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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.