were to descend on such locations. At present, larger groups are mostly seen at designated campsites close to the main roads; one thing that stops more people visiting is the gradient – all vehicles must be 4x4, Salem tells me, because “the problem is coming down. Any car can go up, but going down the brakes will be ruined”. Judging by the number of newly built escape lanes on the descent side of the main road in and out, this is by no means an imaginary problem.
And with that it’s time to repair to the world-class Spa Alila, where, after the sweat and dust of their hiking or 4x4 tours, guests can enjoy a hot soak, steam rooms and saunas before being massaged into a state of bliss by Balinese therapists. A one-hour massage costs 47 rials (Dh450), including tax.
Heading off back down the next morning for the two-and-half hour, 200km drive back to Muscat, part of me wishes that there was an airport here, so that UAE residents could escape to the cool more quickly and bypass the capital altogether. As it is, this is where luxury tourism started in Oman, and The Chedi Muscat (www.ghmhotels.com), which occupies a deceptively large site by the sea not far from the airport, has maintained its pulse-lowering allure ever since it opened in 2003 (Six Senses Zighy Bay, which opened in 2008, is of comparable quality). A cleverly designed ensemble of Arabic, Japanese and pan-Asian elements, the buildings still look fresh and its 103m-long infinity pool, restaurants and spa still draw a celebrity crowd. The food at the Long Pool Cabana is both healthy and decadent. While most poolside restaurants can barely muster a languidly delivered steak sandwich and fries – usually not without repeated requests for cutlery, condiments and drinks – the service here has a reassuring urgency. The food is Japanese and a lunch for two of edamame, Omani lobster tacos, spicy yellowtail sashimi with crispy quinoa and saffron yuzu dressing, miso and spicy seafood soups, miso-marinated black cod and umami king fish with shiitake, oyster mushrooms, spinach and truffle oil leaves little change from 100 rials (Dh1,000), but it's a meal to remember long after my 42-seater Oman Air flight to Khasab has taken off; the chicken sandwich and fruit juice offered on board seem like a cruel joke.
The flight, though, is worthwhile, especially if you have a window seat. While most people travel to Musandam by car, the hour-long trip over the near-deserted mountains of the north-east coast is like looking down to Earth from outer space, the jagged beige outlines as empty as a satellite map, except for the occasional speedboat in otherwise deserted bays. The plane banks first to the east and comes lower over the mountains, turning to the left and full circle before landing in the only place it’s possible to have an airport here, the flat valley floor behind Khasab town.
Though still gloriously isolated (there is only one passenger flight a day, in and out of what is mostly a military airport, and there’s still the feeling of being at the tip of Arabia), Khasab now has a population of about 18,000 and it’s changed since I was last here three years ago: there’s a new Lulu Hypermarket, some small residential blocks, and, behind the hypermarket on reclaimed land, the Atana Musandam, a new four-star hotel flanked on two sides by water. From here you can take a 4x4 trip into the mountains or a dhow cruise into the nearby khors, to see dolphins and to snorkel. A new company formed by Omran, Atana has also taken over and revamped the nearby Golden Tulip Khasab (dating from 2003), driving up the previous standard of accommodation in the town considerably. Rooms are luxurious (mine is a duplex apartment with downstairs living room, kitchen and dining area; upstairs, a roof terrace, bedroom and large bathroom), though they suffer somewhat from noise from the nearby speedboats – fishing is a way of life here, and even men with other jobs use fishing to supplement their income, and boats rather than cars are used to get to villages along the coast.
The hotel’s restaurant, Al Mawra, run by Keralans, is excellent. Order anything from a chips Oman wrap (2.8 rials; Dh27) to a divine Goan prawn curry made with local catch (7.2 rials; Dh69) and a delicious Omani milkshake made with yogurt, dates and honey (2.5 rials; Dh24). Again, it’s alcohol-free, and there’s a pleasantly subdued atmosphere (there’s also a strong Wi-Fi connection throughout).
Just across the road is the impressive Khasab Castle, a restored 17th-century Portuguese fortification and one of several dotted across the landscape here (entry is 0.5 rials/Dh5, 9am-4pm Saturday to Thursday). Inside are displays centred around local life, and a library. The view from the ramparts of the surrounding mountains and huge date plantations are excellent. With other similar castles in the vicinity, the now upgraded accommodation at a reasonable price, and the long-time draw of the surrounding mountains, beaches, villages and diving, it’s now possible to imagine spending a week up here. Combine this with a stay at Jebel Akhdar and you start to see something very different, very close to home.