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23 May 2024

Off the beaten track


By James Reinl


It would not be revealing any state secrets to explain that a journalist’s salary seldom permits him or her to experience the high life of “six-star” hotels and expensive off-roaders.

But this month, thanks to one of the junkets to occasionally reward members of this trade, I was able to sneak a peek into the world of wealthy businessmen and luxury holidaymakers during a high-class off-road Omani adventure.

Normally, I would undertake such a journey in my battered Seat Ibiza, fill up on snacks and fuel in petrol stations and crash out on a sleeping mat within earshot of water trickling through falaj irrigation pipes.

But this trip was different. Thanks to Land Rover lending me their latest model, the LR2, and a courtesy stay at Shangri-La’s tempting Barr Al Jissa Resort and Spa outside Muscat, this journey represented a major lifestyle makeover.

The stark difference between these two worlds could be grasped as soon as I parked my sand-encrusted Spanish runaround and opened the doors of the “compact premium SUV”, as Land Rover describes the new model.

Gone are the days of jingling keys, crumpled road maps and skidding on dirt tracks, this stocky vehicle features hi-tech gizmos such as push-button ignition, satellite navigation and the manufacturer’s so-called Terrain Response system.

Instead of trying to make my beleaguered Seat engine achieve a 120kmph speed on the ascent up the Hajr Mountains towards Hatta, this trip saw me cruising effortlessly across the scenic landscape of desert dunes and rocky peaks all the way through to our neighbouring Sultanate.

After an early morning start, the en route pit stop involved turning off from the highway linking Muscat with the UAE border and heading back into the Hajr Mountains and to a delightful wadi near Nakhal Fort.

The scene is picture-postcard perfect, with old women swaddled in cloaks herding droves of long-haired goats through the valley, shading themselves under the trees and chatting to friends. Nearby, water gushes out from the A’Thowara hot springs and children splash around in a naturally heated pool.

Although it can be tempting to laze around and picnic beside the hot springs, the fort is well worth a visit for its collection of historical guns and the panoramic views of the town, palm trees and mountains.

The drive onward through Muscat and down the coast a few kilometres to the Barr Al Jissa Resort and Spa takes little more than an hour longer and, by this time, I am more than ready for the complimentary scones and jam served for afternoon tea on the balcony.

The “six-star” Al Husn Hotel is one of three hotels at the resort and, named and styled after a Middle Eastern fort, offers a grand entrance through vast, teak doors that lead on to a courtyard, infinity pool and serene panorama over the Gulf Of Oman.

The private beach below offers a perfect place to unwind after a long day’s driving, with jutting headlands and bays visible around the Omani coast towards Muscat.

After a meal at an award-winning restaurant and a good night’s sleep, it was time to get back behind the wheel and visit the many areas of natural beauty that the region around Muscat offers.

A 20km drive south from the hotel allows offroaders to bask in the sun and snorkel alongside the beaches of Yiti and As Safah. Heading further south opens up the possibilities of Wadi Dayqah and As Suwayh, with hikes up remote wadis and pools to splash around in.

My personal favourite is a 179km trip south from Muscat on the Sur road to Wadi ash Shab – one of the most beautiful and popular settings on this coastal region of Oman.

Visitors park beside the lagoon near the main road and head off on a classic hike boasting running water, green pools and lush vegetation on either side of the rocky valley.

Watching birds flapping above the flowing water and swapping between plantation palms while ambling up the wadi is a treat – a walk that is improved by donning a swimming costume and splashing into one of the emerald-coloured pools.

So how does a high-class trip to Oman compare to my more Spartan sojourns across the border?

Well, while the best reasons to visit the Sultanate are to meet the friendly people, learn about the history and marvel at natural beauty, I found that there is no reason why one cannot enjoy a little luxury at the same time.

The great indoors: Not just for the mud tracks

It is rather hard to imagine how the manufacturer responsible for clunky offroaders such as the Defender has managed to move into the luxurious and classy end of the market. But the LR2 demonstrates how Land Rover has done just that.

Sure, it has functions that enable the stocky vehicle to tackle steep inclines, mud tracks and gravel paths, but, unlike some of its predecessors, the vehicle is also built with the motorway in mind.

As well as being able to cope with the dunes of Wahiba Sands and the rocky route along Wadi Tiwi, the LR2 is just as comfortable when it is bombing it down the central lane of the Sheikh Zayed Road – with an engine that always seems willing to provide an additional few revs. The vehicles can reach 100kmph within 8.9 seconds and thereafter clocks a top speed of 200kmph.

The result is an SUV that is well-equipped to tackle everything that the Arabian outdoors has to offer, but will probably spend most of its life stuck in UAE traffic jams or in the car pack behind Mall of the Emirates.

The Land Rover LR2 costs upwards of Dh115,000 depending on specifications. Call Al Tayer Motors on 04 303 7777