Last year, as winter dragged on, I was finding it hard to keep my spirits up.
It didn’t help that three months earlier I had given up a 20-a-day menthol
cigarette habit and now urgently needed to get a grip on my new salted peanut
and Crunchie bar addiction. What I felt I most needed was a spa with blue skies
In the past, when I have felt like an old car needing a
service, I have flown half way around the world to find out-of-season sun, then
spent a week recovering from jet lag. But with two school-age children and my
own business, I have to grab short holidays - a fortnight away is just not an
So, after talking to friends I decided to try the Barr Al Jissah
Resort and Spa in Oman – only a seven-hour flight (same as to New York) and,
even better, only a four-hour time difference to recover from on my return.
I arrived in Muscat late at night and was met by Pat of Desert Adventure
Tours. We hit it off immediately as she was carrying one of my handbags. From
that moment she took care of my every move, at least when I was not in the spa
or flat on my back by the pool.
I have never been to a country where
everyone you meet is so keen to tell you how well they live and how fortunate
they are. This seems to be due to the benevolence of the sultan, who is widely
admired. By chance I was there for National Day, the 37th anniversary of his
accession. In his father’s day it was three nights in jail for smoking a
cigarette. It wasn’t that he disapproved of smoking – he was all for the
traditional shisha pipes, but cigarettes and other modern ways he firmly
rejected. There was neither electricity nor proper roads, and he wanted every
Omani to live according to the sultanate’s ancient traditions.
and especially coloured light bulbs, was much in evidence for National Day –
everything was festooned with lights, including the 20-odd miles of new roads
between the airport and the beautiful mountains and coastal setting of the Barr
En route to my hotel, my driver proudly pointed out the
spectacular new mosque, the largest in Oman. Inside, the biggest chandelier in
the world is made entirely from Swarovski crystals and weighs 5.8 tons. The
building also boasts the world’s largest hand-woven carpet – when I visited
later in the week it certainly had the wow factor in spades.
Barr Al Jissah
is actually three hotels. My week was to be spent in the Al Husn, the best of
the trio, raised high on a bluff above the main beach.
Al Husn turned out to be the last word in discreet and sophisticated luxury,
epitomised by the worldly charm of the 7ft German manager (really, seven feet
tall), who seemed to be everywhere at all times, smoothing every guest’s stay.
Whether they needed one of the hotel’s Bentleys for the airport or a golf buggy
to take them to the fine CHI Spa, he was there, dapper and full of
What makes a good hotel? I found out the next day
when venturing to the beautifully designed infinity pool, where a helpful and
smiling pool attendant brought me not only towels and chilled water to drink but
an iced face spray. In the mornings, I stayed by the pool. In the afternoons, I
hit the spa to encourage my regime and smooth my wrinkled brow (and I thoroughly
recommend the treatment I had on the first day. It took four hours and took me
from stressed to serene).
The resort’s other two hotels are the Al Waha and
the Al Bandar (guests in Al Husn have access to their facilities, but not vice
versa). The Al Waha is promoted as “Oman’s first dedicated leisure hotel” and is
the largest. Little Turtles, the resort’s children’s club, is there and is ideal
for guests with small children as the babysitting service allows undisturbed
evenings in the restaurants and bars.
The feature I most enjoyed was the
“Lazy River”, which wound from one hotel pool to the next, great fun for all
ages to float lazily along under bridges and through the beautiful tropical
It would have been easy not to leave this paradise – especially
now I had discovered Al Husn’s enchanting private beach, which had not only a
perfect cove in which to swim and snorkel, but also comfortable sun beds and
umbrellas and, as by the pool, a face-spray service.
However, I did manage
to drag myself away twice. Pat organised a tour around Muscat Old Town, where
everything was on a very small scale. Even the museum, which records Oman’s
history, is small and perfectly formed.
I loved its wonderful antique
jewellery, which had me chomping at the bit to get to the souk where the best
jewellery and artefact shop was owned by a Mr Akhdar Al Balushi.
thousands of coloured necklaces hung from the ceiling, and great barrels filled
with rings and small objects, all around £5-£10, kept me happy for hours. The
owner – fabulous in his finery – asked to have his photograph taken with me and
then proudly showed me his wall of fame. He was particularly proud of a picture
of himself with Kate Moss festooned in his jewellery.
The only other place I
left my mountain oasis for was the Chedi, a more contemporary-looking hotel
closer to Muscat, where I had an excellent dinner at the seafood Beach
restaurant. The Chedi is a fabulous looking hotel – the whale vertebrae, mounted
on plinths and beautifully lit at the entrance to the restaurant, were quite
stunning. Its location, though, and beachfront are disappointing.
the Al Husn I was not surprised to read that various publications had voted it
among the world’s best new hotels of 2007. The pride of everyone who worked
there mirrored the pride the Omanis all seem to have in their country.
was very refreshing after listening to everyone moaning in London – but with
free schools and college education, free hospitals, no income tax and money
being pumped into tourism, the local people have a lot to smile about. I shall
certainly be returning next time I need to top up on sun, serenity, souks and
(0845 615 6793; www.cadoganholidays.com) offers stays at Shangri-La’s Barr Al
Jissah Resort & Spa from £687 per person for a three-night break and from
£876 for seven nights on a b&b basis.
Return flight from Heathrow, using
the scheduled services of Etihad Airways, and private transfers are included.
The company can also organise seven-day tailor-made tours of Oman, including
stays at Al Husn from £1,068 or Al Bandar, from £852, excluding flights.
Oman Tourist Office (020 8877 4524;