Arid Arabian desert, colossal canyons, leafy groves and culture-rich cities, Madeleine Barber sees it all on a self-drive itinerary spanning the diverse sultanate of Oman.
He’s standing his ground, donning a determined “don’t mess with me” expression and a broad stance that’s blocking my car’s path. He’s got the hump – literally. How have I found myself in a standoff with a disgruntled camel?
It seems such a situation is to be expected when taking part in a driving tour of Oman, because this surly chap is one of hundreds of wild camels roaming the road and its verges.
But these mammals are about the only obstruction on Omani roads, as I discover on the 723-mile journey from Muscat to Salalah on The Grand Tour of Oman fam trip. Wide, smooth and free of (motorised) traffic, an agent I’m travelling with says he’d rate the coastal highway as “one of the top 10 roads in the world”.
An absence of railways and injection of cash into infrastructure ordered by sultan Qaboos bin Said Al Said are to thank for the nation’s road-trip appeal. Quite the feat considering in 1970, when sultan Qaboos came into power, Oman had just six miles of asphalted roads. It now offers thousands.
The sultan’s influence is paramount in every desert, beach, wadi and mountain in Oman, so his hometown of Muscat makes a perfect place to start a driving tour; especially since Oman Air flies double daily to the destination from Heathrow (and once daily from Manchester) and Avis has a hub at the recently opened Muscat International airport.
Muscat’s most iconic attraction is the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque: an impressive sandstone structure complete with intricate dome, mosaic tiles and a Swarovski-crystal chandelier.
I’m intrigued to learn about Oman’s Islamic culture on my visit, so I listen to my guide, Zahra, lyrically recite the Quran (locals do this 17 times a day) before being hurried into an outbuilding for dates, Omani coffee and further discussion with local women.
Feeling a little like an imposter in my abaya (a traditional Arabic dress that can be hired at the mosque entrance to ensure female visitors are covered up to entry standards), I quickly learn there’s no need to feel apprehensive in this room or in Oman at all.
I’m surprised both female and male Omanis are greeting me, a western woman, with smiles and respect. It’s only my first day in the Middle East and already popular preconceptions have been disproven.
The Mutrah Souq, tucked behind Muscat’s waterfront is, however, exactly as expected. The woody scent of frankincense fills the air as hawkers stand hopefully in store doorways ready to flog Aladdin-style lanterns, camel-themed knick-knacks and beaded jewellery.
It’s the type of tourist trap that travellers know and love, but for a more authentic experience I take a two-hour drive to Nizwa. Here there are a host of spice, date and craft shops to help me part with my Omani rial. I leave with the car boot filled with cumin, turmeric, mixed spice, paprika, sesame and chilli cashews, and fresh dates that taste nothing like the varieties on sale in the UK.
I stop off at Birkat Al Mouz, located between Muscat and Nizwa. Here the date and banana plantation is a lush, green oasis of calm, backed by the earth-coloured ruins of a village that shows a slice of Omani history.
Nizwa Fort is a second site that gives visitors a taste of the past. Built over the course of 12 years in the 17th century, its 40-metre-tall terracotta-coloured tower delivers a panoramic view of Nizwa, the greenery of the surrounding plantations and dominating mountains beyond.
During the fam trip, agents stayed at Anantara’s two resorts in Oman
1. Anantara Al Jabal Al Akhdar
This luxury property on the Sayq Plateau has 82 canyon-view rooms and 33 private pool villas starting from £418 per night. Its highlights include Diana’s Point, an infinity pool with uninterrupted panoramic views of the Hajar Mountains and a zip line that’s cast across the canyon. Other activities include archery, mountain biking hiking, painting, photography, cooking classes, star gazing, spa treatments and alfresco sunrise yoga sessions held against the mountain backdrop.
2. Anantara Al Baleed Resort Salalah
It’s a long 11-hour drive from Nizwa to Salalah (an overnight in Duqm is recommended), but this Anantara resort is worth the journey. Set back from a private white-sand beach and freshwater lagoon, it offers 136 rooms, villas and pool villas, which have private swim-up pools, from £223 per night. Activities include dolphin watching, a “cinema under the stars” experience, stand-up paddle-boarding, Jebel safari, city tour, bird watching and an Ayurveda spa.
After spending time in Oman’s energetic cities, a change of scenery is in order. I take the winding road that leads to the serene Sayq Plateau in the Hajar Mountains. It climbs to 2,000 metres above sea level, the well-built highway so steep and snaking that visitors are only permitted to navigate it in a fourwheel drive.
En route I’m treated to astounding views and, once on foot in the terraced town, the vistas get even more breathtaking. It’s late afternoon and the sun is low in the sky, casting a golden lustre across the canyonside herb gardens. I follow the town’s water system (a foot-wide canal) past apron-clad women hanging washing on a line, pattern-tiled doorways and pomegranate and papaya trees to Diana’s Point – a canyon-top platform where the princess once stood at Anantara Al Jabal Al Akhdar – just in time to see the sun disappear behind the mountain range.
The sultanate is famed for the diversity of its landscapes, so no Omani road trip would be complete without an excursion into the desert.
Sharqiya Sands stretches for 4,800 square miles south-east of Nizwa and it’s here, in the northern corner of this Bedouin territory and on the way to Salalah, that I get a taste of dune bashing in Avis 4x4s.
The highest sand dunes in Sharqiya Sands tower to 200 metres, but when my car plummets from atop a 150-metre dune, it feels more like 1,500 metres. Sand sprays up and over the windows and across the windscreen blocking the sunlight, the engine revs and the car is tilted so far to the left I’m sure it’s going to topple. But it doesn’t and, when we come to a halt, I look out over a seemingly infinite sea of russet sand and feel the heat of the desert rise from the floor.
As I’m leaving the sandy wilderness for the final leg of the trip, I notice it’s not just the middle of asphalt roads that wild camels have an affinity for – it’s the desert tracks too. Looking at an equally disgruntled camel crossing my path I think, “this really is the heart of Arabia”.
Book it: Travel 2 offers a six-night self-drive break for £1,359pp, including Heathrow flights with Oman Air, accommodation at Anantara and Crown Plaza properties, and car hire and transfers with Avis. Offer valid for travel June 3-24, 2019.
Kel Patel, country manager UK, Oman Air
WHAT ARE OMAN AIR’S USPs?
We currently operate double daily connections from Heathrow and daily flights from Manchester direct to Muscat, Oman, as well as operating routes to more than 50 destinations, direct from the hub in Muscat.
DO YOU HAVE ANY NEW LOUNGES?
There is a new lounge at Muscat airport where Oman Air first and business class guests can enjoy Omani hospitality. Spread over two storeys, the lounge includes food and beverage services, a luggage room, entertainment area, smoking room, prayer rooms, business centre and a wellness area.
ANY RECENT UPDATES TO THE FLEET?
In the past 12 months, we have acquired eight new aircraft including five Boeing 737 MAX 8s and three Dreamliners. Oman Air plans to increase total aircraft from 53 in 2018 to 71 in 2023.
WHAT DEVELOPMENTS CAN WE EXPECT IN THE NEXT YEAR?
Following the reintroduction of the Maldives service in October, Oman Air plans to extend the service until April 2019. With all flights connecting via the airline’s hub, Oman’s capital city Muscat, Oman Air stopover guests can explore not just one destination but two.