The Sultanate of Oman may have missed your radar. This would be by design than accident as the nation shies away from mass advertising. The country is focused on well-executed strategies for attracting higher quality visitors to its shores ; a simple case of quality over quantity. 2019 Expat Insider Report ranked Oman amongst the top ten safest countries in the world. Furthermore, there has never been a terrorist threat here. If these are not good enough reasons to visit here are 15 others why Oman should top your 2020 travel list.
The scenery in Oman is unlike anything you might imagine it to be. Flat, arid desert? Not here. Expect views of the dazzling Al Hajar Mountain range to the north and Dhofar Mountains to the southeast. Look forward to magnificently misty backdrops, glistening sunsets and star-lit skies at night. You remain tied to the elements (camera at the ready) no matter where you go.
Wadi is the Arabic word for a ravine that remains mostly dry. Oman has a network of ravines that direct rain water from the mountains to the sea. After rain wadis come into their own. The trails, sometimes as much as three metres wide, carry water at break-neck speed to the ocean. They’re a sight to behold (from safety).
The region of Jabel Akhdar is 2040 feet above sea level and takes just over three hours, from Muscat, by four wheel drive, to arrive at. However, get here and the region rewards you with the most astonishing experience. Cool nights, dewy sunrises and sounds of nature surround you. The altitude provides a wealth of flora and fauna to thrive creating an unexpected, soft, luscious layer to the scenery.
Needless to say say the cooler air and temperature in the mountains makes hiking a pleasure in Oman. Whilst the entire terrain is only accessible by four wheel drive vehicles walking is thoroughly encouraged. Set off early and discover hamlets stirring awake at daybreak in time for prayer. Spot hidden waterfalls cascading down to gentle streams and come lunch time stop off for a cool glass of pomegranate juice; a fruit that grows in every front yard here.
Villages forgotten by time
Hire a local guide and explore hidden villages that have long been abandoned but preserved in nature. The village of Bani Habib, in Jabel Akbar, is a great example. Small sticks and clay structures, including a mosque, cling to mountainsides as they have done for centuries. Similarly, ask your guide for a path that cuts through a local village. Low arches, narrow cobbled streets and intricate doorways lead to tiny homes in rural Oman.
Rose water is used in many Islamic ceremonies. It should come as no surprise that Oman produces its own. Of course in order for there to be rose water there must first be roses. Close to any source of water you will find perfectly-tended gardens basking in the sun, nourished by the weather. They offer a scented addition to an already overwhelmingly beautiful landscape.
The capital city of Muscat is your gateway to Oman. This multi-cultural jewel of a city benefits from Oman’s decision not to chase mass tourism. One of the objective of Oman’s Strategic Plan 2040 is to gradually receive 5 million foreign tourists spending more than three nights in Oman. As such, every place of interest remains uncrowded, efficiently-managed and a pleasure to experience. Furthermore, there are no billboards, loud announcements nor distractions that might otherwise take away from the experience.
A gate and walls, built in 1625, guard the old city of Muscat and separates it from the newer modern one. The coastal road along the Gulf of Oman hugs the Muttrah Corniche where the old city awaits in all its splendour. It’s a step-back to a simpler time before the discovery of oil, in Oman, and the region was the commercial centre. Take a walk along the promenade and relish the sky reflecting against sapphire blue water. Hear the call to prayer from nearby mosques, explore the Muttrah Souk and watch traditional boats arrive and leave the sea port. Take a load off as you delve in to some street food from vendors who entice you with promises.
Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque
Any visit to Muscat must include the utterly magnificent Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque. This gift from Sultan Qaboos to his people has a capacity to house 20,000 worshippers. Both the carpet and the immense chandelier in the main prayer hall were the largest in the world until 2007 when they were overtaken by Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, Abu Dhabi. The Indian sandstone, Islamic architecture, set against blue skies, and the hazy vista of Al Hajar Mountains makes this my number one place to visit in Muscat.
Coffee and dates
At the end of your visit it’s likely that you will be invited for coffee and dates by scholars who occupy a small space within the mosque’s grounds. It would do well to remember that Islam practiced in Oman is Ibadite Islam which mainly advocates tolerance, pacifism and indulgence. It’s a great opportunity to ask questions and a chance to meet locals over a glass of Arabic coffee served with dates.
Whilst religion is pivotal in Omani culture there is also great mysticism in daily life the root of which may be the inescapable daily connection to the elements. Stargazing is a particularly popular pastime and enjoyed by young and old. It’s a skill that is practiced in homes and handed down generations.
Wholistic wellness, reflexology and spa treatments in Oman are considered essential part of healthy living. It is said that members of Oman’s Royal Family are ardent followers of the practice. Most hotels offer spas and signature treatments. Based on Omani as well as Ayurvedic and ancient world traditions there is a wide range of treatments from Indian head massages and relaxing full body oil massages to sand treatments formulated from desert sand.
This one single dish makes most other foods pale in comparison. Shuwa is the Omani method of wrapping marinaded meat in palm leaves over night and cooking it in a fire pit for 12 hours. Served with rice and tomato sauce in a large, flat sizzling hot pan, similar to a pallella, the tender meat flakes off on touch. It’s best enjoyed in great company under the stars.
Camping in the desert
Oman makes the most of its abundant scenery to grab the attention of visitors. High sand dunes provide 360 degree panoramic views for perfect luxury desert camps of which there are many. With air conditioning, wifi, great food and hospitable staff camping in the desert is a must-do in Oman.
The desert at night
The perfect way to end your time would be to spend at least one night in a desert resort of your choice. At night the desert becomes a thing of alluring beauty. The lack of artificial light makes constellations in the sky close enough to touch. The air is still and the temperature cool enough to sit on the sand and while away hours in the dark that is only broken by gentle candle-light. In contrast to the searing day-time heat the cooler nights offer balance for an unforgettable travel experience.