Oman Travel Guide – Middle East

muscat view, oman

Muscat view, Oman

Why holiday in Oman?

If 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.

Downsides

– 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.

Oman weather

Best: October-April. Cool (upper 20’s C) and dry in most areas.
Worst: June-September. Hot (30-40C) and humid with probable rains in the south e. g. Salalah.

Length of stay:
Minimum worthwhile stay, not incl. flights: 3/4days: Muscat, a beach, a quick drive around.
Recommended: 1 week.

Ramadan dates

During Ramadan most, if not all Muslims will neither eat nor drink during the daytime and consequently many cafes, restaurants and even shops may open only after sunset; public eating, drinking and smoking by tourists may upset the locals. In one Muslim country the only alcohol served to us during our visit was in a teapot, into tea cups in a first class hotel.

Furthermore service personnel may be missing, careless or irritable during the daytime.
The last day of Ramadan, known as Idd al Fitr, can be a wild time with much celebrating, depending on location.

Dates depend on the full moon rising in your location so they may differ by one day depending on where you plan to be.

In 2017 Ramadan will start on the 27 May and will continue for 30 days until the 25 of June.
In 2018 Ramadan will start on the 16 May and will continue for 30 days until the 14 of June.
In 2019 Ramadan will start on the 6 May and will continue for 30 days until the 4 of June.

Main attractions

***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.

***Wadi 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.

**Jebel Akhdar. A rocky mountain range with great views – including the ‘Grand Canyon’ of Oman, and plenty of climbing opportunities.

*Jabrin 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.

***Wahiba 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!

***Salalah. A 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.

***Musandam 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.

Activities

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 4×4 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.

Climbing/Hiking: very rocky, very hot, but stunning views, remote villages and secret oases are out there. The Hajar mountain range should provide a few handholds.

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 Jan-April

Scuba Diving: see Dive Page

Wildlife: Oman has strict laws against hunting and several large nature reserves:

Sealife: 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 around October-November.

Leggy animals: Other Reserves such as Arabian Oryx Sanctuary have leopards, sand cats, wildcats, desert foxes, ibex, oryx, gazelles and more.

Festivals:
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 closes.

For some precise dates, more suggestions and information see: Exotic Festivals

Visas:
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.

Hotels:
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.

Careful!
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.

Clothing:
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.

Shopping:
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.

Cuisine:
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.

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