It’s while I’m perusing the vast collection of ancient weapons at the Bait Al Zubair Museum in Muscat that the depth of Oman’s history hits me. The first signs of life can be traced back to over 100,000 years ago, while human civilisation seems to have been present for nearly 8,000 years. It’s no surprise, of course, considering its strategic location along the Arabian Gulf, and the country has been controlled by various rulers over millennia, from the Persians to the Portuguese, before the Omanis fought for independence and established the roots of the Sultanate as we know it today.
Against this chequered context, the weapons – as well as other artefacts that showcase Oman’s heritage, from clothing to decor – make perfect sense, as does the nature of the people. They’re simple, friendly, tough and brave, influenced by centuries of war and peace.
I’m exercising a different kind of bravery though as I walk in the afternoon heat of Muscat, the sleepy capital in the northeast of Oman that straddles the sea on one side and weaves through the rugged and arid Hajar Mountains. It’s a taxing kind of hot, one that can leave you drained, but the stark landscape always stirs my heart. All signs of urbanity tend to blur when the mountains and desert, blending into a topaz sea, come into focus.
It’s on days like these that you can catch the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque in all its glittering glory. Built of Indian sandstone, it’s a majestic structure, impressive in its contemporary Islamic design and execution. The main prayer hall has a gorgeous central chandelier and stunning stained glass windows, as well as the world’s second-largest handwoven carpet, all of which unite in ornate harmony.
The desert and sea merge like paradise here, and the landscaped fantasy of Chedi offers the perfect base to visit spots like the Grand Mosque.
I am in Muscat for a quick getaway to explore the city, and experience luxury as a guest of The Chedi, a palm-covered landscaped fantasy flanked by the sea and a private beach and dotted with fountains, pools and water-filled urns – a huge leap from the harsh geography of the city beyond its walls. A 20-minute drive from the airport, it’s a little world of its own, a sort of paradise lost, where the heat is bearable no matter what the temperatures are – even ideal for guests from colder climes such as Russia – and there’s little sense of ruthless realities.
Rustic luxury is the vast property’s most significant characteristic, and nothing about it is pretentious. The Chedi boasts 158 rooms, including stand-alone Chedi Club Suites akin to charming one-bedroom homes. I’m fascinated by the attention to detail: the stationery box with everything you’d need including sharpeners, glue and so on, or a chic and sturdy beach bag so you don’t soil yours. There’s no clutter, no unnecessary brouhaha – just tastefully appointed interiors in dark wood that contrast perfectly with white-washed walls, beige furnishings and chocolate-coloured Venetian blinds. But it’s the massive bathroom – divided into three parts with a humongous terrazzo bathtub as centrepiece – that’s the greatest indicator of the decadence on offer.
No matter how minimalist and contemporary the resort may be though, it still retains a strong Omani identity, and this is not surprising. A sense of heritage is inseparable from the country’s present and permeates every layer of tangible and intangible society. The Omanis are proud of it, proof of which is everywhere, from astounding sights of a timeless city seen from the mountains, to the souks, old city, the well-preserved forts, Sultan’s palace, museums and even the Royal Opera House Muscat. When night falls and traditional tunes reverberate across the city, you realise that it’s not really trying to keep up with modernity but simply progressing at its own pace.
But if you’re looking to just unwind with a book all day or ensconce yourself in the resort, there are several paths to achieving peace of mind. Mornings can be devoted to yoga sessions – the resort’s in-house guru is very encouraging and well-versed in his craft – laps in the 103m Long Pool, floating in the sea as I did, or an hour at the incredibly tropical-looking gym (it’s full of books, classic wood room dividers and floor-to-ceiling Venetian blinds, so yes, it does feel a bit like I’m on my private island), before you hit the spa for a fabulous massage. Its relaxation room overlooks the calm sea, the effect of which rounds off a holistic experience.
However, it’s cuisine where The Chedi scores gold. There are few words that can describe how incredibly fresh the food is – my crab salad with mango for lunch was out-of-the-world spectacular – and how deft the in-house chefs are in dishing out plate after plate of memorable flavours. Try the prawn curry, and the fantastic brunch at The Restaurant, as well as the miso-marinated cod, and the mouth-watering array of desserts, chocolates and macaroons. All too often, we’re obliged to wax eloquent about many things, but I’d go back to The Chedi just for the food in the blink of an eye. Top it all off with a walk down the private beach, bathed in the light of a full moon and listening to the gentle lapping of the waves, and a visit is worth every penny and minute of your time.