I’m greeted by spectacular views of vast echoing canyons, deep gorges and wildly rugged rock formations
Leo Bear travels to the wilds of Oman to track the one ingredient that is believed to leave spa goers with a healthy glow
A long-held beauty secret, rosewater is revered worldwide and has something of a cult status among the spa lovers. A ‘miracle’ product known for its anti-inflammatory properties, it’s filled with antioxidants and heralded for revitalising, nourishing and healing the skin at the deepest level. Its main component is the fragrant petals of the Damask rose, and my quest to find the purest rosewater in the world takes me to Oman’s mountainous interior, two and a half hours south of Muscat.
The Al Hajar mountain range runs for 500km and is the highest on the eastern Arabian Peninsula. Driving conditions are treacherous the steeper you climb; only turbo-charged 4X4’s can make the journey to the summit of the tallest peak – Al Jabal Al Akhdar (‘green mountain’ in Arabic), but the journey is worth it. I’m greeted by spectacular views of vast echoing canyons, deep gorges and wildly rugged rock formations like something you’d expect in Arizona or Nevada. Crucially, the temperature is 10 degrees cooler than in Muscat. I feel like I can breathe again. These fertile plains supply the Sultan of Oman’s table with year-round fresh fruit and vegetables, and I’m told people drive all the way from Dubai for the pomegranates, walnuts and olives. It’s also among these hilltops, during the months of April and May, that 7,000 Damask rose bushes bloom.
Considering the country’s arid climate – about 10 days of rain a year – it’s remarkable anything grows here at all, but that’s where the genius of the falaj irrigation system comes in. Based on simple principles of gravity and flow, it comprises a network of narrow channels that snake through hills and valleys transporting water for hundreds of miles: 2,450 to be exact. For 2,000 years, this prosaic system has been sustaining life in the highlands, supplying mosques, bathing areas and date plantations with life-giving H2O, and today, it continues to feed the roses that flourish each spring.
With my guide, Salim, by my side, we drive to the hilltop village of Ash Sharayjah. Following a falaj waterway on foot, we meander through spiny buckthorn and sapodilla trees, gripping hold of gnarled juniper branches for support. Calls to prayer echo in the distance and the occasional cockerel crows, but beyond that, there is little sign of life –certainly no tourists. It almost feels like we’re trespassing. In the dizzying 40-degree heat, I find it hard to put one foot in front of the other, but just as I’m running out of steam, my reward presents itself: terraces of roses cascade down a hill in a blanket of pink and green as far as the eye can see.
Salim leads me into a small, family-run distillation plant where I have to blink to take in my surroundings. There’s no electricity. No one there. Just earthenware pots strewn about, an ash-filled wood-fired oven and some tubes and plastic tubs. I’m surprised by how basic the apparatus is, but this is the way rosewater has been produced in Oman for centuries. Petals from the fully bloomed roses are plucked early in the morning when temperatures are at their lowest – to preserve the most intense aroma – then boiled with water, before being slowly filtered over the course of two to three weeks. In total, the distillation process takes around two months with each kilogram of roses making about 750ml of rosewater. Villagers take the water to be sold in nearby Nizwa, the former capital of Oman – and, as it happens, my next stop.
Home to one of the largest markets in the country, Nizwa gives you a great snapshot of the country. Much more than merely a place to pick up souvenirs, Nizwa’s souq is a lively social event, with Bedouins from distant mountain settlements travelling long distances to share good tidings. Get there before 11am on a Friday and you’ll witness the rowdy spectacle of livestock being paraded in a palm-shaded ring – the strongest specimens going to the highest bidder. I stock up on antique copper tureens, Persian lanterns and precious bottles of rosewater before heading to Nizwa’s crowning glory: a 16th-century fortress situated in the heart of town. As well as providing visitors with respite from the searing desert heat, the fort’s circular rooftop delivers spectacular 360-degree views. I gaze out at a carpet of bright-green date palms extending from the city’s sandstone walls all the way to the base of the Al Jahar Mountains, and immediately I crave the cooler climes of the hills.
Back at my hotel, Alila Jabal Akhdar the heavy stone walls of the lobby are imbued with the scent of frankincense. Believed to cleanse the air, the familiar sight of the resin smouldering on a tray of charcoal – a trail of pale-grey perfume curling into the air – is integral to Oman’s cultural identity. I’m served a traditional Omani welcome of kahwa (bitter coffee), dates and halwa (a sticky sweet delicacy) before being ushered to the spa by a handsome young man in a cream dishdasha.
I’m here to put that miracle-working spa ingredient to the test. Sinking into a rose petal bath, then surrendering to a deep-tissue massage using scented rose oil, I can feel the benefits of the damask rose instantaneously: refreshing my parched skin, restoring my energy levels and lifting my spirits to laugh-out-loud levels. That night I sleep better than I have done in years.
The following day, I wake with the rising sun and step onto my terrace. Clouds gather, casting dramatic shadows across the canyon but aside from a capricious hummingbird, nothing disturbs from the stillness. I’ve tracked down one of Oman’s top-secret spa ingredients, and in doing so, have discovered an Oman of yesteryear. One filled with endless romance and beauty.