The jewel of Arabia
Cathy Wagstaff discovers some of the spectacular secrets of the Sultanate of Oman.
In the south-eastern quarter of the Arabian Peninsula is a mysterious and enticing land of 300,000 square kilometres, where serene beaches, stark mountains and endless desert sands combine to make up the stunning Sultanate of Oman. This is the fabled home of Sinbad the Sailor and the capital of the valuable frankincense trade, a country that has lured explorers since the days of Marco Polo.
Those who have visited Oman say it offers more than can be expected or even imagined as the outward-looking country is steeped in history plus a wild diversity of spectacular scenery. Its hospitality is also genuinely warm.
It’s also the land of opportunity for outdoor pursuits, such as golf, sand skiing, sailing, fishing, hiking and caving as well as being a hot underwater destination. From diving caves and wrecks to desert driving; from hot springs and green oases to endangered indigenous wildlife; from ornate mosques and mysterious souks to luxurious hotels in cities oozing ancient, old-world charm, Oman has it all.
Virtually all travel originates from its capital, Muscat. As diverse as the country, this modern city, with surprisingly no skyscrapers, retains its gilt-inspired architecture and ancestry plus age-old traditions and culture. It’s here that stark desert, azure sea and the massive Hajar mountain range meets, forming a dramatic backdrop for both the whitewashed paradise, Chedi Muscat and Shangri-La’s Barr Al Jissah Resort and Spa, an expansive three-hotel complex, both ideal bases to relax and rejuvenate before setting out to explore.
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Not to be missed on any Muscat itinerary is the breathtaking Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque in the Baushar District of Muscat, one of the largest and highest in the Arab world, with one of its minarets reaching almost 100 metres. Here you will find the largest existing hand-stitched Persian carpet and one of the biggest Swarovski crystal chandeliers in the world.
For sheer indulgence, take a trip aboard the Azzura, a luxury 23m catamaran, to read the history of Oman written on her rugged coastline. The sea, so vital for trade, transport and communication, also offers a chance to spot dolphins, turtles and whales.
The north of the country is the most popular with travellers, as the Hajar mountains contain a wealth of heritage as well as a comfortably cooler climate. Some of the picturesque villages like Wadi Ghul, ‘the Grand Canyon of Arabia’, offer trekking in one of the world’s deepest canyons with a history dating back as far as 5,000 years.
Less than three hours’ drive from Muscat and deep in the mountains in the Dakhiliya region is the oasis city of Nizwa, Oman’s oldest and former capital city. Its fascinating heritage can be seen in the Nizwa Fort and secret passageways of Jabrin Fort. For unrivalled views take the easy, one-hour hike around the rim of the Grand Canyon at Jebel Shams, at 3,075m the highest mountain peak. Near here it’s possible to stay at a tented camp, The View Eco-Luxe Retreat, in the nearby village of Hail al Shas.
Around 40km from Nizwa is the ancient walled city of Bahla, believed to be one of the oldest inhabited areas in Oman, with artefacts found dating back to the third century BC. Mystery and superstition abounds, with stories of healing as well as black and white magic. The UNESCO world Heritage-listed Bahla Fort, with its 132 watchtowers, is one of the oldest in the country with some parts dating back to the pre-Islamic period.
Also in the mountains are rose farms which supply oil for Oman’s ‘gift of kings’, Amouage perfume, a luxury range which also contains local frankincense. The frankincense trees grow along the Yemen border and it’s possible to see the seeping sap which hardens and is then scraped off and sold.
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Just south of the mountains lies the endless sand dunes of the desert. Travel a little west to find the Wahiba Sands, an area of huge dunes, some up to 91m high, with scattered woodland and lagoons that protect around 180 species of plants plus 200 of mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians.
In the south-west of Oman the desert is referred to as the ‘Empty Quarter’, the largest continuous body of sand in the world, making up around 80 percent of the country. It is possible to fly from Muscat to Salala to join a desert safari. This capital of the southern province of Dhofar is reputedly where the Three Wise Men came from. The Queen of Sheba’s palace, where she traded frankincense, is nearby. It’s also the ideal spot to enjoy wadi (river creek) driving and turtle watching as well as set out into the desert with a Bedouin guide. Nights can be spent under the stars experiencing the constantly changing shapes and colours of the desert.
Fifty years ago holidays to Oman were unknown. But now this enigmatic country of diversity, sheltered from invasion, is rolling out the red carpet to visitors. Since the 1970s Oman has undergone rapid modernisation and a ministry of tourism was only set up in 1994. But it certainly isn’t a mass-market destination.
No wonder Oman is the new address for spectacular beauty and the destination of discovery for those in the know.