Long-haul short breaks: Oman
Four days is not long to pack in deserts, forts and souks in this sultanate rich in history. Sholto Byrnes explains how to do it
Sunday 03 July 2005
A relative backwater in the Middle East, Oman only began opening up to the outside world when the present sultan, Qaboos, took power after overthrowing his father in 1970. With a fraction of the oil wealth of its flashier neighbours, much of the sultanate is relaxed, low-key and liberal for the region. For centuries its cities were important trading posts (Sinbad set sail from the Omani port of Sohar), and Oman's historical sites and varied landscapes are still unspoilt by mass tourism. But for how long? Oman is actively targeting tourism and with the opening of chi chi hotel The Chedi and next year's arrival of a Shangri-La hotel, it's one of the hottest destinations on the top tour operators' lists.
Day 1, Friday
Arrive in Muscat just after 7am, having left Heathrow at 8.30pm the previous evening. At least Gulf Air (0870-777 1717; www.gulfairco.com) now flies direct to Muscat, saving the hassle of having to change in Bahrain or Abu Dhabi (return flights £444 economy, £1,545 business). After a pit-stop for coffee or mint tea, and some fuul (Arabic stewed beans) or halwa (an aromatic sweet), get straight on the road east to Sur on an itinerary prepared by Steppes Travel (01285 651010; www.steppestravel.co.uk), which includes three nights' b&b and transport for £600 per person, based on two sharing.
Oman is a restful, quiet place - Muscat perhaps a little too quiet - so don't waste time; leave the town and take in the stunning, barren scenery, relieved at intervals by lush oases.
For this four-hour journey you should take the bumpy coast road - the inland route is smoother, but longer, and the coast is dotted with beautiful coves where the rocks are bleached white by the strong sun.
Stop off near Dibab to inspect Bait Al Afreet ("house of the demon"), a huge sinkhole which locals claim was formed by a falling meteorite, and then further on for a dip in the turquoise sea at Bimah. Break for lunch at Wadi Shab - roadside cafés serve the ubiquitous biryanis - and reach Sur in time to watch the sun set on the harbour full of traditional dhows.
Stay overnight at the modern, functional Sur Mercure hotel.
Day 2, Saturday
In the afternoon, drive on and go dune-bashing on the shifting sea of the Wahiba Sands. Stop off - and make sure you are appropriately dressed - to visit a traditional Bedouin house for dates and coffee. Take the cup with the right hand only, and shake it when returning it to indicate you have had enough. Rest up in the palm-filled courtyard at the Falaj Daris hotel.
Day 3, Sunday
A day for history. First Nizwa, the capital of Oman during the 16th and 17th centuries. As it's in the conservative heartland, cover up - no need for abayas, just keep the bare flesh to the minimum. Climb the steps of the 17th-century fort and view the holes down which boiling date syrup was poured on attacking forces. Then visit the next door souk to pick up necessities such as hookah pipes and mini incense-burners. The latter really are worthwhile, as Oman is the home of frankincense.
Next, Jabrin Fort, the labyrinthine residence built for the Imam Bil-arab in 1671. According to legend, the Imam's tomb had to be constructed in the fort, because when they tried to take his body to be buried the fort started moving with him. Refurbished with pottery, saddlery, prisoners' restraints and firearms, the fort also has ornately painted restored ceilings, while the basic but ingenious nature of 17th-century Omani plumbing is evident in the falaj flowing through its kitchens.
Return to Muscat, and the comforts of the Grand Hyatt hotel, whose bright lights illuminate the beach of Shatti Al Qurm. It's a good place to shake off the dust of the desert. Then dine at the rooftop Grill House overlooking Muscat, after a "nautically themed cocktail" at the John Barry Bar (named after the SS John Barry, sunk with its cargo of silver bullion by a U-boat in the Second World War off the Omani coast).
Avoid the pool tables of the Hyatt's Club Safari, unless deafening music and sunburned antipodeans clad in unfeasibly baggy shorts downing pints of lager is your idea of a good time. In which case, why have you come to Oman?
Day 4, Monday
Rise early to take a drive around the harbour, guarded by the two forts of Mirani and Jalali, and then go for a wander around Mutrah Souk. Along its alleys you'll find the usual mixture of genuine local souvenirs and complete tat.
Return to the Hyatt to enjoy its pool, which has an amusing channel with its own strong current, and then pack to catch the 2.55pm flight from Seeb Airport to be back in London for 8pm.
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