Its very name evokes the exoticism of the unexplored. Guy Trebay delves into the endless sands, pristine seas, and secret heart of the Arab world’s surprising new destination.
Frederic Lagrange The terrace and reflection pool at Al Husn hotel
| Credit: Frederic Lagrange

The Discovery Channel epiphany occurred at the end of my journey and, as in fables, only after I had stopped expecting very much. It happened on the water in the Gulf of Oman, the turquoise sea into which Sinbad the Sailor once set off on his seven fantastical voyages. It happened at pretty much the moment I decided I was done with Oman.

By then I had visited the famous souk in Muscat, Oman’s capital, and found its modest scale and drowsy lanes and stalls heaped with chunks of crude coral and silver not altogether as enchanting as the Aladdin’s cave I’d been led to expect. I had also seen the vast sand formations that ripple on forever— perhaps too much forever, as I am not the first to have observed.

Travelers like the indomitable Englishman Wilfred Thesiger remarked of this landscape that it is among the least hospitable of places, crawling with scorpions and brigands (then and now), scorching hot in daylight, cold as Mars by night, and not in any obvious way worthy of the romantic associations implied by the title Thesiger gave to his account of the place: Arabian Sands.

From a marketing standpoint Arabian Sands has a priceless ring, conjuring up as it does the Orientalist hokum that proved so valuable to T. E. Lawrence and equally to early Hollywood. The generations of readers who have kept Thesiger’s volume in print must have been drawn to it for the same reasons that once caused moviegoers to swoon over Valentino in The Sheik: desert-plus-camel-plus-dark-eyed-Arabs equals boffo box office.

Or at least the recipe worked that way in the distant time before Al Qaeda’s war on infidels. It is instructive to contemplate—in an era when our politicians can make global news by opposing the wearing of head scarves—that there once was a day when, for Westerners, the Arab was some kind of erotic ideal.

So what if most movie Arabs came from the Bronx or Nebraska and were darkened up with Max Factor’s Natural No. 2?So what if the movies’ rippling dunes were actually in California?The real desert, the one that nearly swallowed Thesiger alive as he attempted what no white man had before—a full exploration of the vast and eerily named Empty Quarter on camelback—is a lot less romantic, less gorgeously yielding in person. To be honest, a lot of it looks like a gravel mine.

But do not mention this to the hordes of international travelers now flocking to a country that two years ago hardly anyone lacking a foreign policy degree could place on the map.

"You’re going to Omaha?" a startled friend exclaimed when I mentioned my itinerary.

"Oman," I replied.

"Oh, Jordan," she said, reassured. "I hear Petra is very nice."

"Well, almost," I said, and left it at that.

One can hardly hold it against people for failing to know of a country that shows up on maps largely as a vacant appendage to the immensity of Saudi Arabia, a cartographic dog tooth jutting into the Gulf of Oman. Yet, in that pesky way it has, the avant-garde of international travel has suddenly fallen upon this non-place, a onetime British protectorate known in the past mainly as a sleepy outpost of fisherfolk, merchants in silver and frankincense, and dealers in illegal goods. Unsavory as it is, Oman’s reputation as a nexus of global contraband has historic dimensions; in former centuries the capital, Muscat (now Masqat), was a major stop on the slave-trade route. It was to Muscat that human cargo was shipped in dhows from Zanzibar, the East African island of romantic name and unfragrant reputation, long ago a possession of Oman.

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.

When I followed the tracks into a cavern of sorts, I discovered that the turtle’s cache had been staked already and flagged by hotel employees. Surrounding it was the kind of barrier rope one finds outside hot clubs. The sight was quite welcome to a traveler recently come from Dubai, a grim land of manmade islands and indoor ski slopes and machine-generated waves, where in the battle between man and the environment, Mother Nature stands no chance.

As at some of the thriving resorts on Dubai, there are elements of the Barr Al Jissah that summon up a Middle East Epcot Center. There are three hotel pods accommodating various clientele (business, family, the ultra-elite), a bunch of themed restaurants, and a multinational staff that, typical of the service sector in the Gulf States, includes almost no one from Oman. This phenomenon I initially encountered as a reporter in Kuwait during Operation Desert Storm, the first Gulf War. Kuwaitis, I found then, are served but do not serve, and in this, as in some other ways, the region has not changed much between 41 and 43.

At Shangri-La’s resort, and also the Chedi, the waitresses are Burmese, the masseurs Indonesian. The chefs are European, the pool boys are Indian. There are practical as well as cultural reasons why this would be so, I knew: secondary education only came to the Oman sultanate three decades ago, when the current ruler, Sultan Qaboos, overthrew his father, Sa’id bin Taimur, in a coup.

For the first half of the 20th century, Oman was off-limits to outsiders, and even as recently as 1970 the place then still known as Muscat and Oman had few roads or schools and a hard silver currency first minted for an Austrian empress who had died more than two centuries before.

One still finds these Maria Theresa talers at the souk, polished and sold alongside resinous hunks of the frankincense that is burned everywhere in little braziers and whose odor, for anyone raised Christian, can trigger an involuntary urge to genuflect. There are varying grades of the stuff, as I learned when I found myself haggling for bags of small white incense pebbles, not because I had any intention of using them at home but because there were few other souvenirs that seemed regionally particular.

I remark on this only because the world seems defined these days less by variety than by a dismal material sameness. More and more, the reasons that motivate some of us to leave home in the first place seem to be vanishing. Those exotic lands of childhood fantasy are quickly becoming international limbos, the vivid singular patterns of place much harder to pick out from the wallpaper of globalized culture. This is not in every instance an undesirable thing, I remembered, when I needed cash to continue haggling at the souk and ran a few steps outside to get some from an ATM. Still, the truth is that one does not spend 16 hours aloft at 37,000 feet in an aluminum canister hurtling through the clouds without an innate desire to experience the unexpected. I kept this in mind one day as a driver I’d hired tore along an immaculate highway cut through 135 miles of stony gray nothingness and then abruptly pulled off onto a rutted road near the village of Al Mintirib.

There, a sign pointed the way toward the Wahiba Sands and there too began a David Lean landscape of fantastical sand mountains, principally pink-orange in color but also in places a mottled fawn and rose-red and, where the shadows blanketed the dunes, an enveloping deep brown. The Wahiba dunes extend for thousands of square miles; bedouin nomads are said to inhabit them, subsisting on what, I have no idea.

Reading Thesiger teaches one to understand that the barrenness of deserts is deceptive: the beautiful and inhospitable blankness is a veil. Things live there: creatures that camouflage themselves against desert colors, avoid the brutal light of daytime, and appear in their skittish or poisonous multitudes only by night. Yet we saw nothing at all beyond a scruffy shepherds’ encampment, a collection of corrugated sheds built around a life-giving tube well.

It didn’t matter. We were joyriding, which is the real reason most anyone drives out this far. Activating the four-wheel-drive on his SUV, the driver pulled off the main track and began climbing the first of a series of monster dunes at what felt like a treacherous pitch. People have died doing this, or so one surmises from Lonely Planet’s delicate injunction to skip the area if not accompanied by an experienced guide and well supplied with water and food. Vehicles turn over. Cars get mired in the sand. Their occupants presumably wind up lost and dead and looking like those bleached-out bone piles I associate with Yosemite Sam cartoons.

That there have been, as the guidebook warned, "a few tragic incidents over the years" was not in the least a deterrent to the driver, who spent the next two hours testing the limits of both gravity and my grit. His game was to reach the pinnacle of some 300-foot dune and gun the engine for the edge, driving into what appeared to be sheer space.

The physics of dune driving exceed my comprehension. But I can report that after the first drop—when the car nosed to the crest of a dune, tipped sharply downhill, and, its weight settling reassuringly onto the rear axle, proceeded to skid down the smooth sand face at great speed—I spent most of that roller-coaster afternoon in a state of bracing, near-hysterical fear.

It was fun for a while, although perhaps not so much fun for me as for the driver, who took a sadistic glee in my white-knuckled silence and merrily slipped in a tape of thumping American house music on the return to Muscat. “I used to be a DJ in Mombasa,” he smiled, as I reminded myself to be more diligent about checking credentials before getting into strangers’ cars.

It happened that the afternoon’s disorientation became a kind of leitmotif for the trip and possibly also a metaphor for all travel in the lands of insh’allah. The philosophical essence of Islam’s deep-rooted fatalism is derived from the belief that God is in the driver’s seat and one is merely along for the cosmic ride. This, as much as the feeling of chic sequestration I experienced at the Chedi, turned out to be the value of the journey for me. As often as I found myself thwarted in efforts to make sense of disturbing local customs—women, veiled or otherwise, are almost altogether absent from public space—I was also bound to concede that what confused me most was my own expectations.

This is the traveler’s dilemma wherever one goes; increasingly, it is the politician’s as well. For all that Sultan Qaboos has done to move his country into the 21st century—building scores of schools and 2,000 mosques, introducing parliamentary elections in which women stand as candidates—Oman is and remains in many ways an antique land. Even now, road maps are startlingly blank, a few principal highways intersected by faint dotted lines that, in some cases, indicate camel trails used for millennia. True, the country’s numerous mud forts, with their squat walls and Lego crenellations, have been spruced up for tourist consumption, and true, too, the coast is fast becoming another regional variant of Dubai’s Vegas-sur-Mer.

Yet all one has to do to leave modern for biblical Oman is to travel inland to an oasis like Wadi Bani Awf, descend a rocky path through terraced farm plots, and enter a palm-fringed walkway by a stream linking a sequence of spring-fed rock pools. This place I am talking about was once part of a prehistoric ocean bed and it has the smoothed and folded appearance of geologies burnished by wind and ancient seas. One afternoon I hired a car to drive me to the wadi so I could hike down through the gorge. It was a scorching day, but the air beneath the streamside date palms stayed cool. The hike was far from strenuous, more like a brisk walk, and for most of it I was alone. Then I turned a corner and happened upon a group of holiday makers bathing, air pockets trapped beneath their white dishdashas, giving them the jaunty look of blimps or bladders or floats in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. The antic impression they made owed a lot to their lavish woolly beards. That and the fact that they were all still wearing their shoes.

For the first time during my visit, I was able that night to score a table at the Chedi’s terrace restaurant and had a meal that was delicious, although memorable mainly for being indistinguishable from one I might order in New York or Milan. There was a good white Burgundy on the wine list and I ordered it. Slightly tired from the hike and also slightly buzzed, I slept soundly that night and rose early for an outing I’d planned for no other reason than that I’d run out of other things to do.

Actually, this is only partly the case, since in Oman there are many so-called adventures to be found—trips to wadis where one swims through semi- subterranean pools to immense cave systems, trips to turtle hatcheries in a protected and little-visited region in the north, camel treks for those foolish enough to think that fun is setting off for the desert atop a flat-footed, ornery spitting machine. Most of these outings require more than a modicum of traveler’s esprit; distances are long in this deceptive country, and it costs more time to experience Oman than the average western traveler can afford.

So I booked one of those silly boat rides that promises encounters with dolphins, although as someone who spent part of his twenties crewing on rich men’s sailboats, I have had my share of close encounters with Flipper and his kind. The morning was mild and with a milky haze. My companions on the little tourist boat were three young German women with, between them, a lot of tattoos. The captain looked to be barely 20, which didn’t trouble me. The Gulf of Oman that morning was, to use an indelicate phrase favored by nautical buddies, flatter than piss on a platter.

I expected that we would chug out, putter around for a while, and turn for home, and this is what we did, more or less. It is only in an effort to avoid sounding like Steve Irwin, though—still living then and crazily jabbering "Crikey!" on television—that the sentences that follow are not written entirely in italics.

We saw dolphins that morning, all right, several species and in romping cavorting posses of 10 or so. They leaped and planed in the boat’s wake. They gathered around and rolled their intelligent eyes to regard us whenever the captain shut the engine down. A group of bottlenose appeared an hour out of port and indicated that they were up for a race. The captain got the message, throttled up, and zoomed after them into the deep. Abruptly they lost interest in the game and sunk from sight, as if by mysterious command. And it was only then that the whales came into view.

Was it 20 minutes or three hours that we spent following the playful pod of what appeared to be two cows and two calves?I can barely recall.

What I remember from that morning is them gamboling, nudging the boat’s bow, leading us farther into the sea with signals that felt like a cetacean variant of the come-hither look. I remember, too, the adrenaline charge that tends to accompany those fugitive moments when contact is made with a mammalian cousin across what the critic John Berger once termed the unbridgeable abyss. From that particular outing I recall, with almost eerie clarity, the flat yolk of the sun, the biscuit-colored cliffs, the glistening blue-gray of the whales as they crested to drink deeply the air of a very fine day in the Gulf of Oman.

Guy Trebay is a reporter at the New York Times.