The moonlight stippled the breakers with silver. On the beach a large loggerhead turtle was busy excavating, flipping flurries of sand away behind her. There was a 10-minute pause as she laid her eggs, then, the moonlight illuminating the barnacles on her shell, she heaved her way back to the sea and slithered out of sight. An unforgettable Masirah episode.
Masirah, an island off the south-east coast of Oman, is the latest area of the country to open up to tourism. Visitors who venture beyond the capital, Muscat, tend to take in the jaw-dropping Musandum fjords in the north and even the desert landscapes of the Empty Quarter, but very few have so far made it to Masirah.
Breezes off the Arabian Sea mean Masirah is 10 degrees cooler than the baking mainland for much of the year, and it has outstanding natural attractions – not least vast numbers of nesting turtles. Getting there, however, involves a 500km drive from Muscat, followed by a 1½-hour ferry crossing. Fortunately, the route down the coast makes for a memorable trip.
The first leg of my journey, with driver Said, took us past the al-Hajar mountains, shouldering up dramatically from the coastal plain. At the village of Fins we stopped at a perfect deserted beach where pale sand edged into plate-glass water beside a limestone cliff weathered to the texture of a giant loofah.
To reach the southern coast and the ferry to Masirah, we had to skirt the Wahiba Sands, 4,800 square miles of desert made famous by explorer Wilfred Thesiger. Dunes stretched out of sight, fine sand rising off them like smoke as the winds reshaped and resculpted them.
The Masirah ferry cast off after sunset and ploughed across the strait under a full moon. Next morning I took stock of my new surroundings: a desert island amid turquoise water. Goats and camels foraged in parched scrub and low acacia bushes, often wandering across the road. There's an interior of barren hills and eerie alien landscapes. Footprints and tyre marks on golden beaches leave black tracks as they penetrate to volcanic sediment below.
The island's tiny town, Hilf, has a few shops and a handful of cafes and restaurants. You can camp on the beaches and there are a couple of small guesthouses.
Watersports are a key attraction, and kayaking will soon be added to the list. "This is a paradise for kitesurfers," says Alex Friesl, manager of Kite Boarding Oman (kiteboarding-oman.com), who rents out equipment and runs a Bedouin-style camp on the island's west coast. "There's always wind here, the lagoon is very shallow and the water is warm: it's ideal."
Wildlife is the other lure. During a boat trip, I saw a pod of half a dozen bottlenose dolphins, often curving out of the water in pairs. Flying fish skipped along the surface and, occasionally, a leathery turtle's head protruded before descending again in clouds of bubbles.
Over spangled emperor fish in the island's Turkish restaurant, I met Andy Willson, one of Masirah's marine conservationists. "Four species of turtle nest here and the island is number one in the world for loggerheads," he said. "And there's a school of 80 or so humpback whales, unique in that they are not migratory." The island is also frequented by 300 species of bird, many of them rare.
Oman Air is considering flights from Muscat to Masirah next year, as well as a ferry service. If this sounds ominous, the government is committed to keeping visitor levels sustainable, and the conservationists are busy. "Masirah has a low population and has so far been isolated, so there has been a breathing space for conservation measures," says Willson, but we intend for that to continue."