‘You get something in Oman that you don't get anywhere else.’
Those were the words of Krishna Suri, the Operations Business Head at the Al Nahda Hotels & Resorts group, as we sat by the infinity pool at the Dunes by Al Nahda Hotel and watched the sun set slowly over the desert.
He's absolutely right. That is why Oman is becoming an increasingly popular destination for MICE groups.
The country boasts more stunning features than you can shake a stick at. Offering breath-taking mountains, magnificent deserts, gorgeous coastline, wonderful beach resorts and fascinating cultural sites, Oman is the hidden gem of the Middle East.
Sahab Resort and Spa
Our two-centre trip starts high in the Jabal Al Akthar mountains. We are among the first guests to stay at Sahab Resort & Spa, situated in a mountainous eyrie three hours south of the Omani capital, Muscat. Set on the Saiq Plateau, the 4-star Sahab certainly offers an awe-inspiring location for visitors. The moment you walk through the hotel lobby, you are confronted by a majestic view that has been unchanged for many millennia. The Sahab, whose limestone exterior draws on the traditional Omani style, is perched on the lip of a rocky outcrop that overlooks a breath-taking mountain range. It is Oman's version of the Grand Canyon.
The MICE credentials of the Sahab are impeccable. You can hire the entire 25-room boutique hotel for an exclusive conference or incentive event. The hotel also offers a smart meeting room that can accommodate 35 delegates.
All the bedrooms - which come in three categories (family suite, deluxe suite and studio) - enjoy views of the surrounding mountains. The rooms, many of which have private terraces or balconies, are all styled in monochrome with classic Arabian lighting and exquisite, locally made furnishings.
The resort manager, Arup Singh Deo, explains why his hotel is so well suited to corporate groups. ‘This beautiful, remote, high-altitude destination offers the perfect break for employees living a stressful life in a city. You can come up here to the mountains and experience true relaxation. You feel very close to nature here. It’s the ultimate comfort zone.’
He adds: ‘Because we are a boutique hotel, we can create bespoke packages. Unlike bigger hotels, where you have to take the A, B or C package, we can accommodate whatever an organiser wants. It’s not like going to a multi-national hotel.’
In addition, the food at the Sahab is worth travelling many miles for - it is no surprise to learn that the chef won the Omani version of Masterchef last year. I can highly recommend his ‘Beiruti Grill’, a delicious chicken shish kebab marinated in lemon juice, garlic, tomato paste and olive oil.
As you dine outside on the terrace at the Sahab under a gorgeous canopy of stars, being serenaded by a chorus of cicadas, you may well think that there are few better places to enjoy a gathering. This is a hotel where you can really appreciate the joys of getting away from it all.
It’s easy to see why the hotel’s brochure carries the motto: ‘Beauty has an address. It’s called the Sahab.’
Dunes by Al Nadha
From the Sahab, we drive two hours back down the mountain to Dunes by Al Nadha, another excellent hotel in the same group. Here we swap the awe-inspiring peaks for the mighty desert.
You approach Dunes, which is located half an hour south of Muscat on the edge of the desert in Wadi Al Abiyad, across a couple of miles of unmade road.
Though bumpy, this route in gives you the feeling that you are going somewhere adventurous and far-flung. As you check-in under a cabana sitting atop a pristine dune, you definitely feel far from the madding crowd.
The hotel, which lies just 65km from Muscat’s international airport along a very good highway, is a magnet for groups. The service at Dunes, which is the only property in Oman with a 24-hour check-in, is first class. It has a pre-conference room, which can be used as a 32-cover dining room. It also has a state-of-the-art conference room which can accommodate 100 delegates.
The hotel offers 30 tents in three different categories: Luxury, Suite and Royal (which have sitting rooms and patios for alfresco dining and stargazing).
The accommodation is in a tented village sited at the summit of a nearby dune looking out over the Al Hajar mountains. If you're thinking: ‘Oh no, this is going to be a Glastonbury mud-and-squalor transposed to the Omani desert,’ rest assured that you would find few more luxurious rooms in an upscale city hotel.
A lot of companies opt for sole occupancy of the property, which is ideal for incentives or team-bonding. Dunes, which has a very authentic Middle East, anti-chain-hotel vibe, also organises day trips to Muscat, where there is a vibrant souk and a most impressive Grand Mosque.
In addition, Dunes, which is spread over 17 acres, offers, in addition to its infinity pool, an on-site 9-hole golf course, kite flying, volleyball, camel rides, cycling, quad biking and sand surfing – all of which would be very suitable for a team development programme.
Dunes also has the splendid open-air URU Spa. This offers ‘Hot Sand Therapy’, an ancient Egyptian treatment which involves being buried up to your neck in the sand for 20 minutes. But don’t worry, it is not like being one of the prisoners in Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence; the effect of the Hot Sand Therapy is actually deeply soothing.
The food is divine at Dunes as well. One night, we ate a ‘Shuwa’ (an Omani speciality where lamb is marinated in oils and spices for 24 hours, then wrapped in palm leaves and cooked in a fire pit for a further 12) at the open-air Fleur restaurant. ‘Melt in the mouth’ doesn’t even begin to describe the quality of the meat.
The next evening, we enjoyed a wonderful traditional Arabic outdoor dinner in the desert. Sitting at a low table on cushions on the sand, we feasted on chicken, fish and lamb that was barbecued right beside us. I must admit, it was a struggle to get back on my feet after such a banquet.
Krishna Suri outlines why Dunes is an outstanding destination for MICE groups. ‘For Europeans and Americans, the desert is something completely new. Guests here adore the silence. It gives groups the opportunity to have quiet group thinking sessions and take stock.
‘The night skies are incredible, too, and we also have beautiful sunrises and sunsets. We’re going to bring a telescope here, so you can see things you could never see Europe because of the light pollution. The feel of the desert is very different, and that’s what our international guests love about it.’
Suri goes on to emphasise why Oman is increasingly on the map as a venue for MICE events. ‘Oman is becoming more and more popular with organisers because it has a lot more heritage and culture than other parts of the Middle East, which are more like concrete jungles in the desert.
‘Oman has beaches, mountains, and history dating back thousands of years. It is also rated one of the top five safe places in the world to live and travel. God forbid it should happen, but if you broke down, ten vehicles would immediately stop to help you. The people here are very helpful and humble.’
As I reluctantly prepare to leave Dunes for the flight back home, I notice the resort's motto inscribed on a wall in the conference room. It reads: ‘A world away from the world.’
I couldn't have put it better myself.
ITCM was the guest of Al Nahda Hotels & Resorts. For more information, please visit www.sahabresort.com and www.dunesbyalnahda.com. Prices at The Sahab begin at $220 per night and at The Dunes at $283 per night. More information on activities in Muscat can be found at https://experienceoman.om/