Oman is a great winter sun destination. Stable politically and very safe, this Middle Eastern country has been under the rule of the Sultan Qaboos bin Said for forty years and he is much loved. You will see his picture everywhere. Under his rule, the population is now well educated and there has been a concerted infrastructure building programme, which has resulted in a network of excellent new roads that cut through the mountains and the desert with impressive efficiency. The capital is Muscat and this is where you will fly into Oman’s nice new airport. Muscat is a port and was originally a small fishing village but is now a town growing every day.
Oman is a country of contrasts. The interior is wild desert country but there is a long coastline too, looking out to the beautiful turquoise Arabian Sea. It’s very sunny all the time and in the summer it can reach 50 degrees Celsius or 122 Fahrenheit.
Due to its beautiful weather, seaside, and fascinating geography, Oman is becoming increasingly popular with international visitors. There are quite a number of high end glitzy seaside hotels available but you can also find smaller hotels and bed and breakfast accommodation at very reasonable prices, often locally run.
The Sultan wants development for Oman but not at any cost. His Excellency Qaboos bin Said does not want to go the way of Dubai with its shopping Malls and skyscrapers. Everyone is extremely friendly and almost all of them speak English.
Outside of the big hotels, there is plenty to explore in Oman. The city is built around the port in Muscat where you can visit the souk and walk along the seafront to see the Museum of Oman and the Sultan’s Palace. Hire a car and drive on brand new roads to visit the huge desert dunes, and the oases, or ‘Wadis’, where the water comes down from the mountains and creates cool green pools you can swim in. Or drive further South and be the only tourist in Omani towns like Sur with its picturesque lighthouse on the end of a small peninsula.
Shopping in the souk in Muscat
Oman was one of the places I’d always wanted to visit and one of our first stops was the local souk or market in the centre of Muscat the capital of Oman. It is not a city of grand buildings or dimensions but it is like the overgrown sprawling port it has always been. There are very few visitors here other than the cruise ship tourists who come for a few hours when their ship pulls into the stunning natural harbour. At first glance the tourist souk seemed a bit of a copycat affair, a man made structure and full of products from India, Iran and China rather than Oman itself. I forgave them for the building when I found out that many places in Oman had been destroyed by a cyclone in 2007 and have been rebuilt. The majority of the shops cater for the mature cruise ship market who spill out into the port on their afternoon stops to buy a few souvenirs and do a quick bus tour before piling back for the captain’s cocktail party.
But if you look hard enough, there are local specialities to be found. Scarves, perfumes and incense are a great buy and spicy aromas rise from some of the little shops. One thing Oman does produce is Frankincense, which is a kind of resin that has been burned as incense since biblical times. There are large piles of it to be had in the souk. Frankincense has a very strong and heavy perfume and it evokes the atmosphere of a more ancient and exotic time. There was plenty of gold and myrrh to be had as well if you fancied completing the biblical trio. Additionally, many Omani antique shops display camel bags, daggers and jewelry from the Bedouins but be careful as it’s not all genuine.
Into the Al Areesh desert camp
If you are able to explore Oman, the best way to do it is by car. You can drive around on the lovely new roads without spending a fortune as the petrol here is cheaper than the water. We drove around quite happily on the wide new roads although it was very busy getting out of the city to start with. Oman is a relatively liberal Arab country and there is no problem with women driving or working here unlike in other parts of the UAE such as Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi. It’s easy to hire a car from numerous rental places in and around Muscat, for a week or a few day — the process is the same as anywhere else. Just be aware that the number of road signs is rather variable and you must take a map or use a sat nav. One must-do is to stay in a camp out in the desert.
We opted for the Al Areesh Desert Camp, which is as difficult to find as you might expect something in the middle of the desert to be. Signage is minimal so you need to be on high alert. Oman has lots of new roads but not many road signs. The camp is among the Wahibah Sands, one of the oldest deserts in the world — with rolling dunes, reaching up to 100 metres (320 feet) and shifting sands.
The Al Areesh Desert Camp is the traditional home of the Bedouin: hardy, spirited people who know how to survive in these harsh desert conditions. Abdullah was the Bedouin in charge here. ‘Al Areesh’ means Palm Huts in Arabic and, indeed, that it exactly where you sleep — little palm huts in the desert with electric lights and an adjacent modest bathroom.
Al Areesh is not as luxurious as some of the desert night tented camps advertised, but it seemed more authentic and is half the price. There is also a large communal area with Arabic cushions and rugs for lounging on while eating and socialising. You will meet your other camp mates here for a simple but satisfying dinner of chicken, vegetables and potatoes. You can go sand boarding down the dunes, which is a bit like sledging (sledding) in snow. It is a favourite pastime of Bedouin children.
The dunes are impressive indeed and you can enjoy the thrill of a mad hour ‘dune bashing’ in a large SUV. This involves gearing up the steep dunes and then pausing at the top of a vertical one, then driving at an alarming angle ‘bashing’ down the other side of it. It’s pretty exciting. As evening draws in, you get to watch the stunning desert sunset. As night falls, you can lie outside your hut on a camp bed and look at the stars. Nowhere do stars look bigger or more beautiful than in the desert.
Around and about Oman
Another unmissable trip here is to one of Oman’s very special Wadis. Wadis are beautiful green oases and waterfalls that dot the landscape and are a lifeline for the people of Oman as things can get terribly hot here, especially in the summer. A Wadi is a dry river bed or valley that fills up in the rainy season and sometimes can flood. They are usually found in remote locations and some, like Wadi Bani Khalid are fed from Falaj or manmade channels that bring fresh spring water down from the mountains. The Wadis are all over Oman, and some are only a few hour’s drive from the capital.
Further afield in Sur
Another recommended place to visit is Sur, a town on the southeast coast. It has a magical island with a lighthouse on it you can walk or drive to over a spur of land. It is also home to the ancient art of Dhow (wooden boat) building, which is a fascinating thing to watch. It has little tourist infrastructure and perhaps lacks some facilities but a brand new corniche, or walkway is being built along the seafront and Sur is starting to wake up to the needs of the visitor. You can get some delicious grilled fish in a spicy tomato sauce for very little at money a local restaurant. There are currently only three hotels in Sur so you may well stay at the Sur Plaza as we did, and sample the delicious pea and cashew nut curry on their hotel menu for a couple of dollars.
Oman a country of sunshine and surprises
The best time to visit, especially if you want to travel around, is in the wintertime. It is a land of dramatic contrasts. Big new luxury hotels nestle on the fringes of the dreamy turquoise Arabian Sea while giant cruise ships float in the port, which comes right into the centre of the city. Mosques and grand palaces show off the wealth of the Sultan and out in the ancient desert, the silence, sand and stars are not to be missed. If you can get up early enough you should try and get to the camel races but don’t forget to check first with the directorate-general of Camel Affairs for times and venues as these vary from week to week. Oman is a welcoming and surprising country, it still has the unique feel of a very old culture starting to wake up to our modern world. Oman’s story as an increasingly popular tourist destination is just beginning but this is a country on a mission to attract more foreign visitors.
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