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Beauty has an address ~ Oman

The immaculate beauty of Oman

Hilary Alexander
January 21, 2008
A mosque in Nizwa, Oman

Can a motorway ever be pretty; a four-lane highway described as a delight to the eye?

They can in the Sultanate of Oman, where the road system is built hand-in-hand with landscaping, gardens and sculpture. The snaking coils of tarmac are softened by neat hedging, lawns and flower-beds a-gleam with purples, pinks and reds. Palm trees and ficus are planted to give them shade. Underpasses and retaining walls, built to prevent mudslide and rock-fall, lose their concrete anonymity and toughness beneath veils of bougainvillea; bridges and overpasses are decorated with mosaics of minarets, towers and palaces.

Closer to the capital of Muscat and other major towns, roundabouts are like small works of art, punctuated with the familiar flower-beds, lawns and trees and with clock-towers or stone monuments telling historical details of Oman.

The trees and plants, our guide from the Ministry of Tourism tells us, are all watered through an irrigation system which relies on recycled water and desalination schemes.

Even as the highway system of Muscat and its surrounding districts gives way to the more desolate countryside, the themed, man-made planting schemes is superseded by the more random and haphazard landscaping of nature - scrubby bushes scattered amidst rocks, sand, mud and the omnipresent hills and mountains, ranged one after the other on both sides of the road, away to the horizon, as far as the eye can see. But, each intervening township adds its own touch. As we approach the small village of Al Mudyba, en route to the Nomads Market in Sinaw, we find the road fringed on either side by neatly-spaced date palms and acacia.

Not only is it all greener than you would imagine, it is cleaner. Oman is one of the cleanest countries I think I have ever visited. No discarded soft-drink cans, no fast food cartons litter the roadsides; no plastic bags festoon the trees. The landscape is as pristine as God intended and untouched by man. It is said that Sultan Qaboos, who has ruled since 1970, is fastidious, to the point of wishing the streets could be clean enough to eat from, and there are heavy penalties for litter-louts and transgressors who toss rubbish from their cars. It shows.

The market is chaotic and colourful; camels, goats and cattle are all for sale, alongside textiles, frankincense, handicrafts and egetables.
The women are mainly Bedouin, black masked and in embroidered robes of vivid hues and prints; the men in the traditional urban and white dish-dash, sashed at the waist with an elaborately-carved, silver-sheathed, curved dagger.
We watch two young camels being unceremoniously loaded into the tray of the small Toyota truck belonging to their new owner. They kneel awkwardly and are roped in, but their long heads swivel from side to side at the passing throng as if they are watching a video.

The market is just one of the locations we have discovered. Earlier in the week we drove to Nizwa, site of a magnificent - and magnificently restored - 17th century fort, one of more than 1,000 in the Sultanate, and a souk, parts of which date back to 1,200 AD.

Our headquarters is the Shangri-La's Barr Al Jissah Resort and Spa - a group of three hotels, perched high on the clifftops overlooking the Gulf of Oman:  the exclusive Al Husn (the Castle), the Al Bandar (the Town) and the family-oriented Al Waha (the Oasis).

There is no shortage of evocative or dramatic backdrops for our fashion shoots. One beach, belonging to the Al Husn, a high, narrow, spit of golden sand and rugged rock, barely 200ft wide, is lashed on both sides by the breakers rolling in from the Gulf - a wildly romantic setting for nautical looks.

We return from the Nomads Market to find Muscat has imported a dose of English weather: grey skies, a biting wind and a hint of rain. But that has not stopped the team of gardeners who are out in force, carefully trimming all the box hedges by hand and eye.