Almost everyone who has visited Oman has been to the beautiful green mountains of Jebel Akhdar and as I’d listen to friends and visitors alike going on and on about the weather, the scenery, and the spectacular views, I’d have to keep mum, sitting on my secret that though I grew up in Muscat, I’d never been there.
Everytime I heard yet another person waxing poetic about the place, I’d resolve to go, but after I learned about the Hotel Alila perched on the top of the craigs, my intense, but passing desire to take part in the Jebel Akhdar conversation was replaced with an absolute obsession making my way up to that rugged palace in the clouds. So when I had the opportunity to take an assignment in the Hajar mountains, I jumped at the chance.
My friends and I set out for the mountains one Friday morning with cameras, clothes, and almost uncontainable amounts of excitement in our sedan. You need a four-wheel drive to make it up the steep inclines to reach Alila, so upon reaching the checkpoint part way up the mountain, we parked our car and hopped into the awaiting SUV Alila had arranged to take us to the hotel.
I’d learned in Grade 6 geography that ‘the higher you go, the cooler it gets’, but as we ascended the mountain, I got to feel it for the very first time. With every zig-zagging turn, the temperature dropped another degree. I rolled down the window, feeling the cold air, utterly awestruck by the jagged cliffs and valleys all around us. Just when I thought things couldn’t get more perfect, or surreal, it began to rain. My colleagues and I began photographing and snapchatting every other road, mountain, cloud, tree, donkey, and sign board like crazy young tourists.
After half an hour, we spotted a cluster of huts up ahead. It looked too posh to be a village, but too warm, homey, and dream-like to be a hotel. Then we drew closer and saw a wooden signboard reading, “Alila”.
The traditional Omani-style architecture blended seamlessly with the slate mountains around it. The towering stone structure, it reminded me a bit of Hogwarts.
We were warmly welcomed by the manager in the traditional Omani way, with kahwa and dates. I finished the deliciously strong tasting coffee, which had a peculiar smoky taste and smell that I later learnt was from the local rose water. I was immediately poured another glass. I smiled politely and gulped it down. As he came back to pour me a third serving, I desperately looked for a place to hide my cup. My two Omani friends burst into laughter, explaining that I simply needed to shake the cup to indicate when I had enjoyed enough.
After checking in, we were escorted to our rooms which were beautiful independent cottages set directly on the cliffside. It was so hard for me to not yelp out of excitement and jump onto the bed straight away. After I composed myself, I took in the details of the space, and the things that really won my heart were the “two Bs”—the balcony and the bathroom. The French doors of the balcony opened over the most breathtaking view I’d ever seen.
There was only a wooden fence separating me from the sheer drop of the valley, a bit scary, but quite stunning and a good adrenaline booster. The spacious bathroom, which was fashioned with cool wood and natural fibres, had everything one could ask for.
I spent most of my time in the oversized, egg-shaped bath looking out the big window with hot water gushing out of the taps. Most importantly, the toiletries were all high-end Alila products, manufactured in Bali, Indonesia.
Later in the evening, we congregated on the balcony, sitting on a cosy cushion set catching up about all things pleasant in life over a few drinks. There were ancient villages to explore, rose water distillers to visit, mountain biking, hiking, and at the hotel itself, there were meals to enjoy at Juniper restaurant, an infinity pool next to a steaming hot water Jacuzzi, and a particularly fabulous spa that was calling my name.
We laughed and planned and ended up having adventures galore over the weekend, but what I enjoyed the most and what I continue to think back on most often, were the short moments of silence between the deep conversations, when all of us would just stare aimlessly over the peaks, breathing in the fresh Jebel Akhdar air, feeling the 13-degree chill against our skin, with peaceful smiles lingering effortlessly on our faces.
08.00 Dump your bag in the boot of your 4WD (or sedan, but be sure to arrange a pickup from the checkpoint), make sure your coffee and snacks are close at hand, and roll your window down as you start your drive towards Nizwa.
10.00 Once you reach Nizwa, following the signs for Jebel Akhdar, and begin your ascent until you reach the Hormuz checkpoint. If you have your own four-wheel-drive vehicle, you can continue up the mountain, otherwise, this is where you will call the hotel and wait for your driver.
10.10 Transfer your bags and start socialising with the driver. Trust me, he will end up telling you a lot about Jebel Akhdar and get you even more inspired for your weekend adventure.
10.40 Try to control your excitement upon seeing the beautiful hotel. Enjoy a traditional welcome of dates and kahwa (be sure to shake your cup when you are finished).
11.00 Go luxuriate in your room, take in the view, take a rain shower, or have a nap on the plush bed. Try to not ask for the wi-fi password, so you can be fully present.
12.30 Go have a quick bite at the Juniper restaurant where you can pick from Omani fusion foods ranging from mezze to shawarma. Go for the Omani burger, which features a secret ingredients that makes it sweet, spicy, and super-filling.
13.00 Meet the local concierge near the reception for an adventurous joyride to the famous Al Ayn village. Walk through the huts-cum-rose water distilleries and click pictures of the colourful doors. Narrow passages will lead you to a rugged terrain and before you know it you will find yourself climbing a rocky hill from which you will have a perfect view of the rest of the village. Continue until you reach a huge farm where walnut trees, rose plants, and various other spice plants and fruits are being cultivated. You will also find a clear, green Falaj stream flowing along the plantation. Let your guide explain the brilliant irrigation system.
14.30 Head to Wadi Bani Habib. From afar you will be able to spot the abandoned village. It’s amazing how this place can give you the creeps and at the same time lure you towards it. Enjoy the ruins of the beautiful village with huts made of mud and stones that were destroyed by the rains and floods over the years.
16.30 Head back to Alila to spend some quality time in the infinity pool, soaking in the Jacuzzi, using the gym or playing video games.
19.30 Go down to Juniper restaurant for a sumptuous 3-course dinner of tomato shorba, lamb kebabs with mint yoghurt and date-tamarind sauce, and mohalabia, an Arabian custard served with local walnut ice-cream. After the hearty meal all you will feel like doing is going back to your room, but try to go for a little stroll past the towering lava fireplace in the lobby, through the Hogwarts-like wooden floored corridors, past the pool, winding through the softly-lit cottages overlooking the ridges of Jebel Akhdar before retiring to your own balcony for a nightcap.
09.00 Head downstairs to take advantage of the generous breakfast buffet. Fuel-up on fresh breads, puddings, fruit, and fresh juices. But if you have plans at the spa, try not to fill-up too much.
10.00 Have a quick swim to burn-off breakfast, or go directly to the subterranean spa for a brief consultancy about your bespoke treatment. Then spend the most relaxed hour of your life in the massage room. Try to stay awake to enjoy every moment.
11.30 Pass through the Alila Living boutique to peruse Omani designer clothing, accessories, souvenirs, toiletries, and jewellery.
12.30 Go back to your room for a hot bath before biding adieu to your palace at the top of the world.