Oman is not as remote as you might think (an hour’s flight from Dubai and Abu Dhabi) and is still wonderfully traditional retaining its heritage and culture with stunning scenery ranging from golden sand dunes to rugged wadi (gorges) and ship-wreck dives in the ocean.
You’ll see camels roaming freely (once you get out of the capital Muscat) and frankincense smouldering away at the local souks. The food is delicious (think a combination of Turkish dips and kebabs, Indian breads and curries) and you’ll be sober unless you bring duty free or are staying in hotels where alcohol is allowed to be served.
If you’re planning a trip, whether as a stopover to Europe or your final destination, here are my 5 must-sees:
Spend a couple of nights in the capital city.
The Grand Mosque is breathtaking for its architecture, Italian marble, 21-tonne hand woven rug and swarovski crystal chandelier that eight people can walk inside (although not you). Women will need to wear long sleeves, trousers to the ankles, and a head scarf. Men should wear long sleeves and trousers.
Muttrah Souk is the city’s favourite market. It is on the corniche along the seafront and is famous for quality Arabian wares from silver to incense, authentic rugs, pashminas, artifacts and spices. Store holders will urge you to come and buy and haggling is expected.
Do a Desert Crossing
Like the famous English explorer Wilfred Thesiger, the first European to cross the desert in 1948, I followed in his camel prints for two days across the Wahiba Sands. Only I was in a four-wheel-drive. From rolling sand dunes to the vast flatness of the Empty Quarter, this is harsh but picturesque country.
Stay at luxurious Desert Nights Camp. If you’re planning an exotic honeymoon, this is the spot. There are 24 permanent five-star tents, each with bathrooms and handmade furnishings and a restaurant with live music under the stars and a visit from local Bedouin to paint henna on the ladies. A sunset drink at the top of the surrounding sand dunes is magic. Try to arrive an hour beforehand as the colours are incredible across the golden rippling sand. They also offer camel rides and quad bikes for some noisy dune bashing.
There are 500 forts in Oman and the 400-year old Nizwa fort is the biggest in the Arabian peninsula. It has been restored back to its original and murderous splendor. Climb the narrow staircase and look up at the murder holes where boiling oil or burning date juice could be poured over marauding enemies trying to enter.
Nizwa Souk is not to be missed, particularly on a Friday. Thursday and Friday is the weekend in Oman and Friday is also the holy day so you will hear calls to prayer from the many mosques and see people shutting shops and dashing off to pray. On Friday the livestock market is the place to be until 11am to watch fervent bidding on camels, cattle and goats. You’ll also find stalls selling furniture, frankincense, sandalwood, pottery, incense burners and more.
Wadi Bani Awf
A wadi is a dry gorge which can fill very rapidly during the rains – and you don’t want to be in one when that happens. Several have dirt roads through them which are kept well graded and mostly free of pot holes. Wadi Bani Awf is one of the most popular four-wheel drive routes. But hold on to your lunch, this is two hours off serious off-roading and while it is open to tourists in their own hired vehicles, I’d not recommend it. Besides, taking a local guide means you get much more out of the trip than the scenery.
Visit the Al Hoota caves to view the stalactites and ‘mites then stay at Jebel Shams, near Nahkal, in motel accommodation, permanent tents with mattresses, or bring your own. The dining hall offers a simple dinner of curries, dips, salads and breads followed by juice, instant coffee or tea (unless you brought your own wine, which manners would dictate should be consumed in your room).
In the 50C+ summer heat, Oman’s southern city of Salalah is a welcome respite. Ironically this is where everyone flocks for the monsoon season as it’s cool, wet and they love the fog that hangs over the mountains between June and September. From here you can make a day trip to the lost city of Ubar, which disappeared from maps and was thought to only exist in legend from 3000BC. But in 1992 using remote satellite sensing, Ubar was found, a developed desert settlement with an octagonal fortress and eight towers, plus numerous pots and artifacts dating back thousands of years. Today it is still being excavated and you can only make out a vague semblance of a city, but for archaeological boffins, this is a gem.
Here is a link to my Oman series for more information on my 8-days and 2200km trek through the Sultanate.