Oman: the Middle East’s best-kept secret?

Oman may very well be the hidden gem of the Middle East: Quentin Long

Standing with two strangers in a remote corner of an exotic land, hearing the languid soft twang of an Australian accent is a surprise.

I should be used to it by now. We seem to turn up everywhere. But it always catches me unaware.

“It’s like a fairy land.” I turn to the women next to me who has broken my meditation by reading my mind. I smile, then chuckle.

“Yeah, it sure is.” Michelle from Brisbane had just spoken out loud the words that I had been desperately trying to grasp since I arrived in Oman two days earlier.

The Making of a Fairy Land

Oman’s recent history reads like a fairytale.

The isolationist, backward and controlling Sultan Said bin Taimur placed his son and heir under house arrest for having ideas that are too modern and forward thinking.

The son rises and, in an almost bloodless coup (legend has it the Sultan shot himself in the foot, so as not to appear meek and spineless), takes over the country and exiles his father to England. Sultan Qaboos’ ascension to the top ushers in a new golden era where the people are happy, content and love their ruler. The fairytale unfolded in 1970.

Today the Omanis are very, very appreciative, and fond of their ruler. You would be too, if you didn’t have to pay taxes and the government granted you up to four parcels of land if ‘you would just please fill in the forms’.

But Sultan Qaboos’ reign is about so much more than mere materialistic gain, even if the Omanis themselves don’t see it that way.

When Qaboos put dad into retirement, the country had a single sealed road just six kilometres long, one hospital and three schools with a total of 900 students.

Today there are more than 60 hospitals and more than 1000 public schools. Education and healthcare is free and the youth literacy rate is almost 98%. It’s a country that has truly taken a huge leap forward.

No wonder the Omanis are an easy going bunch.

Prince Charmings

“What do you mean your name is Masoud?” I cry at Yousef who, it now turns out, is not who I thought he was.

“Why didn’t you correct me? I have been calling you Yousef for the last three days.”

He just smiles at me. Yousef cum Masoud is the very model of a genteel Omani gentleman.

Impeccably groomed with a strong Arabic nose and well-trimmed beard, he’s quick to smile and laugh, seems to do everything effortlessly and at every stop on our four days together, shares a laugh with yet another old friend he’s run into.

We bond over our love for our children and his son’s love of FC Barcelona – a fond topic of ours over the many kilometres we cover. He’s a typical Omani: an exemplary kind and generous Muslim – polite to the end with impeccable manners.

Several times a day strangers stop Masoud and ask to take a photo with him in his Dish Dasha. Every time he smiles and says, “Of course”. It starts to annoy me and I want to tell the happy snappers to get lost – it’s rude to stare at a guy in a dress. Yet Masoud enjoys it.

I ask him about it and he just shrugs his shoulders, “It’s different to where they are from.” Sure, but how does that make it okay?

Masoud teaches me that the Omanis are so proud of their heritage, their country and their lifestyle that they just want to make sure people leave feeling like they had a good time and appreciating what they do; a fairytale country of magic.

Magical Mountain

Oman’s Al Hajar Mountains make it very physically different to and geographically more interesting than its Arabian Peninsula neighbour, and country it most often gets compared to, the UAE.

The two nations are like chalk and cheese. Oman is Colin Firth to the UAE’s David Beckham.

I spend most of my time in the mountains. Quite spectacularly, the mountains start rising fiercely out of the rocky sandy landscape just minutes outside Muscat.

The peaks form a formidable barrier that historically divided the area’s interior tribes from its far more cosmopolitan coastal rivals.

These days, it’s a mere one-and-a-half hours to Nizwa and then another hour up to the locals’ most beloved region of the mountainous interior, Jabel Al Akhdar, ‘the Green Mountains’.

In what is a great example of selling your best asset, the Green Mountains are in fact grey or yellow for much of the year.

Then, in a burst of spring and summer life, the terraces that cling to the edges of steep deep gorges explode into colour, mostly green. The greening kicks off with roses and the much sought-after rose harvest in early spring, from late March to mid May, for the manufacture of rose water.

As the roses dwindle, pomegranates, peaches, almonds, walnuts, figs and apricots take their place.

It is during this period, in the height of summer when the rest of Oman is sweating its very proper socks off, that Jabel Al Akhdar hits peak season. The mountains are beautifully cool thanks to the elevation.

From the pool terrace at Sahab Hotel, a setting sun kisses the pink and yellow village houses of Al Ayn. The houses cling to the ravine edges, seemingly pulling their tortoise-shell-shaped plots of date palms and crops in close for warmth from the cool night ahead.

While the Jabel Al Akhdar gorges are very narrow slices out of the land, at Jabel Shams (Sun Mountain) 90 minutes north of Nizwa, it seems like a giant has gouged gaping holes out of the earth on a scale hardly comprehendible. Masoud, like a magician, times the revelation perfectly.

Driving across the plateau after another steep climb, we round a turn as Masoud says, “Welcome to the Omani Grand Canyon”. It’s so unexpected I blurt out “Oh my {beeping} god”.

I apologise immediately, feeling incredibly uncouth in comparison to Masoud’s impeccable politeness, but I suspect he’s secretly pleased, it’s an indication of the success of his trick.

As the highest point in Oman this is the first place struck by the suns rays every day, hence the Sun Mountain moniker.

From on top of the mountain the earth disappears off a cliff to about one-and-a-half kilometres below. And right at the bottom of the chasm a small cluster of date palms indicates a village.

Fantastical Forts

If Australians turn up in every corner of the globe, then somewhere in the wilderness we’re admiring, there will always be a group of Germans decked out in the latest walking gear, bashing their way along a track.

I find them in the Jebel Shams, like ants halfway down the cliff face. Being so close to Europe, the Germans have discovered Oman and have taken to exploring it with much greater enthusiasm than we Aussies. Yet when I speak to the intrepid walkers that night, they too feel as if Oman is the best-kept secret in the Middle East.

Michelle from Brisbane and I had actually been looking at World Heritage-listed Bahla Fort when we met. Oman has more than 1000 forts, towers and castles, which are so ubiquitous that one becomes blasé until something outrageously spectacular comes into view.

Jabrin Castle stands singularly on the billiard-table-flat plains an hour north of Nizwa. While Nizwa Fort is the most visited site in the country, Jabrin is in fact far more beautiful.

For all its intimidation externally, internally Jabrin Castle is an oasis of fine intricate artwork. The ornate paintings on the roof and exquisite relief carvings on the stairwell to the Sultan’s bedroom are magnificent detailed artworks.

Nizwa Fort is by far the most intimidating of the Omani forts. The 35-metre-tall tower sits squat in the middle of town, like a pink schoolyard bully in the middle of the pitch daring anyone to try and move them.

Oman takes the concept of travelling in the Middle East and turns it on its head. The misconception of glitzy high rises and uber glam resorts on reclaimed land are replaced by a more serene, contemplative fairy land. A country of such romance, history and genteel genuine hospitality, it is an enigma; a utopian mirage that is actually not mythical but within grasp.

 

How to get there
Etihad flies direct to Abu Dhabi twice daily from Sydney (from $1830), daily from Melbourne (from $1830), and daily with a Singapore stopover from Brisbane (from $1854). Connections to Muscat operate twice daily.
etihad.com.

When to go
Oman is the most unusual Middle Eastern destination in that at any given time one region of the country will be at its best. But for most of the sites, the best time to see Oman is November to mid-March. The Jabel Al Akhdar is at its best from May to July, but the rest of the country is stiflingly hot and the monsoon is in full swing in the tropical south, although is spectacular to witness.

Where to Stay
Muscat
Shangri-La’s Barr Al Jissah Resort & Spa: There are three five-star hotels in the one complex that cater to all travellers. The hotels all face the beach.

Al Husn is the most exclusive and designed for couples. Guests have access to a stunning private beach and infinity edge pool. The mini bar is all complimentary as are cocktails at 5:00pm every day in the central courtyard. The two restaurants are serious affairs; the modern Sultanah and the exquisitely designed Moroccan restaurant Shahrazad. From $335 per night.

Al Bandar is slightly more corporate and attracts conferences. It has the majority of eateries and bars. From $223 per night.

Al Waha is the largest resort in the complex and is totally dedicated to family holidays with a kids club, children’s pools and aquatic play area. From $175 per night. shangri-la.com/Muscat

Outside Muscat, hotels are usually rustic to basic.

Jabel Al Akhdar
Sahab Hotel has the most stunning views of the terraced farms and gardens at Jabel Al Akhdar – the best are at sunrise. The four-star rooms are comfortable without being luxurious, the bathroom a little cramped and the restaurant is not bad if a little limited in menu. The pool is gorgeous even if the water is freezing, so head to the heated jacuzzi. This is a dry resort. From $206 per night. sahab-hotel.com

Nizwa
Falaj Daris Hotel is single story motel-style accommodation. The central courtyard is divided into two with a pool in each quadrangle. From $175 per night. falajdarishotel.com

Touring
Oman is a destination where a guide is very helpful, if only for a few days to get your bearing. Our guide Masoud was part of Eihab Travels who can be booked in Australia through Bench International. benchinternational.com.au

You can’t leave Muscat without visiting the Grand Mosque. It’s a site to behold and a meticulously crafted building on a scale that is hard to believe.

Dropping in on the Bait Zubair Museum, which tells the story of the Omani people in great detail. Put aside at least half a day.
Spending the other half of your day in the Muttrah Souq. It’s shopping but not as you know it – you can pick up exquisite textiles and jewellery.

Best thing about Oman
An authentic experience, which is clearly not contrived. This is the true traveller’s Middle East.

Worst thing about Oman
Driving. The Omanis make the Italians look like Captain Cautious on the roads. It’s just best not to watch.

You should know
Dress codes are not a problem. To be culturally sensitive wear long trousers and, if you are a woman, long sleeves.

The cuisine is distinctly sub-continental with the main dish being an unspicy version of the Indian rice dish Biryani.

Single entry visas can be bought on arrival, under 10 days OMR 5 (about AU$15) and more than 10 days OMR 30 (about AU$75).

Check out tourismoman.com.au for more.

 

TRAVEL THROUGH THE DOORS TO OMAN AND DISCOVER AN ADVENTURE YOU’LL NEVER FORGET

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This article appeared in issue 5

Featuring:

  • 20 amazing Asian resorts you've never heard of
  • England's most idyllic seaside towns
  • Behind the mysterious allure of Oman and more!

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Comments

  • Val Thompson says:

    I have lived in this paradise called Oman for nine years as an expat Brit and live in Sohar two hours drive north of Muscat. Sohar is a bustling town with an international industrial complex. Hotels outside Muscat are not rustic or basic. Sohar has 5* Crowne Plaza and the Sohar Beach Hotel has beautiful gardens stretching down to the beach. The best hotel in Muscat is the Chedi with exquisite zen style gardens on the beach front. Life does not always revolve around Muscat. There is Sur, Salalah with luxury resorts, camel racing, bull fighting everywhere. However don’t forget the stunning Royal Opera House in Muscat where you can see international opera and ballet companies at incredibly low prices.

  • Saneesh says:

    Excellent Review.

    But Many of the tourists forget about Salalah which is the gem of Arabia….

  • Gaurav Mokhasi says:

    The turtle beach at Ras al Jinz near Sur (~400km from Muscat) is another unique experience. Stay at a hotel in Sur, and then drive there around midnight to get a guided tour of the beach where huge turtles unerringly appear to lay eggs. Completely secluded to ensure the turtles aren’t disturbed, the absence of artificial light at the beach gives you an amazing view of the starstudded night sky.
    We also spotted a fox there and were told by the guide that the fox further reduced the already low chances of the baby turtles’ survival. When 1 of the tourists asked why they simply didn’t get rid of the fox, especially since they’d taken so many other measures to protect the turtles, the guide said with his omniscient smile, “You don’t mess with Nature.”

  • Kavita Daga says:

    I have lived in Oman for over 15 years and my parents still continue to live in the beautiful location. Its a heavenly location with wonderful people and freedom to live as you wish. I ahve stayed at Al Husn, ShangriLa very recently with my husband. Having travelled to a lot of countries, I must say that the experience at Shangrila, Al Husn stands no comparison to any other place or 5 star hotel that I have been to. Muscat, you are awesome! Continue being so!! God bless the king and its people!

  • Arun says:

    Brilliantly reviewed. I have been a resident of Oman for over 15 years and the place never seems out of wonder. In addition to the above, some of the must visit sites include the Masirah Islands which has become the hub of adventure sports in Oman, Wahaiba sands for an amazing desert safari and Salalah which is the most scenic location in the county. Also the Muscat Opera Hall is a must visit for those who love arts and performances.

  • Christina Knight says:

    I lived, worked, met my Aussie husband Andy. Married in the Albustan Hotel and had our first child in Oman.
    The people are the most humble, friendliest, and happiest we have ever met.
    Oman will always hold happy memories in our hearts.
    Hopefully one day we will all spend a holiday in this wonderful country

  • Hilary Davidson says:

    And I also take exception to the basic or rustic hotels outside Muscat comment. Consider the Millennium Hotel, 4.5 stars, located on the coast with a fantastic marina and opportunities to scuba dive and snorkel…It is located not far from the old capital of Oman, Ar Rustaq, with its hot springs and wonderful wadis…..

  • Muna RR says:

    Thank you for this review of our beautiful country. We have thought for a long time that Oman is one of the best kept secrets of the World and we pray it will continue and that we shall not change our nature of hospitality and welcome as tourism opens up the country.

  • shiny v says:

    oman is just an awesome place.Born and brought up there,I have never felt that I am an alien out there.Its just like a home away from home.Even if u dont visit any place,the very feel that comes once u land there is pleasant.

  • Shivkumar Iyer says:

    when I arrived here 17 years ago, the predominant feeling was to pull along for a year or so and then get back to India or across to the other gulf countries for better prospects. did not even realise when the double whammy of considerate, kind citizens and the natural beauty of the place just grew on you. so much so that I find my hometown very artificial and people inconsiderate. having travelled across the length and breadth of oman, can say with conviction that there’s no place like this.

  • Mahesh Verma says:

    We have been living in this Paradise for the last 28 years…..and will be delighted if tourists don’t come here and spoil the serenity but will be equally delighted if they do and enjoy the Paradise on the condition that they don’t start screaming “Eureka eureka” almost like Archimedes when they see the absolutely gorgeous landscape.
    The best part of our country is the people, who are humility personified. Do visit our country, our Paradise and please let it remain a Paradise!

  • Ilham Al BUSAIDI says:

    Oman is indeed “a hidden secret” and we hope it continues to be so,
    Why, because as an Omani and with over thirty five years of experience
    In the service industry I know what mass tourism can do to destroy a
    Country. Oman, has all the adjectives applicable in selling a unique destination and more. It’s a destination to be experienced if one is to know what we offer. Be warned however, its not a cheap destination In fact to the contrary it’s an expensive destination but worth every penny you will spend. It’s greatest asset is its people.
    Welcome to Oman to experience the “holiday of a life time”.

  • Ros says:

    I have lived in Oman for 4.5 years and this is a very well written article that describes very well what a tourist may expect from this beautiful country.
    Of course it is impossible to cover all that Oman has to offer in one single article but it gives a very good idea of how different it is from the average destination in that region of the world. It is a gem worth exploring.

  • Shoaib Shaikh says:

    You should have visited ‘Salalah’. Its a 12 hour journey from Muscat. Its surreal natural beauty.

  • Audie Soriano says:

    ..I have live and worked for 15 yrs in that beautiful country together with my family and truly it’s like an oasis in the whole of Middle East..As a Filipino who migrated to US of A, I still considered the Sultanate as my second home and hope someday I can go back and pay a visit to all of my friends there.

  • Vivek Kapoor says:

    Heven in heven Is Oman.The best in Gulf countries.I worked all Gulf but culture,locals,development from 1983 to 2009 have been notices by me in the shelter of H.E Sultan Qaboos bin Ali al Saïd .May allmighty bless him long and healthy life.

  • Will Blake says:

    Certainly is the jewel of the Middke East. What is great to all visiting tourists is you can now have See Muscat at your finger tips by downloading the smart phone app on Android and Apple Devices.

    It’s Free and will help all visiting tourists looking at coming to the Capital as well as a wide range of services and attractions to view in the palm of your hands.

    We’ll recommended

  • Ramanamurthy says:

    Great to read about Oman. We lived in Oman for 13 years and, without doubt, I can say, that was best part of my life. We lived in New Norfolk, (Tasmania), Melbourne, Sydney, Rotterdam and a few other places. But Oman is the best with its rustic, unspoilt, pollution-free, vibrant nature. Thanks for rekindling old memories.

  • M Al Mahrooqi says:

    WOW, I have always believed that our country is the jewel of the Middle East. To read these beautiful comments just confirmed my belief.

    As Omanis we love to interact with people in general and like to give the best hospitality. Any part of Oman you go to you will always be welcomed no matter how reach or poor the person is.

    Thank you very much for such encouraging comments about our country and you are always welcomed:-))

  • priyanka says:

    i ve lived in oman fo over 16 years… it is in fact a very very peaceful place… thanks fo this awesome article. very few pple are aware of this country’s existence… pple need to know what n awesome, pollution and friendly country this 1 is!

  • Lorraine Paton says:

    I have lived in Oman for nearly nine years I love it here. The Omani people are so kind, friendly and are so welcoming to us all. I now live at Jebal Sifah, this is a lovely place 45 mins from old Muscat. There is a lovely boutique hotel, fantastic fish restaurant on the beach and lovely apartments around the marina. There are villas and next year a golf course. Well worth a visit. Oman has so much to offer residents and visitors. It truly is an amazing place well worth a visit 🙂

  • Mohsina Karthik says:

    OMG ! U guys did not visit SALALAH ??? what a loss …
    Oman is nothing without it…

  • Sanjay says:

    Well written article! I have lived in oman for last 11 years and this country never ceases to fascinate me with its beauty. It has got many things which make a great tourist destination – sea, sand, sun, mountain and above all, wonderful Omani people. Many destinations have already been mentioned here but I would like to include Khasab which is in Musandam Peninsula and borders UAE. Famous for its fjords and cliffs plunging into the turquoise sea, it is often called ‘Norway of Arabia’.