Independent Families: 'What fun can we have in Dubai and Oman?'
Q. My husband is working in the UAE and my two sons (seven and 11) and I plan to visit him for February half term. We will stay in Dubai for a few nights then go to Oman for five days. Can you suggest things for us to see and do while we are there?
Saturday 23 December 2006
J Richards, via e-mail
A. Oman is a great destination for a family holiday. With a spectacular coastline, unspoilt beaches, rugged mountains and desert, the only question is how hectic you want your five days to be. Oman is a liberal and tolerant nation and it won't take much effort to experience the famous hospitality and generosity of spirit of the Omani people. With a number of first-class hotels springing up in recent years, the country has it covered: good weather, adventure, a rich cultural heritage, and should you wish to indulge, more than a spot of luxury.
After the skyscrapers and department stores of Dubai, arrival in the capital, Muscat, will make a refreshing change. Since the current sultan, Qaboos bin Said, overthrew his repressive father in 1970 and opened up the country to the outside world, the face of Oman altered dramatically. However, scratch beneath the surface, and you'll find the lingering spirit of sea-traders, fishermen, date farmers and desert Bedouins.
The narrow lanes of the souk present a vivid scene of Omani life: the scent of frankincense and sandalwood hangs in the air, Omani women sit amid piles of silver and silks. It's a souvenir-seeker's delight and a fine insight into a culture little changed over the centuries. Take some time to explore the old port at Muttrah, the hub for local fishermen, and the harbour, protected by two great 16th-century forts. Look out for the sultan's dhow, a floating palace bobbing beneath the harbour cliffs which are etched with the names of centuries of sailors celebrating their safe arrival.
At the top of most holiday wish lists is the beach. One of Muscat's top-end beach hotels is the Chedi (00 968 24 52 44 00; www.ghmhotels.com), hemmed in by the Arabian Sea and sun-scorched mountains. A suite sleeping two adults and two children costs 480 Oman rials (OMR) (£650) per night in February, including breakfast.
Surrounded by lush palm gardens, the Chedi opens on to a great swathe of sandy beach and offers plenty of activities. It's also a great base for snorkelling: the warm Arabian Sea is a haven for corals, tropical fish, and the odd reef shark. If you charter a boat for the day and find a secluded beach, there's a good chance you'll see a pod of playful dolphins. Whichever beachside hotel you choose will be able to arrange a boat and a guide.
There are also many excellent, more modest lodgings on the coast and inland, and several of the larger hotels and resorts also allow you to enjoy their facilities on a relatively inexpensive guest's day pass.
Back on solid ground, a 4x4 would enable you to head into Oman's sun-parched interior for cultural day trips. There are plenty of car rental companies in Muscat, including the Muscat Diving and Adventure Centre (00 968 24 485 663; www.holiday-in-oman. com), that can either rent you a car or organise tours, activities and day trips. Nizwa, 174km from Muscat and about an hour and a half's drive, is an ancient oasis town. Oman's capital in the sixth and seventh centuries, it sits at the foot of the Western Hajar mountains and is an excellent example of a thriving, traditional Omani town. Nearby, there's a Unesco World Heritage fort and a bustling livestock market on Thursdays and Fridays where villagers trade goats, cattle and camels.
Take some time to explore the villages tucked into the foothills of the mountains, irrigated by a falaj system invented 2,500 years ago that channels water from the nearby mountains to the homes and date plantations below. Stop for a stroll and you'll probably end up with an invitation to tea, in the form of strong coffee, halva and fat, juicy dates. A good choice would be Misfah, a pretty village about 17km from Nizwa, or nearby al-Hamra, a little town with shady date groves and terraces. Drive up Jebel Shams for a spectacular view of one of the world's deepest canyons.
It would be a shame to visit Oman and not journey into the spectacular desert-scapes of the 20,000sq km of the Wahiba Sands, once the preserve of Bedouins and immortalised by Wilfred Thesiger in Arabian Sands. Unless you or your husband have experience of desert driving it's probably best to join a tour-group, allowing you to sit back and enjoy Thesiger's "vast ocean of billowing sands".
Oman Holiday (00 968 953 02291; www.omanholiday.co.uk) organises a full day Wahiba Sands Desert Tour for OMR29 (£40) per person that takes in mountains, the desert life (including camels and Bedouin tribes) and wadis, or valleys in the comfort of a 4x4. If you want to catch the sunrise it also organises overnight tours for OMR90 (£125) per person, including camp accommodation and dinner under the stars.
On the way to the Sands you could stop off at one of the many fishing villages. A good option is Quriyat, 87km from Muscat. Ten kilometres further down Route 17 lies a great opportunity for some "wadi bashing". Head off-road and bump and wind through the villages and ravines taking in the great views before stopping off at a waterhole for a cooling dip. Head on to the dhow yards and the old port of Sur before reaching the gateway to the Wahiba Sands, al-Qabil. A good day-trip from Sur is the village of Ras al-Hadd, and the surrounding beaches used by thousands of green turtles to nest. You'll also be at the most easterly point in Arabia.
Send your family travel queries to The Independent Parent, Travel Desk, The Independent, 191 Marsh Wall, London E14 9RS or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
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