At this Oman hideaway you can feel cut off
Zighy Bay is Oman's latest luxury offering. But, asks Sarah Barrell, will guests get any sense of the country it's in?
Sunday 22 June 2008
Oman: it's the big buzz. This sultanate on the Arabian Peninsula is the current travel hot spot, yet few people really know much about it. A trip to Six Senses Hideaway, Zighy Bay – the latest in a new generation of high-end hotels crowning Oman's pristine northern coast – while blissful, won't do much to enlighten you either.
This self-proclaimed "hideaway", a two-hour dusty drive from Dubai – or five from the Omani capital, Muscat – sells itself on being remote. Sitting on the tip of the Musandam Peninsula, an exclave of Oman, separated from the rest of the country by the United Arab Emirates, the hotel is further cut off from civilisation by the near-impenetrable Hajar mountains, from which guests can paraglide 1,600ft down to check in.
Headline-grabbing as this unusual method of entry has been – the resort is also navigable by four-wheel drive transfer for the less adventurous – the mountains cut the resort off from the very thing that put it on the map: Oman. Hideaway hotels suit desert islands, like Six Senses' flagship hotel in the Maldives, where you fly in and flop. Here it makes sense to put your watches forward an hour to the resort's self-appointed time zone, forcing you to rise with the sun and appreciate mother nature's beachy pleasures. But being asked to switch to "Zighy Time" (try saying that without breaking into the MC Hammer dance) somehow feels like further retreating from the country you have come to see.
Since the discovery of oil and the reign of forward-thinking Sultan Qaboos, Oman has developed a reputation as the "most accessible" country in the region. Sandwiched between the get-rich-quick Emirates and Saudi, its distinctive tribal tradition, rich history and outward-looking culture compare favourably for the tourist who wants more than sun and shopping.
Yet for all this eastern promise, Oman is still largely a conservative country where family life dominates and is lived behind closed doors. You have to work hard and cover long distances for your traveller's rewards, but it is worth it: from medieval forts, to souks selling locally tapped frankincense, to the vast Empty Quarter desert captured in Thesiger's classic Arabian Sands. Oman seems a tease of a place to put a "Hideaway".
A nod to Oman's heritage is seen in Zighy Bay's design, after a traditional Omani village, albeit one suited to a superhuman breed of resident. Everything, from the giant raffia gates enclosing each private stone villa to the wooden furniture, is of such oversized rusticity that the family staying next door to me named its villa Jurassic Park.
Once the gates have been shouldered open (with the aid of my personal butler, no less), the white sand and turquoise Gulf of Oman make for a spectacular view, though one that not all rooms are privy to. Why have 79 villas stacked cheek by jowl on such a generous stretch of beach? If you're one of the expat Brits who regularly comes here on a break from Dubai, I suspect this will seem spacious by comparison, but I struggled to retain the exclusive "hideaway" vibe with the sound of next door's pool being dive-bombed by two bored kids. That said, each villa does luxuriate in its own private pool.
Zighy Bay welcomes children but doesn't appear to know quite what to do with them yet. Efforts are made to ensure adults are entertained, from Arabic cooking classes to an impressive spa menu. The food is certainly enough to distract you for a few days – refined Indian curries, sushi, superb Arabic meze – course after decadent course. As in many international franchises, a multi-national staff administers all this. Between my dextrous Jordanian masseur, two friendly Nepali mountain -bike guides, a French female sommelier, Lebanese chef, and Indian waiters, it was hard to find the 10 per cent local staff.
A glimpse of Oman can be found via the hotel's (pricey) excursions. A trip along the deep wadi (dry river bed) that slices through the Hajar offers a crash course in Oman's incredible geology and breaks the monotony of the dusty brown landscape that lends the resort an unfortunate quarry-like setting. A bike trip around the local fishing village, Dibba, revealed a goat to person ratio of 10:1 – and that one person was inside with the doors firmly shut. A less strenuous option is to board a traditional dhow boat and cruise the coast. From the ship, the world seems empty: empty mountains soar out of an empty sea into a vast empty sky. The phrase "round the bend" was coined here by the 19th-century Brits who spent years laying a telegraph cable, living on a rocky islet known as Telegraph Island. The phrase has its origins in the expats' isolation – or in the path of the cable around the peninsula; either way, this place induces a rare, soul-silencing stillness.
On scorched cliff tops, through a heat-haze wobble, a tiny stone village appears as if a mirage, where inhabitants speak a rare dialect that combines Arabic, Farsi, and Portuguese. Further north lies Musandam's fjord country: jagged coastal mountains perforated with vast fjord-like inlets, populated with playful bottlenose dolphins. But from the remoteness of the "hideaway" these exotic villages, like the fjords and, indeed, Oman itself, remain just hidden out of reach.
How to get there
Wellbeing Escapes (0845 602 6202; wellbeingescapes.co.uk) offers seven nights at the Six Senses Hideaway Zighy Bay in Oman from £1,420 per person – including two complimentary nights, a saving of £640. The price is based on two sharing a pool villa and includes return flights on Emirates, transfers, breakfasts and spa treatments. Valid until 31 August.
Oman Tourism Office (020-8877 4524; omantourism.gov.om).
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