Travel guide to Oman: Things to do in Muscat, Jabal Akhdar, Nizwa, Wadi Bani Khalid and Wahiba Sands
As a travel destination, Oman doesn't get the over-glorified recognition it deserves. "I'm headed to Oman next week," I chirp away to close friends, and their reaction is priceless. It's one of confusion, laced with a sliver of curiosity. "What's in Oman?" they ask with hesitation.
I asked that myself, before jet setting off to the nation on the Arabian Peninsula. Unlike its glitzy neighbours in the United Arab Emirates, Oman preserves a delightful old-world charm that hasn't been swept away by monumental buildings and sell-out tourist crowds. Nestled amidst volcanic and limestone formations, Oman's capital, Muscat, is dotted with low-lying residences in shades of vanilla and pretty pastels. At dusk, the lights from the mosques twinkle prettily while the craggy mountains in the distance glow like embers. The port capital is extremely modern and surprisingly expansive, with wide, pristine roads and moderately frequent sightings of fast food chains such as Starbucks and Subway.
The other question I got was, "Is Oman safe?" Fair call. I had to experience it myself, too. Oman is as safe as it gets — drivers leave their cars unlocked and unattended in parking lots. I never once felt threatened or close to even being harassed. In fact, I probably feel more insecure on a Paris metro than on Muscat streets on any given day. Omanis are a genuinely warm, affable bunch of people. Most go about on their day to day activities in handsome dishdashas (robes) and hand-embroidered headdresses. Always ready to greet you with a smile, the local folk will readily engage you in conversation or offer assistance if needed.
I was hosted by luxury travel company, Scott Dunn, who do a fabulous job of tailoring holidays to your every whim and fancy. Perfect for travellers who wish to travel in smaller groups or indulge in a unique itinerary, your holiday with them kicks off with your very own travel specialist who will design a holiday to your exact requirements. They're detailed to a fault, and will even have your (and your family's) food allergies or favourite champagne on record. In a country like Oman, a landscape foreign to most of us, booking in with Scott Dunn is relief in more ways than one. If you can, request for Qais, our affable guide who was full of candid humour and immense amounts of knowledge.
IT ALL BEGINS IN MUSCAT
There's no better way to start your Middle Eastern adventure than spending a languid two days in Muscat, fully soaking in the beauty of the city. There's an air of anticipation in Muscat, coupled with the scent of the sea and frankincense wafting out of busy souqs with a flourish. The Muttrah Souq is a necessary but heady experience. It retains the beating heart of a traditional Arab market, selling a range of items from unique antiques to fresh spices to robes in all forms and colours. Bargaining is recommended at the souq, but there's no rude behaviour or loud yelling. The sellers are welcoming and gallant, and knocking off a few dollars off your purchase almost feels like a pleasant conversation with an old friend. A good benchmark? Expect to walk away with items about 30 to 40% cheaper than what was originally quoted.
The Muttrah Fish Market by the waterfront, is another popular landmark amongst locals and tourists alike. Visit in the morning, where you'll find Omanis getting their hands on the first catch of the day. It's bustling and wholly authentic — you'll be tempted to leave with your own haul. If you're after dried goods, the fruit and vegetables market next door will satisfy your every need. Be prepared to taste lots of dates. It is a staple food in the Middle East and are a sign of hospitality, served both in greeting and after every meal. These treats are sugary sweet and are a hit with a pot of warm tea.
After which, spend a couple of hours at the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque. This splendid piece of modern Islamic architecture is built from 300,000 tonnes of Indian sandstone and can hold about 7,000 people in its main hall, and about 700 worshippers in the women's hall. As far as accolades go, the mosque boasts the second-largest chandelier — holding 600,000 Swarovski crystals — and the second-largest carpet in the entire world and covers 4,343 square metres of the praying hall.
STAY: Rest your head for the night at The Chedi Muscat. This gloriously chic hotel is minimalist in design and quiet in demeanour with vibes that remind us of Alhambra in Spain. A product of Jean-Michel Gathy's genius, this bolthole impresses with its multiple pools (including the longest pool in the Middle East at 103 metres) and 38 suites that are essentially standalone villas with enviable sunken terrazzo baths.
JABAL AKHDAR: MAGIC IN THE CLOUDS
Many countries have undulating mountain landscapes to call its own, but few command the awe-inspiring grandeur of Oman's Jabal Akhdar. Located approximately 150 kilometres from Muscat, this vertiginous limestone mountain is the highest point in Oman. The mountains easily rival the Grand Canyon in America when it comes to taking your breath away — it also extends as far as the eye can see.
In summer, Jabal Akhdar serves as a popular respite for locals, as temperatures dip drastically from the searing heat on ground level. It was a pleasant 20 degrees Celsius when we visited at the end of April — the air was crisp and stars shone earnestly amidst a pitch-black sky.
Take a hike through the villages in Jabal Akhdar — traversing narrow paths and a maze of irrigation systems — to fully soak in the brilliance of the highlands. Known for its production of roses, the scent of roses is thick in the air, and a slight burnt aroma is your indicator when you've passed one of the sheds where rosewater is made. We popped our heads into one, and watched intently as an elderly man traditionally distils rosewater from Damask roses with his calloused hands — he tells us that he's been doing this for over 60 years. The final product is used for healing, cooking, perfumes, and religious ceremonies.
STAY: The Anantara Al Jabal Al Akhdar Resort is an unspoiled haven on the edge of a canyon, with rooms that overlook the craggy ridges. There's no more serene way to kick start your morning than by making a cup of tea and sitting out in your private balcony in the middle of the mountain. Our favourite things to do? Order a beautiful Niçoise salad at Bella Vista, the hotel's poolside Italian restaurant; book in for a spa treatment at their world-famous spa; and lounge for hours by the stunning infinity pool. If you're a dreamer or sunset chaser, head out onto the idyllic Diana's Point, where Prince Charles and Princess Diana visited in 1986. If you prefer adventure, scale their thrilling rock wall. You're definitely on top of the world.
MAKE A PIT-STOP AT NIZWA & WADI BANI KHALID
On any given Friday, spend a morning visiting the Nizwa Cattle Market, situated an hour from Jabal Akhdar. The sights and sounds are almost incredulous — make your way to the centre of all the action and watch as sellers parade their cows and coats around a ring as the rest of the audience watch, their expressions animated. People are free to make a bid and haggle for the livestock until the seller and bidder come to an agreement.
Make a pit-stop at the far underrated Wadi Bani Khalid, a desert oasis that literally surfaces in the middle of nowhere. Fringed by lush palm trees and sharp ravines, the emerald pools of glimmer enticingly in the sunlight. The site feels like a page out of a children's fairy tale, where a child stumbles across a secret hiding spot. Dip your feet or dive right into the cool, clear waters of the wadi (valley), and pack a picnic after for extra measure. When we were there on a Friday afternoon, there were but a few children swimming in the water, and a few lone tourists who wandered through. There's no loud tour groups here — just a quiet slice of paradise.
WIND DOWN AT WAHIBA SANDS
No trip to Oman is complete without a day out in the country's vast deserts. The sand wafts gently against your feet, but can quickly turn into a semi-blizzard in a matter of minutes depending on where the winds blow. Gear up for an adventure as you go dune-bashing and careen down almost vertical slopes in sandboards or rugged 4WDs (I personally found the sandboards less intimidating). Bring sunscreen and a headscarf to protect your face from the sand — every crevice is its target when you're out in the desert.
Watching the sun set over the dunes is one of life's distinct moments of magic. As we left the eerie silence of the slopes and headed back to our residence for the night, there was a spellbinding sense of wonder for this Middle Eastern gem of a country. That's what Oman does to you, and you'll want to be back.
STAY: With 30 stylish Omani tents to pick from, cast in cream and in stark contrast to the rolling landscapes, Desert Nights Camp is your best option in the area. These generously-sized shelters are fitted with cosy, colourful furnishings and blasting air-conditioners that will keep you out of the desert's sweltering heat. The food here is surprisingly good, with a selection of delicious Arabic mezze, salads, barbecued meats, and fish.
For more information or to book a trip to Oman, visit Scott Dunn.