Camel treks, desert camping, and four-wheel drive safaris through mighty canyons are just some of the adventures awaiting visitors to Oman. From frankincense plantations and atmospheric souks (markets) that speak of vanished centuries to gleaming modern cities and 5-star hotels fronting on to perfect beaches, Oman is everything you would want from Arabia.
What sets this desert kingdom apart from its neighbors, is a complex history of interaction with the outside world. From the ports of Muscat and Salahat, Omani traders roamed across the Arabian Sea, pushing back the borders of the Portuguese empire in Africa, and establishing trading outposts as far afield as Zanzibar and Mozambique, before aligning with the British after slavery was abolished.
The result, thirteen centuries later, is an outwardly conservative, but strikingly open Islamic society with a firm belief in the importance of its own traditions, as well as a strong acceptance of other cultures. Many regard Oman as the most welcoming of all Arabic nations. This is a place where visitors are invited to sit with the locals and sip tea and eat dates out of genuine hospitality.
Oman has embraced the modern world, and in parts of the country the contemporary is very much in evidence, particularly in the low-key glitter and bustle of the capital, Muscat, and in the burgeoning cities of Salalah and Sohar. Despite the trappings of modernity, however, much of the rest of the country retains a powerful sense of place and past. Busy souks continue to resound with the clamor of shoppers bargaining over frankincense, jewelry and food. Venerable forts and crumbling watchtowers still stand sentinel over towns they once protected, goats wander past huddles of ochre-colored houses, and the white-robed Omanis themselves meander quietly amid the palm trees.
The ruling sultans have done a great job to preserve the traditional crafts and customs of their ancient civilization, and the cities of Oman feel much more historic and lived-in than the skyscraper cities appearing elsewhere in the Gulf region. With a ‘No-High-Rise’ policy and a trading history stretching back millennia, Muscat retains heart and soul as a port city, noted for its dates, mother-of-pearl, and incredible seafood.
Oman’s largest city by far, Muscat offers an absorbing snapshot of the country’s past and present. Physically, much of the city is unequivocally modern: a formless straggle of low-rise, white-washed suburbs, which sprawl along the coast for the best part of some 16 miles, now home to a population nudging up towards the million mark – a quarter of the country’s total.
Visiting Muscat, make sure to not miss the celebrated ‘Mutrah Souq’, along with the popular pomegranate juice bars. The ‘Mutrah Souq’ retains the chaotic interest of a traditional Arab market albeit housed under modern timber roofing. Shops selling Omani and Indian artefacts together with a few antiques jostle among more traditional textile, hardware and jewelry stores. Bargaining is expected although discounts tend to be rather small. Another site not be missed in Muscat is the ‘Grand Mosque’, a glorious piece of modern Islamic architecture, which was a gift to the nation from Sultan Qaboos to mark his 30th year of reign. The main prayer hall is breathtakingly rich. The Persian carpet alone measures 70m by 60m wide, making it the second-largest hand-loomed Iranian carpet in the world; it took 600 women four years to weave.
Oman’s rich heritage as a key trading post creates a sense of pride in ancient culture and a soulful eye towards development. Towns have kept their traditional charms and Bedouin values. Local cuisine serves history on a plate: spices from the sea trade with India add piquancy to grilled meats and preserved fruit from the Arabian Peninsula. Most local cafés and restaurants serve wonderful selections of shawarmas and biryanis, with maybe a few other Middle Eastern meze and grills or Indian curries.
A beach holiday in Muscat probably tops the wish list of the savvy traveler, but Oman is also the go-to place for scuba diving, fossil hunting, desert camps, frankincense, ancient forts and turtle hatching. Nature lovers from all over the world make pilgrimages between July and October to witness Oman’s incredible turtle hatching season. Approximately 20,000 sea turtles – five of the world’s seven species – lumber up on to beaches to bury up to an estimated 60,000 eggs. Green, loggerhead and hawksbill turtles hatch 55 days later – a wonder to witness at Al Dimaniyat Islands.
A more recent development on a spectacular event to take place in the Oman desert is that it will be hosting a science project, simulating ‘Life on Mars’. In sunglasses and jumpsuits, a crew of European test astronauts is currently laying the groundwork for a Mars simulation in the barren expanse of the Omani desert, a terrestrial mission, intended to pave the way to the red planet. The “analog astronauts” of the Austrian Space Forum, which is a volunteer-based collective, arrived in Oman at the end of October to begin preparations for a four-week simulation mission due to begin next year. During the mission, the team will carry out a series of experiments, from growing greens without soil in an inflatable hydroponic greenhouse to testing an autonomous “tumbleweed” rover, which maps out terrain while propelled by the wind.
Spectacular diversity in landscape translates into myriad possible adventures. From the desert-scape of the Empty Quarter to the lush green south with its fruit plantations and wildlife, such as oryx and gazelles, Oman glories in a uniquely diverse topography for nature lovers. Oman is a paradise for eco-tourists, and its diverse landscapes are home to an incredible variety of flora, fauna and birds. Unspoiled coastlines brim with marine life in coral reefs, spinner dolphins, humpback and blue whales. Visit the Jebel Samhan Nature Reserve in Dhofar to see wild Arabian leopards.
Oman has the highest mountain on the peninsula, as well as enchanting cities, sparkling sea, canyons and fjords.
When to Visit Oman?
Since Oman is so large and the terrain diverse, the climatic conditions are as varied as the geography. The most popular time to visit is between October and April, when the weather is warm and sunny, and temperatures range from a very pleasant 77 F to around 95 F during the day. It cools down at night to temperature in the 60’s. From May to August it gets very hot in the coastal areas, while the interior generally remains hot and dry. Between May and September, the southern Dhofar region develops its own micro-climate. Known as the ‘Khareef’, the area catches the Indian Ocean’s monsoon season, and temperatures can be much lower than in the rest of the country.
AirlinePros partner Oman Air (WY/910), the nation carrier of Oman, the “Wings of Oman”, operates a route network spanning destinations across Africa, Asia, and Europe, including Cairo, Delhi, Dubai, Frankfurt, Paris, and Singapore. Oman Air is headquartered at Muscat International Airport (MCT) in Muscat.