Oman...Muscat.......frankincense in the warm desert breeze, the smell of rare spices...chatter of the souks...the roaring silence of the desert. A warm and welcoming people with a vibrant history and a positive feeling for the future. Vogue has chosen it as the destination for 2008. With its wadis and deserts, its beaches and mountain areas and its forts, old souks, weekend village markets and camel racing, Oman has caught the imagination of almost all who come to its shores.
Almost everyday, there is a cruise ship anchored in Muscat or Salalah and this is no surprise as Muscat was, even as early as the 1st century, already acknowledged as a notable port by the Greek geographers. The city lies on the Arabian Sea along the Gulf of Oman and is close to the strategic Straits of Hormuz. Presently, it is the capital of the Sultanate as well as its commercial center.
Visiting Oman is easy. You can get a visa at any entry point. Roads are excellent so getting around is not a problem. There are many things to do and here are some of the highlights:
Stay at the Al Bustan Palace. It has a breathtaking foyer with male Omanis in native costumes preparing frankincense. Burning frankincense seems to transport you to a magical place. Al Bustan has its own beach and garden. If the Al Bustan price is too much for your budget, there is the Crowne Plaza and the Shangrila, which are also along the beach.
Go around the port district of Muttrah. Stroll along Mina Sultan Qaboos and admire the yachts and ships moored at Muscat's main trading port. Visit the traditional bazaar, Souq Muttrah and Sour La-Al-Lawatiah, a small community of houses surrounded by an old wall. Make sure you buy spices, perfume, incense and frankincense to take home.
Visit the Al Alam Palace. This is the ceremonial palace of His Majesty Sultan Qaboos. Visitors are not allowed inside but the outside is quite impressive and it is surrounded by the Mirani and Jalali Forts built by the Portuguese in the 16th century.
Visit Nizwa. Visit the old fort, a monument to the Omani architectural ingenuity in the Ya'rubi era. Trudge through the Falaj Daris, a world heritage site that may date back two thousand years. A falaj is a channel that brings water from underground sources or springs to support agriculture and domestic use, often over many kilometers.
Don't miss the souk in Nizwa. It is bustling with vendors selling everything from meat, fish, fruits and vegetables to spices, dates, gold and silverware. Nizwa is renowned for its silver jewelry, which is considered to be the best in the country. You can watch Nizwa's masters make Khanjar (curved daggers worn by the Omani men with their ceremonial clothes). If you are there on a Friday morning, go early and zip to the far end of the souk which hosts, in the shade of date palm trees, a lively livestock market. You will see local farmers parade their cows, goats and sheep to be inspected, auctioned and sold to the highest bidders. This is a hands-on event...no corrals...you and the goats are eye to eye and you have never seen bargaining like this before! This scene provides not only amusement, but an opportunity to observe local traditional customs. And watch out...you can become part of the good-tempered bargaining.
Cruise by dhow along the magnificent coastline. The dhow is the traditional boat used in Oman. Stop at Bandar Khayran with its calm waters and isolated beaches to swim and snorkel. Lots of fish and turtle action so take a mask. Or just have a picnic and walk or lounge in the beach.
Visit the desert. The most renowned Omani desert is Sharqiyah Sands (formerly Wahiba Sands) with its dunes rising to nearly 200 meters. Go dune bashing, and see how loud you really do scream in terror! Sleep out in Barsti huts, Omani BBQ under the stars, ride a camel and eat with the Bedouins. Your hotel can arrange all this.
Watch a camel race. Omanis take pride and full care in raising their camels implementing strict methods of taming and nourishment. Camels bred for racing undergo intensive training in order to compete at national and international levels. Camels are given names reflecting their respective abilities and endurance. Jockeys are drafted for their size (or lack thereof) and some make their professional debuts around five years old. The races are normally held on public holidays and during National Day celebrations.
Take the luban (frankincense) route. This route comprises the ancient cities of Al-Blaid and Shasr, Khuwr Rori, and Wadi Dooka, locations that collectively contributed to the flourishing of frankincense trade for many centuries.
Visit Salalah. Referred to as the "perfume capital of Arabia," Salalah is a city of antiquity, boasting both the ruins of a fortified town Sumharam, an important port from 100BC-400AD, and the resting place of the Koranic prophet Ayoub, Job in the nearby Jabal Qara. The Port of Salalah, located approximately 15 km to the southwest of the city, is one of the major entry points to India, the Middle East, and Africa.
Visit the villages of Saiq, Wadi Bani Habit (the village of the old houses) and Al Ain. These villages overlook a spectacular landscape of dramatic peaks, gorges and wadis. The roses of Jabal Al Akhdar fill the air with fragrance when in full bloom (March / April). Rose water is distilled in the homes of the villagers.
Today, when international understanding is at an absolute premium, go to Oman and meet a warm and generous people who really welcome visitors. Cut through the rhetoric and get your own data while having a great time.