Not many Indians travel to Oman for leisure. In fact, this Middle Eastern country, bordering the U.A.E., Saudi Arabia and Yemen, isn’t a conventional tourist destination at all. Step out of the capital city of Muscat and you hardly see a soul. Most roads slice through mountains and are empty for most part of the day and night. Not a car in sight for hours. Barring Muscat, which receives a handful of business travellers, much of Oman still remains a relatively unchartered territory for Indians. After sampling what the sultanate has to offer on a week-long trip last December, I find it surprising that so many well-travelled Indians on the lookout for offbeat destinations have not yet found Oman; barely a three-hour flight from any major Indian metro.
Once a powerful kingdom, owing to its location that remains strategically important even today, Oman continues to flourish under monarchy. Sultan Qaboos bin Said al Said, having ruled the country for 47 years, is also Middle East’s longest serving monarch. Under his rule the country’s currency has grown stronger, one Omani rial roughly equals Rs165, and its infrastructure has improved tremendously. With roads smooth as butter, a two-hour journey doesn’t even leave an impression on the body, even if you were to cruise at 120 kmph. Located at the mouth of the Persian Gulf, Oman was also an important trading centre with links all the way to India. In March 2016, for instance, archaeologists discovered ancient Portuguese coins used in trade with India on the shipwreck site of Esmeralda on an island 40 kilometres south of the Omani coast. The Portuguese had ruled Oman for more than 100 years between the 16th and 17th centuries and were eventually defeated by the Arabs in 1741. Besides its history, what makes Oman fascinating is the country’s topography: most of central Oman, roughly the size of Madhya Pradesh, is just vast tracts of uninhabited desert. Between Muscat in the north and the southern province of Dhofar, there is zero sign of any life. This empty expanse encompasses parts of Rub’al Khali, the largest contiguous sand desert in the world, more famously known as the Empty Quarter.
Oman isn’t a sell-out destination, but it surely is catching up. In 2014, the World Tourism Council voted it as one of Middle East’s fastest growing tourism economies. With mountains in the north, desert in the centre and sea at the bottom, Oman has a wonderfully diverse landscape. This diversity is what attracts tourists from other gulf countries, most of whom come chasing that one elusive thing: rain. There’s more to Oman than rain though—some expected, some not.
A low-rise city walled by mountains, carpeted with the sea
Oman’s capital Muscat is its most popular destination and perhaps the only place where you might bump into other travellers. Since no building can go beyond 10 storeys, Muscat is a city of low-rises. The twin ancient forts of Al Mirani and Al Jalali, built by the Portuguese in the 1580s, rise over the city’s harbour to carve out a lovely historical skyline that’s otherwise consumed by Al Hajar Mountains. The one thing that lends Muscat its biggest charm, though, is its natural topography: you can see the mountains when you are beside the sea.
With the sea, come the beaches. Do spend time exploring them, especially the Qurum and Qantab beaches. Ideally, choose a hotel with a private beach. A good option is the Al Bustan Palace, but many other hotels come with private beaches too. Keep a day just for the beaches—swim, go on a boat tour, play volleyball, read a book or simply laze around. Muscat is also the home of the famous Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque, a beautiful ode to Islamic architecture in the centre of the city. You will need at least an hour to walk around its large and peaceful compound, admiring the intricate motifs and carvings. From the carpets and tiles to the flooring, everything here is elegant and beautiful. Sultan Qaboos’s central prayer hall can accommodate up to 6,000 people and its eight-tonne crystal chandelier is a true marvel of design. A visit to this mosque works like a soothing balm on the soul.
ESSENTIALS Muscat is a 3.5-hr flight from Delhi. Al Bustan Palace, 40 min east of the airport, is a good beach hotel option (www.albustanpalace.com; doubles from OMR140/Rs23,300).
A charming souk, and two townships built around forts that sport Omani architecture
Muscat’s Muttrah souk is grand enough for anyone who loves shopping in old bazaars but wait until you reach Nizwa. This beautiful city, 160 kilometres southwest of Muscat, is famous for the magnificent Nizwa Fort that looms over a fascinating souk. You may have toured oriental bazaars in Istanbul and Cairo but this souk beats them all. Navigating it makes you feel like you have strolled straight into the 18th century, where traders have just brought in dates and figs on horseback and are bargaining with cranky old merchants in starchy dishdashas. There are beautiful silver necklaces, khanjars (traditional Omani daggers), old rifles, lamps and candle stands, dates, figs, nuts, pots and pans, and hundreds of other beautiful trinkets to buy. You need at least a day to explore all that the Nizwasouk offers.
Set aside another day to explore the two forts, Nizwa and Bahla. Built in the mid-17th century, Nizwa Fort is a reminder that the city once served as Oman’s capital and was also its strongest city. Cocooned by thick walls, and with a 112-foot central tower, Nizwa Fort is a great example of typical Omani architecture characterised by geometrical layouts and the use of mud bricks and stone. About an hour away, the sand-coloured Bahla Fort is another fine testament to Oman’s rich heritage. Of the more than 500 castles and forts in Oman, this is the only fort to have made it to the UNESCO World Heritage List. One of the oldest forts in the country, some estimates say parts of it are from A.D. 500.
ESSENTIALS Nizwa is two hours from Muscat by road. Private cabs at the airport charge approximately OMR3/Rs500 per 10 kilometres. A reasonable stay option is the Golden Tulip Nizwa(www.goldentulipnizwa.com; doubles from OMR40/Rs6,600).
A mountain that overlooks Oman’s Grand Canyon
Muscat’s cacophony gets drowned as soon as you enter Route 15 leading into the Green Mountain, or Al Jabal Al Akhdar. An area of great natural beauty, the jagged mountains loom over you the entire way, the sun glinting through them creating mirages on the road. The Al Hajar Mountains, within whose range is nestled Al Jabal Al Akhdar, are itself truly magnificent—stark and beautiful as I had imagined them to be. Diana Point, one of the most popular tourist spots here, is now part of the Al Jabal Al Akhdar Resort by Anantara, which is currently one of the best places to stay here. Named after Lady Diana, the point pays homage to the spot where Diana once stood admiring Oman’s very own “Grand Canyon”. With layers of withered rock and a sheer drop, the spot offers panoramic views of Al Hajar Mountains.
Apart from relaxing at your mountain resort, eating typical Omani meals of grilled meat and dips with khubz (Arabic for pita) and star gazing, the mountains are a great opportunity for outdoor activities too. Try abseiling or rappelling, do a cliff-edge walk, or go for a village walk in the mountains where you can explore Oman’s old way of life, where olive trees give a beautiful break to an otherwise rocky landscape. Explore the ancient water-irrigation system in the thousand-year-old villages of al Ain and Laqar and navigate the many narrow parapets, locally known as aflaj. With the ever-present danger of slipping off these parapets into shrubs dotting the shallow waters below, this activity is quite thrilling. It also throws your way some breathtaking vistas capped by JabalAkhdar’s spotless deep blue sky.
ESSENTIALS The Al Hajar Mountains are two hours from Muscat by road. The Anantara Al Jabal Al Akhdar Resort offers exploratory and adventure activities (www.jabal-akhdar.anantara.com; doubles start at OMR108/Rs18,000).
Oman’s Goa, although quieter, less crowded
If you close your eyes in Muscat and open them upon landing in Salalah, you will never guess that it’s the same country. Is it Goa? It could be, except there are not those many people. Salalah is in Dhofar province, a 1.5-hour flight and a whole world away from Oman’s capital. The seaside city has swaying palms, endless stretches of pristine beaches, great seafood, historical sites, and for those who like the adrenaline rush, water sports. Until last year there weren’t great hotel options but then Al Baleed Resort Salalah came up in December 2016. Named after the historical Al Baleed site, the resort is close to major tourist attractions. This of course includes the Land of Frankincense museum, where you can learn about the importance of frankincense, the currency that Oman used for trade between seventh century B.C. and second century A.D.
The Al Baleed Archaeological Park, adjacent to the hotel, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site where evidence of a historical port city was recently excavated. This scenic open site is best explored on foot, especially on a wintry afternoon. About an hour from here, another heritage site, Khor Rori, is home to the Hadramite kingdom’s fortified town. At both these sites which date between 4th cenury B.C. and 16th century A.D., you can see pillars, walls and sections intact from centuries ago. This feeling of discovery is absolutely fantastic. There is a lot to do in and around Salalah too, including a trip to Wadi Darbat, about an hour away by road, where you can spot Oman’s diverse desert wildlife, including herds of cute Omani camels.
ESSENTIALS Salalah is a 1.5-hr flight away from Muscat. Al Baleed Resort Salah is a good option because of its proximity to major tourist attractions (www.salalah.anantara.com; doubles from OMR140/Rs23,000).
Kalyani Prasher is a freelance writer and editor based in Delhi. She was executive editor of India Today's travel magazine till end-2013 when she decided to get out of the office routine for a few months to see what having a life feels like. She never went back.