One still sees dhows, those light vessels that for hundreds of years cut oceanic vectors from the Arab world into the larger one, around the Muscat harbor. Most are in a part of the port that every taxi driver suggests visiting for its snapshot potential. Big motor yachts are a more common sight now along the coastline; they cruise the immaculate sugary beaches and honeycombed cliffs and rock pools that are being converted, even as I write, into resorts that rise like shining mirages. Or should one say shining Mirages, capital M, in honor of the Las Vegas hotel that seems to be the architectural paradigm in this part of the world?
These places shimmer on the shoreline, developer fantasias replete with manicured golf villages and palm-fringed cart ways and five-star hotels with infinity pools and helipads—malls that proffer all the luxury stuff Gulf States consumers once had to trek to Paris to buy.
It is worth pointing out that many of the travelers I encountered in Oman were locals, rich Saudis lured across the border by the sultanate’s liberal interpretations of Islamic law; rich Iraqis, Kuwaitis, and others from throughout the region less willing than they once were to endure the nuisance and prejudice Muslims encounter in the West; rich Egyptians and Jordanians looking for an outpost of serenity in the most volatile part of the world.
My initial obliviousness to this influx had lulled me into the assumption that lodgings would be easy to come by. That was my first mistake. While there are a number of fine hotels in Muscat, there is really only one place to stay, or so I was repeatedly advised by acquaintances. Getting into the Chedi required finagling by a friend who happens to be a collateral member of the royal family of Kuwait. Never mind that I was traveling at the end of the high season, when daytime temperatures had already started to creep above 100 degrees. The Chedi was packed. And so, as it happened, were the fusty and older Al Bustan Palace and the Shangri-La group’s brand-new Barr Al Jissah Resort & Spa and seemingly every other good hotel around.
If initially this startled me, it was easier to comprehend once I had considered the difficulties presented by some other destinations favored lately by Western travelers seeking escape from the cold. For a lot of people, Thailand and Sri Lanka are still too iffy, even three years after the tsunami. Others are justifiably put off by State Department warnings routinely alerting the Indonesia-bound to covert terrorist cells. There are those, myself among them, who avoid the Caribbean in part because they are bored by shell vendors, parasol drinks, and the reality that the highlight of many West Indian holidays is the prospect of having one’s hair dressed in cornrows.
While it takes more time to fly to Oman from New York than it does, on average, to deliver a baby, the flight from London or Paris is barely eight hours. And the payoff is great, if you get there soon. Adjectives like splendid and stupendous hardly exaggerate the beauty of Oman’s coastline—in particular, one stretch of it south of the capital.
There, Shangri-La has recently obtained government permission to blast and tunnel through a seaside landscape of craggy cliffs and erect a resort whose vaguely kitschy design is rescued by a setting that verges on magical. Although I was lodged at the Chedi, I awoke early one morning and, following a friend’s suggestion, took a taxi down the coast to Shangri-La’s Barr Al Jissah resort. Bluffing my way past the security guards, I padded through the marble lobby, past the pool and its adjacent flume, my goal a stretch of talcum-white sand between two points that bracket the resort like rocky parentheses.
I climbed up a stone platform tricked out to look like a ship, dived into the turquoise water, and swam for the far shore. As I made for the base of a honeycombed cliff, schools of clown-colored fish moved away from my strokes; I used a line of beach umbrellas to align myself with the shore. After a half hour, I pulled up onto the sand and then lay in the sun to dry off. It took a while before I noticed the fanned tracks beside me, made by what I guessed was a sea turtle come ashore to lay eggs.