When you become a parent, you quickly begin to appreciate the wisdom of the doctrine ‘anything for an easy life’. Whether it’s letting your little one wear his Paw Patrol pyjamas for the 12th night running, or using the iPad as the occasional digital babysitter, some battles are just not worth fighting. Of course, there are times when you have to be a disciplinarian, but ideally a family holiday isn’t one of them.
So when it comes to choosing a destination, you need to mitigate as many potential conflicts as possible.
One: the weather. You want it warm and sunny, but not too humid. In the British winter, there are few better places to pick than the Middle East. The sunshine is pretty much guaranteed – and the pleasantly dry heat averages around 30 degrees during the day with a cooling coastal breeze, and won’t drop below 18 at night.
Two: the flight. It’s long-haul enough to get somewhere actually warm, but short enough not to kill you. At around seven hours, you can just about manage this without being driven to hair-pulling – of yourself or your loved ones.
Three: insects. There are very few critters and bugs out here, so your littluns won’t get bitten alive by mozzies, and there are no jabs to worry about before you go.
Four: security. When it comes to personal safety and personal possessions, resorts in the Middle East are about as secure as Fort Knox.
Hell, they even have British plugs over here, so that’s one less thing to worry about packing.
Because of these factors, we decided to go to Dubai last year. It was real guilty-pleasure stuff – giant water slides made of 24-carat gold, that kinda thing. But when telling more cultured friends about your chosen holiday location, you almost feel like you must apologise – you know, for not having more taste.
The answer? Oman. It has all the benefits, with little of the tasteless frippery that blights the neighbouring ‘Disney in the desert’. Where Dubai’s hotels come supersized with extra cream on top, Oman’s top luxury resorts are a wholly more sophisticated affair.
Al Bustan Palace
They don’t come more luxury than the Ritz-Carlton’s Al Bustan Palace. You may think the ‘Palace’ nomenclature is overkill or simply marketing hyperbole. But the thing is, the hotel is actually a palace.
In 1985, it was built by the Oman royal family, and it is still technically a palace – it just happens to be the only one in the world that sub-lets most of its rooms to a luxury hotel chain.
Even now, no one working at the hotel has access to its top floor – not even the GM. Level nine is reserved for royalty. Indeed, a month before our stay, Prince Charles was a guest here.
But that doesn’t mean you don’t get the taste of what it’s like to live like a king. Simply walking into its entrance hall is enough to make you feel pretty special. The 38-metre high atrium makes the main dome at St Paul’s feel a bit pokey in comparison. The central chandeliers cascade down nearly two stories – sunlight beams through the high-set windows refracting through the thousands of crystals throwing rainbows across the marble walls.
Waves splash on the shallow shore, accompanied by a light breeze – and fresh fish caught that day are brought directly to you
Outside, things are equally epic. The mammoth infinity pool is showered by fountains and flanked by magnificent palm trees planted on islands along its 50m length. (It’s only one of five pools at the resort.) And, crucially for familial harmony, it’s as warm as a bath, and they’ll deliver beer to your sun-bed.
Unlike a Dubai resort, you don’t get 68 restaurant chains here all run by either Gordon Ramsay or Jamie Oliver. But what you do have are five excellent high-quality options. The breakfast at Al Khiran Terrace is the best buffet this correspondent has ever had the pleasure of gorging himself on. Trust me – it’s worth the trip alone.
As is the Beachside Pavilion restaurant for your dinner. I’ll paint the scene: in front of you is the warm Arabian Sea and an expansive 1km private beach, the longest in the country. To one side, craggy rocks are highlighted dramatically by uplighters, bats occasionally flitting above them. Over your head, nothing but a star-lit sky. Waves splash on the shallow shore, accompanied by a light breeze – and fresh fish caught that day are brought directly to you. The surrounding palm trees are lit by a thousand lights and there are rose petals spread across the table. It’s very romantic – even if you're accompanied by your three-year-old. It’s a great spot for a last-night dinner. Or a first-night dinner. Or any dinner.
For more information on Al Bustan Palace, see: ritzcarlton.com
Barr Al Jissah Resort and Spa
For the sake of variety – and selfless journalistic endeavour, of course – we decided to split our trip between two resorts.
Our second stay was at the Shangri-La Barr Al Jissah Resort and Spa. If Al Bustan is the palace of hotels, then the Shangri-La is the bustling city. It even has its own infrastructure – the public roads that lead to it were constructed by the hotel group, allowing visitors access to one of Oman’s nicest series of beaches.
Two of these beaches are home to turtle nests as more than 100 mother turtles visit the shores of the resort to nest their eggs. Both Green Turtles and Hawksbill turtles are born here. A dedicated Turtle Ranger – that is his actual job title – monitors and takes care of the creatures, making sure that they’re not disrupted by human activity.
That takes place in another area – where swimming, sailing and other more high-octane water-sports are enjoyed by guests.
To stay here you need to choose between the two hotel wings.
The first is Al Waha – this is the most family-focused and Mediterranean in feel. With a toddler in tow, it was the natural choice. On arrival at reception, while adults are given a fresh juice, children are brought a little pot of ice cream; the staff definitely know who the real bosses are.
A one-bedroom suite is plenty big enough for a family to share, the living room doubling up as a large bedroom for the kid(s).
There are potentially 14 restaurants, bars and lounges to dine at – so variety is not an issue. But even the entry-level restaurant, Samba, is well above your average buffet. The night we arrive there’s a BBQ by the pool serving Iranian chicken, marinated steak, and freshly caught fish – this is in addition to the ten or so stations of different food selections inside. Still hungry? Fresh fruit and plates of baklava are delivered to your bedroom as part of the turndown service.
Blessed with the strength of an Olympic wrestler and the accuracy of a sniper, Zeenna can untangle the deepest-set knots that years of laptop-induced hunching can throw at her.
One of the great benefits of booking a stay here is the ability to piggyback on the adjacent Al Bandar. A lazy river connects the two wings, so if you can’t face the five-minute walk you can just hop on a rubber ring and float to your next destination.
Al Bandar has a meandering pool with a beach-like shore on one side. There are plenty of grassy areas to hide away. In the evening it’s home to a village-like square with a number of restaurants and bars fronting the sea. A craggy cliff is lit up to dramatic effect; an oud player strums authentic Omani songs; areas of carpeted low-level seating are taken up by revellers enjoying flavoured tobacco.
Our pick of the restaurants here was the fine dining Italian, Capri Court. OK – I appreciate the irony of electing to eat Italian this far from the Med. But staples are executed with genuine ‘mother’s recipe’ flair, and a roast tuna signature dish was only trumped by the sun-dried tomato-infused bread served with rich truffle butter.
There is more to come up the hill, from the adjacent Shangri-La hotel Al Husn – the top of the tree. However, there is a rather preventative catch to staying – or even visiting – this hotel. Namely, it’s adults only.
But everyone needs a break from their kids at some point: so, put them in the club, and head to the Chi spa for some quality ‘me time’.
From steam rooms to wet saunas to air baths, Chi has some great assets – but at the top of the list is Zenna. Blessed with the strength of an Olympic wrestler and the accuracy of a sniper, she can untangle the deepest-set knots that years of laptop-induced hunching can throw at her.
Finish off the night at the terrace outside the stylish Long Bar. It was one of our favourite spots, drinking mojitos, breathing in the fresh air, overlooking the beautiful moonlit Arabian Sea… while our son takes in one more episode of Paw Patrol on the iPad.
Well, anything for an easy life.
For more information on Shangri-La Barr Al Jissah Resort and Spa, see shangri-la.com