Rock climbing, it turns out, is not my thing. I discover this, somewhat unnervingly, as I cling to a sheer rock face by my fingernails, legs shaking like Elvis. Abseiling down the 75-foot drop at Anantara’s Al Jabal Al Akhdar Resort in Oman’s Hajar Mountains, was a doddle; hauling myself back up again is not.
With much coaxing from the guide above me, and some firm pulling on the rope attached to my harness from the guide below, I scramble to the top. Under a cloudless blue sky, looking out over the limestone peaks and deep valleys, I start to imagine doing it all again. This is what the soul-stirring landscape of Jabal Akhdar does to you.
Epic panoramas, of course, are part of Oman’s USP. From majestic mountains and sawtooth fjords to unspoilt beaches and endless deserts, the boomerang-shaped country on the southeast corner of the Arabian Peninsula has got the lot.
For nearly half a century, the enigmatic Sultan Qaboos has ruled Oman, after ousting his isolationist father in 1970 in a British-backed coup. He has used his absolute authority and oil wealth – modest by Gulf state standards – to transform Oman from a poor backwater with tribal rebellions and just six miles of sealed roads into a modern, prosperous and peaceful country.
Like its neighbours, however, Oman can no longer rely on black gold to fuel its growth. The country is working hard to attract more international holidaymakers, aiming to double the number of visitors to five million by 2020.
The government’s strategy hinges on developing a dozen, lesser-known regions, outside the classic Muscat-Nizwa-Wahiba Sands route, and making them destinations in their own right. Top priorities include the peaks of Jabal Akhdar, a two-hour drive southwest from Muscat, and the beaches of Salalah along the frankincense coast in Dhofar, 600 miles south of Muscat.
The two regions reveal very different sides of Oman, and the arrival of a five-star Anantara resort in each one makes them all the more appealing for British travellers – as do increased flights from Britain and shiny new airports (Salalah’s is up and running, while Muscat’s is set to open by the end of the year).
Jabal Akhdar (Green Mountain) was largely inaccessible to outsiders until a decade or so ago, sealed off by the Omani military after a series of uprisings in the Fifties. There is still an army base on the mountain, along with a checkpoint to ensure only 4×4 vehicles attempt the wickedly winding mountain road.
The rocky slopes feature little in the way of vegetation, yet the name is no misnomer: the huge plateau has been farmed for centuries, with pomegranates, apricots, figs and peaches all flourishing, thanks to traditional falaj irrigation channels.
The Anantara resort is perched magnificently on the edge of a canyon, some 6,500ft above sea level. The design echoes the fortified architecture of the region, with low-rise, earth-hued buildings and a round tower housing one of four restaurants. All 82 rooms come with a balcony offering knockout views, while the 33 villas each have a private pool and butler. The star attraction is the cliff-edge infinity pool and viewing platform named after the late Diana, Princess of Wales, who visited the site in 1986.
The staggering terrain is made for adventure, and the resort has a wide range of activities including hiking, mountain biking and archery. It’s about 15 degrees cooler here than in Muscat, so guests also come simply to enjoy the mountain air, especially during the Hades-hot summer.
After my encounter with the rock wall, I opt for a gentle morning yoga session at Diana’s Point as sunrise casts a rosy glow over the valley, and hang out in the sublime spa, complete with hammam and signature treatments using local ingredients such as Damask rose and pomegranate.
The next day, I venture down the mountain with Ayman, one of the resort’s Omani chefs, to Nizwa. We shop in the centuries-old souk, stocking up on fresh fish from Muscat and pungent spices like turmeric and saffron for the cooking class that will follow. In a pocket-sized spice store we sit with the white-bearded merchant and drink coffee laced with cardamom, rosewater and saffron, before seeking out the city’s best halwa, a sweet and sticky delicacy made from recipes handed down through generations.
Back at base camp, Ayman teaches me how to make paplou, a spiced seafood and tomato soup, and qabuli, a fragrant rice and beef dish, which I happily polish off with a glass of crisp pinot grigio at lunch.
Less than two hours’ flight from Muscat, Salalah is as verdant as Jabal Akhdar appears sparse. The coastal fringe, watched over by the Dhofar Mountains, is made up of long, white-sand beaches dotted with palm trees, while plantations of papaya, banana and coconut replace the ubiquitous date palms of the northern interior.
It’s a hotspot for holidaymakers from the Gulf, who flock here during July and August when monsoon clouds from India descend. While the rest of the region swelters, the khareef, as it’s known locally, transforms Salalah into a green paradise more reminiscent of Ireland than Arabia. The rest of the year, it’s blessed with blue skies and pleasant temperatures.
Anantara’s Al Baleed Resort is set on a glorious beach and separated by a freshwater lagoon from the World Heritage-listed ruins of Al Baleed, a frankincense trading port that dates back to the eighth century.
The whitewashed resort blends traditional Omani architecture – crenellated fortress façade, ornately carved doors, graceful arcades – with modern luxuries, such as a top-notch Pan-Asian restaurant and a spa to rival its sister property. Most of the 96 villas have private pools and all come with an Omani-style sitting area decorated in rich hand-woven fabrics and large bathrooms with egg-shaped tubs.
Days of blissful idleness are interspersed with occasional sorties with Hussein, Anantara’s local guide. In the neighbouring archaeological site, we walk among the tumbled columns of a 10th-century mosque and explore Oman’s proud seafaring history at the excellent museum.
On the way into town, we stop at one of many roadside stalls to sip coconut water straight from the shell and snack on sweet papaya. In Souk Al Markazi, the main produce market, Hussein buys fresh sardines and takes them to a hole-in-the-wall restaurant to be grilled for our lunch. Next to us, a group of men huddle over chess and drink karak chai, a reminder of Oman’s long-established sea trade with India.
On my last day, we set off in a 4×4 to the fabled Rub’ al Khali, the Empty Quarter, a 250,000-square-mile sea of windblown dunes that stretches northwards from Oman into Saudi Arabia and the UAE, and westwards into Yemen. The two-hour journey takes us up through the mountains and lunar-like plateau, dotted with small villages, until we reach a dusty outpost called Shisr. According to Unesco, its ruins are the legendary Lost City of Ubar, a frankincense area of great wealth and wickedness mentioned in the Koran. Hussein is not convinced. “An old Bedouin told me Ubar is 125 miles from here.”
The sealed road stops abruptly, and we bounce along a rutted dirt track for 20 miles, throwing up great clouds of dust. Soon, red and gold dunes rise up, first as ripples, then as huge waves.
I trudge up a soft dune, sinking with every step as my shoes fill with sand. Standing on the crest, I’m struck by the bitter beauty – mile after mile of inescapable emptiness – and the absolute silence.
On the way back to Salalah, Hussein spots a camel camp and heads off-road. Around 100 black-haired camels stand regally in a smattering of pens, batting their long eyelashes at us and languidly chewing hay, watched over by a Bedouin farmer in his pickup truck.
“Australia?” the farmer echoes, when I tell him where I’m from. “I’ve heard they have strong camels there with small ears, like Omani camels.”
Upon hearing that the hundreds of thousands of wild camels which roam the Australian outback – descendants of Arabian camels imported in the 1800s – are regarded as pests, the farmer smells a deal. “You could make good business selling camels,” he says. From novice rock climber to would-be camel trader, Oman has been quite a ride.
Oman Air (omanair.com) flies twice daily from London Heathrow to Muscat from £409. On May 1, the airline will launch a new daily flight from Manchester to Muscat.