Mary Gostelow heads to the Sultanate of Oman
First, let us visit Oman’s capital, Muscat, and where better to stay than The Chedi, that luxury hotel that still looks as pristine and beautiful as it did when it opened on the Al Khuwair coast in 2003? Over lunch, its far-sighted owner, Pankaj Khimji, explained his vision. For six years this true lover of luxury had planned and put the resort together, getting the lease on the land, and financing, and a management agreement with GHM, led by Hans Jenni and Adrian Zecha, who had introduced him to Jean-Michel Gathy who designed it, and so on and so forth. But Khimji never stands still. He realised that wellness would become even bigger business, and in 2010 the resort added a 96-metre pool, the longest in the Middle East, and, parallel to it, an extension of the inside wellness area.
The building houses the spa, which now has 12 rooms – and almost as many products, ranging from Aromatica through to Voya. It also has one of the most luxurious gyms. The latest pieces of Technogym are separated by fretwork screens, not so much for privacy as overall ambience. But this is the kind of thoughtful place where ambience and feng shui are naturally omnipresent. The main pool, for instance, has sail-like awnings overhead to give the shade that is so welcome when the temperature soars to over 40 degrees Celsius, as it is right now. Similarly, just as at The Setai, Miami Beach – which also opened as a GHM hotel – fences, here in the form of meticulously-trimmed hedges, break lounging areas into more compact spaces.
I would not mind having shares in the white paint used here in this 158-room beauty: some of the 305 staff members, of whom 60% are local, must be painting nonstop. Every building is white, apart from wooden doors. Rooms range from those in the three-floor main block to single, and two-floor, freestanding villas. I was downstairs, #1004, a 60sqm Club Suite, which has the calm of The Setai, or Bangkok’s Sukhothai in days past. I looked out to the beach, and across acres of manicured lawn and decorative pools. Think Versailles. There are no coloured flowers growing here. It is lawn and grasses, natural stone, and white. For a colour fix, head for the main lobby, with its yellow tented ceiling and hanging yellow and orange lamps, or eat – the choices range from Japanese pool-side and outdoors through to local Omani seafood mixed grills in The Restaurant, designed by SPIN’s Yasuhiro Koichi.
Colour was certainly the finale of dinner outdoors at The Beach House. Tuna carpaccio Niçoise, followed by shary, also known as long-faced emperor, led to an amazing mango sorbet with mascarpone and lime guacamole, all on a bed – I was told – of white chocolate crumble. Our conversation was certainly colourful, too. Morton Johnston, long-time GM here, started out as a Harrods manager (his training included wines, which perhaps helped him choose two Clos Henri wines from Marlborough tonight). Jump forward a few years and he thought he was going to open a hotel in South Korea, and only found out at the last moment that it was actually the Ananti Golf Resort in North Korea, catering to the 3500 members of Emerson Pacific’s golf club there. But then, he said with a wry face, the shooting of some tourists in July 2008 meant immediate evacuation of his entire team, and apparently the Ananti has been mothballed ever since.
As a change from the beautiful sand and ocean down on Oman’s coast, I then headed more than 2000 metres up to Al Jabal Al Akhdar, surely one of the world’s most spectacular barren mountain areas. Charles and Diana helicoptered in here in 1986, and stood at what is now known as Diana’s Point, a glass-edged platform hanging over jagged rock faces stretching all that way below. This is only one of many awe-inspiring memories of Anantara Al Jabal Al Akhdar, a fort-like luxury hotel that opened October 2016 and has already become a firm favourite of Omani and UAE families. It is, indeed, rather cute to see local lads, not quite in their teens, careering around the resort’s concrete paths on mountain bikes while wearing embroidered Omani skull caps and full-length dishdash robes.
I was working out in the gym, and looking out across the tennis court that was being used for supervised weekend kids’ games. Parents were taking photos non-stop as their little darlings basically took part in a short-duration school sports day: there are, any time, indoor and outdoor climbing walls, and donkey rides and swimming lessons in the main pool. Adults love going to markets, or hiking to the nearest villages, admittedly several kilometres away. Nearly all the 70-or-so Omani employees here, out of a total of 270, are from this mountain area, and they really like taking guests from the 115-room resort to their own homes.
I was in Villa 4, a 176sqm beauty that had its own pool. Building this resort, designed by Lotfi Sidirahal from Atelier Pod, must have been a nightmare. It is really a big encompassing shape, with nothing but bare rugged rock outside – yes, you can wander this masculine nature at will. My gorgeous pool was the last frontier, so to speak. Inside, the circumference of buildings is entirely devoted to a beautiful, and somewhat feminine, garden, with over 3000 blooming roses, plus olive and pomegranate trees, all of those have their own individual automatic watering systems. The GM, Darren Darwin, is a natural educator, and big display boards identify what plant is what.
Darren Darwin is a real details man. He had 18 months before the hotel opening to make his mark on the place. We had dinner in Al Qalaa, an Omani restaurant in the lower half of the fort’s traditional circular tower (if you must know, it was a typical Arab mezze followed by an Omani mixed meat grill, on skewers, and the charming wine man, Brilliant, not surprisingly chose a 2016 Cabernet Sauvignon from Ken Forrester in his own home town, Stellenbosch). It was an Omani server, however, who presented the salt booklet, with 12 varieties that included rosemary crystals with wild mushroom. Darren Darwin is determined that this will quickly become one of the leading resorts – of the world.