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April 18 2014 Latest news:
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The sultanate of 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 to tourists. Karen Bowerman went to visit.
The sultanate of 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 to tourists. Karen Bowerman went to visit
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 Bin Said for 40 years of inspired leadership. The Sultan must be one of the most dearly loved rulers in the world.
His serene face 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 the Sultan. 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 for. Before he came to power in 1970 (everyone can tell you the exact date) the sultanate had just 5km of tarmac road, one hospital and three schools, all for boys.
Today, thanks to an ambitious modernisation programme financed by oil, roads span out from Muscat in all directions, schools (for both sexes) number more than a thousand, and education and healthcare are free.
And now, both the sultanate and its people are keen to welcome tourists.
Muscat a modern capital city
All flights to Oman land in Muscat. Its a modern, clean capital with a recently opened opera house and numerous museums, but its smooth dual carriageways flanked with manicured grass verges, roundabouts planted with marigolds and the immaculately restored Muscat Gate (which looks like a recently rendered new build) make you feel as if youre driving through a scaled-up version of a model town.
The towering minarets of the Grand Mosque
But if theres one sight you should see its the Grand Mosque in the Azaiba district where the carpet in the main prayer hall covers a staggering 5,000 sq m. It was woven in sections in Iran and took 600 women four years to sew it together. But its the mosques crystal chandelier that steals the show - all 8 tons and 1,122 bulbs of it.
The charm of Old Muscat
For a sense of Old Arabia head to the old town where two small Portuguese forts, Mirani and Jalali overlook Muscat Bay and Al Alam, one of the Sultans eight palaces, backs onto the water.
A 15 minute drive northwest from Old Muscat takes you to Muttrah. I took a stroll along the corniche over marble flagstones so shiny I thought theyd just been washed. Towards one end theres Muttrah souk, the oldest in Oman, with its labyrinthine alleyways and stalls selling miniature gold 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 suggested, you show your talent for bargaining. Friendly haggling is expected!
Further along the coast look out for the fishing village of Quiryat, famous for its tuna and shark, most of which it exports to Japan. Theres also the Bima sinkhole, which makes a refreshing place to paddle as the heat kicks in.
And then Omans great outdoors really kicks in with deserts, wadis, mountains and pristine beaches all waiting to be explored.
Camp in the desert in the Wahiba Sands
The most accessible desert from Muscat is Wahiba Sands, home to the Bedouins and about three hours drive from the capital.
When heading into the desert make sure you hire a 4x4 and an experienced guide little did I know Nabhan 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 6000 year old dunes came into view we took things more slowly.
I stayed in Desert Nights Camp, in a tented hut, ate barbecued Omani lamb and sat around the campfire, marvelling at the stars.
The dunes at sunrise - russet, honey and gold
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.
The Hajar Mountains home to Omans Grand Canyon
Besides its deserts, Omans other main scenic draw is its mountains. Towards the North theyre dominated by the Hajar Mountains, home to Jebel Shams, the tallest peak (3048m) and Wadi Nakr Gorge, popularly known as the sultanates Grand Canyon.
Omans relaxing Musandam Peninsula
But for me it was the mountains overlooking the fjords at Musandam (Omans Northernmost tip) that were the most impressive. Here jagged rocks towered either side of narrow dirt tracks that wound up to the summit of Jebel Harim (2097m).
Here, in the middle of a barren landscape, we turned a corner to find the Sayh Plateau where members of the Shihuh tribe grow palms and look after donkeys and goats. The mountains are also the home to an impressive collection of rock paintings and fossils.
Searching for Old Arabia?
If youd rather focus on history and heritage, Oman has numerous forts and towns, many of which embody the spirit of old Arabia.
Nizwa its souk, cattle market and fort
One of the oldest is Nizwa, the sultanates capital in the 6th and 7th centuries and home to Nizwa fort with its colossal tower and a multitude of rooms.
If you visit on a Friday (around 0700-1000) you can also catch the livestock market a rowdy, disorganised affair with cows and goats marched round in a procession and buyers shouting prices at random.
Behind are various souks selling vegetables, silver, spices and incense. Most are now housed in modern, covered markets, so stay outside if you want local colour. I watched two lads, barely ten, haggling, cajoling, raising their eyebrows and shaking their heads as they sold doves and rabbits to a crowd of unsuspecting adults!
Nearby Bahla Fort, designated a world Heritage site by UNESCO is also impressive, but currently its closed for renovation.
The green lushness of Dhofar
Omans Southernmost Dhofar region provides an altogether different experience, especially during Khareef, the monsoon season, 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 6th century AD. Its also home to the Empty Quarter, one of the largest deserts in the world.
The areas largely visited for its scenic and archeological sites, including Sumharam, the Queen of Shebas palace and the dramatic, mountainous coast road leading towards Yemen.
You can fly from Muscat to Salalah, Dhofars administrative capital.
Take things easy at Musandam
If youd prefer to take things easy head in the other direction 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 or take a 6 hour ferry ride.
Khasab at the foot of limestone mountains
I stayed in the fishing village of Khasab at the foot of stark, inhospitable mountains and took a traditional dhow cruise through the fjords at the tip of the peninsula. With Iran just an hour away across the Strait of Hormuz it wasnt long before I spotted 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 of sardines and hammour fish which tasted meaty and a bit like red mullet. We passed small inlets and snorkelled off 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.
When to visit
The best time is during Winter (October-March) when temperatures range from 25-36 degrees. You can buy a tourist visa costing 6 rials upon arrival at Muscat International airport.
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: http://www.crowneplaza.com
The Golden Tulip, Khasab: www.goldentulipkhasab.com
Global Tours: www.globaltoursoman.com
Zahara Tours: www.zaharatours.com