It was the most memorable start to a holiday I can recall. As a matter of fact, my feet never touched the ground during the entire stay at Six Senses at Zighy Bay, on the northern tip of Oman - a beautiful, picturesque Middle Eastern country that is bifurcated by the modern and busy United Arab Emirates but still holds on to its traditional Arab culture and understated hospitality.
At the push of a button I had a butler, a nanny and a personalized activity planner taking care of my family’s every need. The resort boasts its sustainable footprint and lives up to its promise with an organic garden growing delicious vegetables and opportunities for guests to take advantage of carbon offsetting.
But when I left the resort I found myself with a flurry of unanswered questions about Oman. Did my money make it into the community? What type of house did my butler have and who lived in it with him? How do average locals spend their weekends? What did the farm look like where the rest of my farm-to-table food originated? Do locals commute via camel?
As I was living next door in Dubai, it would have been easy to jet off to another destination on my next vacation, but I decided to return to Oman. But to do it differently this time. So through a friend, I contacted Faisal, an Omani who ran a small bed and breakfast on the outskirts of Muscat designed primarily for the average Omani business traveler. He didn’t speak much English and my rusty Arabic didn’t include the Omani dialect, but it hardly mattered. Like so many Omanis, he spoke through his heart and his smile.
When we arrived to the small guest house, we were showered with treats from the kitchen made by his wife and sourced entirely from local vendors. I still dream of the Kahwa (coffee with cardamom) that she brewed on the open fire and the sweet dates that accompanied them. Our living quarters were basic but decorated with gorgeous handicrafts passed down from generations and handmade down pillows that could rival any found in a 5-star accommodation.
During the days, Faisal drove us to fish markets, souks, local beaches and ancient fortresses. We spent the afternoons lounging in the wadis (riverbeds formed by mountain gorges) with the only shade from a few palm trees overhead and the only noise from whistles of local camel herders. At night we ate local delicacies and listened to Faisal’s 16-year old daughter play melodious songs on the Oud (a local guitar variety.) At the end of the trip, I paid Faisal in cash a fraction of what I had paid for my earlier trip to Oman. I wanted to provide him a tip as well (a gesture that is engrained in my psyche as an American), but he refused. A deal is a deal. And besides he didn’t feel like he gave us “anything special”. But I disagree.
What we got was the entire Omani experience – the culture, the land, the food and the generous hospitality that Omanis have perfected over hundreds and hundreds of years.
But perhaps the most fulfilling of experiences happened as he drove us back to the airport. He had to make a stop at the local bank. And as he took from his pocket the cash I had just paid him for my stay, Faisal proudly held it in the air and kissed it as he exited the car. “For my daughter … her college!” he said as a tear glistened in his eye. And I decided right then and there, that truly local travel is the only “luxury” travel for me.