Words by Sara Darling
I visited Oman when the country was still in its forty days of mourning- Sultan Qaboos bin Said had passed away on 10th January this year, and the country was sombre. In his 45 years of rulership, he transformed the country into a stable, peaceful and prosperous nation, and as a base for adventure seekers and luxury resort lovers. As he bore no children, bin Said has been succeeded by Oxford-educated Haitham bin Tariq al-Said, 65, who is well respected within the community, but has big boots to fill.
Even though the mood was sombre, you cannot deny the incredible scenery, which dominates the southeastern coast of Western Asia. The port city offers a mixture of sandy deserts, which are patchworked by cloud-capped mountains. The piercing blue sky and a soup-warm sea, means you can trek deserts at dawn and spot dolphins at sundown.
The weather in Oman is generally vacation-friendly. Sunny in the day, and cooler when the sun goes down; the only rain is the occasional flash flood, which consumes the wadis and creates waterfalls down the mountains. This short-lived and out of character commentary from Mother Nature keeps the greenery fresh and the vegetables growing, although I’m not sure what the local camels think of it!
Arriving in this fairytale country is like jetting into a Disney movie. The local men predominately wear white Aladdin-like twin sets, while the women wear all black. It is the head coverings which differentiate which part of the country they come from, but visitors are welcomed with open arms, and very well catered for, with food options, cocktails and transport extremely accessible.
The sound of the call to prayer echoes across the land and adds to the sense of mystique as you journey across Oman in a four wheeled drive, and it may take a moment to adjust to the fact of how different this Middle Eastern country is to its neighbours. Instead of high rise malls and theme parks, Oman is a much more understated contender, consisting of a beautiful landscape of low rise white housing and an abundance of proud minarets, which are the beacon of the 120 mosques throughout the land.
Situated on a cove surrounded by volcanic mountains- the capital city, Muscat is connected by a well-maintained road, which joins the west and the south. The world’s largest uninterrupted sand desert extends across the Arabian Peninsula to the west encompassing neighbouring Saudi Arabia, Yemen and the United Arab Emirates; while Rub’ Al Khali (the ‘Empty Quarter’) is an estimated 583,000 square-kilometres of uninhabited dunes and is a hotspot for thrill seekers.
Locals zip about in weather beaten 4x4s which are needed to traverse the wadis and winding hill ascents. These cars are also used for the popular dune bashing past-time, where the adventurous try to summit the sandy peaks. A foolish hobby? But one which has many fans, and gives a mind-bending adrenaline rush. Motorbikes are pretty unheard of, but I was informed by my local guide, there was a group of “Omani Angels” (my words, not his) who cruise the mountains and seek fast thrills when the weather is good.
Hikers flock to Hajar Mountains, near Nizwa- a 90-minute drive southwest of Muscat takes in glassy-fresh air and views for miles. Further afield, is Jebel Shams, Oman’s tallest mountain. However, the Green Mountain in Jebel Akhdar is most accessible; located 2,000 meters above sea level, it has abundant rainfall and seasonal produce includes apricots, peaches, grapes, and roses, which are used for sweets and perfume.
Stay in the boutique luxury accommodation at Sahab Resort and Spa, which offers a perfect base for exploring, and choose from an array of treks and hikes taking in lush wadis, hidden waterfalls, ancient villages, natural canyons and breathtaking views, and wind down with a cocktail on the terrace watching the sunset over the mountain range, and a range of enticing spa treatments.
For a true Arabic adventure, which has been summed up in numerous reinterpretations of folklore and literature, the country will not disappoint. The vast expanse of sand is mythical in itself, shadowed by mountains, and exotic architecture, wild camels, captivating locals and ghost towns, it is easy to while away your days soaking up the diverse culture and nature; however there are many aspects to Oman, and the ideal break would involve staying in several different hot spots.
Emerge from the mountains, the easy to navigate highway will take you through the Wadi to the base of the spectacular Dunes by Al Nahda. A unique hotel experience that consists of luxurious bedouin tents, complete with running water, electricity and wifi, in a camp of spacious, anchored tipis situated at the top of the dunes.
Not only offering an imaginative, and incredibly romantic location, there are uninterrupted views of the incredible surroundings- both from the bar and infinity pool. With a distinctive open air spa, guests can enjoy specialist treatments to the sound of the call to prayer; or if you are more adventurous, hire out a quad bike or sand board and join the locals in their attempt to conquer the dunes.
This is also the ideal location to get into the city, and a city tour with Al Fawaz Tours, will give you an insider’s guide to the capital. A two hour drive to the metropolis, will take you to the heart of Muscat, and the Old Town, and a morning excursion will give you ample time to visit the largest city mosque.
The Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque is set in delightfully manicured grounds and is open to visitors, but women need to be suitably covered from head to toe. Upon entering, you will be bowled over by the ginormous, breathtaking Swarovski crystal, chandelier, which weighs around 8 tons and beautifully detailed carpet that covers the 70×60 meters of the main prayer hall.
This peaceful setting is a representation of the architecture that sums up the Islamic religion. Follow this with a visit to the impeccably presented Al Alam Palace, which is near the harbour, and is surrounded by palm trees. The grand royal court buildings are not open to the public, but are a nod to the relevance of the Omani royalty.
Finish up your tour at the souk, where bargain-hunters will not be disappointed. If you are shopping for perfume, slippers, oils, spices, nuts, dates, or textiles, you will be spoilt for choice, and the first thing you may notice is the overwhelming scent of frankincense.
You can test your haggling skills by buying leatherware, gifts and gold jewellery or simply immerse yourself in the atmosphere. Muscat’s Muttrah Souk is a labyrinth of ceramics, jewellery and camel-themed souvenirs. The best buys are butter-soft llama wool pashminas, leather and brash gold jewellery.
Whatever your preconceptions of the Middle East are, a visit to Oman will add a totally different dimension to them. Head on over if you’re a hiker, history lover, sun-worshipper, water baby, quad biker or culture vulture. Even better, switch up your accommodation and you can tick off lots of boxes in one trip.
Southall Travel (0208 705 0147, southalltravel.co.uk) offers the following luxury deals:
5 nights at Dunes by Al Nahda on a half board basis from £1,555 per person (two sharing) including private return transfers from Muscat airport and return economy international flights with Oman Air.
4 nights at Sahab Resort and Spa on breakfast and 3 nights at Dunes by Al Nahda on half board basis from £1699 per person (twin sharing), including all private airport transfers and return economy international flights with Oman Air.
5 nights at Sahab Resort and Spa on a breakfast basis from £1,165 per person (two sharing) including private return transfers from Muscat airport and return economy international flights with Oman Air.
Things to do
Al Fawaz Tours offer several guided tours including desert safaris, city tours and cruises. For more information, visit alfawaztours.com.
For further information on things to do in Muscat and beyond, visit experienceoman.com.