The airport in Muscat, the capital of Oman, operates at its own leisurely yet efficient pace. When you step into the heat you can understand why. It is a reflection of life here under Sultan Qaboos bin Said.
A banner at the airport reads, “Oman Air salutes Sultan Qaboos for 40 years of inspired leadership.” Before 1970 when he came to rule this country on the southeastern tip of the Arabian peninsula, the sultanate had just 5km of tarmac road, one hospital and three schools, for boys.
Today, thanks to an ambitious modernisation programme financed by oil, roads span across the country in all directions, schools (for both sexes) number more than a thousand and education and healthcare are free.
Now Oman is keen to welcome tourists and there are a handful of cities and regions that are attracting the more intrepid type of traveller.
Muscat is a modern, clean city with an opera house and numerous museums. But for a sense of Old Arabia, head to the old town section where two small Portuguese forts, Mirani and Jalali overlook Muscat Bay and Al Alam, one of the Sultan’s eight palaces.
The Grand Mosque in the Azaiba district contains a carpet in the main prayer hall that covers a staggering 5,000 sq m. It was woven in sections in Iran and took 600 women four years to sew it together. Yet it is the mosque’s crystal chandelier that steals the show -- all eight tons and 1,122 bulbs of it.
A 15 minute drive northwest from Old Muscat takes you to Muttrah. Stroll along the marble corniche and visit Muttrah souk, the oldest in Oman, with its labyrinthine alleyways and stalls selling Arabic coffee pots and khanjars -- carved sheathed daggers, part of the men’s traditional dress. Haggling is expected.
The most “accessible” desert from Muscat is Wahiba Sands, home to the Bedouins and 6,000-year-old dunes. It is a 90 minute drive south from the capital.
For any desert encounter, make sure you take a 4x4 and an experienced driver/guide. You can also try dune bashing (when 4x4s attack the dunes from all angles) or opt for a slightly less bumpy camel ride. Desert Nights Camp offers tented huts with all modern conveniences.
The rugged Hajar Mountains cut across the north of the sultanate and include Jebel Shams, the tallest mountain in Oman at 3,048m, and Wadi Nakr Gorge, popularly known as the country’s Grand Canyon. Roads pass traditional villages and oases rich in date palms.
The village of Al Hamra with its mud-brick houses is a must-see, as is its well-preserved falaj (irrigation) system that channels water from the mountains.
About an hour’s drive southeast of Al Hamra is Nizwa, the sultanate’s capital in the 6th and 7th Centuries and home to one of Oman’s 500 forts. Visit on a Friday morning to catch the livestock market – a rowdy, disorganised (but entertaining) affair. Behind it lie various souks selling vegetables, incense, silver and spices.
A 40 minute drive west takes you to Bahla Fort, a Unesco World Heritage site. It is worth seeing just from the outside, with its numerous gates and watchtowers, but the interior is currently closed for renovation work until early 2012.
The southernmost Dhofar region provides a different picture of Oman, especially during Khareef, the monsoon season, from June to early September, when coastal plains turn green and waterfalls stream down from the mountains. Famous for its frankincense trees, Dhofar is also home to the Empty Quarter, one of the largest deserts in the world. But the area is largely visited for its pristine beaches, scenery and archaeological sites. To reach the region, fly from Muscat to Salalah, Dhofar’s administrative capital.
Oman’s most northerly tip, the Musandam Peninsula, is the place to relax. It is separated from the rest of the sultanate by the UAE, so to avoid visas and border controls it is easiest to fly from Muscat to Khasab or take a six hour ferry ride.
Musandam’s mountains are impressive but prepare yourself for hairpin bends. Drive to Jebel Harim, the region’s tallest peak at 2,097m, and look out for the surprisingly lush Sayh Plateau where members of the Shihuh tribe look after donkeys and goats.
Most people’s visits include a dhow cruise through the fjords at the tip of the peninsula. With Iran just an hour away across the Strait of Hormuz you are likely to spot Iranian smugglers racing across the water in their speedboats. They bring goats to Khasab, sell them at the market and return with cigarettes. Port authorities turn a blind eye.
My cruise included a barbecue lunch of sardines and hammour fish which tasted meaty and a bit like red mullet. We passed small inlets, islands with stone fishing villages and snorkelled off Telegraph Island where the British laid the first telegraph cable from India to Iraq in 1864.
On the way back, our skipper, a teenage lad who occasionally nudged the throttle with his foot, gave a shrill whistle. Dolphins appeared, diving in and out of the water around us.
When to visit
The best time is during winter (October to March) when temperatures range from 25 to36 degrees. Citizens from most GCC, EU and US countries can buy a tourist visa, costing 6 rials, upon arrival at Muscat International airport. There are new visa requirements for Middle East GCC residents who work in what the Omani government calls “second tier” professions, so it is best to check before travelling.