Claire Spreadbury heads to Muscat in Oman for real blue skies and rugged beauty and finds an ideal winter sun destination.
My heart feels like it’s beating on the outside of my chest. I’m anxious, out of my depth and I sound like Darth Vader. But for the first time in my life, I’m snorkelling.
As I plunge my face into the sea and force my body to relax so my limbs can actually float, the stress starts to fade away. As a weak swimmer who’s afraid of the ocean, I never thought I’d be able to do this.
I never thought I’d go to Oman, either. But here I am, snorkelling. And for anyone in need of some winter sun, it’s a destination that – surprisingly – takes some beating.
Sitting at the foot of the Arabian Peninsula, Oman is part of the Middle East. I’d always lumped it in with Dubai and Abu Dhabi. They’re places that have no real appeal to me, because I associate them with being man-made and money-orientated.
But Oman, I’m discovering, is very different. It’s beautiful, for starters. The terrain encompasses desert, riverbed oases and lengthy coastlines on the Persian Gulf, Arabian Sea and Gulf of Oman. Far from being a flat, bland blanket of desert, the country’s Al Hajar mountains rise into the clear blue sky, making almost every vista an appealing one.
The skyline, I’m told by my guide, Niaz, won’t ever be filled with flashy, high-rise hotels, because no building is allowed to be taller than the 91.5m Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque (which is considerably shorter than the 828m-high Burj Khalifa building in Dubai). The people here seem uber-friendly too; they care about their city and culture, and genuinely want to share it with the rest of the world.
Oman’s popularity is definitely increasing, made possible thanks to the bigger New Muscat International Airport, which opened this year, and the fact you can now apply for visas online.
The Shangri-La Al Husn Resort & Spa, in Oman’s port capital of Muscat, has noticed a shift. Fully booked when I visit in March, I’m told 40 per cent of its (mostly UK) customers are returning visitors. And they’ve also noticed travellers are keen for more experiential trips, featuring a little bit of luxury and a dollop of wellbeing.
Here are three that will seriously impress…
Snorkel for turtles with Oman’s only turtle ranger
As dream jobs go, being a turtle ranger has definitely got to be up there, and Mohammed Al Hasani is Oman’s only one. He’s worked for Shangri-La since 2005 and has helped more than 70,000 baby turtles start a brand new life.
I find him at Al Husn’s private gem of a beach. Mohammed patrols the shores during hatching season (January-August) and if he spots a nest, he places sticks around it to protect the babies. The turtles dig a hole half a metre down in the sand and lay over 100 eggs. And then Mohammed makes a road down to the sea, so they can get there more easily, “like a red carpet”, he says with a smile.
Taking the plunge, we grab our snorkels and flippers, with many of us opting for the full face mask. This is the one that makes you sound like a Sith Lord, but it means you can just breathe in and out normally, so it’s perfect for beginners, and anyone who gets a bit nervous in the water.
Mohammed directs the stronger swimmers straight into the path of a hawksbill turtle – one of five varieties spotted here – gliding through the water without a care in the world.
I swim back to where my feet feel safer – where I can just touch the bottom – and float around while fish swim right up to me. Sinking my face into the salty sea, I spot slow, black butterfly fish, hanging out at the bottom of the rocks. A shoal of slim wrasse shimmy past and I follow the parrotfish and angelfish, all under the watch of a small heron.
There are few better ways to start the day, and it’s completely free for hotel visitors. Speak to the concierge for more information.
Visit the beautiful Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque
I wander slowly, mouth agog, at the sheer beauty that exudes from Muscat’s Grand Mosque. Completed in 2001, it is modern Islamic architecture at its finest, gifted to the nation to celebrate Sultan Qaboos’ 30th reining year. Free to get in, every inch of the 416,000 sq m site is exquisite. The amount of twinkle in the gloriously oversized chandeliers is something that’s only visible to the naked eye. The 4,263 sq m Persian carpet, I’m told, is the second-largest handloomed Iranian carpet in the world, created by hundreds of women over four long years.
Words can barely describe the vibrancy of the pure turquoise green in the intricately-detailed tiling, and the stunning stained-glass windows. There’s unbelievable craftsmanship in the shape, cornicing and painting of the dome, and anyone going to Muscat would be mad to miss out on such a visual feast for the eyes.
Strict rules apply here, though: All the body must be covered by clothing, including wrists and ankles, and headscarves for women are a must.
Book a massage in Oman’s first L’Occitane spa
Back at Shangri-La’s Al Husn hotel, L’Occitane’s only spa in Oman opened earlier this year. Book into the indulgent, adult-only Hareer Spa – a soothing space to take time out, all decked out in neutral tones and shades of lavender.
Have all your stresses stroked away as you indulge in the signature treatment, designed exclusively for the spa by L’Occitane.
The Omani Heavenly Honey treatment (£140 for 90 minutes) begins with a delicious, softening scrub, before moving into a deeply relaxing massage, easing tension and calming the mind, while leaving skin enveloped with the sweet scent of Omani honey – something the region is famous for.
Shangri-La’s Al Husn Resort & Spa (shangri-la.com/alhusn) offers rooms from OMR 250 (approx £505) per night, from October to April.
British Airways return flights from London Heathrow to Oman start at £349.