Poised between the glitzy excess of the Emirates and the rigid conservatism of Saudi Arabia, Oman provides a winning introduction to the Middle East. Politically stable, and packing in a huge range of landscapes from rugged desert and turtle-nesting beaches to misty green mountains, you’ll find off-road adventures, winter sun and old-fashioned Arabian hospitality. Andy Turner introduces what not to miss on a first trip to the sultanate.
Make the most of Muscat
Snaking for 30km along the Gulf coastline, it’s hard to tell where the Omani capital, Muscat, begins and ends, yet among its sprawling apartments and fast freeways are several architectural gems worth seeking out.
First on any itinerary has to be the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque, whose stunning latticework dome glints in the sun by day and is beautifully lit come nightfall. Inside the main hall, which can cram in 20,000 worshippers, is a gargantuan Swarovski crystal chandelier suspended above what seems like acres of hand-woven Persian carpet (now inevitably trumped by a slightly larger carpet in Abu Dhabi’s Sheikh Zayed mosque).
Portraits of Sultan Qaboos, Oman’s supreme ruler, gaze down at you across the country (the humblest shop is likely to have a framed photograph of the dear leader). Your best chance of catching a glimpse of the man himself is to wander past the Al Alam Palace, Muscat’s diminutive answer to Buckingham Palace, where His Majesty entertains other heads of state.
For a quick primer on Omani history, head to the Bait al Zubair museum, a cool, calm oasis in Muscat’s Old Town showcasing Arabian armour, jewel-encrusted daggers and tribal costumes. Standing guard in the courtyard are a dozen life-sized models of ibex, painted in kaleidoscopic colours.
Find frankincense and fake watches
Compared with Marrakesh or Istanbul, shopping in in Muscat’s Muttrah Souk is a breeze. Bargaining is done with a smile and you’re unlikely to get lost. Amongst the fake Rolex watches and “silver” shisha pipes, you’ll find authentic Omani frankincense, painstakingly harvested from trees in the wild Dhofar region. With prices starting at US$100 a kilo it’s worth haggling.
Hit the beach and reef
Thanks to its reliable blue skies and balmy temperatures from October to March, Oman makes for a perfect winter escape. While global hotel chains have popped up along the coast, development is mercifully low rise and sensitively done.
Even the vast Shangri La Barr al Jissah near Muscat (over 600 rooms across three hotels, nine restaurants and three beaches) looks tasteful when you compare its rivals in Dubai. Further north in Musandam, Six Senses Zighy Bay, Oman’s most exclusive resort, barely peeks above the palm trees and is so remote it has to be approached by speedboat or 4WD.
To experience a wilder side of Oman (and escape the sight of overwintering German pensioners), head to the World Heritage listed Daymaniyat Islands, 70km west of Muscat. SeaOman based at the Millennium Resort Mussanah, offers diving and snorkelling trips to this beautiful marine reserve where there’s a good chance of spotting turtles and whale sharks.
See fabulous forts
Once a refuge from bandits and invaders from Persia and beyond, Oman’s forts are reminders of its hard-won independence. The Rustaq Loop takes in the pick of the bunch near Muscat, including the recently renovated Al Hazm Castle. Here an audio tour guides you through dungeons, secret tunnels and towers bristling with cannons, with a few scary-looking mannequins thrown into the mix.
A quick detour from the forts circuit takes you to the charming, oasis-like Nakhl Hot Springs. Here you can take a dip in the mineral-rich 30C water and, perhaps more tempting on a hot day, get a free fish pedicure. Tiny garra ruffa or “doctor fish” inhabit the crystal-clear stream next to the springs and will nibble on your feet as soon as you dip them in.
Enjoy Arabian nights
There are plenty of luxurious places to experience the Omani desert, particularly the 1000 Nights Camp at Wahiba Sands and Dunes by Al Nahda near Muscat, which offer four-poster beds, fine cuisine and all the spa treatments you could imagine. But it’s worth remembering you can also sleep under the stars for free as wild camping is permitted across the country.
Come the weekend and anyone with a off-roader heads to the desert for some 4WD excitement. “Dune bashing” – revving up and down sand dunes in a Toyota Land Cruiser or quad bike – is something of a national sport in Oman and a ridiculous amount of fun.
Go for sunset cocktails and shisha pipes
Oman’s restaurant scene may lag light years behind Dubai’s celebrity-chef outposts, but you can find a decent range of Arabian/Lebanese and Pakistani/Indian food. Bait al Luan, near Muscat’s Souk, is a great place to sample slow-cooked biryanis and paper-thin khobose bread in a beautifully renovated guesthouse. If you have a hankering for a burger, head to expat hangout Slider Station where a sushi-style conveyor belt is used to sample Wagyu beef and Cajun chicken mini bites.
Drinking, while nowhere near as hush-hush as Saudi Arabia, is mostly confined to hotel bars. Of these the swankiest and most romantic spot in Muscat is The Beach at the five-star Chedi hotel. For something more authentically Omani, join the locals smoking shisha pipes below the stars at the Kargeen Café.