Sharon Parsons finds a remote hideaway in Oman offers an unspoilt haven of luxurious calm – and a glimpse of an intriguing land beyond...
The limpid water is turquoise, crystal-clear, warm... I slowly descend the ladder on the side of the traditional dhow, and with goggles and snorkel firmly in place, tentatively dip my face beneath the surface... Wow. Immediately, I am in another world of mysterious shadow and light.
Fish that shimmer blue and green dart to and fro among forbidding rocky outcrops that seem to loom suddenly ahead, or sink down into the inky depths: they are studded with the most extraordinary amount of coral I have ever seen – tantalisingly close, intricately beautiful, but fiercely protected.
I emerge back up into the sunshine and the astonishing silence of this deserted bay in which we are anchored: save for our splashes as we lazily kick out flippers, the creak of the dhow, and the odd goat bleating mournfully on the hillside beyond, there is no other sound.
The rugged landscape along this remote stretch of coastline, with its soaring mountains and limestone cliffs dropping straight down into the Gulf, is largely uninhabited and definitely untamed.
That cannot quite be said of our home from home here on the Musandam peninsula of Oman: the Six Senses Spa at Zighy Bay, a few miles back up the coast, was also in a spot largely deserted – save for a ramshackle fishing village – before the resort was developed some seven years ago. It is undeniably luxurious and cosseting: from the moment guests arrive in true James Bond style by paraglider or speedboat (we chose the latter, but a more conventional 4x4 option down the steep mountain track is also available), it is clear that something special awaits.
A butler is waiting to whisk guests via beach buggy to one of the 82 private pool villas that are dotted along sandy lanes lined with date palms, lime and pomegranate trees. Each one effortlessly mixes rustic good looks – rough plastered walls, stone floors, artisan furnishings – with 21st century comforts... from a cloud-like bed to a state-of-the-art coffee maker. Outside, each terrace – shielded by wicker fences and stone walls – has its own infinity pool, shady seating area and even an al fresco shower tucked into a hidden corner.
Despite such indulgences, this resort is not in any way showy or conspicuous. It settles unobtrusively into the landscape, thanks to its use of local materials, and the fact that it is designed on traditional Omani lines: low and rustic, it blends perfectly with the textures and colours of its surroundings – the Al Hajar mountains soar behind it, while the unspoilt sandy bay lies just in front.
Not least, this resort follows the abiding principles of the Six Senses eco-friendly philosophy: intelligent luxury. This means that not only does it take into account its local environment and the responsibilities that come with it (here at Zighy Bay enormous effort is made to involve the local community, even down to rebuilding the down-at-heel fishing village next to the resort), but significant steps have also been taken to minimise the ecological footprint of the tourist industry: the resort now purifies and bottles its own water rather than import brands, for instance, and the company as a whole aims to be carbon-neutral by 2020.
This is undoubtedly a hideaway destination: most visitors, it seems, combine it with a few days in big, brash Dubai just over two hours away by car (a chauffeur service can be arranged), or with an adventure to discover more of this intriguing land.
The mysterious Sultanate of Oman is steeped in ancient legend and history: there are more than 500 forts and citadels dotted throughout the country, and its legacy as a major trading post on the Spice Route is clear in both its culture and cuisine.
But at Zighy Bay, the emphasis is on relaxation – and a slower pace of life. We meander our way through the resort on bicycles assigned to our villa, either stopping for a dip in the beautiful central pool or to wander along the shoreline – home to nesting turtles – or slip up to the award-winning spa for a truly divine treatment: my 90-minute massage in a dimly-lit room scented with lemongrass will stay with me forever.
Of course, there are some taxing decisions to make, mainly revolving around food... because it is simply fabulous. Should we opt for a modern bistro-like menu at the pretty Summer House restaurant, or sample the intricate flavours of Arabic cuisine at Spice Market instead?
For something even more special, however, a table at Senses on the Edge – a fine dining restaurant perched some 293 metres above sea level – is a must. I'm not sure what I found most compelling: the views of the moonlit bay far below, or the accomplished tasting menu with its course after course of extraordinary flavours.
I must admit we did not do much to work off all this indulgence, although there is plenty of experiences on offer – be it a trek up into the rugged mountains, deep-sea diving, or even a microflight that lifts you from the beach to circle the bay high above.
Gliding gently along on a dhow, passing nothing but swooping cormorants and the odd fishing boat with the prospect of a picnic lunch on deck, and another swim in the warm waters is quite enough for this jetlagged but very happy explorer.
Forts, citadels and culture? I'll do all that another time.