“There’s likely to be traffic up ahead,” the driver tells me as our Toyota Land Cruiser climbs to 1,500 metres above sea level. We’ve been driving for almost an hour through the winding roads and hairpin bends of Oman’s Al Hajar mountains, the highest range in the east of the Arabian Peninsula. Ahead of us is a long stretch of dusty road surrounded by endless blue skies, towering rock walls and piles of pebbles and sand. There is no sign of life in the area, let alone traffic.
As if on cue, the car suddenly comes to a halt. I peer out the window to see a horde of mountain goats blocking the road. Some stop and stare, while others nibble on patches of dry vegetation at the side of the road. “See, I told you – traffic!” the driver says with a laugh.
Life in Jabal Akhdar (“Green Mountain”) is in stark contrast to that in the sultanate’s capital, Muscat, a popular tourist destination known for its sandy beaches and glitzy resorts. Only 150 kilometres away, Jabal Akhdar was cut off from the rest of the country for decades thanks to its unique geography and governance by local imams. When Sultan Said bin Taimur took control of the area in the late 1950s, it was used as a military base, restricted to all except local villagers. In 2011, everything changed when it was declared a nature reserve, and the Omani government began investing in infrastructure, including roads, settlements and the mountain’s first ever resort, Alila Jabal Akhdar.
Alila Jabal Akhdar is no longer the only luxury resort in the area, but it still takes your breath away – and not just because it sits at an altitude of 2,000 metres. Built into the mountain overlooking the dramatic gorge below, it resembles an ancestral Omani village thanks to its traditional architecture. It’s the first project in Oman to be awarded eco-friendly Leed certification; the buildings are made using stones excavated from nearby mountains, while solar panels provide up to 60 percent of the resort’s power. Its connection to nature can be felt and seen everywhere, from the unobstructed views enjoyed by each room to the stone bathtubs, hand-woven rugs and textiles, local pottery and the juniper branches painted across the walls by artist Juma Al Harthy.
The resort may be built with sustainability in mind, but it is also equipped with every luxury a discerning traveller could require, including a first-class gym, an indoor pool, an outdoor infinity pool, a Jacuzzi and a luxury spa that hosts transcendental sunset yoga sessions on a wooden deck suspended over the mountain’s edge. For lunch and sundowners there’s the casual Rose Lounge, and while there’s only one restaurant, Juniper, its lavish breakfasts and family-style dinners are real treats, offering Arabic-inspired cuisine made using organic and local produce, most of which is grown in the hotel’s greenhouse.
The only downfall is the Wi-Fi, which is patchy at best. Many guests huddle around the fireplace in the lobby not only to keep warm but also to take advantage of the only strong Internet signal on the premises. After a few hours at the resort though, checking email is the last thing on your mind.
Days on Jabal Akhdar start early. Although temperatures are much cooler than in Muscat, the afternoons are so hot that any sort of outdoor activity is challenging. While many guests prefer to spend their days lounging by the pool, adventure seekers jump at the chance to go hiking or mountain biking, or to scale the mountain walls with trained guides. The resort just opened its Via Ferrata, a death-defying mountain route equipped with steel cables, ladders and other fixed anchors so you can live life on the edge – literally – for a few hours.
I choose to enjoy the numerous hiking trails the hotel has carefully marked out across the mountains using painted flags. These descend into some of the most picturesque landscapes I have ever seen, including the area’s renowned wadis and winding canyons where you’ll uncover caves, freshwater pools, farms and 3,000-year-old juniper trees, which are endangered in the region. Surprisingly, the mountains are filled with plenty of colour and vegetation despite the rugged terrain. The trails are categorised from easy to difficult but even the most basic hikes require a high level of fitness and good hiking shoes.
The more cerebrally inclined may prefer the “experiences” organised by the hotel’s leisure concierges. These provide a glimpse into the cultural heart of Oman, much of which is detailed in the reference books in the hotel’s library. Guests learn about local traditions and can immerse themselves fully into village life. Options include a trip to Nizwa Fort, a Unesco heritage site, or to the town’s souk to watch halwa dessert being made and to witness the frenetic goat auction. Others explore the area’s villages, where it’s possible to interact with locals and experience friendly Omani culture first hand.
Accompanying me on my experience one sunny morning is the handsome Ali, a third-generation villager who grew up in the mountains and went to university in Muscat before returning home. Together we drive over the vast Saiq Plateau as he tells me stories about his relatives, including his grandfather, who lived to more than 100 years old thanks to a mountain diet of fresh fruit and vegetables.
He drops me off at the lovely village of Al Aqr, where I’m left to my own devices. I explore the terraced farmlands growing the prized Damask roses that only bloom during April and May (a visit to the distillery can also be arranged when in season and the sweet rosewater makes the perfect gift for friends back home).
At the next village, Al Ayn, Ali reappears and walks alongside me as we explore the area’s irrigation system, or falaj, which allows farmers to grow dates, walnuts and pomegranates all year round. Along the way we meet with locals whom Ali greets like long-lost friends. I taste fresh dates just plucked from trees; I spy on groups of men drinking coffee; I chat with women on their way to their neighbours’ houses where they learn English and other subjects. By the end of the day I feel exhilarated, not only because of the fresh air but because I have experienced a new culture.
The best part of each day is sitting on my private terrace watching the sun set behind the mountains. The air is still and you can smell the sweet scent of juniper. It’s not long before the sky turns pitch black and a million stars emerge. It’s life at its simplest and most fulfilling – luxury included.