Where to get your Christmas frankincense

Penny Young packed her bicycle to tour the land of sultans and scents

Gold, frankincense and myrrh - the gifts brought by the three kings who followed the star. Clearly the wise men had been holidaying in Oman before arriving by camel in Bethlehem.

Gold, frankincense and myrrh - the gifts brought by the three kings who followed the star. Clearly the wise men had been holidaying in Oman before arriving by camel in Bethlehem.

A sensible choice. Not only does the Sultanate of Oman, in the south-east corner of Arabia, have a wonderful climate during our winter; it also has mountains, deserts, medieval cities, a thousand miles of seaside, as well as enough frankincense on sale (and smoking in little clay ovens in the bazaars) to last until the Second Coming.

Resisting the seasonal temptation to travel by camel, I took my bicycle to Oman. "What's that?" asked the man behind the ticket desk at Muscat airport, as I queued to check in to fly to Salalah, Oman's southernmost port, at the bottom of the Arabian peninsula. "It's a bicycle," I said. "It came from London on the plane. It's part of the trip."

His reaction didn't surprise me. I'd already got the idea, while cycling around Oman's spotlessly modern capital, Muscat, with its toy forts and well-watered lawns, that the Omanis aren't at all used to seeing foreign visitors, let alone foreigners on bicycles - although they're much too polite and dignified to make a fuss. Turbaned heads may turn, sunglasses may be lifted for a moment, but that's about it.

The bicycle was waiting for me in Salalah's arrival lounge. I loaded it up and rode out of the airport down the straight, new road lined with palm trees - the sprinklers spitting cool water. The air was hot and moist.

Haffa House Hotel was waiting five minutes away, its vast marble corridors wide enough to cycle down - which I did.

Oman is an immense country of only two million people. Towns and villages are scattered over a wide area, fringing the desert. Somehow, even in the heat of Arabia, there's room to breathe. The capital, Muscat, spreads over 50 square miles. Salalah, too, spreads itself along the Indian Ocean and is backed by a well-watered, green hinterland of market gardens and orchards of fruit.

My bicycle came in handy. I sped through the bazaars, draped with glittering cloth from India, and perfumed with the scent of frankincense - heaped on the stalls like chunks of crystallised amber. I slowed up through the green plantations to sniff the sweet, rich smell of the coconut palms, papaya, and banana trees, and emerged beside the sea with its sandy beaches, smooth as snowfields, just in time to catch the sunset. I was at the foot of Arabia. To the west lay Yemen and Hadhramaut, to the north were the sand dunes of the Empty Quarter and Saudi Arabia.

Heading out early the next morning, my destination was Taqah and the nearby rock ruins of Khor Ruri, an ancient city reputedly belonging to the Queen of Sheba. What with her kingdoms in Yemen and Ethiopia, and a fling in Jerusalem with Solomon, she got around, did Sheba. "You're not going to cycle?" the receptionist said, incredulous. "It's a long way - 45 minutes in a car."

No problem. Oman's roads are so new and well-surfaced that I whizzed along (hat on, limbs covered against the sun) at top speed, spotting baby camels grazing among the acacia trees. Oman is a country to stir the imagination. The Sumerians knew it as the land of copper, and its frankincense and dates have long been world-famous. The hand-built wooden dhows that put to sea each night and return each dawn stacked with fish are a reminder of its sea-going tradition, and that Sinbad, the legendary mariner of the Arabian Nights, came from Oman.

Oman's modern era began in 1970 when Sultan Qaboos exiled his father and began Oman's "renaissance." The country has shot from its closed existence as a medieval fiefdom to become a 21st-century state under his rule. Qaboos has a reputation as a generous (albeit absolute) monarch, who gives homes to his people, boats to his fishermen, exiles his opponents (but then invites them back), and decorates his beautiful countryside with waterfalls and models of goats. He is also said to have exquisite taste in palace interiors. It must all be a far cry from Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk, where Qaboos lived with a governess as a teenager, and where he worked as a clerk for 18 months before going to Sandhurst.

I got lost at Taqah and found myself off piste, bumping around high up on the cliffs over a black rock plateau. I was rescued by Owad Said who was cutting up an octopus when I found him. "Khor Ruri is over there," he said waving into the distance. "But there's an inlet in the way." He loaded the bicycle and me into his car and drove back to the road. Owad works in telecommunications in Salalah and goes shark-fishing on Sundays.

I flew back to Muscat that evening. They unloaded the bicycle on to the luggage conveyor belt, where it surely would have been damaged, but two Omanis - whom I've written into my will - pulled it off in the nick of time. Such are the perils of eccentric travel. I spent three days cycling 200 miles through the wadis and into the mountains around Nazwa. There are wonderful places to visit, restored castles and deserted oasis settlements that haven't changed since biblical times.

There are markets devoted mainly to the sale of goats and rifles, there are old souks and villages like eagles' eyries surrounded by soft palm trees.

The magnificent 10th-century fortress of Bahlah is surrounded by a mud-brick wall eight miles long. Nearby, the fortress home of a former Sultan at Jibreen retains the original painted cedar ceilings and a false stair built to confuse unwanted intruders foolhardy enough to try to get to the Sultan's quarters. The Sultan's favoured guests included his horse, given its own safe staircase to the bedroom.

Cycling in Oman is not for the faint-hearted. I spent a lot of time leaping off my bicycle on to the verge to avoid the crazy drivers overtaking each other as they drove towards me. There is no road rage in gentle Oman, just a lot of drivers who think their powerful BMWs and Japanese four-wheel drives are racing camels on wheels. I had a few hopeful kerb-crawlers as well, They would drive slowly past and stop a few hundred yards further up the road to wait. A female cyclist alone in a conservative Arab country is, of course, an unusual sight. But the Omanis are very civilised - they don't roar or pant like other nationalities. I merely heard a polite "Eh, excuse me" as I toiled past.

Oman has only recently opened its borders to holiday-makers, and the current policy is to try to avoid the havoc that can be wrought by mass tourism. I hope Oman is not tempted to open the Pandora's Box of sex, drugs, rock and roll, booze on the beach, and let's all photograph the sea turtles together. It's a far more civilised experience as it is, and if I were one of the three kings, I'd head back there.

News
The surrealist comedian at the Q Awards in 2010
people
News
Russell Brand arriving for the book launch in East London
peopleRussell Brand cancels his book launch debate due to concerns about the make-up of the panel
Sport
Christiano Ronaldo enjoys his opening goal
champions leagueLiverpool 0 Real Madrid 3: Ronaldo and Benzema run Reds ragged to avenge thrashing from their last visit to Anfield
Arts and Entertainment
Awesome foursome: Sam Smith shows off his awards
music22-year-old confirms he is 2014’s breakout British music success
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
Six of the 76 Goats' cheese samples contained a significant amount of sheep's cheese
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
Contestants during this summer's Celebrity Big Brother grand finale
tvBroadcaster attempts to change its image following sale to American media group
Extras
indybest
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Nicholas Serota has been a feature in the Power 100 top ten since its 2002 launch
art
Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Dales attempts to sell British Breeze in the luxury scent task
tvReview: 'Apprentice' candidate on the verge of tears as they were ejected from the boardroom
News
Call me Superman: one of many unusual names chosen by Chinese students
newsChinese state TV offers advice for citizens picking a Western moniker
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
News
Wilko Johnson is currently on his farewell tour
people
Voices
New look: Zellweger at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
voicesRenée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity, says Amanda Hess
News
Let’s pretend: KidZania in Tokyo
educationKidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day
Life and Style
CHARGE BOOSTER: Aeroplane mode doesn't sound very exciting, but it can be a (phone) hacker's friend. Turning on the option while charging your mobile will increase the speed at which your phone battery charges
techNew book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone
Arts and Entertainment
Julianne Moore and Ellen Page are starring together in civil rights drama Freeheld
film
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
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

    SCRUM Master

    £30 - 50k (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a SCRUM Master to joi...

    Franchise Support Assistant

    £13,520: Recruitment Genius: As this role can be customer facing at times, the...

    Financial Controller

    £50000 - £60000 per annum: Sauce Recruitment: A successful entertainment, even...

    Direct Marketing Executive - Offline - SW London

    £25000 - £30000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: A fantastic opportunity h...

    Day In a Page

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker
    Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

    'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

    The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
    From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

    Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

    From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Patrick Grafton-Green wonders if they can ever recapture the old magic
    Thousands of teenagers to visit battlefields of the First World War in new Government scheme

    Pupils to visit First World War battlefields

    A new Government scheme aims to bring the the horrors of the conflict to life over the next five years
    The 10 best smartphone accessories

    Make the most of your mobile: 10 best smartphone accessories

    Try these add-ons for everything from secret charging to making sure you never lose your keys again
    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time against Real Madrid: Was this shirt swapping the real reason?

    Liverpool v Real Madrid

    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time. Was shirt swapping the real reason?
    West Indies tour of India: Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Decision to pull out of India tour leaves the WICB fighting for its existence with an off-field storm building
    Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

    A new American serial killer?

    Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
    Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

    Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

    Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
    Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

    Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

    Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
    Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

    Wildlife Photographer of the Year

    Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
    Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

    Want to change the world? Just sign here

    The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?