Stirling, our resident man with a camera, dusts off his pen and scribbles a few notes following a recent sojourn exploring the many wonderful faces of Oman…
I’m sat in the back of a luxury saloon, being driven at a pleasantly swift speed towards the Shangri-La Barr Al Jissah resort where I am expected for lunch. The driver, wearing a blindly white dishdasha, Omani Masar and shades right out of an 80’s spy thriller, occasionally looks back at me via his rearview mirror as I read through my itinerary. The glances continue, they intensify. Did I spill coffee on my shirt at breakfast, has he noticed? How embarrassing. Eventually I put my notes down and look up at him. And that’s when the delighted salutations erupt, “Welcome to Oman!” he beams at me.
His smiles are as radiant as his thawb. I’m then entertained for the rest of the drive with a potted history of a country quite clearly dear to his heart. When the Sultan came to power in 1970 there were only 15k of road, now the infrastructure puts most of Europe to shame, the work on modern and historical cultural sites is outstanding, the Royal Opera House Muscat is a must, and you have to visit Al Hazm Castle. Recent renovations are excellent, as I can attest.
I ask a little about Sultan Qaboos bin Said al Said. It was quickly apparent the Sultan is respected, loved and admired – an affection bordering on reverence. The Omanis are proud of what the Sultan has achieved for their country and the work he has done across the Middle East, a key mediator in the Iranian nuclear deal being a significant feather in his cap.
We arrive at the Shangri-La Barr Al Jissah resort and have lunch on the terrace overlooking the Gulf. The food reflects the local colour, is fresh, well prepared and light enough to keep you wanting just a little more. There are three hotels at the Barr Al Jissah resort complex, each hosting a different experience. You want a family holiday? No problem. Al Waha offers beach, sports and a series of swimming pools. Linking it to Al Bandar hotel is a lazy river; grab a raft, your suntan lotion and hop in. Here you have a town feel with a good selection of restaurants. If you’re looking for that exclusive touch, Al Husn offers the finest luxury in a palatial surrounding.
Along with the 5 star service, guaranteed sun and excellent dining there is also Turtle Beach. You can learn about the conservation programme run by the hotel in their exhibition and chat to the team about the work they are doing to preserve and protect the wildlife. Conservation in Oman is a serious issue, and the reef sitting off the coast is of special interest.
Over dinner that evening we chat about the country a little more and exchange stories with our hosts. I heard many wonderful tales while touring Oman, but my favourite has to be about the letter in the safe. ‘Allegedly’ there is an ultra classified, top secret, eyes only letter in an envelope. That envelope lives in a high security safe in the head of the Omani Army’s office, surrounded by a garrison of elite soldiers, behind barbwire topped walls. The contents of this letter will almost certainly never see the light of day. What could possibly be so important and require this level of security and discretion for something that will probably never be seen?
Well, the Sultan currently has no heir, and succession will be decided by the Sultan and his family before his death, leading to a nice peaceful transition – if, however, that decision hasn’t been made before the Sultan passes, ‘the letter’ contains the name of the next Sultan as unilaterally decided by Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al Said. How thrilling! This is the stuff of a Netflix series to rival The Crown. I must add, this is speculation, and gleaned over dinner and a glass of wine – I’ve never been one to let the truth get in the way of a good story.
Discover more about visiting Oman here.
Stirling’s adventures in Oman continue next week as he heads out into the Gulf and the Ad Dimaniyat Islands for some world class diving…
Photos by Chris ‘Stirling’ Skarratt