Oman is a land of turquoise seas, rare turtles and desert. Not to mention
draconian building restrictions that have prevented the country from becoming
like the set of The Fifth Element, unlike its neighbour Dubai. This is largely
down to its leader, the Sandhurst-educated Sultan Qaboos Bin Said Al Said, who
took over the country from his father in 1970 (aided by the SAS) and has managed
to bring it into the 21st century without obliterating its heritage. His
approach is most apparent in Oman's capital, Muscat.
It is a city of low square white buildings surrounded by mountains on all
sides. On the coast of this Zenlike city, in the Al Khuwair district, lies The
Chedi hotel, an indulgent confection of archways, white tiles, imported palm
trees and grass so finely manicured you could play pool on it. My days could
easily have been spent deliberating over which of the four delicious restaurants
to eat in, dabbing my brow with perfumed towels handed to me by beach boys, and
listening to the local muezzin's call to prayer as I swam in one of the two
enormous infinity pools.
I had more challenging ambitions. My trip was inspired by Lady Jane Digby, a
19th-century adventuress who led a scandalous life before finding true love at
47, in 1854, with a 30-year-old Bedouin sheikh. She was an accomplished
horsewoman and fell in love with desert life as much as with her husband, and it
was with her in mind that I quit the hotel and headed over the craggy mountains
to the golden dunes beyond. My destination was a small Bedouin encampment of
wonderfully comfortable tents furnished with thick carpets, soft beds and
colourful hand-woven coverings.
Less glamorous, sadly, were my first attempts at camel riding - despite my
smart new jodhpurs. I was only just in the saddle when the animal raised its
back legs, pitching me forward so violently that I nearly fell off; then,
straightening its front legs, it nearly tossed me off the back. After this
rather humiliating beginning (I am sure Lady Jane managed side-saddle
camel-mounting with more grace), we began lurching across the sands, the
cantankerous beast honking with constant complaint. I tried to make conversation
over this din with my guide, a beautiful young man in his early twenties with
heavily kohled eyes (both men and women in the desert use kohl to prevent sun
damage). He told me about his childhood as a Bedouin, spending weeks in the
desert without seeing another living thing except for the hawks overhead.
Perhaps the camel was soothed by his tones, because by that evening my mount
and I seemed to have come to some sort of understanding. He stopped his moaning
and on riding back to camp we were rewarded with a wonderful sunset, the sky
fading from blood red to indigo all around me.
Dinner was waiting on my return, a feast of chicken roasted in the ground,
spiced lamb kebabs, saffron rice, lady fingers, stewed cabbage and a sweet
sticky date pudding, all of which I fell on with the fierce hunger of a
travel-weary warrior. I drank mint tea (alcohol is forbidden outside hotels) and
lay back to appreciate nature's ceiling of a billion stars.
The next morning, after an early breakfast of eggs and spiced beans, I
stopped for a swim in Wadi Bin Khalid, an enormous emerald green lake enclosed
by dazzling white rocks; my only company a few chatty frogs. I 'camped' again
that night, on the white sand of Fins Beach, but with a spacious tent,
stand-alone loo and shower, and a barbecue crackling outside, I was hardly
roughing it. And that night, after more stargazing, I fell asleep lulled by the
sound of plashing waves less than ten feet from my bed.
adventure was to see one of Oman's greatest treasures - its sea life. In a small
rickety fishing boat, I motored half a mile from shore and was soon joined by a
school of bottlenose dolphins leaping in arcs and a pair of rare leatherback
turtles slowly paddling past.
After this perfect day, it was with a heavy heart that I bade goodbye to the
camel and the dark-eyed young guide and made my way back across the rippled
sands to Muscat. Just like Lady Jane, I had fallen head over heels in love with
Check in: Oman
What to take and where to go
Must stay: The Chedi hotel is the perfect weekend getaway, with 151 rooms and
suites, all with views of the Indian Ocean or the Al Hajar Mountains. The
350m-long private beach has great umbrellas for shade and one of the two pools
is reserved exclusively for adults. Additionally, there are two tennis courts, a
fitness centre and an extensive spa. I had a Balinese massage that was pure
Don't Miss: A visit to Muscat's Grand Mosque , built by the Sultan in 2001.
Made from 300,000 tonnes of Indian sandstone, it has a 91.5m-high main minaret,
a 6,000-capacity prayer hall and a carpet so large that it took 600 weavers more
than four years to make. And go to Sur, a port once visited by Marco Polo in the
16th century, where they still make traditional wooden fishing dhows. The Wadi
Shab is a glorious natural oasis in the mountains.
What to Buy: The Muttrah Souk is a wonder; the covered market is just off the
Corniche next to the harbour and has an incredible collection of Omani silver
and amber and spices of the region. Pick up a necklace made of antique silver
Thaler coins. I bought an enormous piece of amber with an insect inside for
about £80. Bargaining is a must. Afterwards, stroll down to the harbour and
admire the Sultan's 155m yacht Sunflower.
Eat and drink Try mashuai, a traditional Omani meal comprised of a whole
spit-roasted kingfish, served with lemon rice. And drink the traditional Omani
coffee mixed with cardamon powder, which comes with khawas (dates) at the end of
What to take to the desert A good hat and a scarf to cover your nose and
mouth to prevent the sand getting into your mouth as you ride your camel.
Duty-free booze if you want to have a snifter after dinner while looking at the
stars. Take bug spray and wipes to get rid of the desert dust.
Book in advance The best way to get around Muscat is with a local guide. The
Omanis are incredibly friendly and proud of their country and are always happy
to answer any questions about local life.
Visa The government recently changed
its visa policy and will now issue one-month tourist visas upon entry
Currency £10 = 6 rials
Time difference +4 hrs
Flight time 7½ hrs