The Sultanate of Oman is an idyllic destination, taking up the south eastern part of the Arabian Peninsula. Sadly it often remains in the shadow of nearby emirates such as Dubai and Abu Dhabi. But Oman greatly contrasts with its neighbouring countries and their expensive splendour. The skyline consists of traditional white houses against the backdrop of rugged mountain tops, where hidden forts and wadis are to be found. It is situated on a pristine coastline and includes a vast desert, thus an ideal place for lovers of the Arab culture and atmosphere.
In late December 2014 I hopped on a plane heading to Muscat, the capital of Oman and also my second home. I already got used to the customs officer’s smile on discovering the various stamps from previous trips to Oman in my passport. I have to admit, once you have been touched by the authentic charm of Oman, it will never let you go. Let me try to take you on a quick tour of the most beautiful spots in Oman, even though it remains difficult to capture in words a place so close to the heart.
Home to sailors, frankincense and sultans
Ever since the 15th century, Oman has been at the crossroads of maritime routes between Europe and the East. The Omanis traded with different nationalities offering frankincense as their main export product, the southern province Dhofar being the cradle of frankincense trade. Only after 1970, when sultan Qaboos bin Said rose to power, did the country witness some major changes. This well-loved man (his picture can be seen everywhere in the streets) greatly improved Omani infrastructure and prepared Oman for tourists lurking around the corner. The oil and gas reserves looked promising for a wealthy future, but this is about the only similarity with other Arab countries in the region.
Why is Oman considered to be so special? That’s probably because despite big improvements, it never lost its own cultural identity. Both young and old are proud of their traditions. Men often wear the traditional dishdasha (cotton robe) and kumma (a kind of hat) or turban on the head. The khanjar, an engraved dagger made out of silver, is strapped on a colourful belt on special occasions. Women mostly dress in a black abaya, and in some places the face mask tradition is still preserved. Yet the Omanis are very welcoming to tourists. Many times have I been invited by different families to enjoy a cup of Omani coffee and some fresh dates at their homes. This warm sense of hospitality clearly stems from ancient times, when the country was a meeting place for sailors from all over the world.
In and around Muscat
A stroll alongside the Muscat Corniche is the best way to soak up the magical Omani atmosphere. Usually this is the first thing I do upon arrival. When I hear the gulls screaming high above me, when I can see the impressive white yacht of the sultan floating in the harbour, and when souvenirs are glancing at me in Muttrah souq, I feel completely at home. The promenade is also very attractive at nightfall, when the colourful lights are reflected on the sea, reminiscent of Van Gogh’s Starry Night Over the Rhone.
The Al-Alam palace, the sultan’s ceremonial palace, is another important landmark in the heart of the capital. The colourful blue and white walls are covered with gold and give the palace an everlasting shimmer. At the other end of Muscat you will find the Sultan Qaboos Mosque. It covers an area of 40,000 sqm/430,500 sqft and showcases a chandelier made out of Swarovski crystals weighing 8 tons. These elements really boost the mosque’s impressive outlook. Once, the handmade carpet lying here was the biggest ever made; in the meantime however, Abu Dhabi has taken over this record.
But Oman is not interested in competing to be the first, the biggest, the most expensive,… Its charm often lies in the simplicity of life. The “national pastime” is merely to park the car next to the beach, spread out a blanket on the sand and enjoy a night out with friends, to then have a taste of some delicious Karak tea (Masala Chay), a piece of Omani bread (a kind of pancake filled with egg, cheese and honey) or yummy mishkak (grilled meat on a skewer sold on every street corner). The most popular beach, Shatti Al-Qurum, better known as the corny Shatti Al-Hubb (Beach of Love), is frequently visited by locals, especially in the glow of the evening sun. The desolate beaches in and around Bandar Khiran, mostly only to be reached by boat, are the ideal place to put up your tent and watch the stars.
In my humble opinion, the biggest treasure that Oman has to offer is its diverse nature. Muscat is built against the backdrop of the rough Al-Hajar Mountains, with its highest peak being Jebel Shams (Mountain of the Sun). From 3000 m / 9800 ft up you get to enjoy one of the most spectacular views of the whole country. Along the way you might spot a canyon which will definitely take your breath away. The Jebel Akhdar (Green Mountain) always looks flourishing after the winter rains and presents a unique biodiversity. Mountain goats appear at times and while walking you can always pick some fresh figs or pomegranates.
Absolutely take the chance to discover the hidden villages of Al-Hamra, Bilad Sayt, Misfat Al-Abriyeen and Izki. Some nicely preserved traditional aflaj (irrigation canals recognised as a World Heritage Site) can be seen there. The restored forts of Bahla, Jabreen and Nakhl evoke Omani history, rich in defences against foreign attacks. The city of Nizwa, situated east of the Al-Hajar mountains, with its unique fort and colourful dome is surely worth the stopover.
Wadis and the desert
Everywhere in Oman you can find wadis, (mostly) dry river beds. If you fancy wadis, then do not miss out on Wadi Bani Khalid close to Muscat. My favourite wadi is situated more south, namely Wadi Shab. A rickety little boat will take you to the other side of the stream, where rock formations and a stroll under waving palm trees await you. While on the road to the south, why not drive further to the charming harbour city of Sur? There you’ll find Oman’s last original dhow shipyard where these traditional ships are built and repaired. The beaches of Ras Al-Hadd and Ras Al-Jinz, where sea turtles lay their eggs and cute baby turtles find their way to the sea, are near Sur and constitute the highlight of this southern region.
Oman also features the opposite of green, fertile wadis: the spectacular Wahiba Sands. This desert consists of shimmering golden dunes transformed into a magical spectacle at every sunrise and sunset. There are several camps where you can spend an unforgettable night under the starlit sky. If you are courageous enough, I dare you to cross the desert at high speed in a 4WD vehicle, an activity called dune bashing. Definitely don’t forget to bring along a board for some sandboarding down the steep dunes.
A sultan with an eye for art and culture
Sultan Qaboos is a true art lover, but until very recently there was no platform for upcoming local talents. Luckily this changed in 2011, when The Royal Opera House Muscat was constructed. The Islamic-inspired building has a timeless look: the white floors, handmade wooden ornaments and beautiful chandeliers present a fusion of traditional and modern architecture. Up to a thousand persons can be seated in the concert hall, where national stars and international guests perform throughout the year. For example, Marcel Khalife will perform at the opera house on 5 and 7 March 2015 together with The Royal Oman Symphony Orchestra. The famous composer Omar Khairat will also appear there, on 2 April 2015. For the complete calendar, check out here. A tip: join the interesting “tour of the house”, every day from 8.30-10.30 am.
This year, Oman’s biggest cultural festivity, the Muscat International Folklore Festival takes place from 15 January to 14 February. You may admire various national and international artistic projects dispersed over two parks, Al-Naseem and Al-Amerat. The Omani Heritage and Culture Village, with a focus on ancient crafts, classical cuisine and traditional music and dance, is definitely rewarding.
Ready to go!
But wait! I did not tell you about Musandam yet, the northern part of Oman with its impressive fjords, and the subtropical Salalah in the far south… So I’ve just given you lots of reasons to take the next plane to Oman. Even The New York Times recently became aware of magical Oman and mentioned the country as the 20th out of 52 must-see countries in 2015. Even I am ready to go again and rediscover my beloved Oman!
Photos Oman – @ Charlotte Coene
This post is also available in: Dutch