This is the land of Sinbad the Sailor, filled with the beauty and mystery of Arabian Nights. Along the corniche waterfront of old Muscat, Arab dhows still offload their cargo, and in the tangled alleyways of the souks, hooded figures still haggle for wares like characters in the tales of Scheherazade.
The Sultanate of Oman enjoyed a business boom for the last decade; and advances have been so phenomenal, it’s difficult to believe the entire country was officially offlimits to tourists until the 1970s. Before then, the sultan personally signed the visas of the handful of VIPs allowed to visit each year. Because the country remained closed for so long, Oman is now one of the most traditional and culturally fascinating countries in the Gulf.
The main reason travelers fall so completely in love with Oman is simple: the character of the Omani people. The old Bedu (Bedouin) tradition of hospitality is alive and well here. Whether staying in a nomad camp in the dunes or sipping tea in the stall of a carpet trader in the souks, visitors are treated as honored guests.
With the doors of Oman flung open, tourism has come of age. Muscat’s business and tourism center now boasts a bounty of luxury hotels suited to business travelers. Increasingly, too, the sultanate is becoming a prime destination for family holidays.
You need not go far from Muscat to find wilderness and adventure. While the mountains around the city have enough extreme sports options to satisfy the tastes of even the most ardent adrenalin junky (from climbing to abseiling to caving and zip lining), there are also tamer possibilities.
According to Rob Gardner, founder of Muscat Diving & Adventure Centre, “Oman is a natural choice for a family destination. For kids, it offers an unparalleled adventure, a chance to become a young adventurer, a Lawrence of Arabia or Queen of Sheba.”
Gardner has spent almost two decades exploring the deserts, mountains and reefs of what he calls “the world’s biggest natural fun park” and has established a whole menu of tours and activities for families and even school groups. “The people here are extremely familyoriented,” he says. “Every person you meet understands children; this is a great advantage for parents on holiday.”
Muscat is an ideal base for exploring many of Oman’s greatest natural sites. Within two hours’ drive of the city, you can be in rolling dunes or swimming in the fresh water of an oasis. You can ride a camel across desert sands in the morning and sip syrupy-sweet tea through the afternoon heat as the honored guest in a Bedu encampment. Wake from a night’s sleep on a traditional dhow to see dolphins leaping in the balmy Indian Ocean waters, or camp on pristine beaches and watch turtles lay their eggs. Just over an hour from the sweltering heat of the city, you can enjoy natural air conditioning at an altitude of more than 9,000 feet in the Hajar Mountains.
The mighty Hajars form a natural bulwark around the capital and a 400-mile barrier between the desert and the turquoise waters of the Gulf, at one time effectively separating the forbidden city of Old Muscat from the outside world.
Just 60 years ago, the great explorer Wilfred Thesiger unsuccessfully petitioned the local imam for permission to explore Jabal Akhdhar at the heart of the Hajar Mountains. The imam was based in the fortress city of Nizwa at the foot of the mountain — a place that was still off-limits to outsiders at the time.
Only in Arabia could this great rocky ridge be called Green Mountain. The area is famous for the lush wadis (dry river beds) and the Sayq Plateau where walnuts, figs, almonds, olives, peaches, apricots, mulberries, grapes, nectarines and the world’s best pomegranates are grown. A ribbon of smooth asphalt now leads into the heart of this once almost impenetrable region. The local people finally have a means to get their crops to market, and Green Mountain has become one of the premier daytrips for visitors to Muscat.
Oman’s population is about the same as that of Puerto Rico but spread across an area roughly the size of New Mexico. Even with recent improvements in roads, this remains a country of unspoiled wilderness. Finding your way around Oman still requires a spirit of adventure and occasionally some exciting wadi-bashing, the Omani equivalent of off roading. While off-roading in many parts of the world is considered detrimental to the natural habitat, the desert wadis are in a constant state of flux and seem unaffected by the passage of 4x4s.
Oman even has its own version of the Grand Canyon. Wadi Nakhr is the wadi to end all wadis. Geologist Sue Hutton described this area as “a huge anticline flanked by hard limestones and ophiolites, enthrusted mantle rocks revealing angular unconformity between tilted Palaeozoic rocks and overlying Permian limestones.” Put simply: Wadi Nakhr is really, really craggy.
The canyon’s appropriately named Balcony Walk follows a spectacular trail with peaks rising up in great rearing slabs, cracked and crumpled by the tectonic forces at the spot where Africa and Asia quite literally collide. Almost a vertical kilometer down, a few shrinking waterholes glint in the sunlight, marking the course of what is grandly considered to be a river in this part of the Gulf. Wadi Nakhr does indeed bear a startling resemblance to the other Grand Canyon … if you ignore the absence of parking lots, T-shirt stalls and security fences.
It has been said the spirits of every person who ever lived in this part of Arabia haunt the
canyons and caves of Oman. Stories abound of luckless mountain people who strayed into the caves only to be driven mad by the voices of wailing jinns struggling to find their way out of the underworld.
One of the most spectacular caves is the black hole known as Majlis al Jinn, or “The Jinn’s Reception Room.” It is said to be the sixth-largest cavern in the world. Rob Gardner’s team was the first to run regular descents into this immense grotto.
“When we first descended into many of the caves, we had no idea how far down we were going,” he says. “We broke light-sticks to try to illuminate the bottom, but when we dropped them they just fell away into the darkness. Majlis in particular seemed to be bottomless, and I began to worry that I was just going to come to the end of a 200-meter rope.”
In fact, Majlis al Jinn’s 186 meters did not leave a lot of extra leeway. With a total area of 60,000 square meters, this cavern would be large enough to accommodate the Great Pyramid of Giza.
Near the village of Wadi Bani Habib — with its mud and stone houses seemingly bracketed onto the face of Jabal Akhdhar — we met an old man who introduced himself as Rachid Suleiman Majid Al-Fardi. With hospitality we had already recognized as typically Omani, he stopped to offer us a handful of delicious pomegranates freshly picked from his orchard. He carried a walking stick polished with age and wore an ancient ring with a yellow and blue stone to safeguard him from “the evil eye.”
The old man was born when this was a dangerously feudal region made up of splinter factions of the Bani Riyam tribe and fierce bands of armed nomads. When he was still a teenager, there were less than five miles of paved road in the entire country, and he was already in his late 40s when he saw his first foreigner. I realized, however, just how fast progress was making inroads into rural Oman when Rachid Suleiman Majid Al-Fardi paused to untangle a chirping cellphone from the folds of his traditional dishdasha robes. Times are changing fast in old Oman. Word is finally out about the attractions of Arabia’s greatest secret.
Info to Go
Muscat International Airport (MCT) is approximately 18 miles from Old Muscat; currently, only taxi service is available to and from the airport, but an airport expansion, under construction, is expected to be complete in 2014. Muscat Diving & Adventure Centre operates tours or can arrange logistics for independent caving and climbing groups. All MDAC’s tours are accompanied by at least one Omani guide.
In addition to 158 posh guestrooms
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In the middle of Muscat’s diplomatic
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Set along the bay of Al Jissah, the
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While the atmosphere reflects
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modern and renowned in Muscat.
Radisson Blu Hotel, Al Khuwair Way, No. 209 $$$$
With a kitchen team specially
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Al Bustan Palace, A Ritz-Carlton Hotel, P.O. Box 1998 $$$$
Chef de Cuisine Fabrizio Valdetara
creates seasonal menus based on
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romantic setting. A variety of wines
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Grand Hyatt Muscat, Shatti Al Qurm, P.O. Box 951 $$$$
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