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November 27, 2016, Oman

Cruising with dolphins in Oman

Eva Sohlman and Neil MacFarquhar

As a ferocious, record-breaking blizzard pummelled our windows, ushering in yet another month of Moscow's winter, we began a sudden, frantic search for a sunny refuge, someplace to both defrost on the beach and absorb a little culture over the course of four days.

It had to be within a few hours' flying time and free of the Islamic State or Al-Qaeda.

Ultimately we settled on a not-so-obvious choice: the slightly off-the-beaten-track Musandam Peninsula in the Sultanate of Oman.

There has been a surge in tourism in recent years, in part because of its attractive, quiet shores and warm, dolphin-rich seas.

Our springboard into the region would not be the beach, exactly: Our first stop after flying into the United Arab Emirates was the Emirate of Sharjah, an emerging centre for contemporary art.

Since we both had reported from the Arab world as journalists for years, the trip was partly tinged with nostalgia.

Sharjah positions itself as the offbeat brother to the slick commercial art market next door in far richer Dubai.

A third option is developing farther down the road in Abu Dhabi, where a cornucopia of long- delayed museum projects is finally coming to fruition.

A branch of the Louvre should open within the coming year, to be followed by a national museum and then Guggenheim Abu Dhabi by 2020.

Sultan Al-Qassemi, 38, from a branch of the local ruling family, volunteered to be our guide for our visit. Sultan, who shot to Twitter stardom during the Arab uprisings for his manic coverage, runs his own foundation, the Barjeel Art Foundation, as well as a photography studio and a commercial art gallery in Dubai.

He met us at Shababeek, a tasty Lebanese restaurant in Al-Qasba, a cultural and business centre downtown. He proved to be an energetic, enthusiastic and erudite guide, rather like his tweets.

The Gulf region has come a long way from the days when public art consisted mainly of giant sculptures of traditional Arab coffee pots.

Sharjah's ruler, Sheikh Sultan Muhammad Al-Qasimi, planted the seed that transformed his emirate into a creative hub when he founded the Sharjah Biennial of contemporary art in 1993.

The number of museums, galleries and cultural institutions has since blossomed with the emirate itself establishing more than a dozen, including a museum of Islamic civilisation and a small heritage museum. The next biennial opens in March.

Key places to see contemporary art include the Sharjah Art Foundation, the Sharjah Art Museum and the Maraya Art Centre.

As a young generation of Western-educated art professionals breaks unprecedented ground, they are gingerly balancing an Islamic society's conservative values with freewheeling art.

It is taboo to criticise political leaders or religion or to show nudity, although we found discreet examples.

Sharjah also bans alcohol according to Islamic tradition, which prompts many visitors to visit the bars of neighbouring Dubai or Ajman before returning to Sharjah's less expensive beach hotels to sleep.

After spending the better part of a day exploring the museums, we headed towards Oman and the Musandam Peninsula, but not without one final reminder of the Emirate's Islamic ways.

Our destination, the Six Senses Zighy Bay Resort, a two-hour drive from Sharjah, lies just over the border in Oman. The hotel arranges a border pass for guests lacking an Omani visa.

Just as we pulled into the Sharjah border post in downtown Dibba, the driver said casually: "They search your luggage for liquor and take away any they find."

Three Champagne splits in one suitcase were duly confiscated even though we were leaving the country.

"This time we will let you go, but next time we will open a case against you," growled the border guard.

There are various versions of the story about how the Musandam Peninsula, which juts into the Straits of Hormuz like a rhino horn, ended up in Oman's hands.

Some say the British colonial rulers divided up the territory of the Emirates in the 1960s according to tribal loyalties, or in the case of Musandam, because Oman agreed to give the British access to this strategic location on the Strait of Hormuz.

Musandam consists mostly of rocky, saw-toothed, blackish- yellow crags that tumble abruptly down into white sandy beaches.

There are few hotels - either upscale or downscale with limited water access.

We chose the Six Senses resort for its splendid isolation on its own cove, although the price caused some hesitation.

The final stretch of gravel road to the beach goes from the drab to the dramatic, with a steep ascent filled with hairpin turns up one side of a dun-coloured mountain. At the crest, a breathtaking sea vista opened at our feet.

The hotel's 82 stone villas are nestled in a beach-front oasis of more than 1,000 palm trees on the cove's left end.

To the right stands the old fishing village of Zighy, rebuilt by the hotel and the government to match the resort.

Zighy means hot in the local dialect. During the low season from June to September, the temperature can hit 54 deg C.

At the hotel, we hopped on the bikes available at each villa and pedalled past the spa, the saltwater pool and the organic garden.

A large freshwater pool, two restaurants and a bar constitute the heart of the resort.

We found our villa extremely comfortable. It had beamed ceilings, plaster walls and large flagstone floors.

It had two drawbacks, however. No screens meant we could not sleep with the windows open because of mosquitoes and it flooded badly in a rare rainstorm.

But for our first night, it was clear. We opted for a romantic barbecue outdoors in our own little walled compound lit by scattered candles.

The resort offers distractions for the whole family, ranging from face painting to water sports to a gruelling bike ride up the mountain.

It was not dolphin season, but we were determined to see them. We decided to visit the dolphin-dense fjords of Khasab, the peninsula's port, three hours and two border crossings away by car.

It is a bit of a long trek for a day's outing, since Oman bars non-residents from crossing the peninsula through the mountains.

We set out at 6am. The coastal road is dramatic, winding along the curves of the mountains.

Khasab boasts a small, handsome 17th-century fort, built by the Portuguese to control the nearby Strait of Hormuz, where the Persian Gulf meets the Indian Ocean.

We opted for a full-day dolphin cruise.

While our dhow motored out into the strait, the dolphins emerged, frolicking playfully all around it.

At one point, we had a pair on each side - and their bubbling effervescence proved infectious.

The captain steered into a khor (narrow fjord), where the dolphins vanished and we made several stops to swim and admire the stark cliffs.

On the way back, we anchored in a quiet inlet. The captain turned off the engine, allowing for a delicious snooze in the splendid serenity. We had found the warmth and utter peace we sought.


• Eva Sohlman reported from the Middle East for Reuters, The Economist and the International Herald Tribune. Neil MacFarquhar is the Moscow bureau chief for The New York Times and a former Cairo bureau chief.

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