holiday in Oman?
you want to see a traditional Arabian Gulf country this is the one. Untainted
by overdevelopment or money madness and ruled by an unusually sensible
and respected Sultan, the peninsula of the Sultanate of Oman offers great beaches,
rocky mountains, a classic desert, forts, friendly, tolerant
locals and good diving when the dread 'red tide' algae bloom is not about.
And it's safe! British ex-SAS units still rumble around the rocks,
looking for trouble but rarely finding it.
- If you're looking for wacky, wild Arabia, you're in the wrong
place! Go next door to Yemen.
- Sand is in short supply, rocks aren't. Rocks like marbles, rocks
like houses, rocks around the clock.
- The architectural sights are forts, forts and fortresses.
- Outside hotels cuisine is limited, as is boozing.
- Small budget visitors may have a tough time.
Oct-April. Cool (upper 20's C) and dry in most areas.
Worst: June-Sept. Hot (30-40C) and humid with probable rains in
the south e.g. Salalah.
The fasting month of Ramadan can be tricky so best to avoid that
too ( dates depend on full moon so may differ by one day depending on location. 9 July-7 August 2013.
Minimum worthwhile stay, not incl. flights: 3/4days: Muscat, a beach,
a quick drive around.
Recommended: 1 week.
***Muscat. A small, tidy, unspoilt city with a calm
atmosphere, some good museums, forts, public buildings, a traditional
covered souk (market) and some hideous sculptures that lurch, perch
and pour over rocky outcrops.
***Nizwa. A pleasant town with aging mud houses, a superb fortress, and a
new antique souk. This is a good base to explore Jebel Akhdar mountains,
wadis and Jabrin Fort.
Bani Awf. A gorgeous (dried) river bed that can be driven (4WD) or walked
(or ridden if you can get a horse). 20/30km long it skirts pretty
villages (esp. Bilad Sayt), pools and waterfalls. Terrific views.
Camping sites available.
Akhdar. A rocky mountain range with great views - including the 'Grand Canyon'
of Oman, and plenty of climbing opportunities.
Fort. The best fort in a country famous for them.
**Sur. A couple of forts, some excellent beaches and an interesting dhow
(traditional sailing ship) building yard. 3 or 4 hours from Muscat.
*Sohar. Home of Sinbad and an exceptional white fort.
Sands. A very accessible, traditionally rolling-dune desert, unlike most
of this rocky country. Great for contemplation and chilling, though
over chilled at night.
Ras el Jinz. Various kinds of turtle nest here and a ranger escorts visitors
for night visits. Has a camping ground near the beach. Get a permit!
totally different feel to Muscat, Salalah is a humid southern town
of empty beaches and full coconut groves, squeezed onto a narrow,
green coastal strip below a high plateau. Excellent for beach activities
(particularly at Mughsail) or archeological expeditions, tho' a
looong drive or short flight from Muscat.
n.b. the 'lost city' of Ubar is disappointing and should stay lost,
but 'Job's Tomb' - on a hilltop overlooking Salalah - is well worth
the trip. Wet June-Sept.
Peninsula. Also known as the 'Norway of Arabia', this collection of barren
rocky fjords and fertile valleys penetrates the Arabian Gulf at
the strategically important Strait of Hormuz. Musandam is separated
from most of Oman by the United Arab Emirates, but is, nevertheless,
a magnificent diversion if you have the time or money. You can drive
there across UAE.
Driving: This is easy motoring country
with good roads and careful drivers, so, if you can afford it, a
4WD self drive is the way to see Oman efficiently. Some tourists like to experience the sand dunes via a quad bike or 4x4 but it's important to spend at least some time surrounded by the silence of dunes and preferably travelling by camel.
Desert camping: a popular and potent trip
is camping out in the Wahiba desert's rolling dunes (much of Oman
is rigid rocks!). The desert's silence is incredible. Transport
required, whether 4 legged or 4 wheeled.
very rocky, very hot, but stunning views, remote villages and secret
oases are out there.The Hajar mountain range should provide a few
Wadi Bashing: the classic expats' weekend
fun in the sun consists of heading up dried river beds on foot,
hoof or tyres. Some wadis are very, very pretty and there's plenty
of choice. Wadi Bani Awf is a favourite.
Watersports: most beachside hotels
will offer a good range of beach equipment, from sailing to scuba,
especially in Muscat and Salalah.
Fishing: Big game fishing is a growing
sport here, especially from Salalah. The season is Oct-May, best
Scuba Diving: see Dive Page
Wildlife: Oman has strict laws against hunting and several large nature reserves:
Turtle nest at Ras el Jinz and on Daymaniyat Islands Reserve (permits
required), while many species of whale and dolphin also swim these
rich waters. Whale watching is a growing attraction.
Oman Diving: plenty of underwater
action, especially around the Daymaniyat Islands and around the
distant Musandam Peninsula.
Birds: Flamingoes and other
water fowl head for Salalah in December-January and African migratory birds
in May. Muscat is home to birds of prey such as spotted eagles and kestrels
Leggy animals: Other Reserves such
as Arabian Oryx Sanctuary have leopards, sand cats, wildcats, desert
foxes, ibex, oryx, gazelles and more.
Ramadan month (see above) can be a problem because Muslims fast
during daylight hours - including no drink. Services, like taxis
or restaurants, can be difficult to find as staff often don't work.
If they do work you may feel guilty about slurping half a litre
of chilled water when the poor bloke next to you hasn't drunk anything
for 6 hours.
Idd/ Eid el Fitr, the biggest celebration is a day of celebration and feasting at the end of Ramadan.
April/March, Eid el Adha, celebrating the pigrimage to Mecca.
June/July, Mohammed's birthday.
Nov, National Day. Official celebrations, mostly dull and everything
For some precise dates, more suggestions and information see: Exotic Festivals
These are required but most visitors, including those from EU,
America, Australia and New Zealand can get a 2 week visa at Muscat
airport or border crossings. A one week extension is available
from the Immigration Department in Muscat.
We don't usually mention specific hotels but the Al Bustan Palace
in Muscat is a bit special, beautifully designed (inside anyway!), superbly maintained, with excellent kitchen
and has a good beach and huge grounds. The lobby is particularly
impressive. It is, naturally, expensive.
The average Omani is so keen to please strangers that if you ask
the way and he doesn't know it, he may just guess.
This is a conservative Muslim country so sensitive tourists
should avoid shorts, short skirts, tight clothes and tank tops
except on a beach. Hair cover is not neccessary for women.
Some of the best value crafts from the Arab world are produced
in this country. Look for pottery, Bedouin jewellry, and woven
goods including carpets, of course. Salesmen are not pushy but
you will need some negotiation to get the right price.
Western food is available in hotels but elsewhere the cuisine tends
towards rice/Indian style offerings. Muscat has several international
options. Good restaurants and hotels usually serve alcohol.
A Brief History of Oman:
Although there are signs of stone-age habitation in Wattayah near Muscat, the country was hardly recognised until a series of Persian (now Iran) dynasties took control of the peninsula from 6thC BC.
In 7thC AD Islam arrived and was widely accepted.
The Portuguese took control of the country in the 16thC as a useful base for trading and protecting their sea routes to India and beyond, hanging on for 140 years until a vast army of Yemenis swept them away and replaced the Europeans with a line of Arab Sultans that still rule today.
During Oman's heyday they controlled the waters and large areas of land around the coast of East Africa, participating in remunerative slave trading to Zanzibar (now in Tanzania, it was Oman's capital for some time) and Mombasa (now Kenya).
There has been a great deal of mutual respect and support between Britain and Oman for a couple of hundred years. When an Oman province, Dhofar, rebelled against the Sultanate in 1962 British soldiers were 'hired/borrowed' to assist and train the armed forces of the new Sultan, Qaboos who at the same time introduced many new and effective social reforms. With some assistance from the Iranian imperial army the rebellion ended in 1975. Since then British military are still in evidence, with rumours of regular patrols by the SAS.
An extract from AA Gill's brilliant book Previous Convictions.
The capital, Muscat, is a modern and attractive city when compared with the neighbouring metropolises of Dubai and Abu Dhabi. But the ancient capital is Nizwah, a market with a fort and a winding souk. We arrived there in the middle of a cattle market in Ramadan. Markets are a worldwide fundamental. All societies have organised somewhere to trade in public. They all have that comforting, bartering, capitalist familiarity, but they are also an unfakable indicator of the style and emotion of a country.
The great forts that dot the trade routes and wadis of Oman are thick-walled, mud-bricked organic edifices that were the basis of clan thuggery and dynastic intrigue. I particularly like one where the comfortable guest quarters were stuffed with concealed holes for hiding eavesdroppers and where the treads of stairs could be removed at night to break the ankles of anyone who decided to go visiting. It's very Arab to welcome all and trust none. In the basement were the stores for dates. The walls stained black, the sugar syrup would run out of long channels and be bottled as a preservative, and boiled to pour from the battlements on enemies.
Oman is a devoutly observant country and travelling through Ramadan, the children had to learn to be particularly considerate of other people's effort and to be careful not to eat or drink conspicuously in front of those who can't. Not that they would ever be denied or confronted. Fasting is to make Muslims strong; the fact that we eat and drink shows that we're weak. Without exception everyone we meet is polite, helpful and courteous. There is no undercurrent of the anger or resentment that has infected so much of the Middle East. I want the children to see that this is what's normal for Muslims, not the daily horror of the news.
The other more prosaic reason I chose to come to Oman is the surprising variety of environments that you can get through in a couple of days. It's not like the Gulf states where it's either air-conditioned tinted glass or wind-blown baked scrub. Here the oasis wadis have a miraculous beauty. Fresh, cold water frets down from high mountains through beautiful waterfalls into narrow canyons, and causes dense emerald patches of intense coolness.
From a distance in the desert they look unbelievably inviting. Farmers dig intricate waterways and little canals that are full of self-important frogs. On the banks, herons stand regarding their reflections with insouciantly cocked heads. I caught sight of the flashing iridescent turquoise of an Egyptian roller. Normally it's difficult to get the kids to walk anywhere, but these wadis are so entrancing that they dash on ahead. There's magic here like the drawings in bedtime stories; these are places of enchantment, the secret homes of djinns and genies, flying carpets and three wishes. We swam in the still water through the green shadows while small fish nibbled our toes.
Oman's mountains are stark and impressive. New roads double and redouble up their precipitous heights. On the very roof of Oman there is an astonishing and ancient market garden stepped over what they say is the second deepest canyon in the world, after Colorado's grand one. Up here they grow fruit and roses; there are thousands of rose bushes for perfume. Arabs like their smells deep, rich and opulent. Flowers have been planted here for thousands of years.
Beneath us in the dead fall of the valley, huge eagles twist and hang. Back down at sea level the coast is an empty strip of clean, white sand that stretches for 5 kilometres, a beach on which we see nobody. The Indian Ocean lunges at the shore and behind us mountains shiver in the heat haze. It's as fine a beach as you'll find six hours from Slough. Further down the coast, towering with gantries and spires and shining, curling ducts steaming with a raw purpose is a natural-gas station.
Oman, like the rest of Arabia, has harvested the bounty of combustible prehistoric shrimps. But it doesn't seem to have turned into one of those warped, repressive and decadent countries of the petroleum age. The money, it's true, supports an absolute royal family and a top-down largesse and philanthropy, but the dividend seems to have been used to build an infrastructure that fits the character of the nation. It hasn't made Omanis into the spoilt, graft-phobic whingers with inflated sense of entitlement that has so softened the rest of the Gulf. Oman still feels like a country rooted in its geography, history and heritage that has a purpose beyond petrol, Ferraris and air-conditioned Starbucks.
A.A. Gill 2006. Buy the ebook.