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Beauty has an address ~ Oman

When a girl really needs Oman

Lulu Guinness
May 20, 2008

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 and sunshine.

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 option. 

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.
Electricity, 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 Al Jissah.

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 self-deprecating humour. 

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 landscaping. 

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.
The 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. 

Back at 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.
It 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 smiles.


Getting there
Cadogan Holidays (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. 

Further information
Oman Tourist Office (020 8877 4524; www.omantourism.gov.om).