October is the cruellest month for parents in the chattering classes: the bewildering new days for "show-andtell" and shin pads, the months ahead of freezing school runs with people cycling with double basses strapped to their backs, and you yelling, "Oh go f*** yourself!" at an SUV, then realising it's being driven by the deputy headmistress.
Never is a holiday more needed than October half-term. But where to escape to find sun? The Maldives? "Eye-watering expense!" The Caribbean? "And be hit by a hurricane?"
Oman was the ideal choice: perfect weather, an eight-hour flight and four-hour time difference, with clear sea and clean air. Oman boasts a long coastline of empty beaches, an Arabian Grand Canyon, ancient forts, authentic souks, diving, no waterparks yet but crystalline waterfalls and hundreds of miles of sand dunes, whipped up like peaks of meringue, which you can slide down on bin-liners. Oman! Romantic and mysterious! One fancied that the allure of its mention at drop-off somehow rubbed off on one.
More adventurous and mysterious still, we were going away with school-gates friends Chris and Lucille. Our kids, who demographically matched each other girls, aged six; boys, aged eight are at different schools now, but the bonds formed at the nursery gates had stuck like glue.
When I was late, Chris and Lucille would be later. When a snowball landed down my neck, they hurled it. They were infinitely more childish than me but, best of all, the blight of competitive parenting was not an issue since it was clear that we were all as bad as each other.
My lot had been to Oman before, on a glamping trip to the Empty Quarter. We slept like nomads in camel-hair tents, dined by starlight in the immense empty silence of the desert. This time, though, we were all stressed out and wanted to go to a hotel the sort of place where they have flushing toilets and ceilings that aren't hairy. We wanted a short hop from the plane, and then a week of chilling out. Muscat was our choice. The city has only a handful of posh hotels more are on their way but a burgeoning bar and restaurant scene that warrants its own edition of Time Out. We decided on the glamorous Al Bustan Palace. The website showed a handsome man in robes galloping along a white beach on a horse with rugged, ochre-hued mountains in the background. It was a done deal.
Holidaying with untried travelling companions is always a worry might hideous defects and ugly conflicts emerge, wrecking the friendship? But from the first disorganised airport meet, it was clear our styles were in sync. As we all agreed, there are huge advantages to arriving late at airports, not least avoiding check-in queues, especially useful since we were travelling during the busy festival of Eid. The downside was that Oman serves alcohol to tourists in hotels except during religious festivals, which meant that it was a terrible scramble to get our duty free though, on the plus side, for the children to hear their names in the "last remaining passenger call" was practically like being on The X Factor.
The overnight flight was relaxing and the charm of Oman immediately obvious. There is a grace about the Omanis, pleasant, but not obsequious, with an elegant calm that, even at Muscat passport control, one fancied was already beginning to rub off on one.
Unfortunately, however, just as the formalities were completed, I noticed my children sitting on the floor tucking into their snack of bacon-wrapped chipolatas pork being, of course, an insult to the waiting Muslims. Horrified at having offended local sensibilities so soon, I panicked and bustled the passports, sausages and confused children into what I thought was the exit but, to the consternation of the immigration officials, was actually the detention/deportation area.
This sense of not quite matching up to the elegance of one's host nation lingered throughout the trip. The drive from the airport followed the red rock coastline past the low-rise buildings of the capital and out through whitewashed villages. We wound round a pass in the hills, down through an area of grand government buildings, and came upon our Palace, once a government building used for hospitality. (I had my hair blow-dried for the photoshoot and the hairdresser, who'd been there since the old days, told me he'd also done the hair of Hillary Clinton and Tony Blair!) An octagonal monolith, the Al Bustan sits in rural splendour on its own white sandy beach, surrounded by gracious lawns and palm groves.
As we entered the hotel lobby, we felt like a gaggle of dishevelled tinkers turning up at a royal wedding. The majestic atrium soared, five storeys high, marbled, gilded, with the sort of giant chandelier that could flatten a multitude, were it to fall. The tinkling of a piano and the smell of incense filled the air, as men in white robes glided as if on wheels, and we were greeted with mysterious drinks and ice-cold face cloths.
Trying to avoid the pristine white jellabas of our fellow lift passengers, we were escorted down to our ground-floor rooms. On first view, they were classic posh Ritz-Carlton: huge beds, plump armchairs, hair-free ceilings. But there was a hidden excitement. The patio doors revealed a private deck right on the edge of a lagoon pool.
The children were beside themselves. There were palm-tree islands to hide behind and underwater sun loungers that turned into Jacuzzis at the touch of a button. At first we were alarmed some of the underwater edges were a bit sharp but soon we were too relaxed to worry. Lounging on the deck was like being at the penguin enclosure at the zoo. You could watch the children through the glass fence, and every so often chuck them a fish or something.
The first two days were a frenzy of activity. We swam in a sea as warm, sandy-bottomed and shallow as we were. We kayaked. We played tennis. We played ping-pong. We played crocodiles in the lagoon. This was followed by a four-day frenzy of inactivity, when the grown-ups wanted only to lounge and say how lovely it all was.
There wasn't so much a kids' club where you could abandon your children, more a schedule of activities that generally needed one of us around. But abandonment wasn't our plan, and we took it in turns to throw fish and sun-lounge among the palms.
The Al Bustan was at its most beautiful at night. Flaming torches lit the pathways, fountains came on and the stairs were lined with fairy lights. At breakfast we would eat in the excellent buffet, where the kids eschewed healthy options for piles of sugar doughnuts and Nutella-smeared waffles. But at night it was time for the glamorous feet-in-the sand restaurant. The outdoor bar area had comfy sofas, the food was divine, and the whole scene was lit by decorative glowing golden orbs on the sand the sort of glowing decorative orbs that are irresistible to....
"Go ahead: they cost $700 each," said the smiling waiter, with the sort of hopelessly mixed message we were so practised at giving the children ourselves. We looked on horrified as one of the $700 orbs rolled into the sea and the kids discovered you could change the colour. Suddenly, in place of the gentle orange glow, the diners were hit by glaring red and luminous green orbs, now the centre of contretemps over who had which colour.
But actually the Al Bustan really is kid-friendly. It was we, not they, who decreed the orbs must be banned. The next night, the children wistfully eyed the forbidden orbs, only to leap up with, "It's not fair!" when a rival band of embarrassing children starting changing the colours, squabbling and rolling them into the sea.
One of the traits we all share is that we fancy ourselves as adventure travellers. Eventually becoming ashamed at not moving an inch from the Palace, we managed to hit up the souk and, on the final night, mustered the energy for a dhow ride, an experience initially reminiscent of being the last passengers on the plane at Gatwick sorry, Heathrow. It proved very difficult to get everyone out of the lagoon pool at once, so we ended up frantically driving wet children along the dockside like a herd of goats.
But it was the highlight of the trip. We sailed off into the sunset, marvelling at the stark beauty of the coastline. The gentle rocking of the boat, the turtles frolicking alongside and the warm desert wind soothed us into exactly the state of deep calm required to lurch back into pick-ups and drop-offs. It had been a dreamy holiday.
And the risk of travelling with school-gates friends? Chris and Lucille were easygoing, straightforward, adventurous, kind, great parents and great fun. I'd go away with them again in a heartbeat.
How was it for you? Chris Hallatt Wells
Holidaying with Helen and four children was clearly going to be exciting. It began at the airport where my party arrived uncharacteristically early: the "Now Boarding" sign had only just been switched on. Then my phone pinged. It was a text from Helen: "Yayy! We're all packed and on our way. Is it Gatwick Sth or Nth?"
"It's Heathrow Terminal 3, Helen."
We just made the plane. It was the first of many near-misses taxis to the airport home, a dhow ride along the coast that gave an added adrenaline rush to the whole experience.
Oman must be the most beautiful country in the Middle East. Ancient culture is everywhere. We visited the Muttrah souk and it was great until the children found a gift shop selling awful tourist tat: genuine Omani daggers made in Egypt, stuffed camels. It was then that the only potential flashpoint arrived. The adults had agreed to give the children the same pocket money, but missed the crucial step of agreeing how much. My approach to the gift shop scenario is to say, "No" and then be nagged into conceding a minuscule budget. Helen is nicer. "It's not fair!" mine were saying, and I could see their point.
Fortunately there was a simple solution. We had got the exchange rate wrong. It was a win-win-win situation. The children got their tat. The shopkeeper was so happy, he threw in a free postcard. And we grown-ups felt generous and thrifty until we realised what we'd done: £70 for a pair of lethal swords, which wouldn't fit in the suitcase!.
But, overpriced weapons aside, it was a fantastic trip: gorgeous hotel, lots of fun, no rows, and a pleasing sense of triumph at returning with the same number of children we set off with.
If Helen needs travel companions again, we're there. Although no doubt she'll be at a different airport at the wrong time.
Helen Fielding's trip was provided by Virgin Holidays. Seven nights in Oman with Virgin Holidays, including scheduled flights with Oman Air from London Gatwick direct to Oman, and accommodation at the five-star Al Bustan Palace on a breakfast-included basis, costs from £1,239 per person. Prices are based on two adults travelling and sharing a deluxe garden view room, and include all applicable taxes and fuel surcharges, which are subject to change. Prices are based on departures from 2330 May 2013. Virgin Holidays is a member of ABTA and is ATOL protected. To book, go to virginholidays.co.uk, call 0844 557 3859 or visit one of its 100 stores in Debenhams, House of Fraser, Tesco or Sainsbury's nationwide.
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