In the early morning on Friday this week, dressed in walking shorts, t-shirts and trainers, Flor and Leticia watched with eyes slightly squinted at the giant wall of sand dunes in front of them.
They were thousands of miles away from their home in France and while the season already changed where they came from, the remnant of summer heat in the Sultanate caused a blot of sweat to form in their backs.
Sitting at the open and picturesque reception area of Dunes by Al Nahda located in Wadi al Abiyad and not far from the business centre of Barka, a flurry of activities was happening on their left as a group of other visitors were busy trying to get on a camel. This was Conde Nast Traveller Middle East Hot List Winner in 2016 and on October 27, during the writing of this piece, was awarded the Best Mice Hotel in Oman [MICE standing for Meetings, Incentives, Conferences and Exhibitions] and the Best All Inclusive Hotel in the Sultanate organised by Haute Grandeur Awards held in Bangkok, Thailand.
Every once in a while, a soft breeze provided the needed relief from the heat. The iconic light caramel tents and the golden dunes behind them were a perfect backdrop to the unfolding drama of which the other guests were amused by and a few cars, just waiting for the sun to tame down a little, were already starting to gather at the bashing area.
Flor and Leticia were curious about camel riding, partly thinking that it’s one of the most quintessential icon of the Middle East — the ship of the desert carrying people on their back to transport them wherever they want to go.
The more adventurous Flor knew that Leticia wanted to have a picture taken with the camel. At least for posterity. They were waiting for instructions on how they can get on a buggy. Their primary goal that morning was to explore the sand dunes and do a little bit of sand dune bashing. While waiting, they opted for a quick photo op.
The couple is just one of thousands of other European travellers whose curiosity was piqued by Dunes by Al Nahda. Perched on top of the closest sand dune formation in Muscat, reachable in 30 to 45 minutes from the airport by car, it is a more practical option especially for those who have little time to try out everything Oman has to offer.
“We really wanted to try out sand dune bashing and this establishment provides the amenities we need to make it possible,” Flor shared.
“We don’t speak much English but we heard good feedbacks so we came here,” he added.
While Flor and Leticia were on the athletic and more adventurous side seeking the thrill enjoyed by many Omanis and residents of the country for years now, Dunes is flocked by other Europeans, Arabs from the region and even local residents for several other purposes.
Primary of this is the health and wellness spa that is unique and cannot be duplicated anywhere in the world as it uses the natural elements of the Middle East and combined with herbs and materials found in Oman, it is an experience worthy of the long travel coming to the country.
It is one of Al Nahda’s treasured assets. More importantly perhaps, also one of Oman’s tourists’ magnets calling especially to those seeking natural healing.
Inspired by ancient knowledge
It was almost a whisper. The voice soothing and familiar.
“Feel the sand as it is poured all over you. You will feel it like the caress of the softest silk,” she said.
And true enough, it was just as how she described it.
I was placed inside a tub formed by digging a hole in the ground about two feet deep. The setup was reminiscent of a sensory deprivation chamber but instead of salt water and total darkness, there was sand and the sun. The sand covering my feet all the way to my torso.
“We will be covering your face, neck and chest with a specially concocted facial mask. Soft fabric and chilled fruit wedges will cover your eyes to protect them from sand particles,” she added.
Prior to the session, Dr Mary Ann, Corporate Director Marketing and Development of Al Nahda Hotels and Resorts shared that the Hot Sand Therapy was inspired by ancient Egyptian’s wellness practice.
“A very unique and exclusive treatment, your body will be buried under the sanitised sand for a few minutes. The heat of the sand and the natural minerals found in them will help detoxify you and I will be able to determine which are your problem area that needs to be worked on,” she said.
Doc, as she is fondly called, is the face of Al Nahda. A vibrant lady who refers to herself as a student of life, she’s been in Oman since 2005 and considers the Uru, the strategically constructed spa area with an open access to the sky, as her baby.
“A lot of research was made before the spa was launched. We wanted it to be not only unique but one of the best in the world. It got its name from Uru [ as one researcher on the topic has said, “a highly-advanced stone-age megalithic ‘super civilisation’; a world power that once spread out across the earth to eventually influence the rise of the later civilisations of the ancient world].”
“While the concept is historical and ancient, we made sure that it has an Omani touch to everything. From the decors to the materials used on the walls, even our concoctions are grown in our farms in Oman and made meticulously by our well-trained staff,” she said.
“The flower of life, the giant symbol at the front of the spa area, references the interconnectedness of everything,” she added.
Uru combines two types of spa experiences — detox and healing which both have a more thorough contribution in one’s wellness not only from bone injuries to heart concerns but regular bouts of stress and insomnia. The programmes are also fully customisable, tailored by Dr Mary Ann to suit the need of the guest.
The hot sand session lasted for 20 minutes, after which guests are asked to clean up by taking a shower and then the areas identified to have problems were given focus during the succeeding massage session.
“We have guests here flying from all over the world. Some making special requests to experience our healing programmes. Many of the guests, after experiencing our healing therapy, tell us that they feel lighter after each session and that lightness lasts for a long, long time,” Dr Mary Ann said.
The popularity of their healing programme even prompted a visit from German visitors, representatives of Oman tourism in Germany, on the same day after our visit.
“They were definitely excited about the Uru Sand Spa,” she said.
For the French couple, they find the concept of the spa really interesting with Flor saying that, “we’re here for a really short time with specific activities to do but the spa experience is something we’d really be interested to try.”
Dune bashing and romantic getaways
“I live in the area. I’ve been here with my friends a lot of times enjoying dune bashing. In winter, hundreds of people gather here for this particular purpose,” Nasser al Hurassi said.
On his phone was a photo evidence of how frantic things can be when locals gather in the area on weekends. Dozens of four-wheel drives are already starting to pour in even in the morning on this particular Friday.
“It’s going to get busier later on in the day,” Dr Mary Ann said.
“This is all part of the experience of being in Dunes. Guests can even opt to play in our 9-hole golf,” she said.
The evening before, the team has demonstrated how they do dinner under the stars setting up an elegant and romantic dinner area by the sand facing the dunes.
“There are many different activities our guests can do here. We have a wide pool which is also now undergoing enhancements. If our guest requests for it, we can set up dinner for them under the stars. We can have our chef prepare barbecues or set up a dinner in our cabana. We wanted to offer them a fully customisable experience unique to what they need,” Suresh Kumar, Director of Rooms who help facilitate our visit, said.
“We have different rooms to choose from. Deluxe tents are very spacious and are ideal for couples or single guests. Our Luxury Tents with 85 sqm of floor space are perfect for families and friends. The Royal Tents are very luxurious where you have your own personal living area. They are free-standing tents with a private patio. All of these rooms have good view of the mesmerising dunes,” he added.
“We also have banquet rooms which can serve as conference rooms for corporate events or small gatherings,” he said.
“With the relaxation of visa requirements for some countries like Russia, India and China, we do expect more guests coming in. We want to fully explore the China market as well as we know they often travel in groups which is beneficial to any business,” Kavita Shross, Assistant Director of Sales, said.
While we packed our things at the end of our visit, the thunderous roars of four-wheel cars became louder. A dozen more were on parade heading just right outside the rustic gates of the Dunes. They will be there till the evening with several of them camping on top of one of the highest hills made comfortable and cosy by a bonfire.
Somewhere in Uru, a guest will be oblivious to the noise. He will be lost in his own world of healing. And the next moment he will probably remember is how beautiful the moon looks while he eats his dinner in a dimly lit cabana overlooking at the wide expanse that is the Wadi al Abiyad entertained by the dancing car lights settling in for the night.
While he enjoys the rest of the activities offered by the Dunes, another one will take over his place at the Uru.
“Our treatment is something that is to be experienced to be fully understood. I can tell you all about it but it’s different when you’re directly experiencing the treatment,” is Dr Mary Ann’s catchphrase. Words that are truthful and an invitation. For why would you go anywhere else indeed for spa healing when a globally competitive one is right here at Oman’s doorstep?