The intoxicating smell of incense is one I’ve always associated with Christmas Eve. Typically, I’d be inhaling the scent while wrapped in a thick coat and huddled into a church pew. But today, I’m wearing the lightest linen outfit I could find, as I bathe in the desert heat of the Shangri-La Al Husn’s private frankincense garden.
From spa to bar, the country’s famed resin – proclaimed to be the world’s finest – runs right through this stunning cliff-edge resort in Muscat, a seven-hour flight from London. Oman’s capital is probably lesser known among British and Irish holidaymakers than its Middle Eastern neighbour of Dubai, which is around a four-and-a-half hour drive across the Oman-United Arab Emirates border.
Oman, with a population of around 4.5 million, is one of the lesser populated countries in the Middle East.
Shangri-La Al Husn – with its dramatic coastal setting and private beach looking out to the Gulf of Oman – aims to offer a wide variety of activities and experiences for guests, so my trip is a mix of relaxation and exploration.
At the heart of the traditional Omani welcome to any household – and to this luxury hotel – is the waft of frankincense, accompanied by tasty sweet dates and Arabic coffee. It’s a ritual we enjoy in the frankincense garden, welcomed by the resort’s very own expert.
Khalid Al Amri, the first accredited frankincense sommelier in the country, tells us: “If you come to visit my home, we burn the frankincense to welcome you and when you are about to leave, we burn it again.”
He refers to the almost two dozen frankincense trees around us as “babies”. Planted back in 2019, they will need another four to six years from now to mature and produce the aromatic resin which has been known over the years as the “sweat of the Gods”.
Khalid explains how a knife – known as a manqaf – is used to cut the tree bark, releasing the resin which eventually hardens into frankincense.
While it is clearly commonplace in Oman, frankincense is highly revered. I had no idea this gift – which most people will know from its Biblical namecheck, having been presented along with gold and myrrh to the baby Jesus by the Three Wise Men – had so many uses beyond its enchanting scent.
“If you go to the market, you can buy frankincense to burn, to put in water, to use it for the perfume for your clothes,” Khalid adds. “Traditionally if a pregnant woman is about to give birth, we burn frankincense to protect her and the baby. And after she gives birth, we burn it for 30 days, a kind of blessing for a new soul coming to life.”
We hear of its believed healing and restorative properties, with the high-grade Al Hojari frankincense boiled in water and sipped if someone is feeling unwell.
The resort’s Luban spa offers treatments and massages using frankincense oil. It is said by some to have possible anti-inflammatory as well as immunity-boosting benefits. My experience is certainly relaxing, and I hope to have absorbed some of these supposed healing benefits.
The cherished resin is even used in cocktails, and while the jury is out on whether it makes my drink any healthier, it definitely enhances the taste and look. Frankincense-infused gin is a key ingredient in the signature Shangri La Spritz cocktail.
Sitting in the evening heat by the resort’s Al Muheet outdoor bar, I am mesmerised as I watch blue butterfly pea turn my drink a dazzling purple when it mixes with the gin, lavender syrup, pink grapefruit, pineapple and a touch of sparkling wine.
Tourists and visitors can have alcohol in licensed venues in Oman, such as the resort, and the legal drinking age is 21.
This particular cocktail, as with many others offered at the resort, comes both with and without alcohol, and to be honest I can’t tell the difference between them.
Private cocktail-making sessions are available for guests on request, costing OMR 15 per person (£30) including up to three drinks. A complimentary cocktail hour also takes place for guests every evening at sunset in the courtyard.
Venturing outside the resort – and continuing my frankincense journey, I enjoy lunch at the Bait al Luban restaurant. The unassuming exterior belies a mouth-watering experience inside at an eatery, which has a name meaning House of Frankincense.
Shoes off and seated cross-legged on brightly coloured cushions at our wooden table, we are first served frankincense water, followed by red-coloured hibiscus juice, both of which are said to be purifiers.
Our journey through traditional Omani food includes harees – barley and chicken mashed together with a date and chickpea sauce – and a marinated lamb dish called shuwa, served with rice. Traditional Middle Eastern doughballs known as luqaimat are served for dessert, not forgetting of course yet more sweet dates (by which point in the journey I’m fairly certain I’ve become addicted). A meal for two comes in at around 15 OMR (£30).
Keen to embrace some more Omani culture beyond the resort, we venture to the nearby Mutrah Souq – the perfect place to walk off lunch. The market, a 20-minute drive from the hotel, is filled with various treats from the usual tourist offerings to gold jewellery, and of course frankincense in various forms as well as brightly-coloured incense burners. I enjoy a cup of sweet karak tea, costing half an Omani Rial (less than £1) as I wander.
The Muslim call to prayer soon sounds and some people begin heading for the mosque. Oman is a mainly Islamic country, and out of respect for its traditions, it’s advised to wear modest clothing while outside the resort, with shoulders covered and long skirts or trousers.
For a visit to the Sultan Qaboos Mosque – the country’s largest – women must also don a headscarf.
Full of chandeliers and ornate designs on the ceilings and walls, this 20,000 capacity building is truly a sight to behold. The sprawling sandstone site, which opened at the turn of the century, is impressive from every angle, with its series of outdoor archways forming photogenic shadows in the sunlight. Its shade provides cool relief from the stifling heat and a calm descends as we enter and admire the 21-tonne Persian carpet which covers 4,200 square metres of the prayer hall floor.
Visitors can take a look around between 8.30am and 11am six days a week, excluding Fridays.
It’s around 40 degrees during our May trip, but it can drop to the mid-20s in December and January, so timing for your visit is everything. The hotel offers boat trips for snorkelling, diving and dolphin-spotting from the resort’s marina – all great ways to escape the heat.
The quiet cove we stop off at feels like I’m in a scene from David Attenborough’s Blue Planet, as our snorkel excursion features no less than three large turtles swimming around us. Later, further out at sea, we’re lucky enough to spot dozens of wild dolphins jumping in unison for us.
If you time it just right – generally between February and September – you can also witness a turtle-hatching back at the resort. We stand behind a roped-off area on the beach while the on-site turtle ranger gently lifts the tiny baby turtles out of their nests, dug deep in the sand, so they can crawl instinctively towards the water.
We can only hope they make it out to sea; some have to try multiple times as the tide washes them back onto the sand. Perhaps years from now another lucky visitor will snorkel beside them in a quiet cove nearby.
How to plan your trip
Oman Air flies daily from London Heathrow to Muscat with return fares starting from £572 for economy and £3,069 for business class. Visit www.omanair.com.
Doubles at the Shangri-La Al Husn (shangri-la.com) start from OMR 120 (£247), including breakfast and afternoon high tea. Prices are subject to 22.5% taxes and service charge.
Guests can take a shared boat trip for 24 OMR per person (around £50) and 12 OMR for a child (around £25).