Young Omanis at Nizwa Fort - photos by Ian Lemmin-Woolfrey
Oman: Storybook Enchantment and Modern Amenities
By Ulrike Lemmin-Woolfrey
Stretched along the southern coast of the Saudi Arabian Peninsula, Oman covers an area of 120,000 square miles (309,500 sq km), with a coastline of 1,000 miles (1,700 km) reaching from the Arabian Gulf past the Gulf of Oman to the Strait of Hormuz. Oman has 2.5 million inhabitants, of which 550,000 live in the capital Muscat.
Whereas many places in the Middle East, such as Dubai, have succumbed to commercialism, leaving a lot of their culture and traditions behind, Oman has successfully combined its centuries-old history and heritage with steady progress.
The country offers all modern amenities, but it also still has the storybook enchantment that makes Arabia so attractive: friendly people who live by their hospitality ethics; traditional souks (markets) where you can buy frankincense, silver and pottery; more than 500 historical sand-castle forts dotted across the mountain tops, and a sea teaming with dolphins and whales.
One of only two Sultanates in the world – the other being Brunei, Oman is pure Middle Eastern magic straight out of The Arabian Nights.
When to Go
In line with all the countries on the Arabian Peninsula, it gets rather hot in Oman during the summer months, although Salalah in the south is more moderate in the summer due to its rainy season. Generally speaking, the best time to visit Oman is between November and March.
Mosque against the Hajar Mountains
The local airline, Oman Air, has a somewhat limited reach, but together with Gulf Air and other international airlines, connections via London (British Airways), Germany (Lufthansa), Switzerland (Swiss), Amsterdam (KLM) and Dubai (Emirates) make Oman’s main airport, Seeb International, accessible from anywhere in the US and the rest of the world.
Local tour operators take you anywhere within Oman, and flights are available to cover the distances between Muscat and Salalah, but to experience all Oman has to offer, you ought to hire a car and indulge in some wadi bashing, one of the locals’ favorite weekend pursuit.
Driving a SUV through dried-up riverbeds and up rocky serpentine paths to the mountains will get you close to small secluded villages and traditional Omani life, where children come running to greet you and families offer you traditional coffee and dates.
The Muttrah souq
With a valid tourist visa and driving license of your country, you can hire cars at reasonable prices. Driving is on the right and – compared to the rest of the Middle East countries - reasonably orderly.
In Greater Muscat, the souq in Muttrah is a must. Narrow windy paths covered with a traditional palm-leaf thatched roof and a myriad of small shops where locals and travelers indulge in some serious shopping (see below).
Near Muttrah is Old Muscat, the seat of the Sultan. Its colorful palace dominates a small bay watched over by a couple of sturdy forts and surrounded by walls that still used to be locked every night until the 1970s.
Outside Muscat there are several sites not to be missed: Nizwa, once the capital of Oman and the seat of the religious leaders, the Imams.
The city is still the capital of the Interior, the region behind the imposing Hajar Mountains and is watched over by a huge fort and one of the most beautiful mosques in the region. Nizwa is also famous for its souq and busy livestock market taking place every Friday morning.
The Rustaq-loop takes you from Muscat along the coast and then around the so-called fort-route past Al Hazm, Rustaq and Nakhl – three forts not to be missed. There are hot springs in Rustaq and Nakhl, which are perfect shady palm-fringed oases which offer perfect spots for picnics popular with locals as well as visitors.
The Forbidden City in Muttrah
If you have the time, pay a visit to southern Salalah, if only to appreciate the variety Oman has to offer. The capital of the Dhofar region is a great base from where you can follow the Frankincense Trail and re-discover the lost city of Ubar, which rose to glory and ruin thousands of years ago during the height of the frankincense trade.
In the north, don’t miss the Musandam Peninsula, which offers nature in its purest form. An enclave of Oman surrounded by the United Arab Emirates, the peninsula is eerily empty of people, but full of natural wonders and wildlife, with dolphin watching a must.
Talking about dolphins – Oman is rich in marine wildlife, with dolphins, whales and turtles heading the cast. Tours take you out to spot the marine mammals, and if you are visiting after the summer (October is best), you can also go and watch turtles laying their eggs on Oman’s beaches.
Oman has a host of excellent hotels, from the super-luxurious Al Bustan (00 968 24 799 666; email), situated in it own bay and with a stunning atrium; the award-winning Chedi (00 968 24 524 400), a quieter, boutique-style hotel with a luxurious, but not overwhelmingly Arabian style of décor and the sumptuous Grand Hyatt (00 968 24 641 234).
Pots for sale
There are also the Intercontinental Hotel, the Crowne Plaza, the Radisson and hotels for smaller budgets, such as the Mayan Continental, or the Holiday Inn.
All the major hotels have award-winning restaurants attached to them, most notably The Restaurant in the Chedi (reservations: 00968 24524400, average price OR15/ US$40 for meal), the Majan in the Al Bustan (reservations: 00968 24799666, OR18/ US$49) and Tuscany in the Grand Hyatt (reservations: 00968 24641234, OR15/ US$40).
But outside the hotels there are many more restaurants worth a visit, many of which are easier on the budget than the hotel restaurants. Try the Mumtaz Mahal (reservations: 00968 24605907, OR8/ US$20), the best Indian restaurant in town; the Automatic (reservations: 00968 24561500, OR2/ US$5), which offers award-winning Middle Eastern cooking, and the Golden Oryx (reservations: 00968 24702266, OR7/ US$19) for Far Eastern cuisine.
The best shopping is undoubtedly done in Muttrah souk. A traditional Arabian bazaar with rabbit-warren-like narrow alleyways, the souq has recently been sympathetically restored, leaving the traditional atmosphere untouched. Smells of frankincense waft through the alleys and mingle with the heady aroma of spices.
Pashminas (shawls made from cashmere and silk) are so cheap they are virtually free, silver khanjars (Omani curved knives), Arabic coffeepots and knick-knacks are available for the daily price of silver and sold by weight; carpets and daily utensils vie for attention next to gold and silver jewelry and Arabic perfumes.
Vendors hail you at every corner, offering tea and a chance to display their wares, but still keep their respectful distance if you decline.
If you have a no-limit budget and want something really special, try the shop in the Chedi Hotel, which offers top-quality items ranging from arts-and-crafts, jewelry and housey knick-knacks from around the world.
Visas and Documents
Most nationalities – including citizens from the US, EC, Australia and New Zealand - can obtain a visa upon arrival. In the arrivals hall you will find the required form for completion. Take it to the money exchange counter where you can pay for your visa in any currency, and obtain the local currency (1US$= 0.3856Omani Rials).
Health and Safety
Just 35 years ago, before the accession of Sultan Qaboos to the throne, Oman was a hotbed of infectious diseases, including malaria, and life expectancy was a mere 50 years. Now virtually all diseases have been eradicated, and no prophylaxis or vaccinations are required to visit the country.
There are excellent health facilities, notably the Muscat Private Hospital, which has agreements in place with most major health insurances around the world, should something unforeseen happen to you. Unlike some Middle Eastern countries, Oman is very safe, even for women traveling on their own.
Respecting Local Culture
Oman is an Islamic country and although very liberal and tolerant, travelers are advised to respect local customs and cover their shoulders and refrain from wearing shorts in the city. In the hotels and on the beach swimwear, sleeveless tops and shorts are acceptable. During Ramadan (a month of fasting in the Fall that varies according to the lunar calendar used in Islamic countries) please refrain from eating, drinking and smoking in public and visit the dedicated cafes and restaurants in the hotels instead.
For couples, holding hands is fine but other public shows of affection may offend locals and should be kept private.
Nizwa.net (information on Nizwa and surroundings, and Oman in general)
DestinationOman.com (tourism information on Oman)
Desert-Discovery.com (tours to desert camps and turtle watching)
Diveoman.com.om (dive trips and dolphin watching)
apexstuff.com (check out Oman2day and The Week for up-to-date details on what’s on in Oman)