Although I like living where I do, there are times when I briefly but seriously consider becoming a stowaway. Al Bustan Palace is one of those places that may make you reconsider your current abode in favour of stealing away in one of the rooms.
I won't lie, it was hot and I mean hot when we got out of the car in Oman's capital of Muscat. Temperatures showed 46C or 114.8F and it was the first day of Ramadan. I've never experienced Ramadan in a predominantly Muslim country so this was a new experience for me. It is a time in the Islamic lunar calender when adult Muslims abstain from food and liquids from sunrise to sundown.
Just as important as the fasting is the concentration on spiritual reflection, prayers, reading the Quran and giving to charity. During the days before Ramadan everyone makes their way back home to their families for the period. It is supposed to teach discipline and generosity.
Children, the elderly and those travelling are exempt from fasting although it is important to note that to be respectful. That means not eating or drinking in public and if one purchases food, make sure that it is enclosed in a bag. Muslims can eat before sunrise in a meal called "Suhoor" and another called "Iftar" which means to break the fast just after sunset.
The Al Bustan Palace hotel is located on Al Bustan Street, about 45 minutes from the airport. Named after a village in North East Oman, it was formerly an Inter Continental property but is now part of the Ritz Carlton portfolio. We walk into the cool, air conditioned lobby after cooing at the beautiful gardens. It's so hot here that I can't imagine the upkeep of the lush, green flower laden gardens. But possibly more impressive is the 38 metre high atrium lobby. The hotel is set on 200 acres of property bordering the Gulf of Oman with its own private beach 1 kilometre long which is the longest in the country. Built by the Sultanate of Oman, it was originally meant to house the Gulf Cooperation Council. It remains where the Sultanate of Oman houses his international visitors and heads of state and they enter through a separate entrance.
The hotel is quiet because of Ramadan and we are shown our hotel rooms. There are 250 rooms but has lots of elevators (I counted nine) so it's a bit of a walk to the rooms although the reason why will become apparent when we swing open the door of our first floor rooms. Mine, room #122 is an Al Bustan lagoon room which is decorated in soothing hues of light green which matches the pool just a few steps away with direct access to the Gulf of Oman which sits beyond the palm trees.
In the 40 square metre room, there is a sumptuous looking king bed and two large soft chairs to sink down into. A plate of petit fours sits on the side table and they're delicious sweet little afternoon tea morsels. As it is Ramadan they won't be having afternoon tea in the atrium tea lounge so this is the closest thing to it.
The bathroom is decorated in blue, red and white Moorish mosaic tiles and there is a bath shower combo on the right and a white marble sink and wooden shelves underneath it. The amenities are plentiful as befits a Ritz Carlton. There is a shampoo, conditioner, body lotion, soap and shower gel by French brand Blaise Mautin. The rest of the toiletries like dental kit, cotton tips and pads, shower cap and shave kit are the in house Ritz Carlton brand as well as a branded mouthwash. There is also a bidet alongside the toilet.
The mini bar is included in the price although this and tea and coffee selection are quite simple and somewhat surprising with packets of instant Nescafe coffee and a limited range of beverages and no food items. Also there could be a couple more powerpoints as there was just one free near the desk. There is an iPod dock, complimentary shoe shines and checkout is also a very civilised 12 noon. Internet is priced by the hour with 1 hour a 1 OMR/$2.50AUD or 1 week 7 OMR/$17AUD.
The balcony is a good size with two sun lounges and two chairs. Lifting the safety catch on the balcony gate will allow you direct access into the pool although they gently suggest that after 3pm is the best time due to the sun. And the televisions which I usually find so vexing and confusing to use in some hotels is very easy to navigate between channels although there isn't a great deal of choice of channels.
After some television and some work, I make my way up to the third floor for a massage. I walk past the rooms following the sign to a massage suite and a therapist is waiting for me. As far as I can see there are three or so rooms and I'm led into one.
I had to be honest, I wasn't sure what to expect as I thought that there would be a hammam and a dedicated spa space (a Six Senses spa is to come) and this was quite small but my massage therapist was fantastic. I asked her for some extra firm pressure and she started the massage by going through the towel draped on top of me squeezing and kneading and then used oils on the Thai massage including an interesting eucalyptus oil which warmed the chest. She concentrated on the two areas I like the most, head and neck which were sore from carrying the camera around and hands which were sore from typing. It felt like it was an hour and half massage although it was just an hour at a very reasonable price of 25 OMR or about $62.50AUD.
During Ramadan, there are a limited amount of restaurants open and tonight's dinner is at China Mood, the Chinese restaurant on the ground floor. We were lured by the sound of dumplings and the menu has some Cantonese and Szechuan classics and are dining with Erika from the hotel who is observing Ramadan. We dined at 8:30pm with her as her iftar meal was taken with her family and she tells us that she ate dates and milk as her iftar meal which is what you would traditionally eat to break the fast in honour of the prophet Muhammed who did the same as it is gentle on the stomach.
Cantonese shrimp dumplings 5.100OMR/$12.97AUD
We start with an array of steamed seafood dumplings. The prawn har gow are generously portioned at six to a serve. The filling is tasty and the skins nice although a touch floury right near the filling.
Cantonese steamed lobster buns 5.500OMR/$13.99AUD
The lobster dumplings are plump and round and the lobster is tender inside and these were very similar to the prawn dumplings.
Shrimp shao mai 5.100OMR/$12.97AUD
My favourite were the artful little siu mai with roe on top. They were the most distinct from the others and the filling was well balanced with a springy, fresh texture.
Half Peking Duck 22OMR/$55.96AUD
The house specialty, the Peking duck is brought out to the table and carved in front of us. Served with fresh, warm pancakes they offer to roll them. They carve the Peking duck differently from the way that we do it and instead of separating the crisp skin from the meat they slice it diagonally so that there is a lot of meat in the pancakes. I prefer just the skin on its own but the skin is still lovely and crispy.
Szechuan hammour fish 13 OMR/$33.07AUD
Our mains come out and we start with the Szechuan hammour fish which is deep fried and crispy and coated with a lightly spicy Szechuan sauce which glazes it nicely. The fish is fresh and moist inside the crispy exterior.
Eggplant with spicy sauce 4.9 OMR/$12.47AUD
The eggplant was also a favourite, with a rich and spicy bean based sauce. The eggplant batons were soft and melting alongside the rich sauce.
Seafood E-fu noodles 5.9 OMR/$15AUD
These e-fu noodles are thinner than the ones that I've had before but they're crispy with a combination of lobster pieces and diced vegetables. The sauce could have used a tad more flavour to it but the noodles are deliciously crisp.
The usual ending to a Chinese meal here isn't just orange segments or watermelon pieces. Here, they step it up a couple of notches with this exotic fruit platter. I ended up eating more savouries than I expected to so I just tried the rambutan which was enormous, fat and juicy.
Chocolate plate 5.5 OMR/$13.99AUD
Of course, you always find room for chocolate. This chocolate plate is a giant slice of milk chocolate cream cake which is moist but it is very rich and a large piece. Alongside it is a scoop of fantastic chocolate ice cream which is made in house.
It's a quick sleep in the comfortable bed before my alarm beeps the next morning. I eye the clock with circumspection and realise that my best course of action is to get ready fast. On any travel writing trip there is always "the one" that is always late so ironing my clothes in record time and quickly stuffing a tip for housekeeping under the pillow, I make it to the breakfast restaurant on the same floor.
The breakfast room is enormous, as I suppose it needs to be to cater for 250 rooms. Although it is quiet at the time and I'm the only diner, the buffet is still out in full force. I help myself to some bits and pieces and ask for an Omani pancake. "Would you like something else?" they ask and service is extremely attentive.
The pastries here are very good and I dip the custard filled almond bun in the date syrup. It's delicious stuff and I make plans to buy some date syrup when we get to the airport. It's thick and like a mixture of molasses and honey in terms of taste. The smoked salmon is excellent and I add the date syrup to the bircher muesli.
The restaurant manager brings not only the Omani pancake but the Om Ali, a pastry pudding. First up, the Omani pancake is fantastic. Crispy on the sides but spongey on the inside. It's great with the date syrup which makes a nice substitute for maple syrup.
Om Ali means the mother of Ali. The Om Ali is also good although it is a bit rich for the morning but ideal for a dinner dessert. It's a milky pudding, this one is much creamier and indulgent than others that I've had and the caramelised bits on top are my favourite.
I go downstairs to the lobby and pick up the abaya that Erika has kindly loaned me. I was curious to see what it was like to wear one and hers is a pretty version with bright blue embroidery on the front and the sleeves. It is flowy and not heavy to wear although in the searing weather, it certainly attract the sun's heat. Those observing Ramadan are also not allowed to drink any liquids so that makes it even more of a challenge.
Our last stop in Muscat is at the Amouage factory, about 45 minutes away from the Al Bustan Palace in Al Qurum. Established in 1980, it is a purely Omani product that is packaged by hand from this factory location. Up to 2,000 bottles are packaged a day. Amouage Gold is said to be one of the world's most expensive fragrances and has a multitude of ingredients, 120 in total, which makes it also one of the most difficult to copy.
The Amouage fragrance house has 16 different scents mostly sold as Eau de Parfum and there are men's and women's versions of each. The women's version tends to be very sweet while the men's has a nice freshness. The use of food ingredients is common in their fragrances and there are items like coriander, tonka beans, cardamom, clove, red pepper or capsicum and tarragon. Other items like mryhh and frankincense are also used.
Cognisant that this is my last stop in Oman before my flight home, I breathe in the sweet smells deeply and close my eyes. I pop the perfume strips into my bag to perfume it and to remind me of my time in Oman.
So tell me Dear Reader, have you ever fasted for religious or other reasons? And what is your favourite fragrance?
NQN visited Oman as a guest of the Ministry of Oman
Al Bustan Palace
Quron Beach, 114, Oman
Tel: +968 24 799666