I must admit that I didn’t hold out much hope when I decided to visit Oman as I expected the usual Middle-East of dirty cities and chaotic atmosphere mixed with the countryside covered in desert and small houses but what greeted me was the opposite. Visiting Oman and Muscat is relaxing and very enjoyable. Muscat is a clean city hugging the coast intertwined between large rock outcrops so it is more like a collection of small towns than a big city. It doesn’t have the razzmatazz of Dubai or the cluster of Cairo. And the country has great roads, high mountains with higher cliffs and of course deserts. It is a mecca (pardon the pun) for turtles and the historic forts are extremely well kept. Musandam up north is separated from the motherland by the UAE and is a rocky peninsula that has an abundance of life under the sea as well as an abundance of smugglers and oil ships on the vitally important Straits of Hormuz. Oman is well set up for tourists so there is no problem getting tours or accommodation anywhere.
Time to Do: 2 days in Muscat is enough if stuck for time as although it is nice there are not many huge highlights. To do the trip mentioned below in a southern loop back to Muscat takes approx 7 days with a car. It will another 2 days if using public transport. The outcrop Musandam deserves at least 2 days if you scuba dive and do a dhow tour.
Blemish free low lying white buildings as well as thousands of Omani flags will greet you as you enter Muscat. The tourist area of Mutrah (Muttrah) is where most visitors hang out which is surrounded by rocky outcrops surrounding a cosy port and corniche (seaside) walks. Mutrah is part of Muscat but south of the city centre and on the way as you round some large rocks you cross under ancient city gates.This former fishing village is home of the Mutrah souk where well turned out little shops vie for your business and by the time you are finished you will be sick of saying ‘no thank you, I’m only looking’ and will just be ignoring the Indian shopkeepers. The souk is almost large enough to get lost in but nothing on a massive scale.
Things to see in Muscat
- Al Jilali/Al Mirani Forts: Located in Muscat’s Old Town, these well kept prisons clinging on to the cliffs were built in the 16th century are not open to the public.
- Qasr Al Alam Royal Palace: Guarded by Jilali and Mirani Forts on the coast this home of Sultan Qaboos, ruler of Oman is perfectly manicured.
- Mutrah Corniche Area: Nicely renovated area that you will definitely pass if in Mutrah. It is possible to walk past Mutrah Fort and continue all the way past the water fountain on the left to Riyam park where locals have picnics. Although the gate is closed you can get up to the top of the hill by the monument with a small skip and a jump. This gives nice vistas of the town and coast.
- Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque: The 3rd largest mosque in the world by some estimates (after Mecca and Medinah) with its own Swarovski chandelier and a 21tonne carpet is open from 8am to 11am from Sat-Wed to non-Muslims. Ladies must keep legs, ankles, wrists and head covered while visiting
Need to know
As mentioned above, Muscat is more like a series of towns rather than a big city which can leave big distances between places of interest.
Baisa busses (small vans or otherwise called maxi taxis) are the cheapest way to go around town but like any bus system it takes a while to know the routes. The place to get most of them is on the ramps to the motorways and it will cost around 300baisa for anywhere in Muscat.
Orange and white taxi’s are common but more expensive than the baisa busses. From the airport it should be approximately 5Rial into the city centre and a little more if going to Mutrah. Make sure to agree a price before getting in and make sure to haggle.
Renting a car can be well worth it (if 2 or more) as the roads are quite and very good both in Muscat and in Oman in general. There is not the suicidal driving of Saudi Arabia or mayhem of Egypt. The airport is 40km north of the city and has all the main car rental companies.
Long distance buses (Oman National Transport Company) go from the station at Ruwi which is close to Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque. Journey times are Dubai (6hrs), Nizwa (2.5hrs), Salalah (13hrs), Sur (4.5hrs)
Did you know?
Before the present Sultan, Sultan Qaboos, overthrew the previous Sultan Said Bin Taimur (his father) in 1970, Oman was chronically underdeveloped and basically closed to outsiders. This is because Sultan Taimur was opposed going into debt and so took out no loans to develop the country. Oman had almost no roads and no industry and all machinery imported had to be signed personally by him! If you travel around Oman today and see the quality of the roads all over the country you will find this hard to believe.
This quaint town with a superbly renovated fort is situated on a wadi that isn’t always flowing. Hence wadi I suppose! Within the grounds of Nizwa fort walls, there is Nizwa Souq with a fresh food market with everything from fresh fish to dates, handicrafts to silverware. Also within the fort walls is a tourist area that has dainty items and bowls for you to bring home. Nizwa Souq has a livestock market very early (around 7.30am) every Friday and well worth going to if you want to see real Arab hand gestures!
What struck me about Nizwa besides the fort is the amount of Pakistani men there. A huge amount of them and especially if you arrive in the evening time when they are finished work, they all congregate in the town centre. There are plenty of tailors in the town that only make Pakistani clothes. You can get a full outfit for around 7Rial!
Jebel Al Akhdar/Jebel Shamms (2.5hrs from Nizwa)
This mountain range will provide some relief from the heat if you are there in summertime due to the high altitude. Jebel Shamms is the highest point in the eastern Arabian Peninsula at 3075mtrs and the Jebel Al Akhdar mountain range is a superb place to go walking. It provides walking routes that cling to the cliffs and give spectacular views of the valley below. The valley up to 1000mtrs below!
How to get there is tricky but you head towards Ghul village and then keep going up the mountain. Near Dar Sawda village which is signposted to the left you continue straight passed this and turn right after 500mtrs on where ‘Al Hail’ is signposted on the track. It is another 4km from there. And when you think you are on the wrong track, you will be on the right track and you will know because you get to the end of a rocky stony path with a car park and a sign for trekking in it. This is in the village of Wadi Nakhir. This is where you start the trekking from and after a hazy path at the beginning it then becomes obvious and you get superb panoramic views from Falcons View. The path doesn’t have much of an incline but if you head towards the abandoned As Sab village 3.5km from the car park you will be amazed that 15 families used to live here.
Oman and the middle east are famed for their vast expanses of desert and in the Wahiba Sands Oman has its own Rub Al Khali (Empty Quarter). This sandy desert has dunnes from 100-150mtrs (450ft) high and the road from Ibra to Sur skirts along the outer eastern edges. For the more adventourous tourists it is possible to drive across the dunnes but this takes at least an over night camp. I did not do this but did visit some of the town such as Al Mudayrib (20km beyond Ibra) as I circled from Ibra to Sur as the dunnes rise up on the edge of town as a brown background and sand dances along the road. Also the oasis town of Al Huwayah 7km east of Bidiyah Castle is being attacked by the encroaching desert and is hard to ignore as you gaze at the date and banana plantations.
Famous for Sindbad the sailor and building the traditional Dhow boats. This is also the closest large town to Ras Al Jinz where you get to see the turtles (more below).
Sur of course has forts like all towns in Oman and with Bilad Sur Fort and Sunaysilah Fort on the way into Sur (08.00-14.30 Sun-Thurs, 500Bzs). With the former perfectly square, perfectly restored and gives a nice elevation for views of the town and Arabian Sea. The centre of town is not nice and was a bit run down and swarming with flies when I was there. It does have a nice cinema though which plays movies in English.
You may pass wandering goats and games of football on the beach if the tide is out if you decide to walk down along by the coast to the Dhow workshops on the east of the Sur Peninsula. It takes about 25minutes from the city centre.There are a handful of workshops and there should be a boat or two in varying stages of development all being crafted by hand with no plans and from the outside in. From the Dhow workshops you can see the Al Ayjah Watchtower (lighthouse) which is only a 20min walk across the only bridge and gives lovely views of the inlet around sunset.
Need to Know
The bus station is in the centre of town close to the souk and Sur Hotel. Buses run to Muscat at 06.00 and 14.30 for 4Rial
Turtles -Ras Al Jinz/Ras Al Hadd
This is the eastern most point on the Arabian Peninsula and it is where up to 20,000 endangered Green Turtles come to lay eggs and breed each season in the Ras Al Jinz Turtle Reserve. To see these turtles at dawn laying their eggs between the fishermen’s boats is amazing and an experience not to be forgotten. After seeing her toil for so long you feel privileged to have watched it as she disappears forever back into the sea.
This is a professional operation complete with a modern visitor centre and small hotel (which is expensive, 85Rial for double room). You can only see the turtles with a guide (except when it is bright) and they can be seen either late at night for hatchlings or very early in the morning for mothers laying eggs. This exhausting operation takes hours for the turtle, which is not built for land, and involves digging the hole, laying the eggs, covering it over and then digging another hole a few meters away to lure predators to the wrong place (very clever tactic I thought). July is the peak season for laying mothers but Sept-Nov has both laying (during the night/early morning) and hatchling (about 9.30pm in the evening). The centre says at least one turtle comes to lay eggs every night of the year. Take a look at the sad video of a turtle returning to the sea in Ras Al Jinz in Oman I took.
To get there you need to head south over the small bridge on the east of Sur Peninsula and follow signs for Ras Al Hadd by taking a right at the next roundabout. After approximately 25min of driving you will come to a t-junction. Ras Al Hadd is left but you take a right and after 3min there is a road to the left to the Ras Al Jinz Turtle Reserve.
For more see www.rasaljinz-turtlereserv.com. Open from 9am-8pm daily. Entry fee 1Rial with 3Rial for a guide.
Coastal Road between Muscat and Sur
- Dibab and the Sinkhole: This cool sinkhole is just off the main road in what looks like an out of place picnic park in the middle of nowhere just outside Dibab, 1km from the motorway. There are no signs so a bit of looking is required. This 40mtr (120ft) diameter sinkhole is not obvious at all until you are standing over it and can peer down into the transparent blue waters 20mtrs below. Swimming is allowed and climbing and jumping should be done. Little tiny fish swim and nip your feet in the shallow parts if you stay still. I do believe that some people pay good money for pedicures by fish to eat off the dead skin. Here you can get it for free!
- Wadi Shab: This outstanding wadi is hard to find and is off the highway in between the towns of Tiwi and Shab. If coming from Muscat take the second exit to ‘Wadi Tiwi’ (not the first to Tiwi). The wadi is not driveable so when you get to the mouth of the river you can pay the boatman to cross over or if the tide is out then your luck is in and you can hop and skip. It all seems strange but well worth it. The walk up the wadi is beautiful and after around a 60min trek up the ravine you reach shallow pools where you can wade and swim through to keep the heat at bay. If you keep on following the path, which I highly recommend you do, you reach a stunning rock pool with 30mtr high walls covering the turquoise water. If you swim to the end and have a bit of courage you can squeeze through a very narrow entrance and emerge into a stunning cave filled with a waterfall and mystique!
This is a harsh land where mountains and the seas collide, where some of the villages have no road access and also is the closest point to Iran on the Arabian Peninsula. On that 21 nautical mile separation, 20% of the world oil passes and may not be the first place you think of coming for holidays but despite this it is definitely worth a few days and especially if you are into scuba diving. Although part of Oman, Musandam is not connected to the main body of the county as it is separated by the UAE. This section of Oman houses the Middle East’s version of fjords.
It is a peculiar spot as there are tours to visit the ‘fjords’ and plenty of scuba diving and dolphins and some luxury hotels but on the other hand there is only one town to speak of (Khasab)and its main industry is smuggling to Iran which is semi-legitimate here. This is not a dodgy or dangerous spot and most of the tourist come at weekends as it is about a 4hr drive from Dubai. The smuggled goods such as Fanta, cigarettes, sheep etc all go through customs in Musandam at the port and the long open thin boats with two people and very powerful motors speed off towards the Straits of Hormuz in full view. These boats are more an amazement than a danger that they can go so fast and carry that amount of goods (usually a guy has to hang on for dear life at the front to keep the weight on it). Apparently a car was brought across on one once!
To do in Khasab:
- Dhow tours: These relaxing tours can be organised in a hotel or tour agent and involves a trip out to the fjords where you can wonder at the mountains and eagles and gaze at the dolphins as they swim and jump alongside the boat. There is also a chance to snorkel in a cove with thousands of small fish when you visit an abandoned British telegram station. Snacks provided on board. Tours are half day (9am or 1.30pm, 15Rial) or full day(9am-4pm, 20Rial). All hotels will be able to organise a tour for you. Tours can also be arranged from Dubai
- Scuba Diving: The diving around Khasab in Musandam is spectacular and well worth doing. There are super fish life with turtles, cuttlefish, squid and even whale-sharks (in season) all very easily seen. Extra divers, based in the Golden Tulip Hotel are very friendly and have lots of options for day or multiday dives, courses, villas to stay in etc. A full day with 2 dives costs 36Rial (incl tank and weights). If you need to rent all equipment this is an extra 17Rial. The villas are very comfortable and includes a hearty breakfast. http://www.musandam-diving.com/
Need to know
Driving is possible from Dubai/Abu Dhabi through Ras Al Khaimah to Khasab. This is a very enjoyable journey as long as you don’t get car sick as the roads have a lot of bends. There is no problem with visa’s and they apply as normal like arriving in an airport. The journey takes 4hrs from Dubai to Khasab.
There are no bus journeys to or from Khasab so you must hire a car or go as part of a tour. (Or of course you could get a lift like I did with an middle aged Ozzie woman who worked in Abu Dhabi and complained about the price of filling up her Porsche with petrol in England! She wasn’t too happy when I mentioned the saying of not buying a Porsche if you can’t afford the petrol!)
There are regular flights from Muscat to Khasab, at least one per day and cost 48Rial return including taxes. This is the only flight to Khasab. It is not possible to fly to the UAE.
Dibab is the other small town on the south east of the Musandam Peninsula but it is not possible to drive direct from Khasab to Dibab. You must drive through the UAE.
Daymaniyat Islands Nature Reserve
These 9 small islands just off the Batinah Coast of Oman north of Muscat are teeming with fish and plant life and it is well worth a relaxing visit to either dive or snorkell for the day. The Daymaniyat Islands are one of the best spots in Oman to scuba dive with lots of eels, rays, clown fish, barracuda, cuttlefish, leopard sharks, green turtles etc. In order to dive or snorkel contact Al Sawadi Beach Resort which contains Extra Divers. The hotel is off the main road after the village of Barka. It is expensive, luxurious and isolated but it is not necessary to stay there if you just want to snorkel or dive. It is possible to do half or full day dive tours (2dives, 26Rial) or any of the main diving courses. It is also possible to organise tours to the Al Sawadi Islands from here also. Check out the video of a cuttlefish in the Daymaniyat Islands in the video section.
Practicalities – About Oman
€1 = 0.50Omani Rial, $1 = 0.385OR
Language = Arabic with English spoken in shops and tourist offices.
Flights – Can be taken from many major cities in Europe, Middle East and Asia. The national carrier is http://www.omanair.com/
Internal flights with small planes are common and frequent and are a reasonable price
Accommodation – 20Rial for an average double room in Muscat but prices are much cheaper in other cities.
My Gallery of Oman