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Beauty has an address ~ Oman

Six things to do in...Oman

Gareth Huw Davies
December 23, 2008
Domed delight: The blue-and-gold roof of a mosque, overlooking Nizwa

Just two hours from the frenzy of Dubai is the Arabian peninsula's great surprise. Bigger than the neighboring emirates, Oman has many more wonders on which to build its still-small tourism industry. Gareth Huw Davies toured castles and forts and sampled the sound of silence in 1,000 miles of beaches and headlands, mountains with yawning canyons and emerald-green wadis, to compile his must-do list in a land where ancient courtesies and kindness run deep....

They send a Bentley to pick you up from the airport for the ride to Shangri-La's Al Husn (The Castle) hotel, on its own private headland just north of Muscat.
In this low-rise, skyscraper-free city, we saw nothing taller than blue-and-gold mosques, topped with four pencil-thin floodlit minarets. We checked in in a cool marble foyer scented with frankincense, under horseshoe arches lined with gilt and giant bronze palm trees. Decorative flamingos browsed in a mosaic pond. They rearranged the coast to build the Barr Al Jissah resort where the hotel is located. But there's a green payback. The hotel's resident ranger shows you nesting green and hawksbill turtles protected on a beach within the resort. Don't miss free tea and cakes at 4pm in the lounge, among the great decorated vases and sumptuous carpets. October to April is the best time to avoid the heat.

Frankincense is Oman's special aroma. It wafts everywhere, in markets, hotels and restaurants. Muscat city celebrates this with an illuminated giant frankincense burner. A handmade incense-burning pot costs just £1 in the market. The tree they tap frankincense from grows in the green, abundant lands 600 miles south of Muscat around Salalah. Wilfred Thesiger set off from here on his epic crossing of the Arabian Empty Quarter in 1946. Today, the desert is an easy day trip. Marvel at the vast expanse of sand from a comfortable Land Cruiser. Drivers like to test your nerves - their party trick is to let the vehicle drift in the soft sand down a near-sheer 200ft dune.

Oman is split into two parts. The northernmost mountainous peninsula, Musandam, is on the Strait of Hormuz opposite Iran. Dolphins play in the aquamarine waters of the fjord-shaped bays. But it's a long drive from the rest of the country, separated by 45 miles of the United Arab Emirates. Now the Omanis, always fine seafarers, have found a nautical solution. A new service by the world's fastest diesel passenger ferry connects Muscat to Khasab, Musandam's main town, in a few hours at up to 60mph, with splendid views on the way. In Musandam they take you out in wooden dhows to swim. This is the Gulf so there are three classes - tourist, first class and VIP. About £50 one-way, tourist-class.

Want an Arabian lamp - with or without a genie? Head for Muttrah Souk in old Muscat. At dusk we inched down the narrow ways between stalls crammed with the staples of the traditional Arabian market. You can find gold, bread, T-shirts and jeans, hijabs, spices, stands for holding the Koran, bronze statues, jewellery and traditional curved daggers - khanjars. Then over the road to join the sunset fashion parade along the corniche. Men wear the dishdasha, a fetching ankle-length, collarless gown in white, black, blue, brown and lilac. Subtle variations denote their tribe. Headgear is the mussar, a coloured woollen scarf woven tightly into a turban around embroidered caps. A short taxi-ride away in Old Muscat, two 16th Century fortresses tower over the harbour.

Oman beats the Middle Eastern opposition with its beautifully austere grey-red mountains. We took the fast new road from Muscat to Nizwa (90 minutes) to one of the many newly restored ancient citadels, as solid and imposing as our castles. I remember a blur of whimsical details on the way: the doleful look a camel gave us as it sped past, safely tied down in the back of a pickup; a shepherd dressed head-to-foot in red; a flypast by delicate doves, each with a flash of maroon on its neck. In the castle we saw decorated ceilings and cool, carpeted interiors strewn with cushions, then peered over the battlements on to neat white homes and date-palm plantations.

The cuisine is a riot of spices, herbs, onion, garlic and lime, with meat and fish marinated and spit-roasted or slow cooked in underground clay ovens. The Barr Al Jissah resort offers traditional Omani seafood at the seafront Bait Al Bahr restaurant, as well as a wide international choice, including Latin and Italian. Our culinary high point was the resort's Moroccan restaurant Shahrazad. My dish of the trip was their Pastilla Bil Hamam, a pie of pigeon meat, crushed almonds and scrambled eggs covered with cinnamon and sugar. Then to the Piano Bar for a nightcap and live music from the resident pianist.