From the bustling Arabic market place of Mutrah Souk where the fragrant frankincense wafts through the air, the beautiful intricacy of the city’s forts and mosques, to the turquoise sheltered waters of the Musandam Peninsula, Oman caters to all tastes. Once a pivotal Middle East trading port its capital, Muscat, has carefully retained its timeless Arabic charm. Heading out of the capital city offers a chance to experience a traditional Bedouin way of life in small villages tucked in to the base of the Hajar mountains or dotted amongst the country’s many wadis.
Below are five reasons to visit a country steeped in mysticism that is cultivating a dynamic new market for tourism.
Diversity of Landscape
For photographers, Oman truly is the land of plenty. From the never-ending red sands of the ‘empty-quarter’ that spans Oman, Saudi Arabia, Yemen and the UAE, to the Jebel Akhdar (Green Mountain) range, Oman has a dizzying diversity of landscapes that capture the imagination and will enliven any holiday slideshow. In just a few days you have the opportunity to visit deserts, mountain ranges, sparkling seas, towering fjords, otherworldly canyon wadis, and the deep ocean-side sinkhole; Bimmah. The Middle East automatically conjures images of Bedouin tribes crossing vast deserts by camel, but Oman’s lush green valleys and rolling mists of the Southern Dhofar region stand in stark contrast.
Muscat is the perfect place to get acquainted with the culture of Oman. Muscat Old Town houses the opulent ceremonial palace of Sultan Qaboos, the Al Alam Palace in addition to the surrounding Mirani and Jalali 14th Century Forts. For a taste of commercial life head to bustling Mutrah souk; the city’s oldest traditional Arabian market. This is where you’ll be able to buy your souvenirs including leather shoes, gold and antiquities whilst taking in the smells of frankincense that linger in the air. However, the real cultural highlight of Muscat is the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque. Here, you’ll be able to learn more about Islam whilst partaking in the customary kahwa – cardamom coffee and sugar-glazed dates – at the on-site cultural center.
Although Oman has its fair share of land-based fauna (including the desert Oryx and Arabian Leopard), what it is renowned for is its aquatic-based wildlife. Put simply, Oman is a scuba-diving and snorkeling paradise. Its coastline, including the capital Muscat, is teeming with dolphins, whales and brightly coloured reef ecosystems. Elsewhere, the Fjords of the exclaved Musandam Peninsula provide a natural shelter that attracts an abundance of aquatic wildlife. Unfortunately, because of the strong currents and the sheer size of wildlife (most notably whale sharks, rays, barracuda, and tuna), scuba diving in the fjords is reserved for more advanced divers. For those who aren’t accomplished divers, the good news is the many dhow cruises departing from Khasab offer snorkeling options in shallower waters where the killer fish don’t lurk.
Oman has carved a distinctively different path than its Gulf neighbours; UAE, Bahrain and Qatar. Where the latter has opted for overblown glass skyscrapers and extravagant shopping malls full of Pottery Barn stores, Oman is focusing on its heritage and authentic ‘Arabness’; attracting tourists with the promise of ruins, mosques, souks, wadis, mountains, and traditional Bedouin villages. Strict building codes ensure that Muscat, Oman’s capital city, retains its middle-east charm. Muscat also has a definitively more laid-back style than the big regional cities of Dubai, Doha, Abu Dhabi and Manama. A week exploring Oman from one of Muscat’s resort-like hotels is definitely worthwhile if you’re searching for the quintessential Arabian experience (just don’t expect an abundance of TGI Friday’s).
In addition to the thrill of scuba diving in waters filled with killer fish, Oman, like other countries in the region, offers the exhilarating and timeless thrill of desert adventure. If you’re feeling particularly ‘brave’ then you can jump in a 4×4 and head out in to the Wahibi Sands for some dune bashing, sand boarding, trekking and camel safaris. Of course, if you’re prone to a little car sickness, then dune bashing probably isn’t the best choice for you. Whilst it’s pretty exhilarating for the first ten minutes, it can pretty quickly feel like you’re on a small boat in rough seas. In that case, stick to the camel treks which more closely align to the languid pace demanded by the soaring heat.