10 reasons why Oman is more luxurious than Dubai


Oman is more Arabia than Armani, more Lawrence of Arabia than Levi jeans, more Sultanate than Starbucks: a dreamy destination increasingly on discerning travellers’ wish-lists. South of brash and glitzy Dubai, Oman is the quiet good-living neighbour.

Sultan Qaboos, the Mr Nice Guy of the world’s absolute rulers, who deposed his father in a coup in 1970, has benevolently dragged his country from medieval to modern. Oman is probably the Arab world’s safest and most tolerant country. You can’t argue with a 0% score on the International Terrorism Index.

People

In Dubai, a contemporary Tower of Babel, almost everyone (around 93%) is from somewhere else: rushing to make a quick Dirham. In stark contrast Oman is peopled by patriotic and proud Omanis.

Take a private tour of Oman, in a spotless 4 x 4, and Abdullah your driver-cum-guide will introduce you to his cousin tending palm trees and an old school friend slicing tuna. Omanis have a tradition of hospitality. Linger in a shop and they will offer you a mint-tea.

Omanis have the greatest luxury of all. Time for each other, time for their guests.

Coastline

With over 1,000 miles of coastline running from the Straits of Hormuz in the North, through the Sea of Oman and the Arabian Sea, Oman has no need to create artificial islands

It is blessed with cobalt-blue seas lapping on to a diverse coastline: sometimes craggy rocks, sometimes lengthy golden sand beaches and sometimes fjords. It is a home to turtles and dolphins while scuba divers enjoy unspoilt coral reefs.

Beaches

Forget Dubai’s beach clubs with pumping techno-beat and beach butlers serving a blingy bronzed clientale. Oman’s beaches are often remote and deserted: magical for a romantic evening or an impromptu BBQ.

If you like your beaches with padded sun-loungers and discrete waiter-service, then the beach at the regal Albustan Hotel on Muscat’s southern fringes, backed by playing fountains could be your elegant base.

Mountains

Looking inland towards Muscat from the traditional dhows bobbing on the Sea of Oman, past the low rise white buildings dotted with mosques’ golden minarets, the backdrop is the crescent of the red-tinged Hajar mountains.

With the remains of monsoon season blowing in from Northern India, Oman’s mountains are well-watered. Fragrant roses are grown for rose-water and when the pickers are hungry they munch on a handful of petals.

Culture

Qaboos ain’t no Sultan of Swing, apologies to Dire Straits, he’s an Opera buff. The palatial Royal Opera House, built to The Sultan’s regal requirements in Muscat, makes Covent Garden look like a budget budget pre-fab.

Not only does the Opera House pull-in some of the world’s top ballet and opera companies – tickets are heavily subsidised by the government too. Book on the website before you travel and remember to pack suitably formal attire.

The open road

With Oman virtually closed to the world in the 1960s and just a handful of visas issued to visitors in the 1970s Oman has never been a mass tourism destination. Remember too, that until the late 1970s, the port of Muscat shut its hefty wooden doors at sundown. And it was only in 1929 that British troops dynamited a road through the mountains to Muscat.

Looking over its shoulder at Dubai’s boom-and-bust rollercoaster, literally and perhaps metaphorically built on sand, Oman has learnt. It deliberately targets the luxury market segment. Those high-spending visitors savour Oman’s sophisticated hotels and also enjoy the open road. Beyond Muscat, traffic hold-ups are merely a theoretical concept.

Life’s good

“Who lives there?” I ask our driver. As we head into the mountains my eyes are drawn to a magnificent, spacious pink-walled villa with astounding views over the valleys, expecting it to be a Government Minister’s weekend retreat.

“A goat farmer. He herds his goats and sells a little cheese.”

Currently oil and mineral rich Oman has no income tax. Sultan-time and the living is easy. No wonder the people smile so much, are so good natured.

Nizwa

Built with the architecture of war: turrets, massive doors and chunky keys Nizwa is Muscat’s former capital. Thick-walled testimony to Oman’s turbulent past. When the siege was intense defenders poured boiling date syrup onto the attackers below.

Surrounded by 44 different varieties of palm trees there’s something biblical about the Nizwa landscape.

Souks

Forget Tunisian hawkers’ in-yer-face tactics and Moroccans’ ceaseless pestering. Oman’s souks are a more laid-back civilised experience. Stalls are piled high with pashminas, spices, bronze ornaments as well as domestic necessities.

The labyrinthine Muttrah souk in Muscat is probably one of the few remaining places on the planet where you can cross gold, frankincense and myrrh off of your shopping list within a few minutes.

Muscat

Admittedly, sometimes you have to queue for the on-arrival visa issued at the airport, but Muscat is one of the world’s most tranquil capitals. It is an elongated ribbon of a city trapped between sea and mountains.

White, gleaming Muscat takes pride in its pristine appearance. Legally motorists may be fined for not washing their car.

In the port there are still traditional dhows ready to trade with the world, just as their sea-faring Omani ancestors have for the last millennium or so.



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5 cool boutique hotels to visit in 2018


Instagrammable gems of the accommodation world, the best boutique hotels deliver memorable escapes with bucket-loads of originality and panache.  Warm, personal service is a given – as are bespoke, well-considered interiors.  Read on for our top-picks to add to your wander-lust wishlist for 2018 and beyond:

Alila Jabal Akhdar, Oman

This clifftop retreat rests 2,000m above sea level in the Hajar Mountains, overlooking Oman’s answer to the Grand Canyon.   Recently listed in the ‘World’s Coolest Hotels for 2017’ by Escapism magazine, the interiors are seriously stylish – and the mesmerising views across the rugged mountain terrain outside are the icing on the cake.

Tempting though it would be to spend your entire holiday being soothed in the sumptuous Spa Alila, the real appeal lies outside.  Take advantage of the hotel’s Leisure Concerige team, who’ll arrange a host of adventure activities with everything from guided hiking trails, to mountain biking, fossil hunting, abseiling and cave exploration.  After dark, head out to the wooden deck for stargazing sessions.

The Library, Koh Samui, Thailand

Easily the best-looking place on the popular Chaweng Beach, this boutique hotel is a great choice if you like a bit of buzz nearby, with the option to escape the hustle and bustle within seconds of returning to the hotel grounds.  The tree-filled grounds are sparsely populated with just 26 luxury studios and suites, allowing ample space to switch-off and rejuvenate.   

Created as a play on the concept of ‘the book,’ each area represents a blank page on which to write your own story.  The idea is you ‘leave your mark’ on the pages (rooms) through the inter-changeable mood lighting and high-tech TV and sound systems.  If all that sounds a bit too ‘arty-farty’ – you can simply enjoy the resort’s sleek minimalist feel, relaxed vibes, and the eye-catching blood-red pool.

Like the rest of the hotel, the cuisine at The Library is very artistic – with a varied menu of sophisticated Thai and Western dishes served in uber-modern surroundings.

Blue Karma Ubud, Bali

With a scattering of private villas dotted around a pretty swimming pool with a backdrop of rice paddies and jungle scenery, Blue Karma Ubud is exactly what you’re looking for from a boutique hotel in Bali’s countryside.  Tropical butterflies float past the rooms, which are designed in the style of traditional Javanese huts with contemporary natural furnishings.

The hotel has its own Yoga pavilion – and there are lots of hiking trails and organic restaurants all within walking distance.  The hotel’s Blue Spa is another highlight – you can’t leave without being soothed by a Balinese massage, an aloe-vera facial or traditional hot stone therapy.

Keemala, Pattaya, Thailand

The highlights here are the tree-house style pool villas, which sit perched amongst the glorious greenery of Thailand’s Kamala rainforest.

The hotel bills itself as a ‘holistic’ retreat – which means yoga, spa treats, healthy eating and trips to the local national park top the to-do list.  If that all sounds like a bit too much ‘wellness’, rest assured the Mala Bar offers a extensive range of signature cocktails, which are best enjoyed whilst watching the sunset from the open deck overlooking the beach and the mountains beyond.

Nearby you’ve got a choice of beaches to suit various personalities – from the lively hotspot of Patong with its bustling bars and restaurants, to the lesser-known Nai Thon, ideal for swimming and romantic strolls along the sands.

Na Narind Boutique Resort Chiang Mai, Thailand

Tucked away down a quiet street overlooking the Ping Riverside near to Chiang Mai Old town, this charming hideaway is perfect for a romantic escape.  You’ll be greeted with a welcome that’s as warm as the tropical Chiang Mai weather by the infinitely-accommodating staff.

Designed in the colonial style of a 19th century Thai house, the hotel has a warm, comfortable ambience.  There are just 45 rooms, each with their own patio or private balcony.  All are decorated with carvings, handmade furniture and woven textiles, showcasing the skills of local craftspeople.

Facilities include a Lanna-style spa, gym, and library.  There’s also a restaurant, which features a rooftop bar offering impressive views over the Ping River and the giant 100-year-old rain tree that stands as the resort’s centrepiece.

Spencer Groves is Commercial Director at letsgo2.

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