Oman probably isn’t the first location you think of when you are planning a trip away but after spending three days here I realised just how underrated this country is as a travel destination. The Middle East doesn’t always receive great press either – it’s the centre of many turbulent disturbances, controversial wars and unequal women’s rights. The latter probably deters many Western women from visiting, but our hosts were quick to inform us that Oman has been a pioneer in the Gulf when it comes to this sensitive subject.
The country is run by the respected Sultan of Oman is Qaboos bin Said Al Said – and since the start of his leadership, he’s spent a lot of money developing his country, which included personally funding the building of the Grand Mosque and the Royal Theatre. He is passionate about not imitating Dubai and Qatar and risking his country’s identity by building seas of towering skyscrapers – all the buildings have a tasteful balance of Islamic and Omani style.
As a result the land has remained relatively underdeveloped and is also beautifully diverse – a rarity in the Middle East – and ranges from sprawling deserts and mountain ranges to vast areas of greenery. It’s not short on activities on offer either – Oman offers an excellent range of activities including boating, fishing, diving and messing around in the desert!
Making the most of Muscat
Two of the most impressive buildings in Muscat are the Grand Mosque and the Royal Theatre. The Grand Mosque in particular really stands out (but if you are a non-Muslim make sure you check when you are allowed to visit). It’s a beautifully ornate building which took six years and four months to build and the huge chandeliers hanging in the mosque are worth the visit alone. The Royal Theatre is another important attraction and since opening in 2011 a host of Arabian and International artists have treaded its boards. Some of the operas only cost from 2 OMR per person as it’s the Sultan’s aim for the theatre to be as accessible to the general public as possible.
Oman Sail is another stand out place. It’s the home of the Oman sailing team who will compete in the Asian Games this year and it’s also where young Omani children come to master this nautical art. Here you can arrange a tour on a catamaran and during our trip we ventured out on a scenic sunset cruise overseen by charismatic Abdullah, our skipper (who even skilfully caught a fish for our evening meal).
Whilst Nizwa’s fort is the town’s main attraction, I personally think the souk shouldn’t be missed. The souk has been split into different areas including a ‘dates souq’ and a ‘cattle souq’. The latter is only open on a Friday and this is the time people come to buy cows, goats and other livestock. Although it’s the spice market with its wonderful array of colours and potent aromas which is the most attractive part of the market.
Our final stop on the Muscat bus tour was to the impressive Mutrah Souq on the Mutrah Corniche. It is a traditional covered Arabian market full of treasures and as soon as you walk in you are instantly hit with the smell of frankincense and other potent – but pleasant – aromas. As you head down the winding lanes you find stalls selling lots of different kinds of textiles, gold and some interesting antique shops. As in any Arabian souk you’re expected to haggle, but unless you’re accompanied by a local you’re unlikely to get a price as low as you want!
If you’re going to make the most of the diverse landscapes you’ll need to venture outside the capital. Your first stop should be the impressive Grand Canyon – a place reached by a long windy road trip either by a 4×4 self-drive or by an organized tour. Once there the views are truly incredible – especially at sunset when you see the brown rocks transform to a wonderful rusty red colour.
Perched on the edge of the canyon is the extraordinary and aptly named ‘The View’ which is a collective of Eco-pods that overlook the town of Jebel Shams and the Grand Canyon. The pods have a full glass fronts and balconies and if you opt for a Premium Pod, you can even sit in the bath while you enjoy your view!
Overall Oman is a beautifully diverse and fascinating travel destination – a culturally rich country with a healthy dose of Middle Eastern exoticism thrown in for good measure. I was delighted to have discovered this underrated country.
We explored the city via the Big Bus tour (for an adult it is 22 OMR and 54 OMR for a family) which takes you around the city. Like most good tours it is a hop-on and hop-off service and provides commentary as it journeys around the city’s highlights. (1 OMR = 1.59 GBP).