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travel connoisseur PALACE in wonderland T he place to stay in Muscat if you want to experience traditional Omani hospitality is the award-winning five-star Al Bustan Hotel, a converted Omani palace set into the dramatic mountainous backdrop. We fell out of the desert and into reception, smelling of the morning’s campfire. Our jeep was wearing a thick coat of dust and sand. As the valet opened the door, our camping stove and noodle packs followed. Not a brilliant start. The entrance takes your breath away. The ‘lobby’ is an eight-storey ornate Arabian dome with a fountain seven feet high, tinkling harp, high-tea area in the centre and the largest chandelier I have ever seen. The hotel boasts a 50-metre infinity pool, four lagoon pools that hug the palace with private jetties and a one kilometre private beach, all set into the 200-acre palatial gardens. To add to this, the hotel is opening a Six Senses Spa, and the mysterious and heavily guarded ninth floor is an actual palace for visiting dignitaries. Tempting although it is to stay ensconced in the hotel, it is easy to explore the old city of Muscat from the Al Bustan. Visits to Mutrah souk – a treasure trove of antiques, fabrics, spices and gold – and the morning Fish Market (if your nose and stomach can handle it) are not to be missed. Aside from the slippery dunes of The Empty Quarter, the driving doesn’t get harder than the journey up to the Salmah Plateau. Engaging the 4WD low range, our jeep rolled perilously up the shifting graded tracks. Taking hours to complete even the smallest distance at a ridiculous angle, with dangerously tight switchbacks and nothing between you and a several hundred-metre drop on one side, for the adventure driver, this is heaven. When you’re not gripping the car door, this seemingly never-ending 1,500-metre ascent offers breathtaking views of the gorges and canyons below. On the Plateau, stone ‘wolf traps’ are scattered along the vast lunar landscape, there is an eerily abandoned airstrip and to the West are the famous Majlis al Jinn Caves; 130-metre deep holes in the mountainside, these caves are apparently big enough to fit three Boeing 747s. Camping at this cool altitude is bliss, if you ignore the chorus of mosquitoes and the inch-long red and gold hornets (a problem throughout this region). Somewhat incongruously, we were woken at sunrise by a group of ten-year-old goat herders in crisp white dishdashas and the Omani kuma hat, asking for Pepsi. Pepsi and water are a serious currency in the depths of the desert, and useful thank-you gifts to kind locals when you’re lost. Oman is famous for two things: frankincense and turtles. A 15,000-year-old industry, the history of the Omani incense trade features world-famous customers from the Magi in the Bible to the legendary Queen of Sheba and King Solomon. Frankincense, made from the gum of the frankincense tree that can be found all over the country, helped Oman stretch its empire as far as Africa and India in its heyday of the 17th century. The history of the Omani turtles is less positive: in the past, Oman has been criticised for not controlling tourists who apparently reigned free on the beaches, photographing, hassling and even, in some cases, riding the turtles, but it is thankfully a different story now. The easternmost tip of Oman at Ras al-Jinz sees around 30,000 turtles nest on its beaches every year, protected by the Ras al-Jinz Sanctuary and Visitor Centre. They run guided tours of the beaches by local turtle experts at 9pm every night. Even though out of season, we saw seven females laying their eggs and a group of babies nudging their way through the sand to the sea. It is truly magical to watch these noble creatures at such a key moment under the stars, especially as fewer than one in 1,000 turtles makes it to adulthood. For a two-week trip, to continue south along the coast, over the sand dunes, the Subka salt-crusted mudflats and Rub’ al-Khali (Empty Quarter) as an amateur, in one car, is potentially fatal. To make the most of the area and the terrain, book a tour. Abercrombie & Kent provides tailormade luxury tours of the Empty Quarter down to Salalah. Treading in the footsteps of Thesiger, expert guides in shiny SUVs do the hard work for you and nights are spent under the stars in original goat-hair Bedouin tents. For the finale of the off-road adventure, we crossed Hajar mountain range via the perilous Wadi Bani Awf to reach the highest peak in Oman, Jebel Shams (Sunshine Mountain). Wadi Bani Awf, just south of Rustaq, is a favourite of serious hikers. The most famous hike is the four-hour expedition through Snake Canyon. Jumping 20 feet into rock pools, swimming through ravines and scrambling over car-sized boulders are just some of the obstacles. It can be a little risky as, once you’ve jumped, you can’t go back and if it starts to rain, flash floods through these canyons occur in seconds. There is a shorter (and safer) version at Little Snake Canyon with lagoons and gorges just as beautiful. A short drive was Jebel Shams, famous for the breezily named “Balcony Walk”. This route takes you dangerously close to the drop into Oman’s answer to the Grand Canyon. At the end of the walk is the last thing you expect to find; a village. This marked the end of the trip. Despite the difficulties the country has faced, Oman is a real-life Eden and a welcoming, multicultural society, where Swahili is spoken as readily as Arabic, and where Portuguese architecture is fused with Indian and African elements. Dusty and exhausted, we had driven 2,500 kilometres through stunning mountains, beaches, sand dunes, canyons and wadis. “You’ll be back,” winked the border guards (who proved to be a cheery lot). Inshallah. n Image by Ewan Cameron Part two of her 2,500-kilometre odyssey through Oman: Bel Trew gets to grips with off-roading, 45° climbs and 1000-metre drops, but not before a quick, palatial pit stop For detailed maps and information about all the places visited, purchase Oman Off Road RRP £26 (approximately) Al Bustan Palace Hotel PO Box 1998, Muscat 114, Oman +968 24 79 96 66 £1,458 per person (based on a 7-night stay) Abercrombie & Kent tailor-made tour £2,598 per person (based on a 7-night stay) Ras al-Jinz Reserve Ash Sharqiyah, Oman +968 96 55 06 06 2

Off Road In Oman Part 2

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