It is 6pm in Oman. The sun has dipped behind the Al Hajar mountains and the moon, nearly full, is the brightest thing in sight.
We are inside a box room while a Liverpool football match blares from the TV on the wall.
‘Halwa?’ one of the officers asks, presenting a sticky sweet dish of ghee, flour and nuts. ‘Coffee?’
I’ve been on the road for 10 hours, and we’ve just found the world’s friendliest police checkpoint.
Oman is naturally extraordinary. Its geography ranges from the monsoon-kissed southern coast to a fair chunk of the Empty Quarter desert to the jagged mountains of the Musandam Peninsula. Oman is a world apart from neighbouring Dubai. Low-rise buildings meet huge expanses of emptiness. Red dunes merge into sharp mountains and goats wander along the quieter streets.
It’s vast, empty, unprocessed – but changing. In the mid 1990s, this historic and conservative land began, very cautiously, to open up to tourism. Now the pace is quickening. The Ministry of Tourism is investing up to US$35 billion (HK$273 billion) over the next 25 years, with a 40 per cent increase in the number of hotel rooms planned. Already a handful of new hotels have popped up. The focus: premium properties, higher-spending guests, no mass tourism, not much for backpackers.
I want to see Oman of the present, not the future. And I want to do it from the road.
‘The actual driving in Oman is very easy as the road conditions are very good. They have big, open highways with a lot of long, straight stretches,’ says Kieran Smith of Lightfoot Travel, a bespoke tour operator that helps me organise almost all my trip’s logistics. Smith had recently finished a similar Oman journey. The roads are winding and may require a 4×4, he warns me. Mountains can be challenging and desert even tougher.
‘But as long as you’re a confident driver,’ he adds, ‘I think you should be fine.’
At noon on a Friday in Dubai, my friend Stacey Siebritz and I pile into her dusty 2007 4×4 Pajero.
We set off for Oman.
The roughly two-hour drive from Dubai to Six Senses Zighy Bay is pretty and simple. For 98 kilometres we travel along the E33.
Closer to Dibba, as Google Maps fails, we follow the hotel’s own directions: ‘Left at the dolphin roundabout’, ‘Straight across lantern roundabout’. Roundabouts are rarely dull things in Oman.
Six Senses Zighy Bay is five-star, isolated and romantic, with dimly lit stone-and-wood villas inspired by traditional Omani architecture spread out between two pools and palm trees.
Stacey finds the private beach while I hike toward the valley of Wadi al Khamsi. It’s steep and sharp but my guide keeps glancing at the sky. ‘We just need to get over the mountain before the sun goes down,’ he says, and so we push on. At the top there are views across the neighbouring village – flat, tan buildings – and a fisherman’s cove. The guide beckons me to peer inside a squat house of heavy stone.
‘People lived here until 20 years ago.’
He shakes his head. ‘No water, no electricity? It was a different life.’
Google tells us the drive from coastal Zighy Bay to Alila Jabal Akhdar, perched some 2,000 metres above sea level, will take seven hours.
It takes closer to 10.
There are the Al Hajar mountains to cross. And there are multiple borders – five in all – as we cross into, then back out of, the United Arab Emirates.
Impromptu scenes of bustling daily life play out in front of us, then disappear again. Along Maliha Road in the UAE city of Sharjah, fruit stalls line the street. In a small town about an hour down the road, rows of rugs and ceramics glint in the sun, pored over by bussed-in tourists. We pause at a petrol station for a lunch of instant coffee and fried chicken. A call to prayer sounds as we walk out.
We don’t eat again until hours later, after the sun has set and our nerves – thanks to getting lost a few times – have long frayed. That’s when we get to The World’s Friendliest Police Checkpoint. As we pull up, exhausted and dusty, a guard walks out.
‘Coffee?’ He offers, smiling. He is everything we need in that moment. ‘Halwa?’
The Alila Jabal Akhdar is one of those properties that lets nature speak while it sits back, ready to offer a luxurious respite from the all-round sublimeness whenever it’s needed. Rooms on stilts look out across the Al Hajar mountain range. It’s all rustic charm with understated browns and greys, huge balconies and stand-alone stone baths. The historical town of Nizwa is nearby, but the world feels thousands of miles away.
One morning we hike through a wadi (a dried stone riverbed that floods during the rainy season), the cool air silent save for our breathing and the call of goats. The next day I’m harnessed to the cliff face, flanked by two Omani guides, for my first round of via ferrata climbing. As the world drops away beneath me, the guide looks over. ‘Picture?’ he suggests, telling me to lean back, let my hands go and practise the ‘trust fall’. Later – there was a later – I looked back at the shots. Not my most natural camera face ever.
Roughly a 30-minute drive away, on the same protected mountain, is the newly opened Anantara Al Jabal Al Akhdar. The highest five-star resort in the Middle East, this spacious venue has large villas with private pools, a fort theme and a family feel. Stacey and I borrow bikes to cycle around the surrounding small town, dotted with tiered square houses glinting blue and gold in the sun.
‘Just 30 years ago, you couldn’t be a tourist. You couldn’t enter Oman. There were still donkeys and no roads in Muscat,’ Ekta Gandhi, a former public relations manager for the hotel and long-time Oman resident, tells us later that night over freshly grilled octopus. Behind her, the sun drips yolk down the mountain. ‘It’s changed in a quick amount of time and in the right way: art, culture, nature. Oman does see a future in tourism but they want to do it correctly.’
‘How early is too early to go?’ Stacey asks me as we pack for the fourth time. It is hard to leave Oman and our final bolthole, The Chedi Muscat. Set in 8.5 hectares of garden, with every palm tree lined up symmetrically, The Chedi has become our authentic Arabian oasis.
The road feels like a marathon: we want to finish, we know we must finish, but by the final stretch we are so tired. For our last leg, we will take Route 1 from Muscat to Dubai, branching inland toward the city of Al Ain to cross the border at Hatta.
‘I stayed at that border once for six hours,’ Stacey adds, stressing the importance of getting there early, while the world sleeps. In the end, we leave at 8am.
Halfway to Dubai, we pull into a petrol station for fuel and then just wander around, reluctant to drive again. I suggest lunch at the local teahouse. Inside, a young man offers us a plastic menu, all in Arabic. We point, order, and five minutes later receive thin crusty bread stuffed with egg and sauce, served alongside hot, sticky sweet chai.
‘Bread Omani,’ he explains when we ask. ‘Bread Omani,’ and he writes it down to clarify as we use our fingertips to grab the remaining crumbs.
We get back in the car, back on the road to Dubai. Sand, caught in the wind, gusts through the air. On the radio there are tunes from the ’90s. As easily as we entered it, we leave Oman behind. But through all of it – through the petrol station food, the fruit stalls, the five-star hotels, the mountains, beach and desert – we sample just a bite of Oman’s true flavour.
It tastes of sea, salt and sun, of history and change. It tastes delicious.
Need to know:
How to drive in Oman
If you are renting a car from Dubai to take to Oman, make sure that you get Oman insurance. You will be asked for this at the border.
There are numerous border crossings in and out of Oman, but the rules on which ones foreigners are allowed to take change quite frequently. Double check with the hotels before you go.
Book at least three nights at each property. The drives between them can be quite long.
If I did the trip again, I’d stop between Six Senses Zighy Bay and the Alila Jabal Akhdar for a few nights in Al Ain. This would split the epic 10-hour drive up into two shorter chunks.
It’s best to do the trip with three or four people. Don’t try it with one, as navigating the map requires active focus.
All the mountain properties offer some form of over-the-mountain transport. They just don’t all advertise it the same way. Just ask when you book.
Most international driving licences, especially those with a photo, are valid for driving in Oman as a tourist. But, as with anything, check.
Six Senses Zighy Bay – sixsenses.com
Alila Jabal Akhdar – alilahotels.com
Anantara Al Jabal Al Akhdar – jabal-akhdar.anantara.com
The Chedi Muscat – ghmhotels.com/en/muscat
Cathay Pacific flies to Dubai from Hong Kong two times a week