Sarah Hayman discovers the charm of Oman, from the souks of Muscat to the drama of the Al Hajar mountains
Jaw dropping scenery, waters teeming with turtles and some of the world’s most luxurious hotels might not necessarily be what spring to mind when you first think of Oman.
But this Sultanate’s rich history, culture and natural beauty will make you rethink the Middle East as a holiday destination. Not convinced? Read on to quash your misconceptions of this Arabian jewel – here’s why it should be on your must-visit list…
1. It’s different to it’s UAE neighbours
You’d be forgiven for thinking Oman might resemble its glamorous neighbours Dubai and Abu Dhabi in the UAE – both of which are awash with shiny skyscrapers and lively bar scenes. But this Middle Eastern country is incredibly different.
There is quiet and calm to be found in this lesser-visited Arab state; building laws have restricted high rise construction (so in most towns the mosque minaret is as tall as it gets), and while 5-star luxury is still on offer it sits alongside this country’s natural beauty in blissful harmony.
Outside of your hotel, you’ll rub shoulders with locals going about their daily lives, and while they’re fiercely proud of their culture and traditions, it’s a welcoming place for everyone – Middle Eastern hospitality at its best. Where places like Dubai pride itself on its extensive modern development, Oman seems prouder to promote a more sympathetic progression.
2. Luxury accommodation
Whether you’re looking for a private villa, local Airbnb or a five-star hotel, there are plenty of excellent accommodation options here. From large family-friendly resorts like Shangri-La’s two beachfront properties, to the lavish Hotel W, Muscat is not short of an indulgent night’s sleep.
Commonly featured in the best hotel lists, the Chedi Muscat is our firm favourite. With 158 rooms and suites set in glorious white-washed buildings, architect Jean-Michel Gathy hits the perfect balance between contemporary minimalism and traditional Omani architecture. Boasting the longest pool in the Middle East at 103 metres, you won’t need to hit the gym with this on offer.
3. Safety in Oman
Oman is incredibly safe for travellers, partly thanks to the heavy fines and punishments for any law breakers. The threat of terrorism in Oman is one of the lowest in the world; it’s the only Persian Gulf or Middle East country to rank as zero on the global terrorism index.
4. The impressive scenery
Think Oman is just an arid desert? Think again. A short drive from Muscat will have you climbing in the dramatic Al Hajar mountains, swimming in the turquoise waters of Wadi Shab or sailing along dolphin and turtle teemed coastlines.
Of the world’s seven varieties of sea turtle, five choose Oman as the place to lay their eggs. In fact around 20,000 turtles descend onto Oman’s beaches each year making your chances of seeing the spectacle pretty high. Ras Al Jinz is known to be the biggest turtle reserve in the Indian Ocean and private tour operators offer the chance to witness the hatchings first hand.
Alternatively if you want to share your hotel with the turtles themselves then the Shangri-La Barr Al Jissah run Turtle Care Projects to protect the animals and their nests on the resort.
Of course if deserts are your thing then the scorching Wahiba Sands won’t disappoint with 4×4 tours, sandboarding and desert camp outs. All the major hotels offer day trips and overnight safaris, many working with local conservation efforts to protect and grow the country’s flora and fauna.
Book it: Riviera Travel’s 10-day Oman tour, from £1,899 per person
5. Shopping at the souks
Don’t believe that Marrakesh has the monopoly on souks. Whether it’s a traditional Omani dagger, hand thrown pottery, textiles, food or jewellery, a ramble through the maze of alleyways, shops and kiosks is enough to keep even Sarah Jessica Parker entertained.
There are several good areas to pick from but Muttrah Souk, one of the oldest in the Arab world, is the favourite. If you’re looking for jewellery then head to the gold souk, accessible from the Corniche, and be sure to haggle with vendors to get the deal you want. For something more purse-friendly, pick up the famous Omani frankincense and honey.
6. Cultural discovery
It’s simply untrue that Oman has little cultural interest. The Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque in Muscat is something to be marvelled at, for starters. Look up in the main male prayer room and you’ll be awestruck by the 8.5-tonne, 14-metre-wide, 24-carat-gold chandelier complete with 600,000 Swarovski crystals. Look down and note that you’re standing on the world’s second-largest hand woven rug.
Non-Muslims are welcome to tour the mosque and grounds 8-11am Saturday to Thursday. Traditional dress is advised and women must dress conservatively, covering their hair, ankles and wrists.
Another sight to take in is the Muscat Opera house, designed by the same architect as the Grand Mosque and boasting performances from the world’s finest talent. Careful not to miss the final call for your performance though: home to six world-class restaurants it’s easy to get distracted by the menus on offer. Lobster and grilled mango tacos, spicy Japanese shrimp or Kobe beef sliders, anyone?
7. It’s simple to reach
Direct flights depart daily from London Heathrow and take a comfortable seven or eight hours. Visas can be obtained online and are valid for 30 days. Driving is on the right and you can drive with a valid UK driving license for up to 6 weeks. Getting to Oman couldn’t be simpler, so get out there and explore.