Oman - The Insider's Guide
Indulge in the Arabian Sultunate’s intoxicating mix of spectacular scenery, luxurious hotels and guaranteed winter sun.
by Lara Brunt, Telegraph Travel destination expert
On the southeast corner of the Arabian Peninsula, the Sultanate of Oman is steeped in heritage and tradition, offering an intoxicating mix of spectacular scenery, luxurious hotels and guaranteed winter sun.
Most holidaymakers begin their journey in the low-key Muscat, surrounded by sea, mountains and desert, and home to lively souks, historic old quarters and beachfront hotels. Inland lie the craggy Hajar Mountains, while mudbrick villages and majestic forts are set among surrounding surrounding plantations of date palms. The coastline stretches some thousand miles south with sandy beaches that attract nesting turtles, while the old port city of Sur is famous for its traditional dhow boats. You can go four-wheel driving on the desert dunes of the Wahiba Sands and sleep under the stars in a Bedouin-style camp. At the southernmost end of the country lies the city of Salalah, home of the ancient frankincense trade and gateway to the fabled Empty Quarter desert. In summer, the misty rains of the khareef turn mountains and wadis from brown to green. You can cruise through the fjords of Musandam – nicknamed ‘the Norway of Arabia’ – accompanied by pods of cavorting dolphins. The country remains an oasis of calm in a tumultuous region and the Omani people are proud, yet humble; welcoming modernisation, whilst retaining a strong sense of identity. You won’t go hungry either. Omani cuisine is infused with the flavours of East Africa, India and Persia, and you can enjoy biryani-style rice dishes, spiced grilled meats and bountiful seafood.
So what are you waiting for? Here’s how to experience the best of Oman…
Explore the capital
With palaces, forts, mosques and museums, Muscat is a fascinating place to spend a few days.
Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque
Add Muscat’s majestic mosque to the top of your must-visit list
Set against the rugged Hajar Mountains and clad in smooth marble, Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque is the only mosque in Oman open to non-Muslims. With space for around 20,000 worshippers, it is one of the largest and most impressive structures in the region.
Leave your shoes at the door, step inside the main prayer hall and prepare to be left in wonder. Hanging from the ceiling is an eight-tonne chandelier, adorned with 600,000 Swarovski crystals.The magnificent geometric, floral and arabesque Persian carpet and took a team of 600 women four years to weave. Intricately carved doors, vaulted arches and a series of marble-tiled courtyards create a sense of serenity, while the five minarets represent the five pillars of Islam.
Despite its grandeur, the mosque is a functioning place of worship so visitors must dress modestly, and women must wear a headscarf. Get there early, as the mosque is often overrun with coach parties by 10am.
Take a one-day wander around Muscat’s historic harbour district
Lined with 19th-century merchants' houses and punctuated by colourful minarets, Muttrah’s seafront is the city’s old commercial centre. Stretching nearly two miles, it is one of Muscat’s most vibrant areas, especially at sunset when families come out to stroll. Earlybirds should start at the old fish market at the western end of the corniche, where fishmongers hawk tuna, mahi mahi and Omani lobster fresh each morning. A new market is due to open next door in the coming months.
Shop for treasures in the bustling Muttrah Souk
Continue along the seafront to Muttrah Souk, where you can amble for hours among labyrinthine alleys packed with copper coffee pots and khanjars, while abaya-clad women haggle for gold. Head past Muttrah Fort, built by occupying Portuguese forces in the 16th century, and then climb the 100-odd steps of the restored watchtower at the eastern end of the esplanade for wonderful views of the harbour. Finish with dinner at Bait Al Luban, a charming restaurant in a century-old guesthouse that serves traditional Omani dishes such as shuwa and qabouli.
Muttrah Fish Market
Open: 6am-10am; near Hotel Marina Muscat.
Open: Saturday-Thursday 8am-1pm and 5pm-9pm, Friday 5pm-9pm
Bait Al Luban
Open: Noon-11pm; mains OMR 4-OMR 7 (£8-£15); Al Mina Street (00968 2471 1842, baitalluban.com)
Royal Opera House
Catch a performance – or just take a tour of one of Muscat’s most beautiful buildings
While Oman may not be a world centre for song, it boasts a striking opera house. Sultan Qaboos Bin Said Al Said's Royal Opera House in Muscat was the first of its kind in the Gulf. The building reflects a contemporary style of Islamic architecture as opposed to the classic Baroque. Since its inauguration in 2011, the building has become the country’s premier performing arts venue.
The season runs from September to May, with an eclectic program of opera, classical music, jazz, musicals, ballet, Arabic tarab and world music. Performances this season include Giselle by the American Ballet Theatre (April 6-8) and Georges Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers (May 11-13). Even if you don’t have a ticket for a show you can still admire the building’s limestone façade and pop into one of the upmarket cafés in the grounds.
Better yet, study the gold-gilded balconies and wood panelled interiors during a 30-minute guided tour, where you can learn more about its design, acoustics and inner workings.
Tours: Saturday-Thursday 8:30am-2:30pm; OMR 3 (£6), children OMR 1 (£2); Shatti Al Qurum district (00968 2440 3333, rohmuscat.org.om)
Bait Al Zubair
Delve into Oman’s heritage at this quaint museum in the old town
Occupying five whitewashed buildings in Old Muscat, the original walled settlement just east of the modern city, Bait Al Zubair (House of Zubair) is one of the most interesting museums in Oman. It houses an excellent collection of traditional Omani weaponry, jewellery, costumes and old photographs, amassed by the Al Zubair family, who still own and run the museum. Start your exploration in Bait Al Bagh (House of Gardens), the former family home that dates back to 1914.
Highlights include displays of 19th-century khanjars (daggers) and colourful regional dresses, while the surrounding gardens feature barasti houses topped with palm fronds and replica falaj, Oman’s ancient irrigation system. Bait Al Dalaleel (House of the Dalaleel district) is decked out like a typical local home from a century ago, complete with majlis (guest lounge) and date store.
Opposite is Bait Al Oud (Grand House), which has early European maps of the Arabian Peninsula and wooden models of traditional dhow boats, alongside early photographs of Muscat. The cosy café is a good place to refuel after all that history, and there’s a gift shop selling high-quality handicrafts, books, jewellery, scarves and perfumes.
Open Saturday-Thursday 9:30am-6pm; OMR 2 (£4), children 10-15 OMR 1 (£2), under 10s free; Al Saidiya Street, Old Muscat (00968 2208 4700, baitalzubair.com)
Al Alam Palace and National Museum
This eye-catching palace and absorbing new museum make for a great day’s sightseeing
Few leave Muscat without stopping outside Sultan Qaboos’ futuristic-looking palace. Located in Old Muscat, Al Alam Palace (Palace of the Flag) was built in 1972, two years after the still-reigning Sultan ousted his father in a British-backed coup. It is one of the funkiest royal palaces you’re ever likely to see, with mushroom columns in turquoise and gold.
Don't miss Sultan Qaboos’ futuristic-looking palace
Qaboos is credited with guiding his country’s rise from humble backwater to modern nation without compromising its culture and heritage. The palace is closed to the public, but you can walk along the imposing boulevard and admire the bold design from the front gates.
The new National Museum provides a first-rate introduction to Oman's history. Allow yourself a couple of hours to take everything in – including gold coins from a recently discovered 16th-century shipwreck believed to part of Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama’s fleet.
Open Saturday-Thursday 10am-5pm, Friday 2pm-6pm; OMR 5 (£10), children and students under 26 free; (00968 220 81500, facebook.com/nationalmuseumoman)
Oman landscapes encompasse unspoilt beaches, jagged mountains, lush valleys and vast desert dunes.
The Hajar Mountains are the country’s geological backbone, separating low coastal plain from desert interior
The starkly beautiful Hajar Mountains extend all the way along the east coast of Oman from the seaside town of Sur to the Musandam Peninsula. Jebel Akhdar (Green Mountain) is the most accessible peak, with two five-star resorts, Alila Jabal Akhdar and Anantara Al Jabal Al Akhdar, centred on the Saiq Plateau, 6,560 feet above sea level. The plateau is also home to terraced farms where, for centuries, farmers have coaxed harvests of pomegranates, apricots, figs and other fruit.
Come April and May the terraces are blanketed with Damask roses, which are harvested to make Oman’s famous smoky rosewater. Meanwhile, Jebel Shams (Sun Mountain) is the country’s highest peak, soaring over 9,900 feet into the sky, with spectacular views of Wadi Nakhr, known as Oman’s Grand Canyon. Less developed than the Saiq Plateau, accommodation options include the three-star Jebel Shams Resort. The steep, winding mountain roads can only be done by 4WD and, while not for the faint of heart, they are magnificent. Follow hiking trails, or opt for a guided walking tour led by companies such as Exodus and KE Adventure Travel.
Alila Jabal Akhdar (00968 2534 4200, alilahotels.com)
Anantara Al Jabal Al Akhdar (00968 2521 8000, jabal-akhdar.anantara.com)
Exodus nine-day tours trekking in the West and East Hajars from £1,429 per person (0203 811 6120, exodus.co.uk)
KE Adventure Travel seven-day trekking tours from £1,898 per person (01768 773 966, keadventure.com)
Oman’s many wadis are little pockets of paradise just made for adventure
Oman’s arid landscape is littered with wadis – dry riverbeds in deep and narrow gorges carved out of the mountains. Fed by natural springs, these wonderfully green oases provide a playground for hiking, canyoning and swimming.
Adventure in Oman's pockets of paradise
Many wadis are accessed by off-road tracks, so hire a 4WD or opt for a tailor-made tour from one of the many local operators. Around 90 minutes from Muscat, the hike into Wadi Al Arbaeen is challenging, with scrambling and wading through water, but you’re soon rewarded with emerald rock pools, palm-ringed lagoons and small waterfalls.
Heading south, Wadi Shab and Wadi Tiwi boast azure pools and waterfalls, terraced date plantations and small villages clustered along the valley floors. A great day trip from Sur, most hotels can arrange twin-wadi tours. Wadi Bani Khalid, a 30-minute drive from Sur, has a year-round water supply so you can expect tumbling waterfalls and abundant vegetation. If you’re feeling fit, there’s a two-day trek over the mountains from Wadi Tiwi.
During the summer khareef (monsoon) down in Salalah, Wadi Darbat is a wide green valley more reminiscent of Ireland than Arabia. It’s a popular picnic spot with streams, waterfalls and lush greenery.
Venture into a sea of sand for adrenalin-fuelled activities or quiet contemplation
The Wahiba Sands, four hours’ drive from Muscat in Sharqiyah province, is the country’s most accessible desert. Still home to a smattering of Bedouin tribes, the desert spans 4,000 square miles, with rippling red-gold sand and towering dunes reaching over 300 feet in places. There are a number of well-equipped permanent camps, such as Desert Nights Camp, where you can spend the night stargazing and enjoy dune bashing, sandboarding, quad biking and camel riding. Further south, Salalah is the gateway to the vast Empty Quarter (Rub al Khali), the legendary desert that spills across four countries of the Arabian Peninsula. Infamous for its sinuous sand ridges, quicksands and unforgiving heat, you should only venture here with a proper guide and full equipment. Al Fawaz Tours offers tours to the Empty Quarter and the lost city of Ubar with a local Beduoin guide. Wild Frontiers has guided tours that incorporate the Wahiba Sands and Empty Quarter, or if you’d prefer to drive yourself, Safari Drive has self-drive trips with a local guide to accompany you into both deserts.
With some 1,100 miles of coastline, there’s a surfeit of spots to swim, snorkel and sunbathe
If you don’t want to go far from the capital, there are a number of beautiful beaches in and around Muscat. Qurum Beach is a great place to take a dip, enjoy a stroll or soak up the views from one of the beachfront cafés. Al Bustan, meanwhile, is quiet public beach that’s safe for swimming. The five-star Al Bustan Palace next door has day passes that allow you use their private beach, outdoor pools and hotel facilities.
Al Bustan beach - complete with five-star palace
Heading south, Tiwi Beach has intense blue waters, glistening white sands and excellent snorkelling. The sea is usually calm and there are natural rock pools, making it a top spot for families. The southern city of Salalah sits on a long sandy beach lined with swaying palm trees, with pods of playful dolphins often spotted swimming close to shore.
Heading west out of the city, Mughsayl Beach is another scenic stretch of sand. During the summer monsoon, a cluster of blowholes shoot jets of water 100 feet into the air, but the seas are too rough for swimming.
Al Bustan Palace (00968 2479 9666, ritzcarlton.com); adults OMR15/£31; children OMR5/£10.
Musandam’s mighty fjords will have you itching to update your Instagram
Known as the Norway of the Middle East, the Musandam Peninsula is an Omani enclave separated from the rest of the country by the United Arab Emirates. Just a few hours’ drive from Dubai, sheer walls of saw-toothed cliffs plunge down into aquamarine waters.
Dolphins frolic in the fjord-like khors, so be sure to take a tour aboard a wooden dhow. Full-day trips depart from Khasab, with many heading to Khor Ash Sham, the longest and most dramatic of all the inlets, stretching for some 10 miles. Telegraph Island, once home to a British telegraph station in the 19th century, is a favourite spot to dock for lunch; you can step aboard the tiny island at high tide, but will have to swim across when the tide is low.
For the postcard-perfect image of Musandam, opt for a 4WD tour to Khor Al Najd. Dolphin Khasab Tours combine a visit to Jebel Al Harim, the highest peak in the region, with a steep drive to a lookout for the classic Khor Al Najd view.
Khasab Musandam Tours (00968 9171 3449); full-day dhow cruise adults £43; children half-price.
Dolphin Khasab Tours (00968 995 666 72, dolphinkhasabtours.com); half-day mountain safari tour £130 for up to four people.
Culture and heritage
From tales of ancient trade routes to centuries-old fortifications, you’ll soon be swept up by Oman’s past.
Bahla Fort and Jabrin Castle
Oman has more than 500 forts and castles, but these are two of its finest
When you’ve got such a ravishing country in such a strategic place, invaders will inevitably come knocking. Hence, you’ll see many examples of Oman’s first line of defence: its forts, castles and towers. An hour north of Nizwa, the World Heritage-listed Bahla Fort is one of the most imposing. Built by the Banu Nebhan tribe in the 13th century, its 160-foot towers loom large over the mudbrick houses and date plantations below. After you’ve finished exploring the castle, walk down the main road towards Jabrin until you reach a well-preserved stretch of the old city walls.
Bahla is also famous for its unique pottery style. Potters use a type of local clay to fashion terracotta pots and water jugs with simple, yet distinctive, ribbed decorations. You’ll find them for sale in the souk at Nizwa. Just a few miles away, Jabrin is widely acknowledged as Oman’s most beautiful castle. Built in 1671, the three-storey structure is nestled among palm trees, with thick stone walls with holes to allow for boiling date oil to be poured on would-be attackers. Aside from the hand-carved doors, elaborate frescoes and latticed windows, you’ll have lots of fun discovering hidden rooms and twisting staircases.
Open: Saturday-Thursday 8.30am-4pm, Friday 8am-11am; OMR 1 (£2)
Open: Saturday-Thursday 9am-4pm, Friday 8am-11am; OMR 1 (£2)
Nizwa Fort and Souk
The historic former capital is home to one of the country’s best souks and a first-rate fort
From the sixth-century, Nizwa was the capital of the sultanate for more than a millennium, attracting artists, scholars and traders from across Arabia. Located in the Dakhiliyah region, around 100 miles southwest of Muscat, this delightful city is the country’s second most popular tourist destination – and for very good reason.
Make the superbly restored 17th-century fort your first port of call. Access to the enormous tower is by way of a dark, narrow and zigzagging staircase, where at every turn a heavy wooden door defends against the threat of attack. However, it’s the sweeping views over the palm-studded city and minarets surrounded by peaks that steal the show. There’s also a great little museum explaining the fort’s history and construction, along with interesting displays of Bedouin jewellery, costumes and weaponry.
Next up, head to Nizwa’s celebrated souk to stock up on dates, honey, halwa and Bahla pottery. Time your visit to coincide with Friday’s livestock market, which sees hundreds of farmers come to trade goats, cows and other livestock. It begins in the early hours and is in full swing between 7am and 9am – lively and smelly, it’s a memorable spectacle.
Open: Saturday-Thursday 8.30am-4pm, Friday 8am-11am; OMR 1 (£2)
Open: Saturday-Thursday 9am-1pm and 5-8pm, Friday 6am-11am and 5-8pm
History buffs can discover ancient tombs and remnants of the frankincense trade
Set on a ridge and backed by mountains, the village of Al Ayn is home to a remarkable cluster of Bronze Age beehive tombs. West of Muscat in the Al Dhahirah region, the World Heritage-listed tombs are well worth a visit, as are the even more extensive Bat Tombs nearby. At Al Baleed Archaeological Park in Salalah, you can stroll among the ruins of a mosque, citadel and numerous houses, which were part of a 12th-century frankincense trading port. Allow a couple of hours in the adjoining museum, which details Oman’s maritime and trading past.
East of Salalah, the early frankincense port of Sumhuram sits atop a small hill above Khor Rouri. As wild camels and flamingos gather at the creek to drink, you can explore the maze of buildings, temples and wells encircled by once-impregnable limestone walls.
Avid archaeology fans may want to venture to the edge of the Empty Quarter to the fabled lost city of Ubar. The Bedouin village of Shisr is believed to be the site of the city that was once the centre of the lucrative frankincense trade. There’s not a lot to see, but the legend of the ‘Atlantis of the Sands’ is nevertheless compelling.
Al Baleed Archaeological Park
(00968 23 303577, Sultan Qaboos Street, Salalah); open Saturday-Wednesday 9am-2pm & 4pm-8pm; Thursday & Friday 4pm-8pm; OMR2 (£4) includes entry to Land of Frankincense Museum
Sumhuram Archaeological Park
(Route 49 to Taqah); open: 8am-9pm; OMR2 (£4) per car.
See Oman’s rich seafaring heritage come to life in this picturesque port city
Sinbad the Sailor, the swashbuckling character in the Thousand and One Nights tale, is said to have had his dhow crafted in Sur. The handsome old port city is found on the coast in the Sharqiyah region, about two hours’ drive southeast of Muscat. Home to a natural harbour, it safeguarded its position as a major trading port with East Africa until early in the 20th century. It’s also the location of Oman’s only surviving dhow-building yard, where the wooden vessels that played a vital role in fishing, pearling and trading across the region are still made by hand.
The yards lie on one side of the blue-green waters of the lagoon, some two-and-a-half miles east of the town centre. Here, you can watch master craftsmen at work, using tools and techniques that have been handed down from generation to generation, without having to worry about sketches or blueprints. You can happily spend a day here, visiting the yards and walking around Al Ayja, the charismatic old quarter across the lagoon with a lighthouse, two forts and attractive cornice.
Sur is a convenient gateway to Wadi Tiwi
The city is also a convenient base for day trips to Wadi Tiwi, Wadi Shab and the turtle reserve at Ras Al Jinz. The dhow yard is located on the west side of the bridge around the old harbour.
Oman’s 6,000 year-old frankincense trade will captivate those with a passion for history
The southern Dhofar region is home to the Boswellia sacra tree, source of the ancient world’s most prized commodity: frankincense. The trade route, known as the Frankincense Trail, is preserved by Unesco as a World Heritage site, with four locations across the region. The trail begins in Wadi Dawkah, a forest of 5,000 frankincense trees, located 25-miles north of Salalah. The crystallised sap of the trees, once more valuable than gold, has been harvested here for thousands of years.
Historically it was then carried northward via Ubar (Shisr), a caravansary and oasis where camel trains stopped before entering The Empty Quarter.
Frankincense oozing from the bark of a tree
Frankincense was also shipped across the sea to India, Rome and China from ports at Al Baleed and Khor Rouri. At the Al Baleed Archaeological Park in Salalah, you can visit the ruins of an ancient city and the adjoining Land of Frankincense Museum. The last stop on the trail, the Khor Rouri ruins, are probably the most rewarding and include a maze of buildings, temples and wells.
On the sea, under the sea, up a mountain or in a desert, Oman is packed with things to do.
Head out on the high seas to watch wild dolphins cavort in pristine waters
The coastal waters of Oman are teeming with spinner dolphins, renowned as the most athletic species of all the dolphins. Watching these playful creatures leap, spin and splash into the sea is bound to be a highlight of any visit to Oman. Spinner dolphins usually spend their days hanging out in shallow bays, before returning to deeper water at night to feed. As such, the coastal waters around Muscat and the fjords of Musandam offer two of the most dependable locations to spot pods of spinner dolphins throughout the year. You may also be lucky enough to see regular playmates such as bottlenose, humpback and common dolphins.
More than 20 species of whales are found in Oman’s waters, too. Humpback whales are often spotted during the migration season, which runs from December to February, while Arabian humpbacks can be sighted year-round.
Coral Ocean Tours (00968 9411 0088, coraloceantours.com); depart 8am and 10am; adults OMR15 (£31); children half-price.
Dolphin Khasab Tours (00968 995 666 72, dolphinkhasabtours.com) full-day dhow cruise adults £43; children half-price.
The Hajar Mountains are a magnet for adventure seekers, with hiking, biking, climbing and more
From rock climbing in the western Hajar to abseiling into one of the world’s largest cave chambers in the eastern ranges, Oman has a wild side. Jebel Shams, the country’s highest peak, offers one of the most memorable treks. Known as the Balcony Walk, the vertiginous return route winds around the cliffs of a canyon and takes around four hours.
First-time climbers can attempt one of several via ferrata routes, including those at Jebel Shams and Snake Canyon in Wadi Bani Awf, on which you'll scale steep rock faces using fixed steel cables, rungs and ladders. For experienced climbers, Jebel Misht boasts the largest rock face in the Arabian Peninsula.
Rising vertically for more than 3,000 feet, it presents some of the most sustained and demanding rock climbing around - with ample opportunities for abseiling, canyoning and caving, too. The rough scramble up Snake Canyon and 540-foot abseil down Jebel Shams are especially popular.
Diving and snorkeling
Oman’s nutrient-rich waters offer some of the world’s most rewarding snorkelling and scuba diving
If you’re keen to don a mask and snorkel, the Daymaniyat Islands, northwest of Muscat, are considered one of the best dive spots in the country. The protected marine reserve plays host to abundant marine life including colourful reef fish, turtles and whale sharks, and there are quiet snorkelling spots for less confident swimmers. SeaOman offers day trips from its dive centres at The Wave, Muscat and Millennium Resort Mussanah.
Fantastic diving can also be found at Musandam, with rays, sharks, turtles and schools of tropical fish among the coral gardens and dramatic rock walls. Al Marsa offers day cruises and live-aboard trips to more than two dozen sites including Lima Rock and Octopus Rock. You can pretty much dive and snorkel year-round, although conditions are at their peak in April, May, September and October, while whale sharks are often spotted during September and October. At the opposite end of the country in Dhofar, Mirbat has more the 25 dive sites teeming with fish, lobster and octopus. You can dive from November to May, but the waters are too rough during the annual khareef. Extra Divers offer excursions to coral reefs, kelp forests and two wrecks.
(00968 24274201, seaoman.com); Daymaniyat Islands tours depart Muscat at 8am and returns at 4pm; adults OMR41 (£85) including two dives; snorkelling only OMR25 (£52)
(00968 2683 6550, almarsamusandam.com)
(00968 9178 0935, extradivers.info)
Camping and four-wheel drive
Get set for an off-road adventure, with epic coastal cruises, adventurous desert drives and mountain excursions
Oman’s geography makes road tripping an exciting way to see the country, with many notable attractions reachable only by 4WD. Wild camping is allowed almost everywhere, so you can pitch your tent on the beach, in the mountains or even in the desert.
Wahiba Sands is the ultimate four-wheel drive playground. Many companies offer desert safari tours, combining dune bashing – revving up and down sand dunes in a 4x4 or quad bike – or more sedate activities such as guided camel rides. You can camp among the dunes or pitch up to a permanent Bedouin-style camp. Ras Al Hadd on the coast, about 40 minutes’ drive from Sur, is another top spot to camp, where you can pitch your tent for a night under the stars and wake up to the sound of breaking waves.
Spend the night in a Bedouin-style camp
The Hajar Mountains offer steep roads and spectacular views. The road that clings to the canyon walls of Wadi Bani Awf is legendary.
With uncrowded courses and balmy winter weather, Muscat is an up-and-coming golf destination
With views of the ocean and mountains visible from everywhere on the course, Almouj Golf is an absolute cracker. Designed by Greg Norman, the 18-hole course runs alongside a four-mile stretch of white beach, with 7,342 yards peppered with bunkers, water hazards and natural dunes. Highlights include a daunting Par 3 island green and a challenging Par 5 that stretches for over 600 yards.
Muscat Hills Golf & Country Club, the first 18-hole grass course in Oman, is a highly enjoyable Championship course that will challenge weekend golfers. The lush fairways, receptive greens and a natural wadi give rise to interesting shots at holes with evocative names like Leopard’s Leap. Muscat’s third 18-hole course, Ghala, is a more modest affair, set snugly into a wadi and only recently converted from sand to grass. With its narrow fairways and bunkers leading into the mountains, the newly landscaped course provides a challenge for all skill levels and a more affordable round.
Almouj Golf (00968 2200 5990, almoujgolf.com); green fees from OMR50 (£104) during the peak winter season from October to May.
Muscat Hills Golf & Country Club (00968 2451 4080); from OMR50 (£104) during winter.
Ghala Golf Club (00968 2450 4919, ghalagolf.com); (from OMR35/£73).
Unique in both character and countryside, Oman offers plenty of pinch-yourself moments.
Watching nesting turtles
Witnessing turtles come ashore to lay their eggs is one of Oman’s top animal encounters
Each year between July and October, thousands of sea turtles return to lay their eggs on the silky white beaches of Oman. Two months later, scores of tiny turtle hatchlings make the perilous journey to the warm waters of the Arabian Sea. Four of the world’s seven species of turtles nest in Oman: the green, loggerhead, hawksbill and Olive Ridley. You might also spot the odd leatherback turtle offshore.
Ras Al Jinz Turtle Reserve, an easy 30-mile drive from Sur, is a renowned hotspot for endangered green turtles. Nesting season runs from May to September, usually peaking in July, while you can expect to see hatchlings flip-flop their way down the beach between September and October. You’ll need to join a guided tour at night (from 9pm) or dawn (from 5am) and book in advance, as groups are limited to 20 people per guide, with no more than five guides in each session. There’s also an excellent museum with interactive displays, as well as clean and comfortable accommodation, breakfast and two turtle tours at night and dawn.
Guided tours at Ras Al Jinz Turtle Reserve (00968 9655 0606; rasaljinz-turtlereserve.com) cost OMR5 (£10), children OMR 1 (£2)
Ras Al Jinz Turtle Reserve Hotel Rooms from 85 OMR (£141), including breakfast, two turtle tours and visitor centre access
(00968 96550606 ; rasaljinz-turtlereserve.com)
Exploring traditional villages
Oman’s ancient mountain villages make ideal day trips from Muscat or Nizwa
Amid the Hajar Mountains’ peaks and canyons are picture-perfect mountain villages surrounded by terraced plantations of date, banana and pomegranate trees. For thousands of years, the villagers have mastered their seemingly harsh environment using an irrigation system called falaj, which has been granted Unesco heritage status.
Al Ayn village
On the Saiq Plateau of Jebel Akhdar, you’ll find the pretty villages of Al Aqr, Al Ayn and Ash Shirayjah. There are marked trails through the terraced fruit farms, which take you past tiny mosques, rose distilleries and stone houses with beautiful old wooden doors. Pass by in April and May and you’ll see villagers painstakingly harvesting Damask roses. Also in the Hajar Mountains, Misfat Al Abryeen, a 30-minute drive from Bahla, is straight out of a storybook, with stone houses, bright bougainvillea, gurgling falaj and terrace farms overflowing with date palms and pomegranate trees. You can wander through the narrow alleyways and among the plantations and take in spectacular views over the gorge. After a hair-raising off-road descent into Wadi Bani Awf, you’ll soon come across the village of Bilad Sayt.
Tucked away in the slopes of the mountains, you can stroll among stone houses, plantations and the crumbling watchtower.
Haggling in the souks
Rub shoulders with the locals and shop for exotic keepsakes in the souks of Muscat and Salalah
With alleyways lined with vibrant treasure troves and the air thick with frankincense and spices, bargaining is a way of life in the souk. Frequented more by locals than tourists, shopping in Oman’s traditional bazaars is a hassle-free experience, especially for those who like to look and not be pressured into buying.
The souks come alive at night, especially on Thursdays and Fridays. In the capital, Muttrah Souk is a patchwork of covered alleyways packed with tiny stores selling ornamental daggers, fragrant Arabic perfume in bejewelled bottles, embroidered kuma (caps) worn by Omani men, antique Bedouin silver, glittering gold jewellery, smoky rosewater and spices.
Meanwhile, behind the beach in Salalah, Al Husn Souk is a more ordered affair, with colourful stalls lining the pedestrianised alleys next to the Sultan’s palace. The shopkeepers are unfailingly friendly and it’s a great place to pick up tubs of frankincense – the pale green variety is the most prized – along with majmar and massar, the other type of headdress worn by Omani men.
Open: Saturday-Thursday 8am-1pm and 5pm-9pm, Friday 5pm-9pm
Al Husn Souk
Open: Saturday-Thursday 10am-1pm and 4.30pm-9.30pm, Friday 4.30pm-9.30pm
Monsoon season in Salalah
Every summer, Oman’s second city in the southern Dhofar region turns gloriously green during the khareef
While the rest of the Gulf sizzles in summer, monsoon clouds from India descend on Dhofar’s coastal fringe, bringing light drizzle and heavy fog. The khareef, as it’s known locally, transforms the rugged mountains and valleys surrounding the provincial capital of Salalah, 620 miles southwest of Muscat, from parched brown to emerald green.
The khareef brings an influx of visitors from the Gulf states, who flock here to enjoy cooler temperatures and the rare pleasure of rain falling on their faces, while Western travellers are equally amazed by this lush pocket of the Middle East. Outside of the khareef, Salalah is blessed with warm weather from October to April.
Long, empty beaches lapped by the Indian Ocean soon turn to rugged mountains, followed by rocky desert and the seemingly endless sand dunes of the Empty Quarter. The city itself consists of a jumble of low-rise buildings, mosques and minarets, along with thriving plantations of coconuts, papayas and bananas. Without doubt, the place to stay is the new Al Baleed Resort Salalah by Anantara, situated on a beautiful stretch of beach next to the World heritage-listed ruins of an ancient frankincense trading port.
Road-tripping along the coast
Experience an epic journey along Oman’s cinematic coastal highway
When Oman’s ruler, Sultan Qaboos, overthrew his father in 1970, he inherited a country with just six miles of paved roads. Today, there are thousands of miles of smooth tarmac crisscrossing the country.
When it comes to scenery on a grand scale, the ribbon of road connecting Muscat to the southernmost city of Salalah rivals the best driving roads in the world. Beautiful and largely empty, bar the odd camel, the 850-mile route delivers the best of Oman in one fell swoop: vast rocky deserts, palm-filled wadis and deserted beaches. In short, it’s an absolute pleasure to drive.
You might have to share the road with the odd camel
Known by various numbers (41; 42; 49), the road is at its most dramatic after it heads inland to Shalim, then rejoins the coast at Shuwaymiyah and continues to Hasik, snaking between jagged mountains and the wild Arabian Sea. The route continues southwest to Salalah, hugging the sinewy coast and taking you past the fishing villages of Mirbat and Taqah. Accommodation options are limited – Sur, Duqm and Salalah are the best spots for overnight hotel stays – but you can pitch a tent almost anyway. If you’re planning to camp, hire a 4WD vehicle, otherwise, a standard 2WD is perfectly fine.
Our expert pick of where to stay in Oman, from barefoot luxury to the perfect base for an action and adventure break.
Anantara Al Jabal Al Akhdar Resort
A retreat fit for a royal
On the edge of a canyon with soul-stirring views of the rugged Hajar Mountains, this hotel has sleek rooms with balconies and villas with private pools. It offers activities from hiking and abseiling to cooking and photography, and a truly sensational spa. The hotel’s location is its reason for being – accessible by 4WD only, it is set 6,500 feet (2,000 metres) above sea level on the Saiq Plateau of Jabal Ahkdar (Green Mountain), an area famous for its damask roses.
Stone pathways lined with plants and crisscrossed by narrow waterways connect the earthy low-rise buildings with carved wooden doors and graceful archways. The main building has a cosy courtyard fireplace but the star attraction is the cliff-edge infinity pool and viewing platform named after the late Diana, Princess of Wales, who visited the site in 1986. All rooms come with canyon views, and villas have a private pool and dedicated host.
Al Maisan, the all-day dining restaurant, has an international menu and tasty breakfast buffet with eggs cooked to order but no pork. There’s also a casual Moroccan tapas lounge and signature Arabic restaurant housed in a fort-like building.
Double rooms from OMR 150 (£315) in low season; OMR 230 (£482) in high. Breakfast included. Free Wi-Fi.
Six Senses Zighy Bay
Barefoot luxury at its best
Blissfully secluded, this resort’s 82 villas are set among more than 1,500 date palm trees and sandy paths dotted with fig and pomegranate trees and the odd wandering goat. Stone villas have a private plunge pool, outdoor shower and your own butler. There’s a fabulous spa with a range of wellness programmes, alongside activities such as snorkelling, diving, yoga and trekking.
Set between the craggy Hajar Mountains and a mile-long sandy beach in Musandam, Six Senses is, again, accessible by four-wheel drive only. The drive down from the hilltop overlooking the bay is spectacular and guests can take a tandem paraglide flight into the resort, or arrive by speedboat from a nearby port. Guests are encouraged to go barefoot and there are bikes with padded pedals for each villa, while mobile phones are gently discouraged.
There are five restaurants serving produce from the resort’s organic garden.
Pool villa from US$661 (£531) in low season; and from US$1,800 (£1,446) in high. Breakfast included. Free Wi-Fi.
Shangri-La Barr Al Jissah Resort & Spa
One for the grown ups
Set against a backdrop of the Hajar Mountains and Gulf of Oman, this adult-oriented hotel boasts a private beach, huge infinity pool, spacious sea-facing rooms and two upmarket restaurants. Part of a three-hotel resort, guests can also make use of a lazy river and spa.
Situated on a headland with sensational views, The Husn (The Castle) is the most exclusive hotel within the Barr Al Jissah resort (alongside the family-friendly Al Waha and Al Bandar). The resort’s seclusion is one of its main attractions, although it’s only 20 minutes to downtown Muscat and 45 minutes from the airport. The exterior is as simple as the interiors are opulent. Huge carved wooden doors lead into the lobby, decked out with shimmering gold-tiled fountains, colourful carpets and framed khanjars (traditional daggers). Moorish-style arches frame views of the ocean from one end of the central courtyard, and the palm-filled space is particularly atmospheric at night when guests gather for complimentary cocktails and canapés accompanied by a harpist. Around the rest of the resort, there are five casual eateries including the beachfront Bait Al Bahr seafood restaurant, along with two all-day dining spots and half a dozen cafés and bars.
Double rooms from OMR 100 (£210) in low season; and from OMR 235 (£493) in high. Breakfast included. Free Wi-Fi. Children can stay at Al Jissah, but under-16s are not allowed to use the private beach or pool.
Al Bustan Palace
The firm family favourite
Set among acres of lush palm-filled gardens, this beachfront resort is genuinely family-friendly with smiling staff and excellent kids’ activities. There are five outdoor pools, four floodlit tennis courts with a resident tennis pro and an exceptional Six Senses spa. Backed by the Hajar Mountains, the hotel sits on the longest stretch of private beach in Muscat.
Don't be fooled by the grandeur; Al Bustan is a family-friendly affair
Originally built to host the Gulf Cooperation Council Summit in 1985, the hotel is a suitably grand affair. The soaring domed lobby is fragrant with frankincense and resplendent with hand-carved wood panels and gold, bronze and cream tones. Away from the lobby, the atmosphere is casual and not at all stuffy.
The 250 rooms and suites offer garden, beach or mountain views and are classically styled with mahogany furniture, patterned carpets and soft furnishings in green or blue. The outdoor area features plenty of sunloungers and guests are given a free cool box with bottled water. If you don’t fancy the beautiful beach, the Olympic-sized infinity pool is the pick of the pools.
Double rooms from OMR 69 (£145) in low season; and from OMR 109 (£229) in high. Breakfast included. Free Wi-Fi.
Al Sawadi Beach Resort and Spa
A diver’s paradise
Forty-five minutes drive from Muscat, the Al Sawadi's location, on a stretch of beach that gives onto the Indian Ocean, is the hotel’s main draw. The village is also is the main hopping off point for excursions around the Daymaniyat islands, one of Oman’s best diving locations. There is a PADI dive centre on site, which offers various underwater trips, including night dives and PADI courses.
The resort's style is typical of mid-range accommodation in the Middle East: the lobby features archways, lanterns and pale walls common in Islamic architecture, alongside the ubiquitous televisions, piles of newspapers and thick chenille sofas. Basic but perfectly functional, with modern bathrooms and décor in primary colours, the resort’s 100 rooms sit amid grassy, palm-tree filled gardens. They are equipped with all the necessaries expected in the ferocious Omani heat: mini fridges, complimentary mineral water, air-conditioning, and cool white sheets. All have small terraces with seating. Culinary offerings at the resort are a filling fare for divers tired after a day underwater. Evening meals consist of curries, rice and sticky cream cakes, and buffet parties offer freshly fried fish and varied Arabic dips. Alcohol is served.
Review by Nigel Tisdall
Double rooms from 60 OMR (£104), including breakfast. Wi-Fi is charged at 1 OMR (£1.70) per hour
Beauty has an address
With a fantastic mix of nature, culture and history, Oman is one of the most diverse nations in the Middle East.
Whether you are after a beach holiday, adventure activities, spa and wellness, nature or a good look around the real Arabia, Oman has all this and much more. And you can be in Muscat, the gateway to Oman, just seven hours after your British Airways flight takes off from the UK.
Wander through Muscat today and you will notice the lack of skyscrapers: Omanis pride themselves on their capital being a reflection of their history, from the introduction of Islam to the establishment of the Al Bu Said dynasty, which came to power in 1749 and still rules today.
Sunset over the Muttrah corniche in Muscat
Yet this is also a buzzing, contemporary city. The stunning Grand Mosque and Royal Opera House are outstanding examples of modern Islamic architecture. The new National Museum, opened last year, is a suitably stately tribute to the nation’s history and culture dating back to the prehistoric era.
And if it is living history you are after, look no further than Muttrah souk. A huge tangle of stalls selling everything from frankincense and pomegranate juice to gold, it has changed little in 200 years.
You might also want to dine at Bait Al Luban, where the water comes infused with frankincense, or Ubhar restaurant, which serves camel delicacies and frankincense ice cream.
As you are on the coast, you can head out from the Bandar Al Rowdha marina to watch acrobatic spinner dolphins, or venture into the water with snorkel and flippers.
And for a magical end to a perfect day, watch the sunset from a dhow, a traditional sailing vessel, on a dinner cruise.
Oman was once one of the world’s most important trading posts. A stroll along the corniche in Muscat shows how many of those ancient traditions continue.
Muttrah souk has changed little in 200 years
Here you see the billowing white sails of dhows, and discover the historic Muttrah souk, where you can bargain for jewellery, textiles and frankincense. Head inland into the Hajar mountains towards Nizwa. Crowned by a 17th-century fort, this former capital was once home to the country’s revered imams.
The villages nearby have changed little over the centuries. Pretty Misfat Al Abryeen’s mudbrick houses cling to the hillside; the town of Bahla is dominated by its huge 13th-century Unesco-listed fort, one of the grandest in Oman. Even more romantic is Jabrin castle, famed for its intricate design.
The spectacular town of Bahla
To the south of Muscat, in the magnificent Wahiba Sands, you can meet Bedouin tribes. Take a camel ride or stay in a desert camp to learn more about their lifestyles. Or discover the source of Oman’s rich past on the Frankincense Route. The Unesco-listed trees of Wadi Dawkah, the remnants of the caravan oasis Shisr and the ports of Khor Rori and Al Baleed give a rare glimpse into life on the ancient trade routes.
Stunning beaches, soaring mountains, vast deserts and a peppering of pomegranate fields, frankincense farms and rose gardens: every day promises a new discovery in Oman. And, with Muscat as your jumping-off point, you have access to a country full of adventures.
Jebel Shams is Oman's largest mountain
Head first to the Hajar mountains, dotted with picturesque hillside villages, prehistoric beehive tombs and historic fortresses
Here you will find Jebel Shams, at 9,872ft (3,009m) Oman’s highest mountain. Nearby is the Omani Grand Canyon, the magnificent Wadi Ghul.
Travel further south to A’Sharqiyah Sands, home to the Bedouin. Explore the dunes by 4x4 or by camel, join a Bedouin family for lunch, or star-gaze from a traditional desert camp.
With close to 2,000 miles of coastline the region offers more opportunities for adventure, including the chance to watch green turtles lay their eggs at Ras Al Jinz.
Oman’s southernmost city, Salalah, is famed for its lush monsoon climate. Do not miss the spectacular waterfalls of Wadi Darbat, which plunge 490ft (150m), or the huge stalagmites and stalactites at the Salalah caves.
Slightly more off the beaten track is Musandam. A small peninsula dubbed the “Norway of Arabia” because of fjord-like rocky inlets, this is the perfect place for a dhow cruise and dolphin spotting.
From Sinbad the Sailor to Lawrence of Arabia, Oman’s rich history is packed with tales of heroic adventure.
Speedboating along the coastline of Musandam Peninsula
And today’s resorts tempt you with activities as varied as dune bashing in a 4x4, speedboating and the chance to a soar alongside a professional paraglider.
The Hajar Mountains are a hikers’ paradise, dotted with donkey paths, sinkholes and wadis. There are also plenty of challenges for rock climbers, as well as opportunities for abseiling, caving and canyoning.
Oman’s pristine waters offer some of the best scuba diving in the world – top spots are the Daymaniyat islands, Fahl island and the Musandam peninsula. You will also find all forms of water sports, from snorkelling, sailing, parasailing, kayaking and paddle boarding to jet skiing, water skiing and wakeboarding.
If you have not tried kite surfing, head to Kitecamp in Masirah island. The high-wind monsoon season starts in May or June, but the camp is open all year round.
And if it is cultural adventure you are after, Al Sharqia Sands, the great desert expanse that stretches across the centre of Oman, is the perfect place to get a taste of the Bedouin lifestyle, be it camel riding or a night camping under the stars.
NATURE AND WILDLIFE
Think of Oman and you may think of deserts and beaches, but the sultanate has a surprisingly varied landscape and climate.
Take a sailing boat to discover the fjords of Musandam
Visit Wadi Ghul, known as the Grand Canyon of Arabia, for spectacular views; experience the vast space of the world’s largest sand desert, the Empty Quarter; or hike through the rugged Al Hajar mountains, the highest in the eastern Arabian Peninsula. Perhaps most unexpected are the lush green Dhofar region with its monsoon climate and the picturesque fjords at Musandam.
Oman is also home to several endangered species. Arabian leopards live in the Dhofar mountain range, while the Al Wusta wildlife reserve in the central desert gives you the chance to view a breeding population of oryx. You can also see green turtles nesting at the Ras Al Jinz reserve.
But not all of Oman’s wildlife is terrestrial. With close to 2,000 miles of coastline there is an abundance of marine life. Dive spots near Muscat and Dhofar offer you every chance of seeing a huge range of fish, from snappers to eagle rays.
Depending on the season, you can also spot a fantastic variety of dolphins and whales, including humpback, killer and even the majestic blue.
Imagine teeing off beneath the majestic Hajar mountains, or overlooking the glittering Sea of Oman. The sultanate may be a relatively recent addition to the golf circuit, but its three championship courses are world-class.
Enjoy world-class golf in Oman
Voted the second-best course in the Middle East last year is Greg Norman’s Al Mouj. A links-style 18-hole, par-72 championship course running along a mile and a quarter of beach, it offers a range of challenges for all levels.
Muscat Hills, the first grassed course to be built in Oman, was the vision of the late Kais Bin Tarik Al Said. This PGA-certified 18-hole 72-par championship course is built in and around a wadi, and includes five teeing grounds to ensure all players are catered for.
Al Mouj was designed by Greg Norman
Known locally as the Valley because of its snug location inside a wadi, Ghala Golf Club started out as a nine-hole sand course in 1971. It has since been developed into an 18-hole par-72 fully grassed championship course.
This is also the place to bring your children: Ghala is the only club in Oman to offer free playing facilities to junior golfers. And if the days are not long enough for you, try the entirely floodlit nine-hole Ras Al Hamra.
SPA AND WELLNESS
With clean mountain air, clear blue waters, a warm breeze and the restful sound of the waves lapping on the shore, it is no wonder that visitors to Oman feel so relaxed.
Unwind at The Spa at The Chedi Muscat
But the good news is that you can feel better still with a visit to one of the sultanate’s many spas and well-being centres. Choose from a selection of individual treatments, day or longer packages to rejuvenate and unwind.
If you are in Muscat, indulge yourself at The Spa at The Chedi Muscat, the largest in the capital.
There is a wide range of treatments from therapeutic massage to romantic bathing ceremonies, and the health club offers Power Plates and a Kinesis wall.
Another favourite is Chi at the Shangri-La Al Waha, which offers a vitality hydro pool, steam room, tundra and tropical showers, and an ice fountain.
For a range of more traditional treatments, try the Anantara Spa at the Anantara Al Jabal Al Akhdar. The spa offers a private hammam and signature treatments, such as the Rose Rescue Ritual.
And why not sign up to the sunrise yoga group? This is the highest five-star hotel in the Middle East, so your morning practice will have a dramatic canyon backdrop.
In 1970, when Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al Said assumed power, Oman had just six miles of asphalted roads. Today they number in their thousands, enabling visitors to explore the glories of the country at their own pace.
Driving through the Al Hajar mountains
Self-drive is a fantastic option in Oman. Hire cars (two-wheel and four-wheel drive) are widely available from international car-hire companies as well as local agencies. Most foreign driving licences are accepted, although an international driving permit is preferable.
Road signs are written in English and Arabic, and brown tourist signs flag up sites of interest. Al Maha petrol stations have modern, well-stocked shops and toilets. Petrol, all of which is unleaded, is cheap.
Go off-piste with a drive through Oman's sandy wastes
The arterial routes are smooth and the coastal roads have an infinite wow factor. More intrepid visitors will turn off to negotiate the dirt tracks that wind through the majestic Al Hajar mountains. Or you can venture into the sandy wastes and go entirely off-piste.
Two things are worth noting: if you plan to take your vehicle off road it is important to check your insurance beforehand; and it is always wise in the hot climate to carry a good supply of drinking water.
In just over seven hours, new direct flights from London Heathrow (LHR) to Muscat international airport (MCT) will transport you to Muscat, the beautiful and historic capital of Oman.
See world-class acts at the Royal Opera House
Muscat is a city that oozes Old World charm. It also offers fantastic variety: visit the stunning Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque, try your haggling skills at the historic Muttrah souk, catch a world-class act at the Royal Opera House, or feast on seafood at the Bandar Al Rowdha marina’s celebrated Blue Marlin restaurant.
There is plenty of adventure to be had outside the capital too. Head to the Hajar mountains for the Omani “Grand Canyon”, the magnificent Wadi Ghul. Further south the A’Sharqiyah Sands area, home to the Bedouin and gateway to desert adventure.
And there are close to 2,000 miles of coastline – ideal for lazing on the beach or watching wildlife, whether dolphins or green turtles. Exploring is easy, with multiple internal flights and an excellent road network.
British Airways also allows you to customise your trip, enabling you to book carefully selected hotels and car hire as well as flights to create a multi-centre holiday – and with no hidden extra costs.
Deposits for your Muscat holiday start at just £150 per booking, and there is also the opportunity to stagger your payments. A 24-hour helpline means someone is always there if needed – and you can be confident your holiday is Atol-protected.
There are some incredible hotels in Oman to choose from. Here are three well worth your consideration:
THE CHEDI MUSCAT
A mix of modern minimalism and traditional Omani architecture, this luxurious boutique hotel has won a Condé Nast Traveller award for ambience and design.
Dine in style at the Chedi Muscat
The Chedi has the largest spa in Muscat and, at 103 metres, the longest pool in the Middle East.
ANANTARA AL JABAL AL AKHDAR
Perched 2,000m above sea level on the fabled Green Mountain, Anantara Al Jabal Al Akhdar can claim to be the highest five-star hotel in the Middle East.
Enjoy a bite to eat 2,000m above sea level
It is also home to the country’s only fort restaurant, with breathtaking views over the canyon.
SHANGRI-LA AL WAHA
Set in 124 acres of landscaped gardens and surrounded by tranquil pools, this Arabic-style hotel gives the impression of an oasis.
Take a dip in one of the three outdoor pools
But while the private beach and award-winning Chi spa offer a luxurious retreat, the three outdoor swimming pools, four tennis courts and dive centre mean there is also plenty to keep you busy.