There is something very refreshing about choosing to visit a destination you know nothing about and therefore have very few, if any expectations of. Most recently this happened to me when I chose to go to Oman for my honeymoon, not the conventional choice, I know!
I didn’t know anyone that had been there, in fact most people looked at me completely blankly when I told them where I was going. It isn’t the kind of location that pops up on your Instagram feed on the regular either!
When you think of the Middle East, it is hard not to imagine glitzy high rise skyscrapers and attractions that regularly hold the title of “biggest in the world”. Oman is the complete opposite. Stoically understated in design, you will not find a single skyscraper here, in fact, no building is allowed to be higher than fourteen stories in order to preserve the stunning natural beauty of this Gulf country.
Visitors only really started coming here in the 1970s when Sultan Qaboos took over from his father, began to build some infrastructure and set about modernizing the country, before then flinging their doors open to the outside world. The country is now switching gears again in order to increase tourism; a new hassle-free visa process has been introduced for many countries and a huge new airport opened in Muscat in 2018.
A City Break in Muscat
Start your journey in the country’s capital, which will prove beyond a doubt that you don’t need height to have beautiful architecture; just visit the Royal Opera House, Al Alam Palace and Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque, a gift from the Sultan to the people to mark his thirty years of reign. Don’t miss exploring Muttrah Souq as well, thought to be one of the world’s oldest Arabian market places.
The real beauty of Oman comes when you leave the city though. It has some of the most diverse landscape of any country I have ever visited; dramatic mountain ranges, deserted white sand beaches and magical Arabian desert, all within a couple of hours drive of the Muscat.
Jabal Akhdar Mountains
Take a road trip to Jabal Akhdar, part of the Al Hajar mountain range, for some respite from the heat; up here roses, apricots and pomegranates flourish on the mountainside, where the temperature is around 15°C cooler. It is the views that really take your breath away here though; deep ravines, wadis with abandoned villages clinging to the sides and more greenery than you would have ever thought possible for somewhere in the Middle East (it’s no coincidence that Jabal Akhdar roughly translates to “Green Mountain”).
You can visit in a day trip, but watching the sun set here is nothing short of surreal; the total silence around you only accentuating the experience, until all you can see are the glittering lights of the ancient city of Nizwa sparkling in the distance.
There are two knockout hotels up here, the Alila Jabal Akhdar and the Anantara; the latter is built around Diana’s Point where you can take in the views from the same spot as the late princess once did in 1986.
Wahiba Sands Desert
Getting to Wahiba Sands from Muscat is a very scenic journey in itself, the coastline is stunning and there are miles and miles of deserted and immaculate beaches.
Actually entering the desert is bit of a surprise; one minute you are bouncing along through a village and the next you take a turn and move immediately from road to sand (not sure what I was expecting?!).
Driving through the desert a very freeing and peaceful experience, until you started dune bashing. Here you can visit communities descended from the Bedouins (nomads who lived in deserts of the Middle East and North Africa) and learn about their lives and culture.
There are a few places to spend the night here. Wahiba Desert Nights Camp is on the more luxe side; your accommodation is an individual Bedouin inspired blend of tent and permanent structure, with hot water in the shower and air conditioning!
You can occupy yourself with desert safaris, camel riding or star gazing, but honestly, the best thing is just to ride up to the top of the highest dune to watch the sun fall in the sky and the sand change from reddish-orange to a dark yellow. The temperature drops quickly, so return to your camp for a communal dining experience with live music and a barbecue.
Oman is a stunningly diverse country with a more understated vibe, which is probably one of the reasons it has flown under the radar for so long. Now is the time to come though; Oman’s continuing efforts to increase tourism means it is an easy country to visit and get around, but it is still so much quieter in terms of visitors. I went in October (shoulder season) and outside of the hotels, didn’t come across many non-locals at all.
Bonus: Top Tips for Visiting Oman
- A visa is needed for most other countries and is easy to apply for on their e-visa site online. It is only valid for entry within a month of application though, so don’t get ahead of yourself and apply too soon (as I did).
- As with other Middle Eastern countries, conservative dressing is required. This means shoulders and knees covered as a minimum and you are required to cover your hair when entering any of the mosques.
- Oman is the safest country to visit in the Middle East with a very low crime rate and a very friendly and hospitable culture, so is great for female travelers.
- Public transport is not commonplace in Oman and if you are looking to leave the capital, I would recommend getting a driver. You can hire your own car, but driving through mountains and deserts should only be reserved for the most competent and confident drivers.
- As with other Middle Eastern countries, try not to visit between June and August where the temperature renders it difficult to step outside and many of the tour operators shut down for the season.