My Family Adventure: A Winter in Oman
By: Sarah Wikenczy (currently based in Jerusalem)
After a tense few months coupled with the harried schedules of school, work and life’s other daily challenges, we were looking forward to a brief winter escape that was a world away from Jerusalem but that wouldn’t require more than a few hours of travel. Oman was our destination of choice and it was just what this family needed. A glorious mix of warm Gulf waters, rocky mountain terrain and soft sandy desert. Against these stunning backdrops we discovered quiet little hamlets scattered about filled with delicious eats, winding souqs and lots of friendly people.
Where to go?
Our route: Muscat – Shangri-La Barr Al Jissah Resort and Spa – Wahiba Sands Desert – Ras al Jinz – Muscat
We flew into Muscat and the airport is just outside the city center. While there are many options in which to stay in Muscat, we decided to head south out of the city to a quieter locale. We are not typically a resort type of family, but the Shangri La Barr Al Jissah Resort and Spa had come highly recommended and it did not disappoint. For a few glorious days, this was just the scene we needed.
The resort is in a secluded bay where there are three separate properties in the same nook. At one end there is the most child-friendly hotel, in the middle one a bit more expensive, and at the other end an upscale adult only hotel. We stayed in the child-friendly hotel since it was the least expensive, but we opted to eat our meals in the middle hotel since the restaurant options were more ‘adult friendly’ if you will.
Throughout the day, the resort offered an array of activities in which one could indulge. There are a series of pools across the properties including a ‘lazy river’ that connected the first two properties, where you can hop in and out on a large inner tube and sail along. My son used this as his main form of transport between the properties and never tired of the ride.
If you prefer the Gulf waters there is a large beach for the two main properties and a separate one for the adult only hotel. The soft sand and many shaped shells scattered about made for inviting strolls along the coast. The waters are sufficiently calm and shallow so that swimming is safe for children and there is even free snorkeling equipment. In the mornings it is easy to spot tons of small, colourful fish along the rock jetty at the edge of the beach. There are also kayaks for free that can be used to explore nearby coves and to spot turtles during the hatching season.
In between snorkeling, swimming and kayaking, there is plenty to do on land as well. Soccer games and tennis lessons are organized for the kids leaving time for the parents to hit the gym or indulge in the spa. The gym was nice but with all the glorious scenery, a run outside was far more compelling. The spa offered a relaxing indulgence of Jacuzzis, sauna and steam, and a massage that was quite amazing.
When you are ready for a break from the beach, the resort provides transport to different spots around greater Muscat to visit the sites of the city at your own pace. There are a number of local souqs to roam through and shop for Arabian treats, gold and wares as well as museums and mosques to visit.
The resort provided the much needed change of scenery we desired. It was a treat to have these activities at hand and just to escape the intensity of our daily lives. After recharging for a few days, we rented a 4×4 to see a bit of the country.
Our first stop was the Wahiba Sands Desert. At a pre-arranged pit stop, we connected with our hosts from the Nomadic Desert Camp. We followed them out from the paved road to a dirt road which then eventually opened up into a desert made up of rolling mountains of endless soft golden sand. As soon as we arrived at the camp, my son was barefoot running up and down the sand hills surrounding the camp. Nomadic Desert Camp is quite basic but filled with a lot of character. Each tent is covered in thatch and provided a sleeping area inside and a sitting area outside. There are a series of showers and ‘squatty potties’ at the back of the compound and one main tent at the front for eating and relaxing.
We spent the late afternoon testing our sand driving skills. Needless to say, there were many entertaining moments usually involving being stuck in the sand! Our hosts brought us to a lovely mountainous area where we hiked to the top of a series of hills (in between rolling down the sands) to watch the sunset. At dusk, we had Arabic coffee and dates by the fire before heading off in the twilight back to camp. That evening we were treated to a simple but delicious Bedouin dinner followed by dessert under a million stars. It was chilly at night, to say the least, but the hot tea and camp fire kept us warm and cozy. After a sound sleep, we awoke early to a steaming mug of coffee to watch the sunrise before heading off on a camel ride through the desert. Needless to say, not your usual start to the day.
That afternoon we slowly made our way out of the desert and back toward the coast to an area further south called Sur in search of turtles. Oman has many species of sea turtles and the Green Turtles are plentiful in a coastal reserve area called Ras al Jinz. Unfortunately, December is the end of the season for the turtle viewing and owing to a couple windy days, there were no sightings on the day we visited. Between July and October is the best time to view the turtles when thousands come to shore to nest and then hatch. I am sure it is amazing to witness but alas we missed this round.
Sadly this brought about an end to our adventures in Oman. We headed back to Muscat to spend a day with old friends before heading home. If we had extra days, we would have ventured to Nizwa which is about an hour and half drive inland from Muscat. There are some amazing UNESCO heritage sites and ancient villages to visit amid beautiful scenery. Sadly we couldn’t squeeze it in on this trip.
The other spot that sounds terrific if visiting in the summer is Salalah which is about a 12 hour drive from Muscat or a one hour flight. That very southern tip of the country experiences a tropical climate and monsoon rains so from June through August from the mountains to the coast are covered in green and there are streams and waterfalls to explore on long hikes as well as hidden coves filled with vibrant blue waters. Next time!
The Best Part:
- Oman has developed in an organic way that reflects its Arabian heritage and culture, and unlike its neighbours, there are no shiny glass towers rising out of the sands or flashy sports cars racing around. Oman is quiet and serene.
- The Omanis are very welcoming, friendly and warm, making it a pleasure to visit and sight see.
- To say the landscape is stunning is an understatement. Each direction you turn provides another breathtaking vista.
Three Things to Consider:
- Although it is more expensive, it is worth renting a decent 4×4 because a lot of what you will want to explore is off road either on rocky terrain or in fine soft sand.
- Invest some time in planning your itinerary especially if you have never been in the region. We barely scratched the surface, had limited time and intentionally opted to not do certain activities such as hiking and exploring the wadis since we can do that nearby home, but can imagine it is quite an adventure to do in Oman.
- If you have a couple weeks you can combine your trip with a visit to another country in the region. Oman and Qatar are trying to promote joint tourism between the two countries and offer a shared visa, and you don’t need more than a couple days to visit Qatar. You can drive from Dubai to Muscat as well if you want to visit the UAE. There is also an interesting spot in Oman called Ras al-Khaimah where you can ride a traditional dhow, see dolphins and has great snorkeling and diving, but it is reached more conveniently from Dubai.
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For more information and photos on the Shangri-La Barr Al Jissah Resort & Spa in Muscat, read Esme Taylor’s review here.