With Yemen and Saudi effectively off-limits to casual tourism, anyone seeking a taste of ‘Old Arabia’ these days makes a beeline for the Sultanate of Oman, a modern Gulf state with a wonderfully antique underbelly. Until the current ruler, Sultan Qaboos, took over in the 1970s, this ranked among the most secretive and closed of countries. But four decades of carefully managed development, financed by oil and gas exports, have brought about a spectacular transformation, ensuring visitors can sample Oman’s special atmosphere in great comfort, style and security.
The capital, Muscat, serves as most people’s gateway, and it’s a perfect primer for any Arabian adventure. Stroll down the city’s exotic seafront promenade, whose mighty, azure-tiled mosque and Sultan’s Palace gaze across a bay enfolded by rugged desert mountains. Wooden dhows laze off-shore, surveyed by crumbling sandstone fortresses, and the souk is crammed to bursting point with traditional merchandise, from elaborately decorated silver khanjar daggers to turbans.
Possible destinations further afield include the coastal city of Sur, reached via a dramatic drive through the Hajar Mountains, or via a sinuous shoreline road punctuated by sparkling white beaches, palm-lined ravines and vertiginous cliffs that plummet to a sea the colour of lapis.
Oman’s second city, Nizwa, is regarded as the country’s cultural heart – a breathtakingly green oasis of palm trees and old-world architecture, off-set by a superb mountain backdrop. Travellers tend to pause here en route to the deep desert region of Dhofar further south – the legendary Empty Quarter explored by Thesinger in the 1940s, and where, more recently, Ranulph Fiennes discovered the remains of the mythic ‘Frankincense City’, Ubar, buried for centuries under a pall of soft sand.
Whether you’re looking for a couple of day’s relaxing on the beach between flights, or an authentic taste of the Arabian sands, Oman is hard to beat.
Capital: City of Muscat
Area: 309,500 square kilometres (a quarter larger than the UK)
Population: 2,509,000 (4% of the UK)
Religions: Majority Ibadi Muslim (75%), Sunni and Shia Muslims, Christians, Hindus, Buddhists and Sikhs (25%)
Languages: Arabic is the official language of Oman, with English widely spoken and German known in tourist locations (namely hotels)
Time: +4 hours (GMT)
When to Go
The best time to travel to Oman is from November to mid-March, when the average temperature is around 25 degrees. It is best to avoid southern Oman during its rainy season of mid-June to late August. Naturally, the summer months can be incredibly hot. For those wanting to glimpse the endangered green turtle, it is possible to see them both laying and hatching eggs from September to November.
Oman Air flies direct to Muscat from London Gatwick, which takes 8 hours. British Airways fly from London Heathrow, with a stopover en route. Gulf Air via Manama, Emirates via Dubai, Qatar via Doha. Indirect flights take approximately 10 hours.
Private Transfers and Sightseeing
All our itineraries in Oman are based on private cars, vans or 4x4s, with an experienced driver.
While domestic flight options are very limited, Oman air connects Muscat with Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Doha, Kuwait and many other destinations in the Middle East. Plans are in place to build more domestic airports.
Boat travel is an option when travelling from the mainland to surrounding islands, as well as when participating in the many water sports and sea excursions on offer.
Driving in Oman requires a four-wheel drive, due to varied road conditions.
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My daughter and I have just returned from a ten day visit to Oman. We were on a private tour, with an interesting and varied itinerary, organised by TransIndus in London and Eihab Travel in Muscat. With excellent drivers and guides and an eclectic mix of hotels, each day was a wonderful surprise and adventure. Oman is a staggeringly beautiful country - high mountains, deep ravines, wadies, turquoise sea and white sand beaches, golden sand dunes and some exquisite architecture. The colours are breathtaking. The people are lovely - friendly, dignified and hospitable. We had a truly memorable visit. Our thanks to all those people who made it possible.Mr Dalley, Tailor-made Oman read more comments