The Sultanate of Oman is an enigma. Ask someone who’s never been there, and they’ll unceremoniously clump it with Dubai or, worse, Saudi Arabia. Sure, Oman is in the general direction as the falcon flies, but while it shares borders with the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, in character it is like neither country.
Politically, Oman is conservative but progressive, religiously tolerant and humane (there is no death sentence). Ruled since 1970 by Sultan Qaboos bin Said of the al Bu Sa’idi dynasty, it is a constitutional monarchy and one of the few nations in the Arab Gulf that maintains healthy diplomatic relations with both Israel and Iran. For the most part Omanis, the majority of whom owe allegiance to a little-known branch of Islam known as the Ibadi, are a dignified and generous people.
Oman is a land of antiquity and of contrasts, and it abounds in natural riches. While most of the terrain is dry desert fringed by the Hajar mountains, the southeast of Oman is a remarkable landscape shaped by fortuitous geography and climate. The Dhofar Governorate, the capital of which is Salalah, abuts the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean, and forms the southeastern tip of the Arabian peninsula. Between June and September, this region experiences a meteorological anomaly — rain. Not just any stray shower but a whole season of heavy clouding, choppy seas and a light sprinkling. An immense mist floats in from choppy seas and spreads like a blanket over the arid desert, enveloping it in a furry coat of green. Salalah, and a few parts of eastern Yemen, are the only regions in the Arabian peninsula that experience this anomaly. The hills come alive with vegetation and birds and waterfalls. To those raised in the scorching desert, can paradise lie any further?
For centuries, Salalah has thrived on the khareef, as the rainy season is known locally, and its culture and character have been shaped by it. In August, the Salalah Festival draws throngs of tourists from the neighbouring Gulf Cooperation Council states, who make a beeline to Salalah to take joy in the rain and escape the sweltering heat of their homelands.
Further north, through deserts inhabited by graceful gazelles and the endangered Arabian Oryx, lonely highways snake towards Muscat, the capital city on the shores of the Sea of Oman. Along the way are Nizwa, in the heart of the interior, the capital of the erstwhile Imamate of Oman, the archaic town of Al Hamra, and the Hajar mountains that rise to over 9,870 feet at Jebel Shams — the Mountain of the Sun. There is the great sandy desert — Sharqiya Sands — where dunes rise to nearly 100 m and Bedouin tribes still live in tents that know not the comforts of air-conditioning. The coastal city of Sur, known for one of the most scenic suspension bridges, is the portal to the protected beaches of Ras al Jinz, where endangered sea turtles swim ashore to nest and lay eggs in the soft sand.
Over a week’s journeying in Oman, you can take in all of these memorable experiences and enrich your wealth of fireside stories. And stories, as all travellers know, are worth more than all the money spent. Here are ten experiences for a start, and these only scratch the surface of possibilities in this antique land.
1.Walk the Frankincense Road
Driving north from the lush, temperate hills of Salalah, the road consciously veers clear of Rub al Khali — the Empty Quarter — a great swath of desert so inhospitable that human civilisation has shunned it for centuries. Time was when it was a kinder place and housed civilisations and cities on the caravan route along the Frankincense Road.
One of the entrepôts of the ancient Frankincense Road, Salalah in southeastern Oman remains a great treasure for seekers of the fragrant resin. Make time to visit the Museum of the Frankincense Land, which interprets the history and legend behind one of the three gifts that the Magi presented to the infant Jesus.
Out in the courtyard are real, living frankincense trees, which answer to the botanical name of Boswellia sacra. Stunted with wind-tousled crowns, they are rather unremarkable at first sight but their trunks bear scars of human desire — small wounds on the bark bleed a resin that, when crystallised, becomes hard and ready for harvest. The crystals are pinched off the bark and gathered. The clearest, most fragrant crystals sell for a good price, just as they did back in the days of the Queen of Sheba.
When in Salalah, make sure you stop at the Frankincense Souk, a market that wears oldness like a laid-back, rural charm. It feels a little like plunging deep into the well of time. Smoke wafts from censers, men in flappy white dishdashas and women in black abayas mill and jostle around display trays piled high with ware, shopkeepers scoop ladlefuls of frankincense onto weighing pans to sell by the measure. Also on sale are frankincense oil, burners, packets of coal, and trinkets such as fridge magnets. You can’t help but buy some to take back home.
2. Swim in the wadi
Off the Muscat-Sur coastal highway, one of the most scenic drives in the country, is a sign for Wadi Shab. The exit takes you under the bridge where a channel of jade-green fresh water makes its way to the cerulean salinity of the Sea of Oman. This is a wadi, as Arabs call freshwater sources in the desert.
Light motorboats help you make the crossing to the other bank and hereon it’s a moderately easy trek to the upper reaches of the wadi where the water is clear and still enough for swimming. All around great walls of desert sandstone rise like canyons and a sliver of a path cut into the rock is the only route upstream. The wadi is best enjoyed on a sweltering afternoon. Even as sunlight radiating off the cliffs roast the air to a staggering 45 degrees C, in the water all of these discomforts dissolve. Be warned, though, that both men and women are expected to dress conservatively in Oman, so a smoking hot bikini swimsuit might attract bewildered stares and catcalls from boys picnicking near the wadi.
If you have more time and energy, enlist the services of a guide and follow the wadi upstream to camp overnight. The trail leads to another well-known desert aquifer – Wadi Bani Khalid. Which means another long, hot walk and more joyous splashing at the end of it.
On your way back, don’t forget to refuel with a refreshing meal at the beautifully located Wadi Shab Resort (wadishabresort.com).
3. Take in a stunning bay view
About 240 km east of Muscat by the new coastal highway, Sur is a quiet port city with stunning sea views, a lighthouse in the old town, and factories where great wooden ships called dhows are built as they have been for centuries.
It is here that the Sea of Oman meets the Indian Ocean. Drive a few minutes outside the city and you reach Al Batah lagoon, where the tide laps slowly upon a pebbly beach. If you climb one of the hillocks along a gravelly path leading up to an old tower, you can gaze at the lagoon and the ocean in one sweeping view. Dominating the scene is Khor Al Batah Suspension Bridge, a striking feature of the town, which offers a commanding view of the city and was listed in National Geographic’s Secret Journeys of a Lifetime among the “Top 10 best views in the world.” A sunset evening spent here is the stuff great travel memories are made of.
4. Take a midnight walk with sea turtles
East of Sur, the highway follows a coastal trajectory. Early mornings and evenings, you can get lucky and spot dolphins in the water. An even better surprise awaits 30 minutes away. Turning towards Ras al Jinz, the easternmost tip of the Arabian peninsula, you will find yourself at a rather remote research station (which provides bed and breakfast) set against sand-coloured sea cliffs and fruiting date palms.
Established in 1996, the Ras al-Jinz Turtle Centre (rasaljinz-turtlereserve.com) educates visitors by facilitating intimate encounters with the five species of turtle that use the sheltered beaches here to nest and hatch. The most common are Olive Ridley Sea Turtles and Green Sea Turtles. There is a museum here with audio guides to explain the exhibits. For accommodation, you can choose between the Swiss tents and rooms, which are modest but clean. The highlight isn’t the stay or the amenities, though, but the late night turtle walks.
Riding in a minibus, groups of tourists are led by two guides who speak thickly accented English. The bus halts in the middle of nowhere in pitch darkness and the group fumbles its way around, feet sinking into the great mounds of beach sand. Suddenly, one of the guides exclaims in Arabic and excitedly signals with his flashlight. The group rushes towards him, tripping over the sand. In the feeble glow of his flashlight can be seen a creature the size of a two-seater sofa, paddling sand behind it with its fore-flippers. Despite its size there is nothing intimidating about it. Instead, the gentle watering eyes are most endearing to behold.
What you experience here can change your life. This is a mother green turtle and she must be anywhere from 35 to 55 years old. The guide points the flashlight away from her eyes and towards her rear portion. She is dropping creamish-white eggs the size of ping-pong balls into a hollow in the sand. After laying about 150-200 of them, she will cover up the hole with sand and drag her exhausted body back to the sea. Usually, this happens at the crack of dawn when the excited (and sleepless) group of tourists makes a second trip to the beach. The whole experience is ethereal, particularly when you get a chance to help newly hatched turtles safely make their way to the sea. Helps release those frustrated parenting hormones.
As the sun lights up the eastern sky, the turtles return to the sea and there is little evidence of the night’s drama. Unwind, for the beach itself is among the most beautiful you will ever see.
5. Travel back in time at Sumhurum
The desert lends a visage of timelessness to structures and physical features. Everything here appears older than its age. Yet, some structures in southern Oman do go back hundreds, even thousands of years.
For instance, the excavated remains of the ancient port at Khor Rori at Samhurum near Salalah date back to 2nd century BCE and is believed by some to have housed one of the palaces of the Queen of Sheba, although all historians have not accepted this claim. Either way, standing here at this ancient port you can feel the weight of time. At the mouth of a river connecting to the Indian Ocean, untethered camels roam, grazing. Khor Rori was believed to have been the gateway to the Frankincense Land.
Not far from Samhurum is the heritage city of Al Baleed. At the port of Mirbat, wooden dhows coexist with modern fibreglass ones. Here, sharks are fished by the hundreds from the sea and despatched in refrigerated vans to markets in Oman and Saudi Arabia. It is a sight both macabre and fascinating.
6. Taste fresh camel
During the khareef season, camels descend the slippery hill slopes and assemble in large herds in the meadows. Camel races and other sports are common during this time. Omanis (in fact most Arabs) employ a whole vocabulary to describe camels: the handsome dark camels are Majahim, the red ones are Asayel, and so on.
Camel-skin shoes and leather goods can be bought at the souks. You can even buy camel milk — believed to be very nutritious and enriched with medicinal value — from hawkers beside the highway. But the pièce de résistance is camel meat. Driving through rural Salalah you can see roadside shanties setting up skewers of camel meat. Slivers of marinated meat are wrapped in aluminium foil and grilled on stones placed over hot coals. The younger the camel, the more tender and white the meat. It is salty, slightly chewy and delicious.
7. Get splashed by a blowhole
South of Salalah, mountains fringe the jagged coast, which is being continuously eroded by the elements. Wind, rain and saltwater join forces to eat away the margins of the land. At Mughsail Beach, the limestone cliffs have been hollowed out by water over the ages to form dramatic physical features.
During the khareef, the ocean gets choppy and rough breakers rush towards the shore in an overwhelming swell. Jets of seawater are pumped at high pressure into sluices in the rock and shot high in the air like geysers. These blowholes are a common feature of Mughsail and some of the more spectacular ones draw plenty of holidaymakers during the rainy season. Special splash zones have been designated where tourists can enjoy a high-pressure seawater spray, au naturel.
8. Inhale the perfume of kings
That perfumery is an ancient Omani art is evident from a stroll around the various souks in the country. However, in 1983, the Sultan decided to synthesise the perfect essence of Oman to gift his royal guests so that they would spread its fragrance to the world. Upon his orders Guy Robert, the French master perfumer behind Chanel, Dior and Hermes was commissioned to create “the most valuable perfume in the world”. Robert gladly complied, celebrating the creation as the “ultimate symphony” and the crowning touch of his career.
The result was Amouage – a fusion of the French word for ‘love’ (amour) and an Arabic word for ‘waves’. Among the ingredients of this most exclusive signature perfume, packaged and sold as Amouage Gold, is frankincense from Dhofar, and rock rose from Jebel Akhdar, the green mountain.
To treasure this experience, a visit to the Amouage Perfume Factory in Rusayl near Muscat is highly recommended. The gift shop sells desirable souvenir fragrances.
9. Whisper to goblins at Bimmah sinkhole
Few natural wonders in Oman are more intriguing or spectacular than Bimmah Sinkhole. Forty metres wide and 20 metres deep, it is a gaping chasm in the ground surrounded (sensibly) by a wall with steps leading down to the water. Through a subterranean channel, seawater and fresh water mingle to create a beautiful, bizarre palette of blues. Meteors made it, say men of science. But the mystically inclined argue that this is where goblins congregate to boast of their dark deeds. Located in Bimmah Sinkhole Park, it is a short drive away from the Muscat-Sur highway.
10. Drive on a white-sand beach
Oman’s coastline is marked by edges of beige desert falling away magnificently to the jewel-like blue of the sea. From Qintab, near Muscat, to Fins, near Sur, the Sea of Oman is studded with stunning beaches. SUV tyre-treads are frequently seen on Fins Beach, left here by holidaymakers gone afore. For responsible tourists who reason against driving on the sand, which may shelter a variety of living things, it is blissful enough to stand on the carved shoreline and gaze at the contrast of white sand against the dark blue water.
Oman Air flies to Muscat from major Indian cities and operates several flights to Salalah from Muscat during the khareef season.
1 Omani Riyal (OMR) = 162 Indian Rupees (INR)
Where to stay
Qantab, Muskat, 100, Oman. Phone: +968 24 776666
Unbeatable for location and unparalleled for cuisine and experience, Shangri-La’s Barr Al-Jissah Resort and Spa is a complex of three hotels – Al Husn, Al Bandar and Al Waha – catering to various budgets and tastes. Sultanah, the fine dining restaurant at the luxury hotel Al Husn, is themed after a ship and offers a selection of cuisines from a new port of call every day. Bait Al Bahr, the patio seafood restaurant, offers fresh catch against a seaside setting.
Park Inn Muscat (Sultan Qaboos Street Al Khuwair, Muscat PC 133, Oman. Phone: +968 24 507888) is ideal for business visits as it is close to the city centre and accessible from the airport.
PO Box 439, Al Saadah, PC 215, Salalah Beach Resort, Taqah Road, Salalah, Sultanate of Oman
Pleasing to the eye and harmoniously ensconced in natural environs beside the Indian Ocean, Salalah Rotana is one of the most capacious resorts in Salalah, with 400 rooms and suites and extensive landscaped grounds. A natural lagoon cuts through the resort, criss-crossed by Venetian canal bridges. The architecture and ambience are a beautiful synthesis of traditional mashrabiya and arabesque patterns with modern touches. Besides the relaxing treatments at the Zen Spa, the cuisine is a great reason to be here. Saffron, the all-day dining restaurant that offers an expansive spread of world cuisines, and Silk Road, the signature restaurant serving culinary delights from China, Thailand and Arabia, are only two of the dining options.
Dunes Adventures (Email: firstname.lastname@example.org) have excellent and well-mannered English-speaking guides and organises wholesome destination tours and adventure experiences from Muscat and Salalah.