If you were looking for a perfect illustration of the word diverse, the Sultanate of Oman is definitely it. As well as possessing a storied history, a gracious and proud people, and a fascinating cultural heritage, its landscape provides a pick-and-mix combination of beaches and water views, rugged mountains, evocative expanses of desert and microclimates that are unique within its region. To really get a grip on all that Oman offers, exploration is key. That way you can dip into some or all of its divergent landscapes to get a rounded appreciation of this truly compelling destination.
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The natural jumping off point is Muscat (it’s where you’ll fly into, most probably from Abu Dhabi, Doha or Dubai), the delightfully low-rise capital with its heady mix of old and new. Wander the higgledy-piggledy alleys of the Mutrah souq, delving into shops groaning with vintage Bedouin silver pieces and intricately decorated khanjar, the traditional Omani ceremonial dagger; stroll the streets of Muscat’s old town, and take in the beauty of the Sultan Qaboos Mosque, named for the country’s venerated leader.
Adjacent to Muscat, Al Batinah stretches along 320 kilometres of coast to the border with the United Arab Emirates. Its capital, the port city of Sohar, was once the capital of the country; apparently the Sinbad the Sailor legend took root here. The region is also home to the Damaniyat Islands, a collection of nine islands that make up the Damaniyat Islands Nature Reserve, an unspoilt haven where visitors can snorkel and dive in an aquatic wonderland: limited visitations permits are granted to ensure the area remains picture-perfect pristine.
From Muscat, it is an easy drive into the otherworldly Al Hajar Mountains, where the scorching summer heat is exquisitely tempered by the dizzying height and gentle breezes. The journey passes through an arid landscape punctuated by random clusters of flat-roofed houses, before the road starts to climb, constantly switching and turning in on itself as it weaves its way up the vertiginous mountains.
At around 2000 metres above sea level, Al Jabal Al Akhdar (Green Mountain) sits on the edge of jutting mountains dramatically rising from deep canyons below (climb to 3000 metres to wonder at Jebel Shams, known as the Grand Canyon of Arabia). Staying here, in one of the luxury resorts that Muscat locals and ex-pats steal away to on weekends to beat the summer heat, allows for day trips to the likes of Nizwa, with its hulking fort and historic silver souq, and Jabrin’s ornate castle, and to witness the plentiful harvests that take place here almost all year round: in March and April it is rose petals to produce the prized local rosewater; in May the apricot harvest begins followed throughout summer with peaches, figs, pears, almonds and apples; pomegranates, grapes, walnuts and olives follow in autumn.
Translating literally as the ‘east of Oman’, Al Sharqiah is divided into three distinct areas: the Indian Ocean coastal stretch, the desert, where you can explore the seemingly endless dunes of the A’Sharqiyah Sands, and the city of Sur. One of the ancient Omani cities, and the most easterly city in Arabia, Sur is the home of Omani dhow building, the traditional wooden vessels still manufactured using ancient techniques hardly changed since antiquity.
The 170 kilometres of coastline in the Al Wusta (literally ‘the central region’ – its capital of Duqm is midway between Muscat in the north and Salalah in the south) offer up wide bays, dramatic coastal headlands, rocky caves and secluded inlets, but it is the exact opposite of all this that makes the region so compelling. Nowhere are the contrasts of environment at the heart of Oman’s allure more evident than here, where water views give way to the wide, barren expanses of The Empty Quarter. Also known as Rub al Khali, this is the largest sand desert in the world, spanning the western reaches of Oman and making up most of neighbouring Saudi Arabia. The otherworldly landscape of endless dunes butting up against infinite blue skies untroubled by clouds is intoxicating to behold, and offers up a wealth of unique experience, from sleeping under a canopy of stars at a desert camp to dune bashing in a 4WD.
The southern region of Oman is a unique proposition on the Arabian Peninsula: each summer the ‘Khareef’ monsoon rains drift in from India, drenching the landscape here, creating a lush green environment and turning its wadis (dry riverbeds and valleys) into swollen waterways. Salalah, known as the southern capital of Oman, is a must see here, with its subtropical climate, vibrant culture and pristine palm-tree fringed beaches (Oman has over 3000 kilometres of coastline). The city can be reached by road from Muscat, an epic visual journey, but there are quick flights into its international airport from Muscat too.
Separated from the rest of the country by the United Arab Emirates, the Musandam Peninsula is easily accessed by car from either Dubai or Abu Dhabi (you can also get there by fast ferry from Muscat for something different); and it is well worth it. The region is renowned for its awesome scenery, specifically the Fjords of Arabia (the area is known as ‘Norway of Arabia’), with dramatic rocky inlets delving into deep turquoise waters. The regional capital of Khasab is filled with fortified buildings, historic ruins and a castle; cruise from here by dhow to Khor ash Sham, the most spectacular of the fjords. Also take the time to get to Telegraph Island for the snorkelling.