By Irfan Ahmad
I was going on my first press junket. I travel frequently but this felt different. I did not even have an airline ticket. I had to join a group of journalists at Terminal 2 at Dubai airport at 5:30am. We were going to Muscat. flydubai was taking us there while the Shangri-La’s Barr al Jissah Resort & Spa was hosting us.
My group mates were a diverse lot - several Brits, a Kiwi, a Yemeni, a Syrian, an Egyptian, a couple of Lebanese and I. A common thread – journalistic abilities – wove us into a group that gelled instantly. No competitive urge to get a scoop. We were not out to dig dirt. We were being pampered to write.
And pampered we were. The fine folks from flydubai did not make us wait in line for checking in. (From subsequent experience I have learnt that it does help to arrive early for a morning flight as there are several flights that leave in the morning and queues tend to be long for passengers with luggage.) Our luggage was whisked away and we were escorted to the immigration counter and promptly bussed to the plane.
Like other low cost carriers, flydubai charges for the services you use. Checked in luggage costs extra and so do in-flight entertainment and meals. But we were given headsets and meals on our short trip to Muscat. The entertainment options were good and I managed to watch the pilot, first episode of Two and a Half Men. The Boeing 737-800 aircraft used by flydubai are new and exude a sense of safety and comfort.
The Barr al Jissah Resort and Spa is about a 45 minutes drive from Muscat airport. You drive past the majestic Grand Mosque, reach the beautiful Muttrah Corniche with its azure blue waters and then drive by craggy mountains and undulating wadis and suddenly the driver turns into a road which comes to a stop in front of a grand hotel.
If you have not done your homework you will not know that the Shangri-la Barr al Jissah Resort is not just one hotel but is a collection of three hotels. The family friendly Al Waha or Oasis is the largest with 262 rooms, the meetings and conventions oriented Al Bandar has 198 rooms while the luxury Al Husn, where children under 18 are not allowed, has 180 rooms. All are rated five star.
Of course, we were taken to the Al Husn. The rooms are large. The brochure says they are 48 sqm. That is a lot of space for one person. It would be quite comfortable for a couple – and there were several couples staying there. Some had come to discover themselves and looked like newly weds. Others appeared to be rediscovering themselves. After a job well done, their children having moved on, these couples seemed to be enjoying the fact that they once again had each other to spoil.
And what better place to spoil your loved ones than in the luxurious exclusivity of Al Husn. The rooms have a well equipped minibar which is free – yes, unlike other hotels, you do not have to pay atrociously high prices for a Coke or a bar of chocolate. Even afternoon tea at Al Husn is complimentary. And for those who cannot disconnect themselves from the internet while on vacation, there is free wifi in every room.
After checking into the room we were reminded of our official chores – we were on a familiarization trip and were escorted around the three hotels at the Shangri-la Barr al Jissah. We were first made to realize that the large rooms we were staying in at Al Husn were actually very small compared to the 500sqm Jabreen Suite which catered to royalty – or those who kept their money in Birkin bags. We then went to the less intimidating Al Waha hotel with its focus on families with children. We saw the 500 meter long Lazy River, took a look at the vast private beach and stopped by the inviting Chi Spa, did a quick tour of Al Bandar, the meetings and convention hotel and made our way back to Al Husn with its infinity pool and luxurious architecture.
Lunch was at Al Tanoor with its rich buffet spread that included Omani and Arab cuisine as well as Mediterranean, Persian, Indian and Turkish food. The open cooking stations were convenient and I had the pink slices of leg of lamb grilled to just the right shade of well done. You are spoilt for choice at buffets which have such a wide variety of culinary delights on offer. Perhaps the Indian food at Al Tanoor was responsible for getting Indian movie stars Akshay Kumar and Imran Khan to agree to stay at Shangri-la Barr al Jissah during the shooting in Oman of the sequel to the movie “Once Upon a Time in Mumbai.”
In the afternoon we went on a tour of Muscat. First stop was Muttrah Souq. This is a smaller version of Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar or Cairo’s Khan el Khalili. A labyrinth of small alleys with everything a tourist or souvenir aficionado could desire. Omani silver coins, finely carved daggers, antique compasses and
gyroscopes, wooden boxes, frankincense, Omani caps and one unassuming little shop up a flight of stairs with a calligrapher who is a glib talker who managed to get several of us to exchange papers. We gave him a few small papers with the picture of Sultan Qaboos and he gave us a larger piece of paper with our name inscribed in Arabic.
Across from the Muttrah Souq is the Muttrah Corniche with its fishing boats, old dhows and yachts in the marina. But we did not venture there. We drove past the Al Alam Palace which is the official residence of Sultan Qaboos, took pictures of the two old forts (the Al Mirani and Al Jilali forts) that guard Muscat Harbour with their ack ack guns and admired the jagged mountains that seemed to be rising from the sea. To preserve the natural scenic beauty of Muscat, Sultan Qaboos has decreed that no man-made structure will rise above 10 stories. Quite a contrast from Dubai with its glass and steel towers stabbing the clouds.
Dinner was at Bait al Bahr, the seafood restaurant at Al Waha. We had just been served with some starters when I was reminded that it was time for my appointment at Chi – the Spa. Seafood could wait. I needed that Hilot hot oil body massage. And what a sensation it was. Individual “treatment” rooms at Chi give you a sense of privacy while the masseuse gets to work on untangling all the knots that you never knew existed in your back. After an hour of body therapy you are ready to fall asleep and the most difficult part of the Chi experience is to get up and call the golf cart guy to transport you back to your room in Al Husn where you can finally doze off.
The next morning we went on a dolphin watching tour. We took a short ride to the nearby marina and got on a boat that took us into the Gulf of Oman where the Captain assured us we would see dolphins. Seemed like a case of déjà vu. I heard the same story when I was in the Arctic Circle near Svalbard in Norway the previous summer and was assured that we would see polar bears but we had to make do with walrus and seal sightings. Oman was different. Captain Issa had promised us dolphins and dolphins we did see. Dozens of them. Cavorting in the sea. Swimming past our boat. Several of them jumping out of the water in unison as if they were in a giant aquarium performing for their audience.
With a bunch of journos sitting together it was inevitable that someone would ask what a group of dolphins are called. School? Shoal? Or, pod? The consensus was that they are called a pod – although they can be referred to as a school of dolphins as well.
Before heading back, Captain Issa took us on a tour of the Omani coastline. We saw some sheer cliffs, secluded coves and admired how the emerald waters of the sea near the shore seemed to retain their distinct color despite the fact that not too far offshore the water turned azure blue.
On returning to the shore we were taken to the diving school where those who wanted to explore Nemo’s world signed up for an afternoon of snorkeling and diving. Landlubbers like me were happy to be back on terra firma.
In the evening we were again taken to the marina for a sunset cruise. We were welcomed on board the luxury yacht with cold towels and drinks. The two bedrooms and a sitting area in the lower deck made us wonder if we could go on an overnight trip on it, park it in Dubai and make it our permanent home! We were told that the yacht would not leave us much spare change after shelling out $3million – and of course marina berthing charges are extra. But we were not there to buy a boat.
We set sail out into the sea with lengthening shadows cast by the sun behind us. We took turns at the helm and intimidated by the high-tech navigation system on board stuck to gliding the boat by turning the ship’s steering wheel. We waved at a number of smaller tourist boats that our powerful sea stallion overtook. Some of us decided to enact the Titanic scene by standing at the bow with outstretched arms and hoping Kate Winslet would join us. Others climbed to the top deck to keep a lookout for Captain Jack Sparrow. Although it was the peak of summer, the evening breeze was pleasant and most of us enjoyed staying on the upper deck.
Finally, we turned the boat around to see the receding sun slowly slip behind the mountains of Muscat. The rays from the golden ball in the distance were replaced by the shimmering lights of the city, reminding us that the sunset cruise was coming to an end.
Dinner was at Shahrazad, a Moroccan restaurant with a deceptively Persian name. The delicious lamb Tajine was enough to give it a stamp of Moroccan authenticity. This was our last dinner in Muscat and our hosts were there to make sure that we had a good experience. Some shop talk naturally ensued but with people from varied backgrounds the discussions were equally random.
I had watched on the hotel’s in-house channel the making of the wolves in winter Shangri-la TV commercial and I marveled at the beauty and lasting impact it made. We also discussed the importance of online marketing to a generation that is now spending more time online than on any other medium. I was told that while Brits still account for a majority of tourist arrivals in Oman, Russians are also discovering the country – with Faberge eggs no longer available, I guess exploring the world is now a favored pastime for the new czars of Russia.
Muscat is under an hour’s flight from Dubai. With convenient flight connections it is a great place to spend a long weekend. The natural beauty of the mountains and the calm waters of the Gulf of Oman will be a soothing change from the din of the concrete jungle that is Dubai.
The next day we said our thanks and goodbyes and headed to the airport for the flight back to Dubai. flydubai operates from Dubai’s Terminal 2 which may not be as glamorous as Terminal 1 or 3 but it is very efficient. No endless escalator rides or long walks to immigration. Within minutes of landing you are in the baggage area and out the door … and the real world beckons.
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