Shifting sands ... in Oman


| July 12, 2018

Since the first sunseekers arrived in Muscat a decade ago, Oman’s tourism has developed only slowly and responsibly. Its hinterlands are full of exciting possibilities for adventure and cultural discovery, finds Annabelle Thorpe, yet its timeless beauty remains unspoilt.

Wahiba sands

Soaring mountains that hide oases of rose gardens; dusty, atmospheric plains freckled with palms, forts, watchtowers and abandoned adobe villages; a coastline as squiggled and indented as that of Norway; and vast deserts of dunes that glimmer on the horizon. It is this unruly combination of landscapes that has lured me back to Oman, time and time again, ever since my first visit more than a decade ago.  

Back then, British tourists knew little about this peaceable Middle Eastern country beyond its low-rise capital, Muscat. The smattering who visited typically sought only hot sun and top service at one of the first luxury fly-and-flop hotels and rarely ventured beyond the pool and the sites on the doorstep. Anything further seemed wildly adventurous and there was little infrastructure to support travel to rural areas.

Over the last 10 years, however, Oman has slowly – and carefully – developed a tourism industry that is all its own, with a quiver of smart hotels opening in the mountainous hinterland behind Muscat, camps in the Sharqiya Sands desert, and southern cities such as Salalah and Sur making it onto the tourism map. Oman’s leader, Sultan Qaboos, has, thankfully, no desire to turn the country into another Dubai. Development is carefully managed, with new resorts having to prove eco credentials and many of the more extraordinary landscapes have been given environmental protection.

This is a place for adventure, where the traditions and culture of the old Middle East have not been too tainted by the developments of the new, and yet where there is always something different to experience, and fall for. Here’s my guide to the country’s most exciting places, beyond Muscat.

Al Hajar Mountains

Rising like a gigantic wave between the coastal plain and Oman’s sprawling hinterland, the Al Hajar Mountains are utterly spectacular, and diverse. Jebel Shams – Mountain of the Sun – is the highest peak at 3,009 metres and overlooks the great chasm of Wadi Nakhr, fittingly labelled the Grand Canyon of the Middle East. It makes for fantastic hiking, as do the abandoned villages of Wadi Bani Habib. It is best to explore this vast region in a 4x4 (self-drive or with a driver) to appreciate more of the mountain villages that seem almost entirely untouched by the 21st century. One of the biggest draws is Al Hamra, a 400-year-old town where a lattice of stony alleyways runs between traditional adobe houses, clinging to a hillside tumbling down to a lush oasis. No less charming is Misfat al Abriyeen, 1,000 metres up, where mud houses with palm frond roofs are built onto slabs of solid rock.

Examples of 6,000-year-old rock art have been discovered in the Jebel Akhdar range, which tops out on the Saiq Plateau, where orchards of apricots, peaches and pomegranates are planted, along with the damask rose gardens that produce most of Oman’s rosewater. Spring brings a glorious profusion of blossoms and blooms.

Al Hajar mountains

Al Hajar mountains

Sur

A working port town famous for manufacturing Oman’s iconic dhows, Sur is a fascinating place to potter about, especially for those interested in maritime history.  The old quarter, Al Ayjah, is home to former merchants’ houses with beautifully carved doors, best oriented from the attractive three-storey lighthouse, which has impressive views, even if you can’t go up inside.

Anyone can visit the dhow yards – if the gate is open, you can walk in and be treated to the sight of carpenters and woodcutters shaping cedar and teak, carving and etching delicate patterns. There’s also a small museum and a shop selling hand-carved model dhows, though opening hours can be rather erratic.

Beyond the dhow yards, Oman’s last remaining example of a traditional ghanja ship, the Fatah al Khair, is now on dry land, restored to gleaming beauty and open to visitors. Also noteworthy is Sur Maritime Museum, for its historic maps and photographs.

Dhow yard, Sur

Dhow yard, Sur

Salalah

As green and lush as northern Oman is barren and dry, Salalah – the capital of Oman’s southern Dhofar region – benefits from a sub-tropical climate. It catches the edge of the Indian monsoons from May to September, and their daily rainfalls feed the banana and papaya plantations which flank its white sand beaches (from which there is fantastic snorkelling and dolphin spotting) and keep temperatures pleasantly cool. The city is freckled with frankincense trees – Boswellia sacra – whose resin is turned into the fragrant gum which is Salalah’s most famous export.

It is worth taking a trip to the Prophet Job’s tomb, on an isolated hilltop overlooking the city, not least for the scenic drive there and views over the Salalah plain. For the ultimate Arabian adventure, the vast desert of the Empty Quarter – some 250,000 square miles – is within an easy drive. Nothing quite prepares you for the scale of the void stretching to the horizon. Overnight camps offer excursions to Bedouin villages, dune bashing and 4x4 tours.

Boat and sea fort, Salalah

Boat and sea fort, Salalah

Musandam

Nature dominates the Musandam Peninsula, but its gargantuan peaks and fjord-like coast are often overlooked by visitors to Oman, not least because it’s an ‘exclave’, separated from the rest of the country by a swathe of the UAE. Don’t let that deter you. Visitors can fly into Dubai and drive two hours there, or take an internal flight from Muscat to Khasab (driving takes seven hours).

The port of Khasab is the main hub, from where a fleet of dhows run day trips to explore the Straits of Hormuz and the dramatic coastline’s inlets. Often you’re accompanied by dolphins. Inland, the massive, chocolate-hued Al Hajar Mountains are a good place for hiking, bike riding and 4x4 adventures. When I hiked these silent, seemingly empty peaks, friendly shepherds would suddenly appear, and I came across rickety stairways leading away from the road up to hidden villages, where life has remained unchanged for centuries.

Musandam

Musandam

Ras al Jinz

The easternmost point of the Arabian Peninsula is one of the largest nesting areas for green turtles in the Indian Ocean, where the Ras al Jinz Turtle Reserve offers a rare opportunity to watch them up close.

I still have my heart in my mouth when   I recall the sense of anticipation I felt as I followed the guide into the darkness of the unlit beach, and the shocking size of the colossal nesting mothers, burrowing down into the sand, their tiny, newly-hatched babies scurrying into the waves. May to September is the best time to see them in action, though they visit the beach all year round.

Green turtle

Green turtle

Sharqiya Sands

I’ll always remember my first glimpse of Sharqiya Sands (referred to locally as Wahiba Sands). Driving across the barren landscapes of central Oman, a huge swathe of gold suddenly appeared in the distance. This most extraordinary sight, so shimmeringly ‘other’, was unlike any landscape I’d seen before.

Unlikely as it first seems when they loom ethereally into your windscreen, Sharqiya Sands – 12,500 sq km of dunes and unbroken desert in the north-east – is scattered with welcoming camps for travellers. Ranging from basic to highly luxurious, they typically include soft adventure pursuits such as sunset dune drives, wildlife walks, dune bashing in 4x4s, sand-boarding, camel rides and even wildcamping nights.

But to experience the desert properly, the real magic is in simply sitting, watching and listening. At daybreak, a deafening dawn chorus sweeps across the sands – a cacophony of chirrups and cheeps from almost entirely unseen wildlife. By mid- morning, most camps are deserted as guests typically stay only one night. I recommend sticking around, and venturing back up the dunes alone, to drink in that shimmering view without another soul in sight.

Sharqiya Sands, Oman

Sharqiya Sands, Oman

Where to stay...

The Chedi Muscat

With its blend of Omani architecture and Asian-inspired minimalism, The Chedi Muscat offers understated elegance and a great sense of space. Located in Al Khuwair, a smart neighbourhood in the western end of Muscat, the hotel covers a 21-acre site with carefully manicured, palm-lined gardens and a private beach. Facilities include a luxurious Balinese spa, three swimming pools and no less than nine dining options.

The Chedi, Muscat

The Chedi Muscat

Anantara Al Jabal Al Akhdar Resort, Al Hajar mountains

Perched on the rocky contours of the Saiq plateau, on the rim of a great canyon, the Anantara Al Jabal Al Akhdar is the highest five-star resort in the Middle East. All rooms offer breathtaking canyon views, and villas each have a private pool. As well as a spa and hammam, there‘s hiking, archery, sunrise yoga and landscape painting.

Anantara

Anantara Al Jabal Al Akhdar Resort

Alila Jabal Akhdar, Al Hajar mountains

The Alila Jabal Akhdar is another luxurious resort high up in the Al Hajar mountain range. Inspired by Oman’s ancient forts, traditional construction techniques are combined with contemporary architecture to create stone-clad suites scattered on the edge of a dramatic gorge. All rooms offer mesmerising views – as do the infinity pool and Arabic restaurant. There’s also a spa and a wooden deck for stargazing.

Alila Jabal Akhdar

Alila Jabal Akhdar

Al Baleed Resort Salalah by Anantara

Sitting beside a palm-fringed beach in tropical Salalah, the Al Baleed Resort Salalah by Anantara is inspired by the region’s coastal fortresses, with high ceilings and marble floors. It is surrounded by tropical gardens where paths lined by towering palms lead to a private beach. The spa is sublime and day trips run to nearby archaeological ruins, forts and fishing villages.

Al Baleed Resort

Al Baleed Resort Salalah by Anantara

Six Senses Hideaway Zighy Bay in Musandam

The Six Senses Hideaway Zighy Bay is on the Musandam Peninsula, in the far north. The setting is spectacular, backed by craggy mountains and surrounded by the turquoise waters of the Musandam  fjords  –  great  for snorkelling and dhow cruises. Choose between mountaintop fine dining at the hotel’s Sense on the Edge, or a Bedouin dining experience at Shua Shack.

Six senses

Six Senses Hideaway Zighy Bay

Desert Nights Camp, Sharqiya Sands desert

The Desert Nights Camp site is set over 10 acres in the vast Sharqiya Sands desert.  Its 30 luxurious Bedouin-style tents are furnished with beautiful Omani furniture, wall-hangings and lanterns. All are equipped with comfortable beds, plush bathrooms and individually controlled air conditioning. There is a range of activities including quad-biking, camel riding and 4x4 dune bashing.

Desert Nights Camp

Desert Nights Camp

Cox & Kings can arrange a tailor-made holiday including any of the destinations and hotels in this article. Please either call one of our specialist travel consultants or complete our tailor-made request form and one of our experts will get back to you to help you plan an itinerary.

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