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Roughly the size of Italy, the Sultanate of Oman provides a breadth of travel experiences that might surprise the uninitiated. Thanks to one of the region’s most diverse and rugged topographies, the country really does have something for everyone: For every white-sand beach to relax on, there’s an unforgettable historical site to visit or an awe-inspiring mountain to hike.
International hospitality brands are taking notice, with Anantara opening two luxury properties late in 2016 to add to the country’s glistening inventory of sprawling seaside resorts and gilded palaces turned hotels. And with improved travel infrastructure, getting to do it all has never been easier. So if you haven’t been, now is the time to add the Sultanate to your list of travel goals.
Below, a quick guide to three different ways to see the country.
In the City
Oman’s port capital of Muscat is unlike any of its regional neighbors in that it has eschewed the modern glamor they’ve championed in favor of a more modest throwback style. Because of official construction regulations, you won’t find tallest-of-the-world anything here. Instead, most buildings top off at five stories tall and are swathed in traditional white. But the capital impresses with natural landmarks rather than with man-made ones: The sea and the mountains that frame sprawling Muscat not only make it a picturesque city but also a well-rounded destination that can offer an intoxicating mix of activities.
Culture hounds can hit up the stunning Grand Mosque (seeing the Persian carpet that measures a mammoth 230 feet by 196 feet is worth the entry fee alone) and the Bait al Zubair, a private museum dedicated to showcasing the grandiose culture and history of Oman (the collection of jewelry from the 19th and 20th century is especially alluring), or spend an afternoon shopping for colorful souvenirs at Mutrah souk—a fine place to stock up on frankincense.
Then, call on the experts at Remote Lands to organize more difficult-to-access excursions including a day trip to Wadi Al Arbeieen, one of the most impressive of the area’s wadis, valleys that are typically dry unless it’s the rainy season. At Wadi Al Arbeieen, a 90-minute drive from the capital deep into the Hajar Mountains, you can hike, discover hidden waterfalls, and swim while your guide (along with a local host) sets up an Arabic feast in a traditional Bedouin tent.
Where to Stay
Located 10 minutes away from Muscat’s Old Town, beachfront Al Bustan Palace was originally built in 1985 to host Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al Said and his guests during the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) summit. (In fact, the ninth floor is still only accessible to government officials and their entourages.)
With the Hajar Mountains behind it, the palace sits on a long stretch of private beach and is surrounded by lush gardens with towering palm trees. On property, it’s all about over-the-top glamor fit for royalty: soaring lobbies, hand-carved decorative wood panels, spacious rooms, four tennis courts (with a pro on-hand to deliver lessons), and a fantastic Six Senses spa with a ladies-only beach. From $505; Al Bustan Street, Quron Beach, Muscat; 968-24/799-666; ritzcarlton.com
In the Mountains
Previously untrodden parts of Oman’s Hajar mountain range are beginning to open to luxury tourism, especially Jebel Akhdar, which includes some of the highest points of the region and has recently welcomed high-end accommodations from international hospitality brands.
Jebel Akhdar’s altitude allows it to receive ample rainfall—a rarity in this otherwise desert landscape—which means some of the mountain slopes have been terraced for farming: fragrant roses swathe the plateau in bright greens and pinks during the spring months. April is the best time for a trek up to Oman’s jagged mountain range, which is a treasure trove for those who enjoy exploring on foot.
Butterfield and Robinson offers walking itineraries through Oman, but you’ll want to opt for the bespoke option to get a truly customized trip, especially in Jebel Akhdar, which is filled with unexpected surprises. Your Butterfield guide can have you discovering Oman’s historic capital of Nizwa, which has a glorious 100-foot drum-like tower, and hiking the mountains before settling for a daredevil picnic lunch at the edge of a canyon. But if you’re up for more thrilling activities, demanding hikes up and down Jebel Akhdar’s peaks and through wadis are also available.
Where to Stay
Perched over 6,500 feet above sea level against the edge of a canyon, Anantara Al Jabal Al Akhdar set the the luxury standard in the region when it opened in November 2016. Its low-lying design, which is meant to evoke typical Omani structures, doesn’t distract from its stunning natural surrounds. But there’s nothing subtle about the opulence on offer.
Its 82 rooms come with jaw-dropping views of the mountains while 33 villas are outfitted with their very own plunge pools. All of them are done up in contemporary local style, with intricate wood pieces custom-created by artisans and framed images by Omani photographers.
The spa here is especially transporting, with a women’s-only pool and a stunning all-marble hammam around which the entire space orbits. In-house guides can also take you on hikes around the property as well as to nearby villages, many of which are deserted but for a family or two. But if you want an adrenaline rush, you can abseil down the edge of the resort. From $322; No 110, Al Jabal Al Akhdar, Nizwa; 968-25/218-000; anantara.com
By the Sea
Sun worshippers and beach bums, too, have plenty to look forward to on an Omani holiday. In Salalah, right at the edge of the country’s border with Yemen, the beaches take on a variety of personalities. There are blue-water nirvanas that evoke the do-nothing allure of the Caribbean while other parts are wild and craggy, like Fazayah with its lush cliffs butting up against the shore.
Mughsayl, about an hour from the center of Salalah, has a similarly hilly vibe, with six kilometers of serene white-sand beach dotted with blowholes where seawater shoots up from the ground in jets. But the best thing about this pocket of Oman is that you can combine doing nothing under a beach umbrella with plenty of cultural and historical activities.
It’s fabled that Salalah has been visited by the likes of Sinbad and Marco Polo, and the ruins of Al Baleed, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, was once an eighth century port for the frankincense trade—so there’s definitely more to do here than just work on a tan. Remote Lands can organize the kind of excursions that blend the historic with the cultural—think everything from visiting the tomb of the biblical prophet Job to exploring a castle and traditional stone house in the fishing village of Taqa to learning how dhows are made.
Where to Stay
The latest entry into Salalah’s hospitality scene is the Al Baleed Resort Salalah by Anantara. Suites with private pools as well as direct beach access—the resort is between the beach and a lagoon—are the most luxurious in town. But more importantly, the property has some of the best dining options around. The Thursday night seafood buffet at Sakalan is a surprisingly gourmet affair while Mekong offers fantastic Vietnamese and Thai cooking.
The hotel is located right next to the Al Baleed ruins and the Museum of the Frankincense Land, and the concierge can act as a tour guide for both. And if you’re feeling really adventurous, they can take you on a half-day 4x4 tour of the Empty Quarter, whose dramatic sand dunes will provide the backdrop to your trip’s most beautiful selfies. From $239; Al Baleed Salalah; 968-23/228-222; anantara.com