The Sunday Times Review: Alila Jabal Akhdar
Fancy a luxury holiday which offers something different? We sent The Sunday Times travel writer Jeremy Lazell to Oman’s latest luxury offering – the Alila Jabal Akhdar – to suss out the Arabian Gulf’s hottest new opening...
“Surprisingly different,” runs the Alila company strapline. I can’t vouch for the rest of the chain, but if their new hotel in Oman is anything to go by – opened in May, Alila Jabal Akhdar is their first venture on the Gulf – “surprisingly different” is just about right.
For starters there’s the setting. I’ve stayed in several hotels on the Arabian peninsula, and generally speaking it’s either high-rise fabulousness by the coast, or super lux ‘camping’ in the desert. So to arrive after a three-hour drive from Muscat that twists and weaves up into the Jabal Akhdar mountains, is an astonishing moment. Perched more than 8,000ft above-sea-level, the hotel sits at the confluence of two mighty canyons, clinging so close to the rim you fear a stiff breeze might send it tumbling into the pomegranate groves below. Egyptian vultures wheel only metres from the horizon pool; summer thunder clouds rumble along the canyon walls; the climate even in summer feels like the Alps. It is a stunning place just to sit and be.
Except that there’s loads of fantastic stuff to do. OK, it’s not an all-diving, all-windsurfing mega-adventure destination like Zighy Bay, but so much the better. Day trips here are all about exploring the spectacular mountain scenery, getting to know the local culture, with a variety of half-day and full-day walks following wadis thick with walnut trees and juniper. Ruled for centuries by despotic imams, the plateau was off-limits to tourists until as late as 2005, and it still brims with an ancient, frontier grandeur. Mountain-biking, camping and eventually climbing are all in the Alila Jabal Akhdar pipeline, but for now, the guided walks, 4WD excursions and Friday market at Nizwa – with everything from rifles and goats, pigeons and halwa traded below the 17th century castle walls – are more than enough.
What really makes the daytrips is the quality of the guides, Ali and Salim. Both speak incredible English and both have a knowledge about Oman that borders on the surreal, telling you everything you didn’t previously realise you wanted to know about rosewater distillation, Omani courtship rituals and halwa production. They also just plainly love their jobs, and their country. Alila's marketing people say that to stay at one of their hotels “is to embark on a memorable journey into the local culture for a total destination experience”. With Ali or Salim by your side, it's no idle claim.
In fact, the service in general is superb here, a just-right blend of the friendly and the formal. The general manager, Jork Bosselaar, tells me that guests are discussed at daily staff meetings, even Googled to see what interests can be gleaned. It shows. I've stayed in a lot of hotels in my time, but I've never felt more welcomed than here. There at 84 rooms and two villas at Alila Jabal Akhdar, but you'll come away thinking they liked you best.
Alila Jabal Akhdar is also astonishingly at one with its surroundings, all but disappearing into the plateau. Hewn from the same slate-grey sandstone rock that scatters its clifftop perch, this is the first hotel in Oman built to the US Green Building Council's gold standard. It's not just the design of the place, either: everywhere at Alila Jabal Akhdar echoes its surrounds. The doormen once herded goats on this very plateau; the neighbouring villages will soon supply fruit and veg; the bedrooms are decorated with locally handwoven carpets and curtains; the spa has products made from local lavender and myrtle; ornamental irrigation channels trickle across the restaurant decking, while the menu is full of labneh and fatoush, pastilla and tajine. It's posh, all right, but Alila Jabal Akhdar hasn't forgotten where it came from.