Why Oman is the Middle-East’s new must-see destination
Thinking of heading to the Middle East but not quite sure where? Try Oman.
This stunning sultanate is under a 2-hour drive from Dubai, but feels a world apart. There are old markets fringed by date palms, a mountain range often called the “Grand Canyon of the Middle East”, beaches where turtles hatch, deserts perfect for overnight camping, and dense greenery that feels like a tropical escape.
Throw in some of the kindest locals you could ever hope for, and you’ve got an amazing holiday on your hands.
Before you book flights or hop into that 4×4, there are some things you should know. Fortunately, we’ve got someone that can help. Dubai-based luxury travel journalist Danae Mercer shares all the top tips and insider insights you’ll need.
Fast facts on Oman
Oman borders Dubai, but couldn’t be more different. This traditional neighbour has a much calmer vibe, with heaps of nature (mountains, beaches, desert) and a conservative but incredibly friendly group of locals.
You won’t see a lot of other tourists — but that’s changing. Money is being invested in Oman’s tourism efforts and more hotels keep popping up. For travellers, that means there’s no time like the present to go.
“If you get a chance to visit Oman, do it,” says George Ryland, co-host of Oman’s Hi FM Morning Show with Robin Banks. “It’s an incredible country with so much to see. You can choose a night at the Royal Opera House or a night in the desert, shop in one of the souqs or escape the heat in the mountains.”
Or if you’re feeling a bit lazy? “You can get a nice hotel and a tan!”
Unwind at luxury spas in Musandam Peninsula
One of the joys of Oman is just how much slower it moves compared to its glittering, partying neighbours.
“Oman has a beautifully relaxed pace,” says Eva Stanley-Jones, PR and publisher of Oman Magazine. “It’s calm, peaceful and serene. If you’re coming from the rat race of a cosmopolitan city, take the time to enjoy the quiet. Embrace its ebb and flow.”
One of the best spots to do that is the ultra-luxurious Six Senses Zighy Bay. This private resort is less than two hours’ driving time from Dubai and transport can be arranged. There’s beach on one side, mountains on the other. A small local community sits in the valley.
Insider’s tip: “Paraglide into reception at the SSZB. It’s probably the most unique arrival into a hotel that you will ever come across,” says Simon Cameron, founder and CEO of LightfootTravel.
Climb down massive gorges in the Al Hajar Mountains
An 8-hour drive from Musandam Peninsula, the Al Hajar Mountain Range is often referred to as the “Grand Canyon of the Middle East” — and it’s easy to see why.
“It offers world-class trekking, a via ferrata (climbing down a mountain attached to a metal rope) and stunning views,” says Julian Ayers, general manager for the Alila Jabal Akhdar resort (below). Pomegranates, abandoned villages and goats dot the mountains, making for scenic stops while hiking along any number of wadis (dried-up river beds).
“The silence here is deafening,” says Ayers.
Temperatures tend to be cooler than the rest of Oman. “During the winter evenings it can get a little chilly, but nothing a warm sweater can’t resolve,” Ayers says.
Explore opera & mosques in Muscat
Refined, elegant, with wide, palm-fringed roads, Oman’s capital city Muscat has serious cultural appeal — and it’s around a 5-hour drive from Dubai.
Head to the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque (below) for stunning architecture. At the Royal Opera House, you’ll find everything from popular western shows to local performances. “They have a great season planned,” says Oman radio host Chris Fisher. The National Museum is now fully open to the public as well, where you can see some of Oman’s most precious historic artefacts.
The Chedi Muscat is one of the area’s most popular hotels. This symmetrical property includes three pools (one of which is 103 metres long) and a 21-acre garden oasis. A 40-minute drive southeast takes you to the Shangri-La Barr Al Jissah Resort & Spa (below), a recently relaunched 5-star venue.
Insider’s tip: “Experience Oman’s scenic beauty at the Bimmah Sinkhole (below), a deep pool where visitors can plunge into emerald-tinted waters; and Wadi Shab, which features waterfalls, aquamarine pools and lush green plantations of lemon, banana and date trees. Both can be seen in one day,” says Juergen Doerr, general manager of the Shangri-La Barr Al Jissah.
Check out tropical Salalah in June
Despite direct flights from Dubai to Salalah with FlyDubai, this southern part of Oman remains fairly unexplored.
It’s definitely worth a visit – particularly during its khareef (monsoon) season, from June to September. This is when the desert is transformed into dense greenery, filled with lush palm trees, banana plantations and a constant haze of rolling mist opening onto untouched beaches.
Head to Al Fazayeh Beach near the Al Baleed Resort Salalah by Anantara for sheer cliffs, white sand and blue waters. “There’s just the odd pod of humpback dolphins for company,” says James Hewitson, the hotel’s general manager.
Frankincense plays a big role in this part of Oman’s history. “According to legend, the Queen of Sheba derived great wealth through trading frankincense from her coastal palace, Sumhuram at Khor Rori, now a UNESCO World Heritage site,” adds Hewitson.
He recommends the Land of Frankincense Museum, which is filled with artefacts from all stages of Arabian settlement.
Insider’s tip: “Renting a car was the most important piece of advice we were given,” says Amanda Rushforth, the blogger behind TheBikiniSociety. “Taxis charge whatever they feel like and believe me, they will triple what you’re used to.” It’s possible to rent a car at the airport.
Try local food
Food in Oman is rich, delicious, and fairly often meaty.
“It has influences not just from the Middle East and North Africa, but also South Asia,” says UAE-based Natasha Amar of TheBohoChica. “The use of spices, herbs and nuts is common.”
Try machboos, a rice dish cooked with meat, for something a little like an Indian biryani with a local twist. “It’s just delicious,” Amar says. Or for something even meatier, try shuwa. This traditional dish involves cooking a marinated lamb underground for four to 24 hours.
Shop in a souq
In Oman, shopping is about local markets and intimate souqs. “They’re excellent places to browse pottery, antiques, textiles, jewellery, carpets, oud, frankincense, Omani daggers and gifts,” says Amar.
The Nizwa Souq (below), one of the oldest and most popular, makes for a bustling Friday morning outing.
“Nizwa is surrounded by some of the most magnificent forts: Nizwa, Jabrin, Bahla and Nakhl, all built to protect the oasis, towns and treasured date plantations from plundering tribes,” says Mamari.
Insider’s tip: Head to Mutrah Souq for silvers and trinkets. This market in Muscat has a range of local souvenirs and traditional goods. Visit later in the evening to avoid midday heat.
Try world-class diving or see the desert
The UNESCO-protected Daymaniyat Islands are home to some of the sultanate’s best diving and snorkelling. These nine islands sit around 18km off the coast of Barka and offer 15 different dive sites. Expect coral reefs, shoals and plenty of marine life.
Check out Hayut Run Dive for purple corals, honeycomb moray eels, stingrays and turtles.
For a more family-friendly activity, head to Ras Al Jinz Turtle Reserve, three hours’ drive from Muscat.
For a taste of the authentic Bedouin lifestyle, you can camp under the stars in Oman’s expansive desert. Desert Nights Camp (below) has a good reputation for quality tents, with entertainment (dune bashing, camel rides, traditional feasts) thrown in.
Meet locals with a seriously good reputation — but dress appropriately
Omanis are friendly.
“Both the people and the landscape are generous and inviting,” says Stanley-Jones. “You are a brother or a sister, and are always more than welcome.”
For a traveller, this can be useful. Try Facebook to solicit local advice from Omani residents, suggests Ryland. It will help you find tiny places rather than the usual chain restaurants and beaches. “Omanis are incredibly welcoming – make the most of it.”
Oman is also safe. “It’s been ranked the fourth safest country in the world for visitors according to the World Economic Forum,” Mamari says. “We pride ourselves as respectful and hospitable.”
While locals are friendly, they’re traditional. You’ll want to cover your knees and shoulders. Swimsuits are acceptable at hotel beaches, but you wouldn’t want to road trip in one.
“Respect the culture and laws of the land,” stresses Fisher. “Omanis are very welcoming and humble, so being respectful is really appreciated.”
Getting there and around
Numerous airlines fly into Muscat, including British Airways, Emirates, Oman Air and more. To get to Salalah, FlyDubai offers an affordable flight from Dubai.
If you plan on driving around Oman, you should anticipate considerable distances between spots (often much longer than Google Maps predicts). You will also want a 4×4 for any mountain or desert driving. You don’t want to get stuck in soft sand.
English is spoken in hotels but not widely outside of that. British nationals don’t need to get a visa before travelling to Oman. You can get one on arrival at any land, sea or air entry port in the country.