Oman was never really on my radar as somewhere I’d take my family on holiday. It just didn’t occur to me for many reasons, perhaps because I was under the impression that it was a rather dry (and yes, I mean alcohol) and stark environment to take a very active family, always in search of fun and adventure.
However, following my recent recce trip for Steppes Travel, I am utterly converted and totally convinced that this is a fantastic holiday destination for my energetic and spirited young family.
After a very easy and comfortable seven-hour flight direct from London Heathrow, we arrived at Muscat International Airport. Out of the plane window we could see the runway shimmering and wobbling in the heat, the sand coloured earth cracked and dry, crying out for a drink, leading to the rise of enormous, dark craggy mountains in the distance.
Disembarking the plane, an incredibly smiley Omani welcomed us, immaculately dressed in a crisp, white cotton, floor length gown, holding a sign with our names on it. After the flight, it was a lovely way to begin the trip and we were steered away from long customs and visa queues to a smart, cool, airport lounge.
What strikes me immediately is the calm. Omani families and groups go about their business in a gentle, quiet manner. There’s no barrage of noise or someone jostling you and there’s certainly no staring. The obvious indications of note when arriving in an Arabic country are the huge pictures of their King – Sultan Qaboos bin Said al Said, (something I’d see regularly all over Oman) and men and women dressed in the national dress. Almost all Omani men wear a dishdashi, a floor length robe and a cap or head cloth wound into a turban. Omani women wear black (generally) floor length ‘abayasare’ over their home clothes, made of thin silky material. Some also wear a veil or mask to cover their faces with only their heavily painted eyes on show. A group of veiled women sitting near us laugh and chat happily amongst themselves, occasionally glancing over with smiling, glittering eyes, full of mischief.
Muscat city is immaculate. Clean, wide open avenues and roads with the latest motor vehicles, designed and manufactured specially for the Omani market, to the highest spec. Our guide informs us that people come to Oman specifically to buy the cars. Observing health and safety standards is clearly a high priority and this is demonstrated in their driving skill! These guys can actually drive, and properly. There are rules here that are adhered to. I feel safe and in very capable hands.
Looking around me, I can see a country on the rise. Development and investment is apparent everywhere, with The Sultan driving forward, pouring huge amounts of money into his people and the infrastructure. Not that long ago this was a stark, barren land where life was hard and unforgiving. The terrain is not conducive to easy living, with vast, formidable mountain ranges and huge swathes of desert covering most of the country. However, discovering incredibly valuable resources such as oil, gas and gold has propelled this country into first world living within a very short space of time. The people here call it the ‘bomb’ when in the early 70’s Shell discovered massive oil resources, large gold deposits were mined and King Sultan Qaboos overthrew his father, thereby forming a new vision for the people of Oman. We quizzed our guide about social care, the health service, the education system, employment, politics – it all sounded too good to be true but wherever we went and whoever we met seemed extremely happy with King and country.
Muscat city is a fun, safe place to explore. We visited the bustling souk, fish market and the magnificent Grand Mosque and Opera House. Combined with a selection of superb beach hotels you could spend a week just based here. For the water baby there is warm, clear, gentle water to snorkel and dive in and the opportunity to hire jet skis, speed boats or yachts.
From Muscat, we headed into the Jebel Akhdar, part of the mighty Hajar Mountains, a huge mountain range that rises to the highest point, Jebel Shams at 3000 metres. We drove for a few hours along exceptionally good, wide, empty roads, that snake gently through the range, slowly climbing and becoming windier, to reach the ancient fort town of Nizwa. The scenery is stark but dramatic, with green oasis, moist enough to allow the growth of shrubs, trees, and support agriculture. This area is famous for its rose water, pomegranates, walnuts, apricots, grapes, and peaches. The little water that does fall is harvested by ingenious ‘afalj’ irrigation systems, designed by mountain dwellers who have lived in the mountains for hundreds of years. Walking through these small, ancient villages (mostly derelict and empty) is fascinating, learning about a tough life in an unforgiving environment.
Nizwa used to the be the capital of Oman and is one of its oldest cities. Once the centre of trade, religion, education, and art, it is now a prosperous, buzzing city with a superb souk at its heart. Visit on a Friday for the full Nizwa experience where traders from all over the region come to trade in livestock, fish, and vegetables. Even if you can’t make it on a Friday there is still plenty to see with shops full of pottery, old rifles, other weaponry, jewellery, silver, and spices all on show. Also, take a visit to the Nizwa Fort, a prominent structure with a circular gunnery, expansive courtyards, and ominous murder holes for potential invaders. Climbing to the top is well worth the effort to admire the view and grasp the scale of the surrounding plantations.
The Jebel Akdar mountains are full of lagoons so once we’d exhausted ourselves walking through villages, visiting plantations, and climbing forts, we continued into the deep wadis to cool off in the clear blue rock pools. Bani Wadi Khalid is one of the better-known wadis attracting locals and tourist for a picnic and refreshing dip. This is brilliant fun and even more of an adventure if you walk deeper into the ravine, following the river and pools to the many waterfalls that feature further up. You also get away from the crowds in peak season.
Leaving the mountains behind us, we drove for a few hours back towards the coastline, diverting into the Omani Desert known as Wahiba Sands. You could spend days in this region, it is exceptionally beautiful, surrounded by silence and star filled skies. It is worth the effort to drive a bit deeper into the sands to stay at a private tented camp, hidden amongst the dunes. We visited a few established fixed camps, which offered all the comforts of luxury camping, however noise and light pollution were a concern. For the adventurous, take a jeep across untouched dunes and past herds of wild camels. Riding a camel is an unforgettable experience particularly if you go at sunset. We climbed to the top of the highest dunes to watch the sunrise and then jumped on a sand board to make our way back down again. Thrilling. As dark descended, the crackling campfire, candlelit atmosphere, star filled sky and delicious Arabian BBQ sounded the end to an epic day.
Returning to the coast we stayed at some utterly blissful beach hotels (and Oman has these in spades). If you are looking for a really good value option then the Shangri La Al Waha would keep my boys entertained for a week. Located on a long white, sandy beach, the water is calm, warm and safe to swim, teeming with tropical fish. Turtles nest in numbers matched by no other country on the planet and whales and dolphins are a common sight. As an alternative, it’s got to be the Anantara Salalah (a short flight from Muscat, south to the Dhofar region). This hotel makes you feel welcome and special the minute you arrive with exceptional staff and service, food to die for and the most epic swimming pool leading to a massive expanse of beach. For children, it’s perfect, with a whole club set up to entertain them daily.
We left Oman feeling refreshed, uplifted, and invigorated. Optimistic about life and happy to be alive. Now that is what we all want from a holiday, isn’t it?