Traveller's Guide: Oman
This seductive Arab state offers the visitor dazzling landscapes, a rich history and warm hospitality
Saturday 02 February 2013
Oman seduces. This wedge of mountain-fringed desert has a rich and complicated past. It is the oldest independent state in the Arab world. As a result, it displays multiple influences – Arabian, Indian and, uniquely for the region, African. After fending off the Portuguese in the 17th century, Oman grew as a trading empire stretching from Balochistan, on the coast of what is now Pakistan, as far south as Zanzibar in modern-day Tanzania.
So far, so unusual. Many Omanis still keep links of family and culture with the country's former imperial outposts: if your linguistic skills are up to scratch, you can have a fine old time eavesdropping in Swahili or Balochi, alongside the distinctively loping Omani dialect of Arabic. Even the architectural language speaks of historical continuity, with few Dubai-style carbuncles breaking low-rise urban skylines of whitewashed domes and flat roofs.
Notwithstanding vast deserts, coconut palms and a sawtooth horizon of mountain crags, Oman is at heart a maritime nation, gazing out at the Indian Ocean from behind 2,000km of coastline. Omanis claim the legendary 1,001 Nights adventurer Sinbad the Sailor as one of their own. Shipyards at Sur are still turning out replica wooden dhows of old.
From Dhofar in the south, where aromatic frankincense was shipped out to ancient Rome, to the steep-walled fjords of Musandam in the north, access to open sea has shaped the national character. For a taste of maritime heritage Bales Worldwide (0844 488 1153; balesworldwide.com) has an 11-day, tailor-made trip from Muscat to Dubai; this sticks largely to the coast, including time in Sur and – unusually – Sohar, a once-great trading harbour. From £3,595 including flights.
Yet, oddly for a country with such genial, outgoing charm, Oman's tourist industry tends to plump for the default Arabian option of targeting the super-wealthy, carving out opulent hideaway resorts in formerly pristine beauty spots.
At Zighy Bay in the north, Six Senses runs a fabulously high-end beach and spa resort (00 968 2673 5555; sixsenses.com) in an isolated cove. There are now several more. The new Sifawy Hotel (00 968 2474 9111; sifawyhotel.com) offers boutique-style comfort in a remote, sandy bay on the rocky coast outside Muscat. To the south, a luxury Marriott beachfront resort (00 968 2326 8245; marriott.co.uk) sprawls beside the fishing village of Mirbat.
In terms of design chic, Muscat's exceptional Chedi hotel (00 968 2452 4400; ghmhotels.com) remains top dog – a zen-like oasis of Asian style looking out on to one of the city's white-sand beaches. Expressions Holidays (01752 878050; expressionsholidays.co.uk) offers a week at the Chedi from £1,330 per person, including flights from Heathrow and breakfast.
But the best of Oman lies elsewhere. The country rests on a bedrock of unforced character and a sense of self. Omanis are so genially accessible, and their landscapes so eye-stretchingly stupendous, there's really no need to spend a fortune. All you need to do is go.
Pining for the fjords
The Musandam Peninsula has sheer cliffs that plunge into the translucent blue waters of the Gulf. Its hidden fjords shelter dolphin pods. Ferries and domestic flights link Muscat with Khasab, Musandam's sleepy main town, set behind its harbour-front fort. Responsible Travel (01273 600030; responsibletravel.com) has a seven-night itinerary that takes in fishing trips with locals, lunch in village houses, two nights on a dhow to the isolated northern hamlet of Kumzar and a 4x4 mountain excursion. It costs from £1,699 excluding flights. Musandam is also one of the Middle East's top diving destinations, with rays and sharks among coral formations and dramatic rock walls. Dive Worldwide (01962 302087; diveworldwide.com) has a seven-night trip with two boat dives out of Khasab each day, from £1,325 including flights from London.
In peak condition
The immense Hajar mountains divide Muscat's coastal plain from the interior deserts. Their most accessible peak is Jabal Akhdar ("Green Mountain" in Arabic, though it's chiefly sun-scorched limestone); alongside, Jabal Shams soars over 3,000 metres. KE Adventure (017687 73966; keadventure.com) has nine days of walking and trekking through this epic landscape, including nights under canvas either side of the Balcony Trail, leading above Oman's stunning "Grand Canyon", and the remote coastal Fisherman's Walk. Prices from £1,475, including flights from London. If you prefer two wheels, German company Oman Bike Tours (00 49 89 6243 9791; omanbiketours.com) features a six-day off-road motorbike itinerary, based at its camp in the rugged Wadi Bani Awf canyon. From €1,390, with motorbike hire and airport transfers, but not flights.
Rediscover your spirit of adventure
Most group tours include a night at a tourist camp among the dunes of the Wahiba Sands, often alongside an excursion to watch turtles emerging from the ocean to lay their eggs on nearby Ras Al-Jinz beach. The vast Empty Quarter desert – a sea of sand that stretches across Arabia – is harder to access. A few expedition firms organise trips, but if you're not up to a multi-day desert traverse, talk to specialists Al-Fawaz Tours (00 968 2329 4324; alfawaztours.com): it has links with local Dhofari desert guides and can fix up wilderness camping on the fly. Prices start at £325 or so, for up to four people. Similarly, Muscat Diving and Adventure Centre (00 968 2454 3002; holiday-in-oman.com) can book anything from a two-hour boat trip out of Muscat to watch spinner dolphins leap (from £25 per person) to trekking, mountain biking or scuba diving.
No Boundaries Oman (noboundariesoman.com) offers a four-night deep-sea fishing excursion based at a remote lodge on the south-east coast, from £1,099 per person, including boat charter, gear, transfers and all meals.
Souk it and see
Constrained by coastal mountains, the capital, Muscat, spreads out in a narrow coastal ribbon for 30km. The main souk, a tangle of frankincense-scented lanes selling everything from gold to lizard skins, runs behind the harbour quarter of Muttrah, which also has 19th-century merchants' residences overlooked by a Portuguese fort.
The Muscat Festival, running until 28 February, features heritage displays, fashion shows, food festivals and concerts at various venues around the city (muscat-festival.com).
Voyages Jules Verne (0845 166 7003; vjv.com) has a week's tour including time in Muscat and the south as well as the historic former capital, Nizwa, a traditionally minded town in the nearby mountains, from £1,499 per person, including flights.
Away with the dolphins
Dolphin-watching and dhow cruises through Musandam's fjords will appeal to children and teens alike – but you may prefer to simply hole up by the sea.
Occupying a cliff-lined sandy cove on the edge of Muscat, Shangri La's Barr Al Jissah resort (00 968 2477 6666; shangri- la.com) includes the family-friendly Al Waha hotel. Set around palm-shaded swimming pools, it hosts a kids' club and a choice of restaurants, as well as a spa-treatment centre. Four nights' B&B during the spring half-term will cost from £791pp through Kuoni (0844 488 0310; kuoni.co.uk); that includes flights from Manchester.
Further up the coast at the Millennium Mussanah resort, Oman Holiday Architects (01242 253073; omanholidayarchitects.net) has a week's stay with B&B for two adults and two children, which includes car rental and flights from London, all for £4,075.
Oman Air (0844 482 2309; omanair.com) flies daily from Heathrow to Muscat; returns start around £475pp. British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com), which also flies from Heathrow, stops in Abu Dhabi on both the outbound and return flights.
For northern Oman, including the Musandam Peninsula, Dubai is an excellent gateway – not least because fares are lower thanks to all the competition; fares below £400 non-stop from Heathrow are often available. A bus from Dubai to Muscat takes about six hours, for a fare of 90 dirhams (£16).
Buy a visa on arrival at the road border or the airport: 10 days for five rials (£8) or a month for 20 rials.
It can be time consuming. Many places are hard to reach by bus (ontcoman.com). Self-drive is possible, but outside urban areas road quality, mountain gradients and signage present a challenge. A 4x4 with a local driver may be a better bet.
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