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off the beaten track n oman

off the beaten track n oman

Gold, frankincense and more

oman tips l Buying frankincense: A half-kilo bag of midgrade, mixed frankincense can be picked up for about £2-£3. Prices in the souks of Salalah and Muttrah are little different, so haggle. l Must visit: Built in 1995, the five-towered Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque in Muscat is cut from 300,000 tonnes of Indian sandstone. Its domed prayer hall has room for 6,500 devotees beneath the world’s second largest chandelier, kneeling on the world’s second largest, hand-knotted onepiece carpet; it took 600 Iranian weavers four years to make. l Eating out: The Chedi, Muscat, a large, beachside boutique hotel with an infinity swimming pool to die for, has a restaurant acclaimed as one of Oman’s best. The Mumtaz Mahal Indian restaurant in the Qurum National Park serves made-at-yourtable “snake coffee”, where brandy is drizzled over orange peel and set alight.

his is not good, come back in two weeks, then you will be able to cut the wood again and get the best sap.” Mohammed, our guide, is an expert on a certain milky-white tree sap. We’re in Wadi Dawkah, a valley about 15 miles from Salalah in the Dhofar region in the far south of Oman. The wild desert trees we’re being shown don’t look much. Straggly, in fact. But these are Boswellia sacra trees and they produce a resin which, when dried and then burnt, emits a pungent, heady odour. This crystallised gum – which we know as frankincense – has been prized throughout history. It was one of the three gifts brought by the Magi for the baby Jesus when they travelled from the East. Today, the Sultan of Oman keeps the best stuff for himself and his ultra-luxe Amouage perfume house. Visitors to Salalah, Dhofar’s main town, can haggle in Haffa Souk for the next-best grades. Frankincense resin droplets are dried in caves to form small, hard, multi-coloured lumps. The frankincense shops of Salalah – of which there are a prodigious n Bedouin children number – will sell you directfrom-the-farmer frankincense


n Desert mountain scenery

n A frankincense seller in Al Husn Souq, Salalah

Carlton Reid

Oman Ministry of Tourism

n One of Oman’s 500 forts

Peter Ellegard

70 tlm n the travel & leisure magazine

Oman Ministry of Tourism

Gulf state Oman has emerged from the shadows of its neighbours to become one of the region’s rising tourism stars. Carlton Reid goes in search of its legendary frankincense in the deserts and souks of Dhofar and also explores capital Muscat with its fish and gold souks, while Peter Ellegard reflects on Oman’s other attractions

rocklets as well as painted burners and charcoal brickettes. Oman’s Dhofar region produces the world’s best and costliest frankincense because of warm winters and summers dotted with rain showers, an unusual microclimate for a region that contains part of the Empty Quarter, an expanse of desert made famous by post World War Two British adventurer Wilfred Thesiger (or Mubarak bin London as he was called) in his book Arabian Sands, a must-read for any visitor to Oman. Our small convoy of 4x4 vehicles – led by Mohammed – leaves the Boswellia sacra groves and heads into the sands for some dune bashing. In Arabic this is called tloua al ramel, or “climbing the sands”.

lost city Our drivers show us some of their tamer moves before heading off to the Lost City of Ubar. Clearly, this is no longer lost. Known as “Atlantis of the Sands” by Lawrence of Arabia, this caravan staging post was discovered by under-sand satellite scanning by NASA. It was unearthed by explorer Sir Ranulph TwisletonWykeham-Fiennes, who led the on-ground search team in 1992. In truth, there’s not a lot to see but the walled town was once a strategic transport hub on the famous incense road. More scenic by far is Khor Rori, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Legend has it one of the Queen of Sheba’s palaces was located here. Khor Rori – to the ancients it was Sumhun An Omani frankincense burner ram – dates Shangri-La Hotels and Resorts

Winter 2011/12

Winter 2011/12

tlm n the travel & leisure magazine


off the beaten track n oman

Oman’s strategic position on the Arabian Peninsula has brought with it not only wealth from trade through the centuries but also conflict, borne out by the 500 centuries-old forts, castles and watchtowers littering the country. The impressive Nizwa Fort, in the inland town that was once the capital, is Oman’s most visited monument. Nizwa is a green oasis in the desert thanks to its aflaj irrigation canals. Rise early on Fridays to watch locals barter for goats at the livestock market in Nizwa’s souq. On my visit, some wore traditional, decorative curved khanjah daggers strapped to a belt while several even brandished rifles and ammunition belts, and beaming smiles. Omanis are disarmingly friendly and welcoming, none more so than the Bedouin. When I came across a camp while on a 4x4 excursion into the vast Wahiba Sands desert, they lived up to their reputation for hospitality, inviting us to join them for lunch, cross-legged on a rug. I followed my hosts’ lead when a bowl containing a rice and meat dish, qabel, was passed round, sticking my fingers into the stodgy goo then rolling it into a sticky ball and dipping it in a bowl of oil

Oman Ministry of Tourism

forts, fjords and desert hospitality

n A 4x4 excursion

before eating it. Refusing would have offended. At ancient shipbuilding town Sur, just two hours from Muscat via a new highway, wooden dhows are still made by hand and huge turtles haul up the beach to nest. Cut off from the rest of Oman by a 45mile strip of the United Arab Emirates, the northernmost Musandam peninsula is known as the Norway of Arabia because of its rugged mountains and deep fjords. When I visited just before Oman’s tourism boom, it had one 15-room hotel in the main town of Khasab and you could only fly there.

at least to 300BC and flourished until the fourth century AD. The walled town is impressive, and scenic; it’s sited on a bluff overlooking an Arabian Sea inlet. The Arabian Sea is a big draw for visitors. Oman has some stunning beach resorts. Some of them are even

Now you can also take the world’s fastest ferries and there is more accommodation. Guarding the Strait of Hormuz – gateway to the Arabian Gulf – gives Musandam a very different feel to the rest of Oman. Tiny fishing communities dot the steep-sided coast, while inland, villages cling to the sides of stark, barren mountains. Sightseeing options include taking a dhow fjords cruise, watching dolphins and snorkelling or diving on isolated reefs, as well as taking 4x4 trips into the mountains. Peter Ellegard

livelier in the early hours of the morning. But the parties are of the eco variety – small groups of people being shown the night-time egg-laying ritual of green sea turtles at the Ras al Jinz nature reserve. Guides know the best spots. Turtles can also be found lumbering up the beaches of the Daymaniyat Islands Nature Preserve, offshore from Oman’s capital, Muscat, as well as other areas nearby and around the city of Sur.

n View towards Muscat's corniche

Oman Ministry of Tourism


72 tlm n the travel & leisure magazine

Muscat has been much developed since the current sultan came to power; he deposed his father in 1970. However, unlike neighbouring Dubai and Abu Dhabi, Muscat is low-rise, tasteful and really quite chic. Muscat’s harbour at Muttrah has a 3km-long corniche, or promenade. It’s dotted with statues and canopies and seats. Try to rise early for a corniche amble. At 5.30am, the mountains are black behind the city and the cloudless sky starts its purple-to-red-toyellow welcome to the day. Sprinklers along the corniche add mist, and mystique. At 6am, head along to Muttrah Souk, for the sights, sounds and smells of the fish market. There is also a gold souk there. Sip your first Arabian coffee of the day as Muscat comes to life. And come to life it does. The city – the

Winter 2011/12

off the beaten track n oman

n Lunch

when to go The best time to visit Oman is from October to April, with average daytime temperatures of 25ºC-35ºC. Between April and September, it is baking hot and humid on the coast and bone dry inland. From mid-June to mid-September, the Khareef monsoon hits the south.

active oman

Oman Ministry of Tourism

n Turtle and diver

Oman Ministry of Tourism

oman facts


getting there

With newly-sunk wrecks, coral-lined fjords, 900 species of fish and rays, turtles and dolphins, Oman offers world-class diving, but without the crowds. The Muscat Diving & Adventure Centre offers day and evening dive tours. A two-night package for two people costs £300.

National airline Oman Air ( flies non-stop to Muscat from London. Other services include British Airways ( and Etihad ( via Abu Dhabi, Emirates ( via Dubai and Gulf Air ( via Bahrain. Visitor visas can be bought on arrival.

getting around

camel racing

Taxis are widely available in Muscat and other cities. From Muscat, it’s a one-hour flight with Oman Air to Salalah. Flights and fast ferries link Muscat with Khasab in northern peninsula enclave Musandam. Self-drive is available. Take 4x4 excursions into the desert.

Camel races on the Sharqiyah Sands, in Oman’s interior, no longer use young boys as jockeys, but robots, radio-controlled from 4x4s which race along with the camels. Races take place from October to April, overseen by the wonderfully-titled Directorate General of Camel Affairs. Find race schedules on

accommodation Oman now has a host of top-class hotels. They include the Al Bustan Palace (, Sifawy Boutique Hotel (, The Chedi (, Crowne Plaza Muscat ( and Shangri-La’s Barr Al Jissah Resort & Spa ( in Muscat, and the Salalah Marriott Resort ( in the Dhofar region. You can also stay in Bedouin-style tents in the Desert Nights Camp ( in the Wahiba Sands desert.

golf Muscat Hills (, Oman’s first 18-hole green golf course, opened in 2009. The first nine holes of the Greg Norman-designed Almouj golf course ( at The Wave development near Muscat opened in December.



cycling Oman is criss-crossed by stony tracks. It’s possible to ride to the top of Jebel Shams, Oman’s highest mountain. Renting a full-suspension mountain bike from Oman Bicycle ( in Muscat costs £40 per week. The Muscat Diving and Adventure Centre has guided mountain bike day tours for £90.

Oman Ministry of Tourism

Majlis al Jinn – or meeting place of the spirits – is an Omani cave complex, 100km from Muscat, entered by abseiling. The Muscat Diving and Adventure Centre offers a two-day trip for £250.

Tour operators featuring Oman include Shaw Travel (, Omantravel (, Audley Travel (, Elegant Resorts (, Peregrine Adventures n Making rosewater (, Kuoni ( and Tropical Sky (

tourist information Oman Ministry of Tourism:

climbing Oman has some classic via ferrata: high mountain routes equipped with fixed cables, ladders, and narrow bridges. Snake Gorge – named for its shape – in Wadi Bani Awf, 100km from Muscat, has a cable crossing 100 metres above the canyon floor. One-day via ferrata trips with the Muscat Diving and Adventure Centre cost £90.

74 tlm n the travel & leisure magazine

2012 Capital of Arab Tourism – stages a number of spectacular festivals during the year, including music festivals. The sultan is a classical music buff. In 1985 he wished into being the Royal Oman Symphony Orchestra, with Omani nationals employed as players at the Royal Opera House in Muscat. There are also yachting festivals – the Extreme Sailing Series is the world's toughest – and heritage expos. The Tour of Oman is an annual stage race which attracts the world’s best professional cyclists. Most festivals take place in the cooler spring months. Oman’s National Day is on November 18 and is famous for its camel races.

Winter 2011/12

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