A Day in Arabia: the Sultanate of Oman

Driving past the Mutrah Port in Muscat, Oman, I caught a glimpse of Sultan Qaboos' 508-foot super yacht, the world's second largest yacht - but I didn't dare take my eyes off the road for more than a second.  I was driving a brand new $200,000 Bentley continental gt coupe and didn't want any mishaps, especially with Alasdair Steward, a Bentley board member, sitting in the passenger's seat.

When I told my friends I was going to Muscat in the Sultanate of Oman to test-drive the 2012 Continental Bentley, they wondered why I’d go all the way to the Arabian Peninsula. I explained that Oman has excellent empty roads, great weather, five-star hotels and gourmet cuisine. Besides, if you’re going to drive a touring car, you might as well do it in a place where soaring mountains surround the pristine coastlines of the Arabian Sea and the Gulf of Oman, and wadis, sand dunes, historic forts and castles dot the countryside.

As I drove past the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque Alasdair asked, “Do you want to stop?” The famous mosque has a prayer hall that can accommodate 15,000 worshippers, a 45-foot-tall chandelier and 21-ton prayer carpet, but I knew I could go there tomorrow. Now, I just wanted to get out of traffic and see if this lean, mean driving machine really could accelerate from 0 to 62 mph in 4.6 seconds.

 

Soon I was speeding down a two-lane highway heading to Nizwa, the ancient capital of Oman where we would visit the souk and Nizwa Fort and have lunch. I looked around at the copper-colored mountains surrounding us and pushed down on the gas pedal. In seconds the speedometer went from 60 to 100, then 130 miles per hour with no engine noise. The goats on the hills in the distance became a blur. It felt as though I was flying on a magic carpet. I’d been told the Continental can accelerate to 198, but that was too fast for me. Besides, I needed to slow down because we were almost at Amouage, a luxury fragrance house that I planned to visit.

“Amouage Gold for Women,” their signature scent, is the world’s most expensive perfume with over 120 ingredients (including the highly prized silver frankincense) packaged in a gold-plated sterling silver flask designed by Aspreys of Bond Street. The heady aromas of frankincense, jasmine, sandalwood, and patchouli greeted me as I entered and was offered Omani coffee and sweet dates. Oman was the centre of the scent trade for over a thousand years, mainly because of its frankincense. Perfume, which in Latin means “through smoke,” was originally incense, with substances that were burned to give off fragrance. Camel caravans carried goods along the famous Incense Road, connecting India, Arabia and Egypt. Frankincense was the “gold” of the ancient perfume trade, and by 200 A.D., Southern Arabia sent over 3,000 tons of it along the Incense Trail. In legend, so valuable were the frankincense trees they were guarded by winged serpents. Today, a 120 ml (4 oz) bottle of Amouage’s “Gold” perfume sells for $2,000.


The multitude of fragrances I experienced soon blended with the even more heady smell of new leather as
we returned to the Bentley and I drove towards Nizwa. The jagged mountains, glistening in the sun, were now rising 10,000 feet into the air. Every now and then we’d see camels or goats just beyond the road, but there wasn’t a sign of human life anywhere. Oman is the oldest independent state in the Arab world, still unspoiled and maintaining its ancient culture and traditions. The centuries-old Nizwa souq, once Oman’s center of trade, is still a labyrinth of stalls selling everything from golden nuggets of frankincense to traditional curved daggers. I was sorry it wasn’t Friday, the day of the livestock auction, but I was still happy wandering among stalls with so many handcrafted items for sale, unlike the Muttrah souk in Muscat where the items tend to be much more touristy.

I strolled past stalls of fruits, vegetables, meat and fish, and aromas of spices wafted through the air. There were copperware items, coffee pots, leather, pottery and even swords. I examined an oddly shaped clay frankincense burner, a mamjar, whose purpose is to eliminate cooking and clothing odors, repel mosquitoes, and ward away evil spirits. Nizwa’s silver jewelry is considered to be the best in the country, and I looked at endless arrays of Khanjars, intricate silver ceremonial daggers which the men wear belted onto their dishdashis. After a great deal of “just looking,” I purchased an exquisite chiseled silver and turquoise pendant.


The monumental Nizwa Fort’s circular tower is 118 feet in diameter and almost 100 feet high. The top offered an unobstructed view of the surrounding towns, each with a mosque. Everywhere in the distance were sugar cane fields and lush date palm plantations. One date tree yields 595 pounds of dates and the fronds are used for everything from the roofs of houses to brooms and baskets. I wondered if I’d ever get sick of dates — the resort in which I was staying had left me a boxful of them, plus they offered them for every meal. Along with an assortment of cakes and pies, there were also dates for dessert at lunch in Nizwa.

It was time to head back to Muscat. We arrived back at the Nizwa parking lot to find a group of dishdashi-clad men peering excitedly into the Bentley. “Oh that is very nice car,” said one as I opened the door and slid into the driver’s seat. They were not the only Omanis admiring the car. Three bellmen at Muscat’s Shangri-La Barr Al Jissah Resort & Spa raced to open my door, then fought over which of them would have the honor of moving the car to the parking lot. My sadness at having to give up my Bentley lasted only until I entered my 5,381-square-foot suite. The resort has three wings: the family oriented Al Waha (The Oasis); Al Bandar (The Town), the business area which also has meeting rooms; and the exclusive Al Husn (The Castle) with its own infinity pool and private beach, where I was staying.


I thought about taking a nap beneath the latticed screens in one of my two bedrooms or having a Jacuzzi on my balcony facing the Gulf of Oman. Maybe I should go for a jog through the gardens and down the palm-tree lined beach of the 124-acre property. I could go snorkeling or even scuba diving at the PADI center on property — but I could also do all of that tomorrow.

I decided on the Al Husn’s private beach, armed with my New York Times, which had been delivered that morning. (In addition to a pillow menu, the Shangri-La offers an international newspaper menu with dailies from 21 countries, including six American newspapers.) I had no sooner arrived on the beach when an attendant appeared, placed towels on my lounge chair, positioned my beach umbrella, and handed me a cooler filled with icy bottled water. I felt like an Arabian princess all over again. And that was just the beginning. An hour later, I had my butler book me a Caviar Facial at a treatment villa in the CHI spa, followed by a “Hilot” massage, a 4,000-year-old traditional healing practice from the Philippines that concentrates on energy imbalance.

Dinner at the Shangri-La was a torch-lit beach buffet which included Maqbous, a rice dish with saffron and spicy mutton; chicken and shrimp skewers; Mashuai  (spit-roasted kingfish served with lemon rice), and rukhal bread, baked fresh over a fire made from palm leaves. I sat out by the ocean listening to the waves lap up against the shore and breathing in the perfumed air. It had been a perfect day, almost as if I had rubbed my magic lantern and a genie had appeared to grant me my every wish.


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