Abruptly and without any warning, we reach the end of the road.
Or more accurately, the end of the asphalted road. In front of us, a narrow dusty track winds its way across the rocky surface, passing the occasional flat-topped Acacia Tortilis and shrub-like Moghar, skirting piles of rocks left by goatherds and dry winter streambeds and in the far distance, rises up the face of the soaring mountains at the head of the valley.
“It gets bumpy from here on,” my driver Yasser informs me, all mock serious, the faint suggestion of a smile playing around the corners of his mouth. “But don’t worry, I’m an excellent driver. I’ve almost never driven off the road.”
We laugh, slightly nervously in my case. It is almost night and the road that zigzags its way up the steep, rocky slope ahead in a series of precipitous switchbacks, plainly offers inattentive drivers more than a few opportunities for sudden and infelicitous descent.
As we reach the foot of the mountain, we pause briefly at what in another time and place would have been called the gatekeeper’s lodge. Built in traditional Omani style, the neat compound, with its mud walls, wooden beams and low, cube-like forms, is an oasis of soft, welcoming light. Yasser hops out check on a fellow driver who had not been feeling well earlier in the day. He’s back a few minutes later but as we pull away under the watchful gaze of the gatekeeper, it’s clear night has fallen. As the compound drops away behind us, the darkness becomes absolute.
Yasser is true to his word. The road is bumpy – though from the plushly upholstered confines of our Land Rover, few of the jolts register - and he is an excellent driver.
As the road rises, I settle back into my seat. With every kilometre, city life recedes further into dream. I’m half-convinced that if I listen closely, I will hear a gentle hiss as my life depressurises.
The trip so far has been delightful. A leisurely drive from Dubai through a series of progressively sleepier desert towns and finally, into the starkly beautiful serrated mountainscape of Musandam, a once lawless land of land of pirates, raiders and smugglers and at its tip, the closest point on the Arabian Peninsula to Iran.
Musandam today is considerably more law-abiding. The pirates have gone and though the smuggling goes on – the trade is mostly in cigarettes, soft drinks and luxury goods unavailable in the Islamic Republic – it’s small-scale and only rarely makes waves.
In fact, Musandam is so laid-back that although technically, we are in Oman, in one of the tiny enclaves the Sultanate has retained on the peninsula from imperial times, and my cell-phone shows it is registered on an Omani network, the shops we pass are as happy to accept UAE Dirhams as they are Omani Rials and at the border crossing, the guards didn’t even ask for my passport. No interminable queues. No invasive searches. No harshly-barked questions about where you’ve been and why you’re visiting. Just a smile, an “ahlan fil Oman” and we were through. It was so easy, it almost felt illicit.
Ten minutes of gentle rocking and swaying later, we ease up onto the summit. As we begin our descent, skirting around a house-sized boulder in the process, two clusters of light appear below.
To our right, the bright, fluorescent lights indicate the tiny fishing village that still occupies the far end of the bay, the minaret of its miniscule mosque outlined in electrifying green neon. Dead ahead, the shimmer of a thousand pinpricks of golden light is all that can be seen of Zighy Bay’s other occupant; the low-rise luxury jumble of the Six Senses Hideaway resort.
Another ten minutes of rocking and swaying later and we draw up at the main entrance. In a quiet storm of unobtrusive efficiency, my bags are whisked away, a cool, scented towel is pressed into one hand and, as I am ushered to the sofa, a very pink fruit mocktail is pressed into the other.
I survey my surroundings. The soft clay walls, high reed ceiling and modern rustic furniture are a contemporary take on traditional Omani style. It’s all rather timeless. Apart from the telephone on the front desk, technology is either absent or, as in the case of the air-conditioners, artfully concealed behind slatted bamboo screens.
The gentle lighting and the softness of the sofa do their work. I am suddenly aware that I am exhausted. As I finish my mocktail – an entirely untraditional mix of strawberries, bananas and pineapple - my personal butler arrives.
Hassna is Moroccan. She has been at Zighy since shortly before its official opening in January 2008. As she drives me to my beachfront villa in a souped-up electric golf cart she tells me that though she loves her job, she does find Zighy Bay a little bit remote.
“But that is exactly what our guests want, I think,” she says as we drive past date palms and stands of pink and white bougainvillea, “to be far away from their daily lives.”
Personally, I can’t imagine how I could be much further from mine. As an unrepentant city dweller, like half of humanity, I’m more used to clamour and congestion and to living cheek-by-jowl with strangers.
Right now, the nearest villa might as well be on the Moon as the only sound I can hear is of the surf caressing the shore. In fact, if I had not seen other guests during the tour Hassna gave me on the way, I would swear we were the only two people on earth.
We arrive at my beachfront villa. Number 17 is an exercise in self-effacing sophistication. The modern rustic interior is stocked with all the usual Five Star delights – plasma screen television, WiFi, iPod dock and massive bed, large enough to sleep a family of five - but it’s what’s outside that really catches my eye.
Opening the folding doors, I step out onto the patio. The air is cool but sweet, despite the proximity of the sea. My private pool glows greenly in the night. At the far end, a bamboo lounging area, modestly shielded from the eyes of passers-by, provides a private view of the beach. It reminds me briefly of a scaled-down cubist version of one of the chambers in Jaipur’s Hawa Mahal.
Walking around the pool, I notice that on either side, the jagged hills enclosing the bay, isolating the resort from the outside world, are just visible as a solid smudge of darkness against the night sky.
And what a sky it is, a glittering carpet of stars, a billion crystals of light the likes of which I haven’t seen since a trip to the Andes a couple of years ago.
I suppose I must have gasped. Hassna, who is getting ready to leave, turns to me in concern. Then she realises where I have been looking and smiles.
“We get that every night. It’s really something, isn’t it?”
Telling me to call if I need anything, Hassna departs. I wander out onto the patio again and stand, gaping at the stars. It's something, alright. My eyelids start to droop. The bed beckons. It looks impossibly downy. I stumble back in and two minutes later, I am fast asleep.
Originally published in