Times Online – Parents, January 6 2007
– Ginny Dougary

Raw adventure or 007-style glamour…Ginny Dougary and her teenage son had different expectations of their holiday in Oman, but in the end it was a uniquely bonding experience


It was clear from the start that there was a considerable gulf between Darcy’s idea of adventure and mine, and that our challenge would be to find common ground. From the time he entered his teens, my 15-year-old son has been taken with the James Bond approach to risky living, stylistically, at any rate. He likes the whole shaken-not-stirred, suave Bond ethos: the unruffled tailoring, glamorous locations and even more glamorous consorts.

He also loves hotels ­ the ones, that is, which are garlanded in stars. His mother, on the other hand, likes the idea ­ if not always the reality ­ of placing herself outside her comfort zone, and has the credentials to prove it, having camped on the ice in Antarctica to take one (admittedly, yes, all right, the only one in recent times) example. But while I think it’s absurd to visit an exotic country without sampling its culture and seeing something of its people, traditions and landscape, I do love to be able to retreat at the end of an adventurous, possibly uncomfortable, day to a stylish and comfortable hotel where I can be guaranteed a delicious meal and efficient service.

Our destination was Oman (our ultimate travel goal Kuwait, where I was born and spent the first ten years of my life, which will be the subject of another article in this magazine). There we had two fabby hotels to stay in:
the new Shangri-La and the Chedi, both of which offer the comfort I crave and enough 007-style glamour to please Darcy. The Shangri-La resort is a vast sprawl of hotel complexes, carved out of the blasted, unusual sandy-coloured rock jutting out of the coast, about an hour’s drive south of Muscat. Our digs there were nothing short of fantastic: a gargantuan suite, the whole outer length of which was ceiling-to-floor glass, opening out on to a wide balcony where we enjoyed a lavish cooked breakfast every morning.

Even within these pampered confines, the hotel still managed to lay on some adventures for us ­ although some were less rugged than others. Darcy, for instance, experienced his first massage. I went first and heartily recommended being beaten by a heated poultice containing turmeric, frankincense and ginger. Darcy’s notes read: “Nervous at first… Knew what to expect with the bashing but still surprising.”

One of the highpoints of our holiday was fittingly on the morning of my 50th birthday. Hector, the assistant recreations manager and local turtle expert, drove us to a nearby beach where we met his brother and boarded a fisherman’s boat. Then off we went, past the unspoilt coastline of cliffs plunging into the sea, and many small, secret coves. Darcy had already announced that there was something so improbable about the Shangri-La resort itself, a luxurious settlement shielded by a towering escarpment, that it felt a bit like the hidden domain of one of the Bond baddies. But this boat-ride felt even more Bond-like to me, particularly when we all jumped overboard to snorkel, Hector’s brother speared a cuttlefish, and the clear water was filled with a mass of black ink which erupted volcanically, even more so when he bore the fish aloft which made us shriek and scuttle away in our flippers.

Our next stop was the Chedi, where we were chauffeur-driven in a Mercedes, which made my son’s day. Deprived child as he is ­ his parents only ever having owned second-hand wrecks ­ Darcy delighted in showing me all the fantabulous things an A* vehicle can do, such as, “Look, Mum, see how I can make your air-conditioning different to mine!” The Chedi’s reputation precedes itself and the hotel in itself has been responsible for transforming Oman into a high-end tourist destination. This is the perfect hotel for well-heeled designer-junkies and romantic couples ­ indeed, Darcy gave it the ultimate accolade when he announced that he might come here for his honeymoon.

The Bond theme ­as in narrative not dadadadadda tune ­was reprised, oddly enough, at the Grand Mosque. This is a very grand affair, commissioned by the Sultan in 1993, which can accommodate more than 20,000 worshippers. The finest carved sandstone, marble, gold leaf, mosaics, stained glass and crystal all contribute to its opulence, and in the main prayer hall (men only; the women’s area is far smaller and comparatively modest) the handmade Persian carpet alone took four years and the service of 600 women weavers to produce. What impressed Darcy, in particular, as he wrote in his notes was that: “It’s more elaborate than any church, and more high-tech than a James Bond film.” He was delighted by the retractable stone canopy in one of the outdoor areas, the secret wood-panelled doors, the mobile phone sound nullifiers, the hidden air-conditioning and so on.

Respectful as I try to be about other people’s culture, I was less delighted by how vigilantly our very sweet and devout guide kept fussing with my headscarf. Mostly, however, I felt quite comfortable and free as an unveiled Western woman moving around in public in Muscat and its environs ­ although I would say that Ramadan isn’t the best time to visit Oman. The Sultan went to Sandhurst and his affection for the Brits appears to have been passed on to his people. It is still possible, nevertheless, to make an unwitting faux-pas.

Our longest day of pure adventure started with a three-hour drive into the Wahiba Sands ­an immensely picturesque desert of deep-red sand and dunes rising to 200m, whipped by the wind into fabulous abstract patterns, throbbing with colour against the electric-blue blaze of cloudless sky. We stopped off at a distinctly untouristy produce market and attempted to converse with the rows of women seated on benches, shrouded in black, their faces hidden by slightly sinister-looking metal visors. The male stall-holders and women alike were quite happy to be photographed with us.

We bashed up and down the most vertiginous dunes in our guide’s four-wheel drive ­ which was almost too exciting for me. Here and there, we saw goats or a family of untethered camels lolloping along. I had hoped ­in a slightly half-hearted way since I’m not the happiest of campers ­that we might stay the night in the desert. But this was out of the question, apparently, because of the unseasonally hot temperatures (around 95 degrees).

Finally, we stopped off at a Beduin family’s home, known to the guide, where we sat under the reed-plaited roof on the carpeted sand and drank tiny cups of dank-tasting cinnamon-spiced coffee and ate deliciously sticky dates. The father of the family was away and the mother was in hospital with a sickly new baby. So we were entertained by their older son and daughter, a mischievous toddler with sultry khohl-rimmed eyes (to ward off infection) and a 12-year-old sister with Down’s Syndrome. This cheerful little girl had a hole in her heart and her skin was ashen pale. Our guide told us that she didn’t have long to live. Whenever I spoke about her in the days to come, it was clear that Darcy could hardly bear to contemplate something so sad. I’m still not sure whether this meant that he understood, in that small glimpse of how other people in other far-off countries live, how immensely fortunate he and his friends are.

After all that heat and dust, we drove on for several more hours to the oasis-like Wadi Bani Khalid. Picking our way along the walkway of falaj water canals ­ an ancient system of irrigation introduced by the Persians around 2,500 years ago ­ we came upon emerald-green pools of fresh water surrounded by massive boulders and palm trees and fronds of delicate oleander. Darcy and I couldn’t wait to strip off to our bathing costumes and plunge in, and it was blissfully liberating to cool down in such an idyllic setting. But soon after we arrived, a group of migrant Indian male workers also turned up to take a dip. Clearly starved of the sight of so many ample inches of unclad female flesh, their collective gaze was transfixed by my most un-Venus-like clumsy scrambles in and out of the rock-strewn water, so we left sooner than we might have liked.

Back at the car, there was a charming sight of three young boys cuddled up, apparently fast asleep on a colourful rug. I asked our guide whether it would be OK to take a photograph. “No problem,” he said “They’re only children.” But as I raised my camera, the eldest reached for a stone to throw at me. And what a look he gave me: pure, malevolent hatred, almost adult, as though I were the enemy of enemies, intent on robbing him and his brothers of what they held most dear.

We went on several more trips ­a boat ride to watch the amazingly large numbers of spinner dolphins, one or two obliged us by performing their acrobatics in the air; a sunset cruise on an old teak dhow, the graceful trading vessels which were designed like a Portuguese galleon. This dates back to the 16th century, when the Portuguese developed Muscat as their prinicipal naval base, until they were ousted in 1650 by an Omani military force. The handsome ancient forts that flank both sides of the harbour date back to this time. But perhaps the biggest travel boost of all was to discover how much fun Darcy and I could have together, just the two of us, away from all our usual known safety nets ­ and in this sense, with or without James Bond, we definitely had an adventure.