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Oman isn't an obvious tourist destination. It attracts little more than a million people a year. But in a region characterised by unrest it offers political stability and a warm welcome...
Oman isnt an obvious tourist destination. It attracts little more than a million people a year. But in a region characterised by unrest it offers political stability and a warm welcome. Karen Bowerman drove through its rugged mountains, camped in one of its deserts and took a cruise through its northernmost fjords.
Emblazoned across the sliding doors at the entrance to the airport at Muscat, the capital of Oman, theres a picture of a man wearing a turban and a perfectly groomed beard. Underneath it reads, Oman Air salutes Sultan Qaboos for 40 years of inspired leadership.
The Sultan must be one of the most dearly loved leaders in the world.
His serene appears everywhere: in museums, banks and shopping malls and on murals the height of buildings. When my guide, Nabhan Al Nabhani, introduced me to his family, his mother ushered me to her bookshelf to show me two things: a photo of her son, but first, a framed newspaper cutting of their ruler. I even spotted him smiling down from the walls of a barasti Bedouin hut.
The people of Oman have a lot to thank Sultan Qaboos bin Said for. Before he came to power in 1970 (everyone can tell you the exact date) this country on the southeastern tip of the Arabian peninsula, had just 5km of tarmac road, one hospital and three schools, for boys.
Today, thanks to an ambitious modernisation programme financed by oil, roads span across the country in all directions, schools (for both sexes) number more than a thousand, and education and healthcare are free.
Now Oman is keen to welcome tourists and there are a handful of cities and regions that are attracting the more intrepid of travellers.
While all international flights land in Muscat, you dont need much more than a couple of days here although there are several luxury hotels if youre first priority is to enjoy the sunshine, unwind beside the pool or indulge in sumptuous dining. The Millennium Resort, The Chedi and Grand Hyatt are just three offering first class service.
The city itself boasts a recently opened opera house, numerous museums and the immaculately restored Muscat Gate.
Old Muscat, circling Muscat Bay and overlooked by Mirani and Jalali, two small Portuguese forts (closed to the public) is worth a visit. Take a peek at Al Alam, one of the Sultans eight palaces - a blue and gold affair backing onto the water or enjoy one of a handful of museums.
Muttrah (a 15 minute drive northwest from Old Muscat) is Muscats commercial district. It has a similar crescent bay, topped by a single fort, clinging to a rocky crag and surrounded by camel-coloured mountains. You may well spot the Sultans private yacht gleaming among traditional wooden dhows and naval patrol boats in the harbour.
I took a stroll along the corniche over marble flagstones so shiny I thought theyd just been polished. At one end lies Muttrah souk, the oldest in Oman, with its labyrinthine alleyways and stalls selling miniature golden camels, Arabic coffee pots, incense burners and khanjars - carved sheathed daggers, part of the mens traditional dress.
If something catches your eye make sure, as Nabhan advised me, that youshow your talent for bargaining.Friendly haggling is expected and before you know it prices come tumbling down!
The one must-see in Muscat is the citys Grand Mosque. Even if youre not religious you cant fail to be impressed by its stunning architecture.
The carpet in the main prayer hall covers a staggering 5,000 sq m. It was made in sections in Iran and took 600 women four years to sew together. But its the crystal chandelier that steals the show - all 8 tons and 1,122 bulbs of it. (Open Sat-Wed 0800-1100. Make sure you dress conservatively. Women should wear a headscarf).
Beyond Muscat, Omans great outdoors kicks in with mountains, beaches, coastline and desert.
The mostaccessibledesert from Muscat is Wahiba Sands, home to the Bedouin and 6,000 year old dunes. Its about a 90 minute drive south from the capital.
When heading into the desert make sure you hire a 4x4 and an experienced guide little did I know mine was a former rally-driving champion!
We sped across the sands at 100km an hour (theres a hidden dirt track for the first 10km which he failed to mention) but once the dunes came into view, our pace slowed down somewhat, and we traced the sands magnificent dips and curves.
While youre in the desert you might like to try dune bashing (when 4x4s attack the dunes from all angles). If youre feeling a little less adventurous opt for a camel ride!
I stayed in Desert Nights Camp, in a tented hut, ate barbecued Omani lamb and sat around the campfire, marvelling at the stars.
The next morning as mist hung low over the tents, a group of us woke early for sunrise. We struggled to the top of a nearby dune, ankle-deep in sand, and threw ourselves, wheezing, onto the summit.
We watched, mesmerised, for more than an hour, as the sun rose and the sands turned russet, honey and gold.
Besides its deserts, Omans other scenic draw is its mountains. Towards the north theyre dominated by the Hajar range, home to Jebel Shams, the tallest peak, at 3,048m and Wadi Nakr Gorge, popularly known as the countrys Grand Canyon.
I stayed a night in a luxury tent at The View, awoke early and watched sunrise over the mountains.
The Hajar mountains are completely unspoilt. Roads pass traditional villages and oases rich in date palms. Dont miss the village of Al Hamra with its date palms and well-preserved falaj (irrigation) system that channels water from the mountains.
If youd rather focus on history and heritage head to Nizwa, the sultanates capital in the 6thand 7thcenturies and home to one of Omans 500 forts. Its about an hours drive southeast of Al Hamra. Visit on a Friday morning to catch the livestock market a rowdy, disorganised affair with its parade of cows and goats, and buyers shouting prices from the sidelines.
Behind the market lie various souks selling vegetables, silver, spices and incense. Most are now housed in modern, air-conditioned buildings, so stay outside if youre looking for local colour.
The southernmost Dhofar region provides a different experience of Oman, especially during Khareef, the monsoon season, (June to early September) when coastal plains turn green and waterfalls stream down from the mountains.
Famous for its frankincense trees, the region was once its trading centre for the resin, bringing wealth to Arabia right up until the 6thcentury AD. Nowadays its known for its Empty Quarter, one of the largest deserts in the world.
But most people visit Salalah and the surrounding area to enjoy its pristine beaches, scenery and archeological sites - which include Sumharam, the Queen of Shebas palace. I stayed at the Crowne Plaza Hotel and dined al fresco overlooking its beachside gardens.
You can fly from Muscat to Salalah, Dhofars administrative capital.
If youd prefer to take things easy head to the Musandam Peninsula, Omans most northerly tip. Its separated from the rest of the sultanate by the UAE so to avoid complications with visas and border controls its easiest to fly from Muscat to Khasab or take a six hour ferry ride.
I stayed at the Golden Tulip a small, friendly hotel, in the fishing village of Khasab, (it has an affiliated diving school) and took a mountain safari to the summit of Jebel Harim, the regions tallest peak at 2,097m. If you can stomach the hairpin bends the views are spectacular.
Most peoples visits to Musandam also include a dhow cruise through the fjords at the tip of the peninsula. With Iran just an hour away across the Strait of Hormuz you are likely to spot Iranian smugglers racing across the water in their speedboats. They bring goats to Khasab, sell them at the market and return with cigarettes. Port authorities turn a blind eye.
My cruise included a barbecue lunch and time for snorkelling. We also stopped at Telegraph Island where the British laid the first telegraph cable from India to Iraq in 1864.
On the way back, our skipper, a teenage lad who occasionally nudged the throttle with his foot, gave a shrill whistle. Dolphins appeared, diving in and out of the water around us.
Ministry of Tourism, Oman:www.omantourism.gov.om
The Chedi, Muscat:www.ghmhotels.com
Grand Hyatt, Muscat:www.juscat.grand.hyatt.com
The Millennium Resort, Mussanah:www.millenniumhotels.com
Desert Nights Camp, Wahiba Sands:www.desertnightscamp.com
The View, Hajar mountains: www.theviewoman.com
The Crowne Plaza Resort, Salalah: www.crowneplaza.com
The Golden Tulip, Khasab:www.goldentulipkhasab.com
Zahara Tours: www.zaharatours.com