It was as Abdullah threw both us and his Toyota Land Cruiser around, revving and sliding over the 100-metre high wind-sculpted dunes of the Wahiba Sands, that I jinxed it by saying: “Great driving!”
Mrs O’s knuckles grew ever whiter beside me. “You just have to know the route,” Abdullah said confidently.
Two minutes later, his brow furrowing, we stopped. He got out, climbed to the top of a dune, looked around, then walked back to the car looking a lot less confident. He started the engine, dropped us down into a dune gully, took a left into another, and slowly came to an unintended stop, revving hard in the soft sand now flying up from the wheels. The car sank, as did our hearts.
After several minutes of making matters worse, Abdullah said he’d have to go and get help. I took his mobile number and watched him clamber off and away, over the red-hot sand, under the midday sun, towards what he thought may be the nearest Bedouin encampment.
Now we’ve all, at some point, been left unexpectedly alone in the middle of the desert in the heat of the day, so we all know how these things work. We discover things about ourselves in those moments. I discovered that Mrs O gets very sleepy when genuinely worried.
Time ticked. And ticked. And ticked. Finally, Abdullah called – he’d got help and was on his way, assuming he could find us again. It was no little relief when he appeared in the passenger seat of another Land Cruiser on the horizon.
The day-long excursion, which incorporated a visit to a Bedouin house and a swim in the natural mountain spring waters of the beautiful Wadi Bani Khalid, had been described in the brochures as a ‘Desert Adventure,’ and it certainly was.
Abdullah, now with burnt feet, had been heroic, a status he later cemented by stopping to help a female driver with children who had broken down by the side of an isolated mountain road.
He’d been our guide a day earlier too, when we visited Jabal Akhdar (Green Mountain) and Nizwa, Oman’s old capital, to see its famed silverware and the lively livestock market on Friday morning, where farmers and traders come from hundreds of miles away to sell and buy animals.
Armed with her new camera, Mrs O was off and away the second we walked through the arch and into the square, in hot pursuit of an Omani infant who was in turn pursuing a goat.
Our base for these exploits was the Chedi in Muscat, a GHM hotel whose Balinese and Swiss offerings have long had the world’s travel press swooning. Its Omani venture is no less spectacular. Journalists who get hosted stays can sometimes feel duty-bound to preen lyrical about their host venue, even if it isn’t all that. This hotel is all that and then some. It is, for many, the best hotel in Arabia.
Neither a look online nor a mid-article rundown of its attributes will do justice to this hotel, located alongside the Sea of Oman, 15 minutes from a new world-class airport and the factory that makes the world’s most expensive perfume, Amouage.
Run by an Englishman, it has three pools, including one measuring 103 metres. If you reach the end, where the yoga master takes early evening classes, you can watch the sun go down. Few things in life beat an Arabian sunset.
In seven years of travel reviews, staying at some of the world’s very best hotels, I’ve only ever given four 10/10 scores, those going to The Grove in Hertfordshire, Belmond’s Villa Sant’Andrea in Sicily, the Chedi in Bali and the Constance Prince Maurice. The Chedi in Muscat makes it five.
Upon my return, colleagues in the editorial office had a thousand questions about the Oman trip, only the second ever by a Jewish newspaper in the UK.
Yes, I’d got in fine, despite having an Israeli stamp in my passport, and yes, they’re absolutely fine with Jews. They like them, in fact. We tend to forget that until the formation of the State of Israel, Jews and Arabs lived alongside one another in the southern Arabian Peninsula, particularly in Yemen next door. Old Omanis still recall with fondness their old Jewish neighbours and friends, who they genuinely miss. It’s touching.
And yes, both Mrs O and I would go back to the Sultanate in a heart-beat. They say the region of Dhofar, and especially Salalah near the coast, is stunning when the rains travel up from India in the summer, dropping the average temperature to the mid-20s. But we may give the dune-bashing a miss next time.
- Oman Air flies direct from London Heathrow to Muscat, taking 7.5 hours. For more details on The Chedi Muscat visit: www.ghmhotels.com