I’m a firm believer that travel is the biggest gift and so each year on my birthday (as on many other days) I try to go someplace I haven’t been before. This December, I had the opportunity to escape to the mountains of Jabal Akhdar in Oman and bring in my birthday at the luxurious Alila Jabal Akhdar. What was even cooler was that they’d started offering six new guided hikes in the area and wanted me to review the experience of a hike of my choice.
What better way to celebrate being alive than feeling the burn in your legs and determination in the whooshing of your lungs as you trudge onward to fantastic mountain views, old villages, and terraced fields?
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Location and Architecture
Alila Jabal Akhdar sits 2000m above sea level in Jabal Akhdar or the Green Mountain in the rugged Al Hajar range. The closest town, an hour away, is Nizwa, one of the oldest cities in Oman and with plenty of heritage sites and markets bursting with local character. The resort is a 2.5-hour drive from Muscat International Airport. A 4×4 is necessary and the hotel can arrange transportation to and from the airport. The roads are quite windy as you gain altitude and get closer so carry motion sickness pills if that affects you.
The location in the Al Dakhiliya district is quite remote and really in the heart of Jabal Akhdar; you’re surrounded by rugged mountains, dry wadis and the chilly mountain air. The temperature is about 15 degrees Celsius lower than Muscat throughout the year.
Far from being an eyesore in the rugged and rustic landscape, the resort is sensibly built with stone and wood to resemble a traditional Omani village and blends into the surrounds. In fact, the nearby abandoned village of Sirab, accessible on a trek from the resort, was the inspiration behind the architecture of the hotel.
Mountain View Suite
After a warm welcome of Arabic coffee and dates, we were shown to our spacious Mountain View Suite, a 52 sqm space complete with rustic Omani touches in the décor as well as modern amenities such as a Lavazza coffee-maker, flat screen TV, a walk-in wardrobe, a bathroom with enough space for two (always appreciate two sinks), a bathtub that overlooked the terrace and mountain views if you turned up the blinds, and a rain shower.
Outside, the terrace was the perfect spot to ease into my morning in the company of the whispering breeze and staggering cliffs, their strange contours like the eyes and curved smiles of the mountain, or stay up late watching nature’s grand show. Due to the spectacular location, the resort is an excellent place to stargaze and practice your hands at astrophotography, or you can simply sit on your terrace, hot chocolate in hand, and watch. Away from light pollution, a billion stars light up the night sky; truly, a sight to behold.
After my stay was confirmed, I had received an automated email from the hotel asking for my preferences regarding certain extras. I was pleased to see my requests for binoculars and an aromatherapy pillow had been attended to.
If I had to pick the highlights of my stay at Alila Jabal Akhdar, the delectable cuisine would definitely be on top of my list. To be honest, when it came to the food, I didn’t know what to expect. ‘Surprise me’ and ‘Omani food’ were my preferences on the email questionnaire I received, and indeed, I was pleasantly surprised.
There are two dining venues at the resort; the Rose Lounge open through the day (11.00am-late) and the Juniper Restaurant, open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
For breakfast, you can choose from a buffet spread of cheeses, breads, salads, fruits, cereals, oatmeal, and mezze and fresh juices and smoothies. Additionally, you can also order a main item from the breakfast menu such as omelet, pancakes, Shakshouka, scrambled eggs, or waffles. While I chose an omelet, Ankit ordered a Shakshouka on the second morning and it was outstanding.
On our first day we arrived late in the afternoon and our only option was the Rose Lounge. We decided on a Mezze platter, a Chicken Burger for Ankit and a Joojeh Kebab for me. While the burger and kebab were nothing special, the Mezze platter was an absolute joy- each item, whether it was the Hummus, Moutabel or fresh Tabbouleh.
The real highlight, of course, was the dinner at Juniper Restaurant. I didn’t know that it was possible to literally enjoy every morsel of your meal, from appetizer to dessert, especially when you’re dining at the same restaurant two nights in a row. There were two menu choices- one, an a la carte selection or the Omani tasting menu (that changes every night).
A la carte Selection
On our first night, we went with the a la carte choice. My appetizer was the same Mezze platter we had enjoyed earlier that day with soft white cheese (Labneh), creamy Hummus, Tabbouleh, and Matbucha (a dish of cooked tomatoes and eggplant). Ankit enjoyed his Cream of Chicken soup. After the appetizer, we were served a refreshing warm soup of fresh tomatoes and pomegranate- both organic and grown in Jebel Akhdar.
We opted for the same main; Samak Harra or Fish Harra, a popular Arabic dish with a side of French beans with crumbled feta and walnuts. This was the first time either of us was trying the dish and we couldn’t have asked for a better introduction. I’m pretty sure that the next time we order it at a restaurant in Dubai, we’re going to be disappointed because the standard has been set so high.
Our desserts were Crème Brulee with homemade Pomegranate Ice-cream and Chocolate Fondant with Berries and Date Ice-cream. Both were equally good, made only better by the fresh homemade ice cream.
Omani Cuisine Tasting Menu
On our second night, we decided to try the Omani tasting menu. Don’t be fooled by the name though; the portions were just as generous as on the previous night, though they’re served so it’s easier to share.
Appetizers were the Soup of the Day, a mezze platter of Hummus, Pomegranate Salad, Labneh and vegetables served with warm Arabic bread and Pide with Lamb. Pide is flatbread topped with meat, vegetables, herbs and spices and baked. The flavors of the lamb and spices were just perfect and Ankit and I both agreed that this was the best pide we’d ever tasted.
Our mains Salona Samak (chermoulla marinated local fish with harra rice) and Chicken Kefta (Spiced mince chicken kefta ball with tomato sauce, feta, pita bread) arrived steaming hot in clay pots (we loved the presentation). Both came with gravies that looked similar but tasted very different. Rich, flavorful, aromatic, and just the right amount of tangy, they were simply delicious. “I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed every bite of my meal like this,” remarked Ankit and I couldn’t agree more.
Dessert was Pistachio and Walnut Baklava with Raspberry ice-cream, again a creative spin on a Middle Eastern classic.
We were also surprised with a birthday cake after our dinner to bring in my big day and we couldn’t decide what we wanted more for dessert- the decadent chocolate cake or the baklava!
While we dined indoors in the cozy restaurant on our first night, on the second night we sat outside by the warmth of the heaters and under the stars; something we highly recommend doing.
A special mention goes out to our server Ravi from India for his attentive service, great recommendations, and general friendliness.
Tip: If you’re a food lover, Alila Jabal Akhdar offers cooking classes to interested guests who want to learn about the local cuisine. Given how delicious the food was, this seems like a worthwhile activity.
Spa and Wellness
If you’re visiting Alila Jabal Akhdar for a relaxing getaway, then you’re in for a treat. With a gorgeous infinity pool overlooking the ridge, a heated indoor plunge pool and Spa Alila, you’re spoilt for choice. While the outdoor pool isn’t heated at the moment (though this might change in the near future), the indoor pool is perfectly warm even as late as 7pm in December. After our long unforgiving hike on our first day, Ankit and I spent an hour relaxing in the indoor pool before we headed to the spa for our couple’s massage.
After sipping on herbal tea, we were led into a room with two tables, a separate changing area and showers. Our 60-minute long deep-tissue massage of rolling and pressure techniques was incredibly rejuvenating and much needed for our aching muscles. The sound of the sweet relaxing music was soon interspersed by Ankit’s gentle snoring, not that it mattered, I’d just woken up a few seconds ago to notice. Both female masseuses did a fantastic job and we’d like to thank them for bringing us back to life that evening. No, seriously.
After the massage, we were left to take our own sweet time to change, shower, maybe relax some more, or have another cup of tea in the couples’ room. I really liked that because the last thing you want when you’re so relaxed is to have to rush.
You can also buy the hotel’s line of wellness products such as bath gels, bath salts, and lotions at Spa Alila. A gym is also available for fitness enthusiasts. Early risers should take advantage of the morning yoga sessions with stunning cliff views.
Hiking in Jabal Akhdar
One of the main things to do at Alila Jabal Akhdar is to go hiking on one of its many fantastic trails suitable for different fitness levels. It’s best to talk to the Leisure Concierge and book your guided hikes or tours when you arrive as tours can get booked up quickly and there are a limited number of guides. Wear sturdy hiking shoes and don’t forget to pack a daypack to carry water and other essentials.
The trails, ranging from three-hour to all day long excursions take hikers through deep gorges, dried wadi floors, caves, terraced fields, rocky plateaus where mountain goats graze, and abandoned and inhabited villages. The resort also offers guests to try their hand at Via Ferrata while traversing the canyon side with an introductory course for beginners and a more challenging experience for experts.
Mirage in the Mountains
On our first full day, we decided to do this relatively easy hike that starts minutes away from the resort on our own. While the information booklet in the hotel rates this hike as very easy, we wouldn’t necessarily agree that it is do-able for someone with knee injuries, very young children, or old people who may not have previous hiking experience.
The trail is marked but descends into a canyon and requires a fair bit of scrambling over sharp pointed rocks for a section of the trail. There are three sights along the trail: a cave, a dam, and the abandoned village of Sirab.
Splendour of Saiq
This guided tour was booked for us on our second day that also happened to be my birthday. Our guide Salem drove us to the Saiq Plateau, a 30-minute drive from the resort.
After stopping for photos at a couple of viewpoints offering jaw-dropping views of the craggy peaks and steep gorges, we hiked along the Falaj irrigation system, up and down broken stone steps, and through terraced fields, surrounded by walnut trees, pomegranate bushes, and olive groves and the local village of Al Ayn. Villagers and farmers went about their daily business, carrying heavy bags of fertilizers on their heads, children ran across the narrow trail along the irrigation channels, and a few people swept the streets outside their homes conjuring up billowy clouds of dust.
“That’s where Princess Diana came and camped,” said Salem pointing to the recently opened Anantara resort sitting atop a cliff. She must have had quite the view of Jabal Akhdar with only the clouds for company at a time when no hotel properties were available in the wild and untouched landscape. On our way back, we made a final stop at the entrance to Wadi Bani Habib for sweeping views over the gorge.
Throughout the resort and spa, as well as on our guided hike, the service was attentive and warm. At both restaurants, staff was happy to make recommendations and answer any questions we might have, whether it was about the food, hotel or the trails in the area. From the staff at the front desk, spa and restaurant, drivers and our hiking guide Salem, to the housekeeping staff, everyone was courteous and friendly.
Some things that stood out about the service:
- The warm welcome with a hot towel, coffee and dates was much appreciated, especially after our long drive from the airport.
- We loved that the car to the airport was stocked with lovely goodies like cookies and dates and a refreshing face spritz. The little things really do matter.
- On the Splendors of Saiq guided tour, our guide Salem was knowledgeable, friendly, flexible and very accommodating. Though we had to get back in time to leave for the airport the same afternoon, at no point did the tour feel rushed.
Who It’s For
Alila Jabal Akhdar is ideal for guests looking for a little peace and quiet away from the business of city life and for those looking to explore one or more of its amazing hiking trails. Families with young children, couples looking for a secluded romantic getaway and solo travelers interested in active exploration will love staying here.
Disclaimer: We stayed as guests of Alila Jabal Akhdar. All opinions, as always, are honest and independent.