The road that runs south for miles from the border between Oman and the United Arab Emirates is a long and solitary one punctuated only occasionally by the odd small town and oases. As the sunlight softened and the intense heat outside finally relented we turned left where the cliffs rise rapidly from the valley floor up to the Saiq plateau and arrive at the Royal Oman Police checkpoint that marks the gateway to Al Jabel Al Akhtar, meaning Green Mountain. Here our papers were checked and we were asked if we had driven the mountain before. By law in Oman, this is four-wheel-drive territory only and so we were advised to adjust to manual gear for any descent of the mountain. As it happened, we found the infamous road, which took construction crews seven years to build is now well paved and securely hemmed in by enormous concrete sidings. On leaving the police checkpoint, since the vehicle rapidly disappeared off the satellite navigation, we decided the only route was quite simply onwards and upwards. Once accessible only by donkey or on foot, the road which is a masterpiece of engineering, has significantly changed the way of life for villagers at the top of the mountain and has improved access of these rural communities to essential services and facilities.
After a 40 minute drive, we neared the summit of Jabal Akhtar and wove our way through a small village and down a modest driveway to find the somewhat incongruous gates to the Anantara hotel. It was late but we were already aching for the morning knowing that somewhere, in the pitch black sky awaited one the most talked about views in the Sultanate of Oman.
We rose early at 5.14am the next day to discover a full panoramic sweep out across the towering Haja massif as the first call to prayer reverberated peacefully around the mountainside. Despite the early hour we were soon met with a friendly welcome from Mubarack, Gate Keeper to the Anantara estate who has been working at the hotel since it opened in 2014. Mubarack is a seasoned expert on all matters relating to football and also a fount of knowledge about the local area having grown up in a small village on the far side of the canyon. He spoke pragmatically of the changes that have come to the area with the building of the road and hotel and of the future for Oman with a growing and diversified economy. Our conversation returned to his family and stories of his childhood in the villages. Later we found these local villages largely empty now and inhabited only at weekends when locals return to tend their farmlands and animals.
Anantara’s very reason for being is its secluded location, perched on a cliff edge at over 2,000 metres above sea level on the curving rim of the great canyon surrounded by mountains and sleepy villages. It is a place of quiet luxury, dramatic beauty and impressive design with monumental views that really get under the skin. The French-Moroccan architect, Lotfi Sidirahal is responsible for realising the vision for Anantara, which is built from local stone and pays tribute to arabic design traditions with vernacular touches such as the expansive open courtyard decorated with geometric pattern work and a tower on the western side reminiscent of an ancient Omani Keep. There is nothing invasive about Anantara, rather it’s sprawling design is a harmonious dialogue of the man made and the natural world. Ideas around art, architecture and heritage are adapted as minimal and current looks, shapes and structures are distilled to reflect the beauty of the area and its culture.
Down in the valley floor, temperatures can soar well up into their 40’s at this time of year. Despite this we made several visits down the mountain during our stay at Anantara knowing that our time in Oman was limited. It was early June when we visited and nearing the end of the holy month of Ramadan when cities and towns become nocturnal. During the day time shops and restaurants were closed, pavements were empty and street sellers had left their stalls neatly packed and prepped. In the evenings the souqs came alive with a bustling vibrant vibe, welcoming visitors with feasting and festivities while locals made the most of these precious hours before starting their fast again. We embraced these rare opportunities to explore the area including it’s labyrinth of streets and alleyways, peaceful mosques and courtyards in their sleepy state and then retreated to the mountains once again for the cooler temperatures.
We decided to spend our final evening in the mountains visiting the three sleepy villages on the opposite side of the canyon. Here clusters of date plantations and goat farms cling to the hillside amongst an intricate patchwork of falaj water systems that zig zag their way through the terraced groves to harness the limited water resources for local villagers. It is a vision of time-stilled Omani culture and way of life that leaves an indelible impression. As the light faded we passed locals settling down to campfires by the road side to break their fast. We graciously declined the offer to join them and began to chalk up all the reasons to return to this beautiful country, full of natural charm, arresting and soothing in its dramatic beauty and still luxuriously quiet.