Duncan Ross travels to the Middle East to explore a destination off the beaten track
“Will you be safe Oman - isn’t there a war on over there?” friends asked. Sadly, the mention of travel to the Middle East to many Australians conjures up images of tanks, riots and molotov cocktails. The reality is the only cocktail you’ll get in Oman is one with a cute umbrella in it.
Oman is nestled at the entry to the Persian Gulf in the southeastern corner of the Arabian Peninsular. It is bordered by Yemen in the southwest, Saudi Arabia in the west and United Arab Emirates to the north. Nearly half the country has coastline on the Arabian Sea in the southeast and the Gulf of Oman in the north.
Oman’s location and ancient geology provides two of its three most valuable assets – oil and a diverse landscape. The third and most valuable asset is the Omani people themselves. They are a friendly helpful bunch.
Oman’s capital city Muscat was traditionally a trading port, being a convenient stopover for shipping. Ownership of Oman, particularly coastal areas, changed many times through the centuries. However, the country has been stable for many years under its present ruler Qaboos bin Said Al Said who came to power in 1970 after ousting his father as ruler.
In comparison to other gulf countries, Oman has modest oil reserves. Depending on who you believe, there is about 50 years’ supply left. Sultan Qaboos is using the country’s existing and future oil wealth to undertake a mammoth modernisation program, spending billions on roads and general infrastructure in a herculean transition from an economy based on oil to one based on tourism.
Oman has something for everyone and the quality and range of hotels and tourist facilities and activities is impressive. To mention just a few:
The Chedi Hotel is located between the Hajar mountains and the sea only 15 minutes from Muscat Airport. Almost immediately on arriving you are struck with a sense of calmness – or maybe they slipped a mickey finn in the welcome drink, a delicious blend of ginger lime and orange juice.
The ‘Chedi’, as it’s referred to, is set in 21 acres adjacent to the beach in grounds that can only be described as immaculate. The hotel design cleverly uses ponds, fountains, palms and lawns to create many private spaces among the buildings. Even when the hotel is full of guests, the grounds appear empty. There are two swimming pools, one for families with children, the other where parents hide from their children. Day beds and cabanas are spread around the pool areas and drinks and meals magically appear from nowhere – why ever leave the pool area I say.
The rooms are tastefully decorated and have everything that opens and shuts. Five open kitchens and eight separate dining rooms ensure that even the fussiest of eaters is satisfied. I must also mention the Beach Restaurant which has industrial strength romance for sunset dining. The food is exceptional right across the Chedi and if you don’t put on 20kg staying in this place you’re simply not trying.
Most surprising about the Chedi is how time slows. The feeling of tranquility curled up on a day bed surrounded by bubbling water features is exceptional. But, as appealing as blobbing on the Chedi’s day bed is, there is plenty more to do in Muscat and the across Oman generally.
The Sultan Qaboos Mosque is an outstanding piece of architecture that is impossible not to be moved by, regardless of your religious persuasion. The craftsmanship of the carpet, mosaics and chandelier is breathtaking. Well worth the time and guided tour.
For those interested in the wilderness, there is the ocean to explore to the south and east, the mountains and desert inland and the Salalah parks and reserves in the south.
There is no better way to explore the oceans than with a cruise. Ocean Blue Cruises operate a 47 foot catamaran called the SY Azzura. Their cruises, in safe and spacious boats, along the Oman coastline are essential. There is great scenery, snorkeling, dolphin spotting, more good food – and not a pirate in sight. Ocean Blues Australian owner/operator Clara is also a mine of information on Oman generally.
Inland the mountains are simply spectacular, although off the highways the roads are not for the faint-hearted. But they are worth the trip, taking you through some of the most striking country you’ll ever see. A rocky and tortured landscape (geologically significant so a rock kicker mate of mine tells me) gives way to green palm oasis in the usually dry wadi (river bed). Here locals tend their goats and sheep along with collecting dates and growing a range of vegetables with subsistence farming methods dating back hundreds of years. Drive through the mountains and you’ll pass ancient villages carved into the side of the rocky hills with long runs of hand built falags (water channels) that carry the water from springs to the village and gardens. The valleys ring out with the call to prayer messages five times a day as they have done for hundreds of years. And if you happen to be tired of slick five-star accommodation, try luxury camping. The View Eco Luxe Retreat in the Jabel Shams mountains is just under three hours from Muscat. Here you get to sleep under canvas in permanent canvas tents complete with comfy bed, internal shower and toilets. You also get to see the most incredible sunrises and sunsets. You can even sleep outside in a hammock if that takes your fancy. It can get a bit nippy in the mountains and I’m told it snows up there, but I’m not sure I believe it. Easy to forget you’re in the Middle East. The View Eco Luxe Retreat along with the villages and scenery around them make my top-10 list of Omani ‘must see’ sights. Again in the mountains around Jabel Akhdars you can visit the birthplace of rose water and see where the roses have been grown for hundreds of years. These villages and orchards are perched on the side of cliffs and families collect and process the roses in the same way they have for generations.
But if you’ve had enough adventure and it’s time to head to civilization, on the way back to Muscat, the old city of Nizwa and the Nizwa fort are also on the must see list. Nizwa has played an important part in Omani history back hundreds of years, including being the nation’s capital a number of times. The museum at the fort is excellent with a wide range of displays. And, for bargain hunters, the Souk (market) is just outside the fort, including a live cattle market.
Back in Muscat and having satisfied the ladies with shopping in the Mutrah Souk and Amouage factory shop, maybe it’s time for a little indulgence. Bring on the Barr Al Jissah Resort and Spa. This is a Shangri-la property consisting of three hotels within a sprawling complex, each fitting a budget and guest profile. The Al Husn Hotel is the top shelf. This place is stunning and somewhere you’re likely to come across a movie star, famous singer, internet mogul or even the odd bludging journo. Within the same site is the Al Waha Hotel and Al Bandar Hotel. These are connected together with a “lazy river” – a water channel you ride on a blowup tube when walking between hotel bars gets just too much for you.The food, the service and the staff at the resort are fantastic and it’s a very easy place to enjoy. Beautiful by day and breathtaking by night.
Travelling around Oman is best by car, or four wheel drive if you’re going into the mountains. You can rent cars or use guided tour services. Having spent a week with a couple of great guides from Oman World Tourism I can thoroughly recommend that approach. Great guides with deep knowledge of their country and a wicked sense of humour.
The verdict? If you want to go somewhere different that is beautiful, safe for families, represents good value for money and exposes you to an exciting new culture and landscape, try Oman. You won’t be disappointed.
Duncan Ross was a guest of Oman Tourism
The Oman File
Climate: Sunny blue skies year round. Some monsoon rains in the south.
Travel: Rental cars for the adventurous or alternatively guided tours
Best time to visit: Winter, October to April.
Temperatures: Winter, October to April 25 Р 35C. Summer Р up to 48C.
Money: $1 Omani Rial is worth about $2.40 Australian
Water: Safe to drink
Personal Safety: Excellent.
Phone: Mobile phone coverage in and around cities. Skype is blocked nationally so you are trapped into the local hotel networks or mobile calls which are expensive.
Don’t: Drink alcohol in public
Dress: Conservatively. Ladies must dress modestly. Essential to cover hair, shoulders, arms to hands and legs at mosques.
Power: 220/240V with UK style plugs
Health: No issues
Guided Tours: Oman World Tourism. www.omanworldtourism.com
Getting there: Etihad Airways flies to Oman from Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane. There are 11 flights weekly including daily one stop services from both Sydney and Melbourne and twice weekly services from Brisbane.
Top Ten Must Do's
- Sultan Qaboos Mosque, Muscat
- Chedi Hotel, Muscat
- The View Eco Luxe Retreat, Jabel Shams
- Mutrah South, Oman
- Nizwa Fort, Nizwa
- Ocean Cruising, Muscat
- Al Husn Hotel, Barr Al Jissah Resort & Spa, Muscat
- Amouage Perfume Factory, Muscat
- Wadi Darbat park, Salalah
- Janel Akhdars, The Green Mountain