Updated: Nov 6, 2021
Sitting by the poolside, where the key decisions of the day comprise which lounger to sit on or which cocktail to leisurely sip, it is extraordinary to consider that only a few hours drive from Muscat, one can find inner Oman. This rugged interior of date plantations, hillside forts, and soaring mountains is a world away from the luxury beach resorts of the city. Here, one is never far from a reminder of Oman’s fascinating history or its stunning landscapes.
Author and Food Travel Writer: Pearce Gunne-Jones, Xcapia
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For the journey to the inland region of Jebel Akhdar, a sturdy 4WD is a must. On leaving Muscat center, it is not long before you leave the gently sprawling suburbs and the landscape gives way to dramatically jagged mountains, with the occasional hillside fort, a reminder of the ancient civilizations that have frequented and competed over this inhospitable landscape. The former imperial capital of Nizwa makes a natural stopping off point on the journey to Jebel Akhdar. On arrival, one is greeted by a very imperial-style, arched gateway, and within its near impregnable walls, lies the old town of Nizwa itself.
Between its walls, there is a myriad of narrow streets with souks selling everything from dates to ointments and vegetables. Amongst the dusty streets leading to Nizwa Fort, stalls sell books faded by the Middle Eastern sun and traditional Omani jewelry. Nizwa Fort is surely the highlight of the town, its entrance denoted by an immense wooden door that has stood the test of time. The top of the fort affords panoramic views over Nizwa. Undoubtedly this view has changed with distinctly modern suburbs and a beautifully restored old town that touches on the clinical. Nonetheless, it is near impossible to visit Nizwa without imagining its historic resonance amidst this dramatic landscape.
The next stop is Jebel Akhdar, and before long the mountains that frame Nizwa draws ever closer. To reach this mountainous plateau, the ascent is via a feat of engineering, a road of endless bends, and the rather alarmingly named escape routes built into the hillside should your brakes fail or you lose control. Access to the road is strictly controlled via a checkpoint to ensure only those vehicles that can make the ascent are allowed through. The historic accident rate on this stretch of the road suggests this is a necessary requirement. With each bend, there are ever more expansive views down the mountainside, and with an ear-popping effect, one is reminded of the ever-increasing altitude. After the seemingly endless run of bends and the last groan from the vehicle as it climbs the ascent, the top is eventually reached and the land flattens out. From a land of dusty sand and rock is replaced by a land of verdant greenery. For somewhere that feels decidedly detached, one soon finds themselves amongst bustling villages with farmers tending to their animals amongst the fields.
This is an Oman far removed from the inhospitable terrain of Nizwa. One of the best vistas in Jebel Akhdar is surely one of the most luxurious resorts in Oman, that of the Anantara Al Jabal Al Akhdar. This resort is nestled on a hillside with panoramic views down the valley and across Jebel Akhdar. Non-guests can enjoy its facilities and its dramatically positioned glass-ringed platform which juts out over the cliff edge. Below, a village tentatively clings to the valley sides. This viewpoint is named Diana Point after Princess Diana and Prince Charles visited when this spot was decidedly more rugged and off the main tourist track. Guests of the resort have the added pleasure of enjoying this awe-inspiring panorama from the very Instagram-friendly infinity pool nearby. The Anantara resort and its grounds could easily find themselves on many a magazine cover (and indeed have). As well as its contemporary Arabian architecture and courtyards, its shop of local crafts is well worth a detour.
For a more authentic experience, however, one should explore the village below the resort set within the valley itself. One is immediately transplanted to rural Omani life. No cars are able to negotiate its narrow and uneven alleyways which fall away dramatically to the valley floor. Like many such villages, one is more likely to find the occasional tourist than a local resident reflecting the rapid depopulation which was afflicted many such rural villages in this vast country. Whilst the emptiness of the village is eery, there are subtle signs of life. Complimentary tea and dates will often be left outside homes for passing walkers, for hospitality is ingrained in Omani tradition. Each doorway is different and uniquely ornate, giving a fascinating insight to the occupants beyond. Through a covered alleyway one suddenly finds a seemingly hidden view of the valley. There is no infinity pool here, and it is all the more refreshing for it. A guide is recommended to decipher the dizzying array of paths which, via a series of precipitous steps, make their way down the valley to a tumbling stream at the bottom, shrouded in lush vegetation. It is extraordinary to think one is still in Oman with its greenery and cooler climate. This mountain retreat is a world away from the beaches of the Gulf of Oman. A gentle reminder of the incredible diversity this country has to offer.
Too soon it is time to return to the bright lights of the city, navigating the descent from Jebel Akhdar is best avoided in the failing light. There is time for one final stop off the main highway to watch the sunset. Via an inconspicuous dirt track off the gleaming black tarmac, with the odd goat watching warily, the trusty 4WD makes one final ascent. From the hillside, the valley floor opens up to reveal it brimming with a date plantation, the lush palms jostling shoulder to shoulder. In the evening light, the sand-colored mountains merge into the orange-hued palms below. In the distance, a lonely fort sits up on high. A fitting end to this briefest of forays into Oman’s fascinating and dramatic interior. Perhaps next time it would be worth giving the poolside cocktails a miss completely.