[AL HAJAR, OMAN] — When I first saw a photo of this hotel a couple of years ago I just stopped and went “Wooh, where the hell is this???”


Oman? Where’s Oman?

“I gotta go there. And stay riiiiiiight here.” And that’s how this whole trip came to be.

Alila Jabal Akhdar  canyon edge
The scale of this canyon is hard to judge, but look at the hotel buildings, then count how many stories it is below. And this is only the top 1/3 of the canyon.

Months later I saw another picture of a stunning luxury boutique hotel on a barren sandy beach and the article said you could either drive down the zigzag road… or paraglide down to the hotel Reception and check-in.  (You’ll see that in the next post)  And I thought: “Wow, where is that?”

Oman. Oman?  Man, I gotta go to this place.  And started a travel file named “OMAN” that included article after article of incredible photos of this amazing country.

And years later, finally, here I was, able to take pictures of this exact location


A Little Backstory on Oman

Originally an isolated backwater with barely any electricity, running water or education and only six kilometers of paved roads, the country is now run by the most-beloved Sultan Qaboos, the 14th generation of his family to rule.

Foreign-educated at Sandhurst and an RAF-trained fighter pilot, he kicked his backward-thinking father out in a ‘70s coup and has brought this country into the most modern age.  He decided to use the country’s new-found oil revenues to modernize everything. Building schools, hospitals, roads, phones, ports and other amazing infrastructure — all from scratch.

Oman is one of the safest and cleanest countries in the world.

All across the country you see massive infrastructure projects under construction… for the people. Hundreds of miles of new highways are being built wherever you drive. Impressive towering power poles march across the landscape, up every isolated valley. “Oh that is a gift from Sultan” my guides would say, pointing proudly at some new public works project.

But, knowing that the oil won’t last forever, Sultan has wisely decided that the future of Oman lies in sustainable, adventure tourism.  Not massive high-rises like Dubai, not cheap package tours, but for now, a few choice locations like this one. Adding new destination-worthy hotels dotted across the country. Each as stunning as the previous ones.

Few countries have Oman’s geological beauty, nor as diverse.  Mountains. Canyons. Deserts. Wadis and oases. Beaches. Ancient cities.  They set out to show the world what this proud country has to offer.


The Stunning Alila Jabal Akhdar Hotel

The Alila Jabal Akhdar perches like a falcon on the sharp edge of a deep forked canyon, the perfect position to observe everything going on for dozens of miles and to watch the sun set… whilst bobbing in its infinity pool. Nothing but you, the sun and the gentle bubbling of the pool.

This land all used to be owned by the military, a protected preserve.  But, building for the future, they positioned this Al Hajar adventure hotel in one of the most beautiful locations as any I’ve seen.

Sitting high on a rocky plateau 2,000 metres above sea level, it’s the perfect aerie to escape the desert heat, which can hit 50 degrees Celsius in the summer. Omanis have been coming to cool off in these mountains for centuries for family picnics and hikes and now it is open for the rest of us to experience, albeit in luxurious splendor.

Getting up here is a challenge. The road is incredibly steep — evidenced by Runaway Truck Ramps around nearly every hairpin turn — and you can only come up here in a 4WD, enforced by a military checkpoint before you make the ascent. Drivers must keep it in 4WD low gear lest their brakes wear out and you go careening off the edge.

Check out this view:

I meeeean, as a pool freak, you can pretty much just kill me now.

She won the day.

As you would expect, this place isn’t cheap, but not because of fancy white-gloved service and snooty staff. While the service level is high — which the Alila chain is known for around the world — Lowa hiking boots are more at home here than Gucci driving loafers.

Miles from anywhere, out here they have to generate their own electricity, truck in their own water and food and provide all these nice comforts like it was an outpost on the moon. That isolation is what you’re paying for.  And this:

This is what you see, looking the other way. The light changing from dawn to dusk:

You literally are on the Edge. Peering down over endless canyons, the light shifting throughout the day. What it looked like in the morning, looks different in the afternoon, the evening.

The rooms are scattered about the canyon edge. One main building. Several outbuildings, each hosting four to six suites, each with amazing views.

 A Room On The Edge of a Canyon

When I first checked into this crazy good place, I was hopped up like a kid on too many KitKat bars. But as we were walking down the lane to the different rooms, the nice bellman turned right…  and immediately my soul was crushed. I crashed like a sugar high.

“But, but… I thought I was getting a room on the edge of The Canyon over there?”

Alila villa building
One of the villa outbuildings scattered about the edges of the canyons.
Each building has about four suites in them.

As we walked into the room, depressed, the bellman encouraged me to walk out onto the balcony “Please, for the view.”

And then I walked out onto the balcony. The sun was setting. And then it hit me. Right outside my door, the earth ended. Only then did I realize the entire place is surrounded by canyons. Not just one side. 360 degree canyons, on all sides. There are no bad rooms. Only amazing views.

I walked back in, trying to maintain my composure. Like Joe Pesci Okayokayokay. This is gonna get good…

This is the view of the “back canyon”. My room, #55, was about the middle of those buildings over on the right. Right smack on the edge of the canyon.

All was good in the world.

Via Ferrata at Alila Jabal Akhdar

The Alila also has their own Via Ferrata — “iron road” in Italian — an idea imported from the Dolomites. A fixed ropes course down in the canyon, where you put on a helmet and climbing harness, strap into very secure steel ropes bolted into the mountain and go over the lip of the canyon and go climb around on the cliffs below. No skill required. (Me, obvs..)

Sometimes there are steel rungs bored into the vertical rock wall, sometimes a rope bridge across a deep crevasse, sometimes it’s just you hanging on for dear life as you straddle across a pathless wall on steel rungs not bigger than your feet. All the while you’re strapped into a safety cable — like an adult Johnny-Jump-Up — so it’s safer than walking back from the bar.

As an “adventure hotel” (my word) —

via ferrata
You don’t notice it at first — what with all the beauty of the canyon in front of you and the busy restaurant behind you — but if you look down at your feet in the bottom of this photo, you can see a rope going over the edge… down… down into the canyon… that’s where we’re going….
Alila via ferrata cave
….keep looking down… see that cave cutting into the cliff below the restaurant? That’s where we’re going. Notice the steel cables? That’s the Via Ferrata course — a cabled rock climbing course — set up right under the hotel.

Always have wanted to do this Italy. Finally got to. Highly recommend. Via Ferrata are popping up all over, I hear there’s even a British firm now that goes around consulting about such things. I’d like that.

Via Ferrata Alila Jabal Akhdar

The Very Challenging “Lost Villages” Hike

One of the great things about @alilajabalakhdar is that there is so much to do. The pool is amazing but you’re also sitting smack on top of a series of deep canyons, with ancient abandoned villages and small hidden oases of date palms, banana trees terraced crops still fed by centuries old “falaj” — an Omani irrigation system invented over 5,000 years ago.

You can hire a guide, as I did, and take a five hour hike called the Lost Villages that descends thousands of feet below the hotel, walking old donkey trails, past abandoned villages and still thriving date farms nestled in the steep canyon walls.

“Walk like a goat, not a donkey and it will be easier for you” said my guide, Salim.

I have only one speed: donkey.

It’s a hard walk down and an even harder three hour hike back up. Straight up.

Hire a guide and take a five hour hike that descends thousands of feet below the Alila, walking old donkey trails, past abandoned villages and still thriving date farms nestled in the steep canyon walls.
It’s a hard walk down and an even harder three hour hike back up. Straight up. 

Before booking this hike, the Adventure Concierge (their word) asked me a bunch of questions, trying to discern my fitness. “This is a difficult hike. Have you ever hiked before? How is the altitude for you? Have you taken first our easier hike?”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah. I like to hike. Spent three weeks in the Italian Dolomites this summer hiking. I live in Colorado at twice the elevation..” I huffed dismissively. “When can I go?”

Little did I know what I was about to get into… You start out the hike by going deeper and deeper in the canyon, pass ancient abandoned houses. After about forty minutes going downdowndown it finally dawned on me… “Hey Salim, with all this going down, doesn’t that mean we have to go UP again at the end?”

Alila Jabal Akhdar Hidden Villages hike

If you’ve been in New York’s Central Park and have seen that sharp black schist, I think, the whole canyon is made of that. Deep, dark and black. Sharp to the touch and tough on the foot. It sucks the life out of you, like walking with eraser-soled shoes on sandpaper.

Salim pointed out the falaj irrigation systems developed by the Omanis hundreds of years before the Romans stole the idea. A spring high in the cliff spurts out crystal clear water, the falaj troughs capture the stream and funnel it to where it’s needed in the date palms and banana trees below.

Salim said, like in most of Oman, anyone can stay the night in this farmer’s roost, even though it is someone else’s land. Omani culture allows people to camp anywhere.

Falaj Hidden Villages
You can see the ancient filaj system Omanis developed hundreds of years ago. Finding a small spring and then building channels across canyons to bring water to where you need it.

This cool ancient falaj irrigation system still in use today, funneling the cool water from hidden springs down to where it can bring life to this desolate canyon.

After a long hour and a half hike down, we chilled in the shade next to the falaj, where Salim poured me some hot Arabic coffee and we split a bag of Omani dates. I may have eaten too many.

I was right, the walk up was the worst part. Three solid hours of straight up. I about died, maybe even did. My legs were like jello, my lungs felt like they were punctured. I about cried. I had a sugar crash from all the Omani dates.

I don’t know what it was, perhaps I was having a sugar coma from eating too many of those super sweet Omani dates, but I was completely dead on the way back out. At the end, I was only ably to climb about ten feet at a time before having to stop to catch my breath.

My thighs had completely given up. Crying was a considered option. It crushed my soul for days on how bad I did on this hike. Beautiful as it was.

When I crawled out of the SUV and walked back in, Tarack, the Adventure Concierge asked “Well, how was it?”  “I failed, miserably. But it was amazing.”

“Yes, we try to warn people, but they insist. There’s something about these mountains…”

 A Look Around the Alila Jabal Akhdar

Sitting out on that deck at sunset is just bomb.

Massage Envy, Oman branch.

This is the Massage Hut (my term) at the Alila It has the best spot in the whole resort, better even than any of the villas. You’re perched right out there over the V of two deep canyons. Head first. I noticed that there was a small spittoon under the face doughnut thingy, probably to catch all the drooling. I didn’t get a chance to get a massage, I was doing too much running around and hiking.

The Incredible Service of Alila

This is my first time at an Alila hotel, but have heard so many good things — often ranked as one of the best hotel chains in the world. One of the amazing things they totally get is Magical Service™ (my term).

You only have to give your room number once, in any of the restaurants, and they competely remember your name and face the rest of the time. And they know all about what you’ve been doing during your stay. I’d love to know how they do it behind the scenes.

Like the smiling woman at breakfast service, whom I hadn’t met yet, who approached the table with “Good morning Mister Dan. How was your Via Ferrata yesterday? Are you ready for your double cappuccino now? And today, you go for the Lost Villages hike?” Amazing.

And when I ordered a Negroni the first night, I never had to order another again. They just showed up.  And of course, the bartender I’d never met from the hotel lounge asked “Here is your Negroni Mister Dan, how was your hike today?”

Alila Jabal Akhdar at sunset
I think you’d like it here.

Last visited December 2017

Other Oman Travel Resources

Here is the Alila Jabal Akhdar’s website.  And here’s another post I made on another cool adventure hotel in Oman.

Here’s link to a Google Map I made tracing the route I took over my two weeks in Oman. You can bookmark it to use for later.  You can also zoom in to check out the incredible satellite maps of Oman’s changing geology.

I used Louise Brooks at  Scott Dunn Travel to book my entire trip and she was amazing. They have a fantastic website that has tons of pictures and details and different itineraries for what you’re in the mood for.  I wasted a year and a half trying to book through another well-known British travel company and they kept giving the run-around, or forcing me into a fixed two-two-two trip — which would have been a total waste.  I swear, I spent half an hour on the phone with Louise Brooks and just got exactly what I wanted, full detailed two week itinerary in half a day. Easiest vacation I ever planned, a full two week trip planned in half a day, bought and then I left the following week!  (DM me if you want my agent’s contacts).

Here is Conde Nast Traveller’s Oman Travel page.  I think the UK version has a lot more destinations and detail in it than the US version… which just repeats the same 12 travel places every year. And an even better Oman Overview that has tons of stuff I’ve never seen before.  Gotta go back!

Here’s a good overview article from the US Conde Nast Traveler on Why You Should Visit Oman, then Gulf’s Undiscovered Gem.

A brief article in Vogue on why you should go to Oman. If Vogue is suggesting it, you know it’s a safe country!

Here are some perfunctory facts and helpful info from Travel & Leisure on How To Travel to Oman.

Lonely Planet’s Guide to Oman.   And a short article on 9 Reasons to Visit Oman from CNN Travel.

A terrific collection of articles from The Guardian on Oman.  And from The Telegraph Top 10 Reasons to Visit Oman.

Here is the Alila Jabal Akdar’s website.  And the Canvas Club Luxury Tents’ website.

And lastly Fodor’s deep guide on Oman.

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