Oman: An authentic taste of Arabia

Talk about a holiday in the Gulf and everyone thinks of Dubai – understandably so, for the Emirate is by far the most popular destination in the region. But if you want to see real Arabia, as opposed to a mass of shopping malls and luxury hotels, there is a far better option: Oman.

Oman – or Muscat and Oman as it used to be called – is a sizeable country, not a tiny strip of desert. It can offer most of the things that Dubai can, save the excess, and it does so with self-confidence, grace and charm.

Example: we were in the capital, Muscat, standing in the car park of a shopping complex one evening, after a very good dinner in the courtyard in the Kargeen Caffe. We were looking for a cab to go back to the hotel.

Two young women came up and asked whether they could help. We explained the problem. Oh, one said, we'll drive you. Well, at that moment a cab appeared so we declined, but you see the point: this is a country where people welcome foreigners and where women are comfortable going up to strangers to offer help.

There were many other small courtesies, of people going out of their way to show us things, explain aspects of the society, or simply try to make sure we had a good time. It was a glimpse of the deep courtesy towards strangers that is embedded in Arab culture. There is, it was explained to us, a reason for such empathy. Until a few years ago, when oil wealth began to spread through the nation, life for most people was very tough. So if you were travelling and got into difficulties your very survival might depend on strangers. Society only worked if everybody helped each other – and they still do, even for a problem as mundane as finding a cab.

Oman runs from the Straits of Hormuz, with a brief pause for a patch of UAE territory, around the corner of the Arabian Sea, and all the way down to the Yemen border. Its coastline, scuba divers please note, measures more than 1,000 miles. In land area it is about the size of Britain, but only 2.5 million people live here. Muscat, the capital, is at the top right-hand corner and has for centuries had great strategic importance, controlling entry to the Gulf; little wonder the UK has long sought to be on good terms with the Sultan. It is also strategically significant for migrating birds, and is "the eagle capital of the world" – of which more in a moment.

The obvious place to start is Muscat. It is a sprawl, mostly built in the past 10 or 20 years and with a curious feeling of Los Angeles about it: malls, villas and freeways.

Muscat can do luxury if you want it. We stayed on the coast at The Chedi, a combination of designer chic and whatever-you-want-in-the-world service, expensive but not absurdly so for what you get. Some guests spent all their time being pampered there, but to get a feeling for this ancient trading society, go to the two old ports: Old Muscat and Muttrah.

Old Muscat used to be a trading port but now is most notable for being the location of the palace of the ruler, Sultan Qaboos Bin Said Al-Said. By palatial standards it is not particularly grand, but the process of extending it and the other public buildings, and landscaping them, has meant that much of the old town has been knocked down. Nearby Muttrah has a charming Mediterranean-style waterfront and a harbour now used mainly by cruise liners. It also has a large souk where ranks of tailors will run up a suit for you, plus a fun-fair. Muttrah's most spectacular feature, however, was floating in the harbour. This is the home-port for the Sultan's main yacht. "Yacht" seems an inadequate word as the Al Said is the size of a cross-channel ferry. In a league where size matters it is, at 508ft, the second-longest private yacht in the world. Look out to sea and you know who is running the show.

So what else, aside from going to the souk and ogling the Sultan's yacht, do you do in Muscat? Well, if you are interested in the country itself, try the Bait Adam museum, a private house that serves as a repository for the diversity of Omani culture, from coins to old prints. You can join the family for a meal as well – just book in advance for supper. The more formal Oman Museum covers the nation's culture from Bedouin traditions to colonialism.

Food can be very cheap or very good, and sometimes both. The usual Middle Eastern staples are available: lamb or chicken shawarma, falafel and Lebanese-style salads, eggs, cheese and couscous. In addition, Indian food is ubiquitous. On the coast, good, fresh fish is available.

To share the dazzling blue water that flanks Oman, there are several suitable operators along the coast, including the Oman Dive Centre, where we booked a snorkelling expedition. If you feel so inclined you can also "wadi-bash", driving in 4x4s along dry river beds. You also can visit the new mosque paid for by the Sultan. But the highlight of our trip was none of these. It was going to the rubbish dump.

If you are a vulture or an eagle, a rubbish dump is where you go for lunch. So we persuaded a taxi-driver to take us in his pristine Cadillac to the town dump. The first one was bird-less, but the driver's cousin happened to work for the municipal cleansing department. By phone, he told us that we had to go to another one 20 miles out of town. Amid grey mounds of dusty rocks we were able to see Egyptian vultures and steppe eagles. Most impressive, though, was a pair of lappet-faced vultures, which have a wingspan of 10ft and are the largest birds in Oman. The by now very dusty Cadillac then took us back to our own lunch at The Chedi.

Muscat is rewarding, but it is worth getting a glimpse of the rest of the country, because the interior of Oman is fascinating. Inland, there are ruined medieval mud villages and forts, many surrounded by date palm plantations.

You can see part of the "empty quarter", the world's largest sandy desert, which Oman shares with Saudi Arabia and Yemen, or visit the site of the Queen of Sheba's palace, where she lived 3,000 years ago.

To witness how man's dreams can decay, seek out the old ghost town of Tanuf and the fascinating ruined city of Manah. The roads into the mountains from here are constantly being improved, making high-altitude hikes a possibility. Serious hikers will want to try the Jebel Shams rim walk: the "mountain of the sun" is Oman's highest at nearly 10,000ft.

We also visited Nizwa, a couple of hours' drive inland from Muscat, via the high, rocky plateau between it and the sea. Nizwa is an oasis, as are all the towns of the interior, since without water no community can survive. It is the main city of the interior and a former capital of the whole country.

It has one of the largest forts in Oman, and a big, new souq. We went to the weekly market and watched sheep and goats being paraded round the ring before sale. The most notable sight was a Bedouin woman in a burka squatting down to test the udders of a goat and rejecting it as not a promising milker. If you do the milking you know what you are looking for.

We also went to several smaller towns on the Jebel Akhdar mountains. The range goes up to 10,000ft but the towns are on a plateau at around 6,000ft, with each dependent on a spring and the tiny amount of rain they receive each year. The spring water is distributed through each town by a network of channels, carefully organised so that each family had access to its share of the water. The astounding thing is the way a trickle of water, used carefully, can support a whole village. If that is a lesson in conservation for us all, Oman has I think a wider message. This is a culture to respect and admire – real Arabia, not the Disneyland version.

Traveller's Guide

Getting there

Omanair (0870 770 7319; oman-air.com) flies direct to Muscat from Gatwick; British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com) flies from Heathrow, with a stop at Abu Dhabi. Hamish McRae paid £1,400 per person for six nights at The Chedi in Muscat and two nights in Nizwa, with all internal travel by car with a driver, but not international flights. His trip was arranged by Original Travel (020-7978 7333; originaltravel.co.uk). To reduce the impact on the environment, you can buy an “offset” through Abta’s Reduce my Footprint initiative (020-7637 2444; reducemyfootprint.travel).

Staying there

The Chedi, Al Khuwair, Muscat, Oman (00 968 24 52 44 00; ghmhotels.com).

More information

British passport-holders require a visa to enter Oman. These can be obtained on arrival at the airport for 6 OMR (£11).

The latest Bradt guide to Oman was published in 2006, £13.99

‘Common Birds in Oman’ by Hanne and Jens Eriksen is published by Al Roya (birdsoman.com).

Oman Ministry of Tourism: 00 968 24 588 700; omantourism.gov.om; omanet.om

Suggested Topics
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Arts and Entertainment
Billie Piper as Brona in Penny Dreadful
tvReview: It’s business as usual in Victorian London. Let’s hope that changes as we get further into the new series spoiler alert
Life and Style
A nurse tends to a recovering patient on a general ward at The Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham
health
News
Fans take a selfie with Ed Miliband in Kempston, near Bedford, on Tuesday
election 2015
Extras
indybest
Arts and Entertainment
No Offence
tvReview: No Offence has characters who are larger than life and yet somehow completely true to life at the same time spoiler alert
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Guru Careers: Dining Room Head Chef

    £32K: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Dining Room Head Chef to work for one of ...

    Guru Careers: Pastry Sous Chef / Experienced Pastry Chef

    £27K: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Pastry Sous Chef / Experienced Pastry Che...

    Ashdown Group: Technical IT Manager - North London - Growing business

    £40000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A growing business that has been ope...

    Recruitment Genius: Technical Supervisor

    £24800 - £29000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: As one of London's leading Muse...

    Day In a Page

    General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
    General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

    On the margins

    From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
    Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

    'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

    Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
    Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

    Why patients must rely less on doctors

    Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
    Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

    Flesh in Venice

    Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
    11 best anti-ageing day creams

    11 best anti-ageing day creams

    Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
    Juventus 2 Real Madrid 1: Five things we learnt, including Iker Casillas is past it and Carlos Tevez remains effective

    Juventus vs Real Madrid

    Five things we learnt from the Italian's Champions League first leg win over the Spanish giants
    Ashes 2015: Test series looks a lost cause for England... whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket

    Ashes series looks a lost cause for England...

    Whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket, says Stephen Brenkley
    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power