The Omani tropics

Historically known for its frankincense, things are changing in the summer playground of Salalah. Hayley Skirka heads there on a voyage of discovery


“There,” shouted captain Hussain; grinning widely and pointing to the starboad side of the small boat we were aboard. The vessel tipped sharply to the left as eleven people hurled themselves to the other side of the deck, desperate for a glimpse of Salalah’s most playful marine creatures.

iPhone at the ready, I joined the group – craning my eyes to skim the striking turquoise surface of the Arabian sea. And then, I saw it. Ever so smoothly, a gleaming streak of silver, slicing the surface.

“There’s more,” announced one of the crew indicating a few metres to the right. Switching my gaze, I looked further out to sea, and sure enough, just in front of us was a flurry of dorsal fins, crescent-shaped bodies and gasping blowholes popping in and out of the blue.

The next hour passed in a blur as countless dolphins came curiously close to our boat, breaking the surface of the water, circling around and coming back for another look. At one point, we lost sight of the pod. Unfazed, the crew turned on the engine and we sped south where, a few minutes later, the pod reappeared and we all hung out for the next 30 minutes or so – the dolphins seeming almost as curious about us as we were about them.

We were in Salalah, on the south coast of Oman and a place that plays host to several species of dolphin, enough that you’re almost guaranteed a spotting. Many of the sailing companies run trips with money-back guarantees so confident they are that you’re venture be unfruitful. It’s another story in Khareef season – the busiest time for this region – the sea is too rough to venture out on so visiting in July or August is likely to mean more time hiking, cycling or picnicking in the lush green landscapes instead of being out on the water.

In front of us was a flurry of dorsal fins, crescent-shaped bodies and gasping blowholes popping in and out of the blue

Today, however, our dolphin wishes were sated and we sped back towards the shore, ready for some respite from the bright Salalah sunshine. Passing rocky cliffs, sporadic palm trees and shoreline resorts, we arrived back to the small marina where we disembarked and climbed into the waiting van, headed to Al Baleed Resort Salalah by Anantara.

Having long been Oman’s most-famous coastal playground, what the capital of southern Oman’s Dhofar province has offered in terms of beautiful beaches and unspoilt shorelines it has simultaneously lacked in ultra-luxe resorts, until recently. Having opened its doors at the end of 2016, the sprawling coastal resort offers a breath of luxury fresh air to Salalah-bound travellers.

We’d landed the day before at the multi-billion -dirham Salalah International Airport – which looks like it has been built with the vision of welcoming millions of visitors every single year – and it was just a short 15 minute transfer to the resort, along the Dhofar coastline.

Arriving to a warm Omani welcome featuring traditional music, frankincense-infused cold towels and smiles almost as wide as the resorts’ imposing front doorway, I headed off to my villa where, dangling on the door, was a colourful hand-painted coconut palm bearing my name, a nice touch.

Stepping indoors, the ambiance was undoubtedly luxurious, but with a strong sense of location thanks to the majlis-style seating and wooden doors crafted by traditional Omani carpenters. My gaze was drawn to the huge soaking tub overlooking the private garden where, it transpired, I could step immediately outside and into the private plunge pool. Beautifully designed, it’s obvious that these one-bedroom garden pool villas have been carefully planned to offer a sense of privacy, something that’s sure to resonate well with GCC visitors. Whether enjoying the pool or lounging on the plush cabana, you’re shielded from prying eyes thanks to a surround of walls. That said, the beach vibe is never far away  with palm trees that tower over the villa walls and a floppy sunhat and beach ball on loan in-suite.

The perfect sunset overlooking the lagoon
The perfect sunset overlooking the lagoon

Although I felt like I hadn’t had nearly enough occasion to appreciate my villa, it was dinner time so I ventured outside, headed for Sakalan – the resort’s all-day dining restaurant. With a name that translates to land of Frankincense, sitting on the terrace, surrounded by three of the hotel’s impressive water features and dining on deliciously fresh seafood – it was easy to grasp why it’s a land worth a visit.

Post feast, we wandered across to Al Mina for a drink and some uplifting entertainment from the resident band. Other dining options include the lagoon facing Mekong which serves Asian-inspired delights and Anantara’s signature Dining by Design where you can dine on the beach at a table carved out of sand, surrounded by flaming torches and enjoying the peaceful sound of the ocean lapping on the shore.

After a particularly restful night’s sleep, I awake early the next morning in order to explore the resort in the cold light of day. As the first five-star villa resort on Salalah’s coastline, Anantara has set the standard high for the shape of things to come. Nestled between the lagoon of Al Baleed and a calm ocean inlet, the hotel’s design is inspired by the architecture of ancient Omani fortresses. A logo depicting three frankincense trees adorns the entrance wall – a logo that was penned, at least in part, by Sultan Qaboos bin Said al Said – the Governate’s leader for the past 46 years.

Keen to explore further, my group and I headed outside towards Al Baleed Archeological Park. A Unseco-protected site – and part of the ancient frankincense trail – it’s a fascinating location and a great way to garner information of Oman’s days gone by. Next door, The Museum of The Frankincense Land shines further light on Dhofar’s most precious commodity then delves into the country’s maritime past.

With our thirst for culture quenched, we head back to the resort, passing lush coconut and banana plantations packed with towering tropical palm trees

Speeding by countless fruit stalls a few miles further makes me wonder how on earth any of the stall owners viably turn a profit, given that they’re each selling identical produce from identical stalls. That however, doesn’t seem to be something that bothers the weathered Omani stallholders who flash us grins and wave cheerily as we trundle by. From our airport driver to our villa host, the cheery sailing crew and these market traders, there’s a definite sense of unhurried warmth resonating among Dhofar’s residents. 

Tropical vibes in the south coast of Oman
Tropical vibes in the south coast of Oman

Back at the hotel, we head to the spa. Crafted to evoke the essence of an Arabian villa, it’s also home to Salalah’s only hammam and rasul facilities, although they weren’t quite complete on our visit. Instead, we indulged in a signature massage: 90-minutes of acupressure, aromatherapy and massage perfection which set us up nicely for a sunset yoga session on the powdery beach. 

Following our instructor’s meditative postures,I succumbed to a feeling of inner serenity, watching the orange sun descend from the sky above, spetcaularly transforming the horizon into a shimmering orange mirage. As a camel meanders slowly along the beach, led by a local villager, it gives us pause to take stock of exactly where we are in the world.

Having been sealed off from the rest of Arabia by the Rub Al Khaili, the largest contiguous sand desert in the world, things are changing in this bedouin land. The  opening of Salalah’s airport, the arrival of luxury villa resorts and introduction of direct flights from the UAE and beyond suggest that time is no longer standing still for this ancient land of frankincense. And yet, in the midst of all this change, one aspect of Dhofar is certain to remain constant – the genuine warmth of the Omani people, ever ready to welcome visitors with a smile, their convivial hospitality and, of course, plenty of their frankincense-infused wares.