Roadtripping in Oman

Situated between the arguably failed state of Yemen, ultra-conservative Saudi Arabia, and flashy UAE, Oman often and undeservedly gets lost in the Middle East shuffle.  It’s this off-the-radar status plus its relatively progressive attitude, political stability, and absolutely stunning landscapes that make Oman the ideal place to experience the Middle East.

According to Wikipedia, the first humans arrived in what is present-day Oman as early as 106,000 years ago after migrating from Africa to escape massive droughts.  Yes, Arabia was thought to have been lushly fertile way back when (fascinating, right?).  By around 5000 BC, southern Oman was the world’s premier producer of frankincense and a major hub of trade between Asia, Africa, and Europe.

Islam came to Oman in the 7th century, and the Omanis were among the first in the world to adopt the religion during Mohammed’s lifetime.  They established an imamate, which ruled the country until the Portuguese came to the region in 1507, subsequently conquering and controlling parts of the coast until they were expelled in 1650 by various regional tribes.  The current line of sultans, hailing from Yemen, emerged victorious out of the post-Portuguese struggle for power and have governed with few major interruptions ever since.

There is, of course, much more to it than all this, but I am not a historian, and this isn’t a history class.  For a more in-depth lesson, hit up Google, or do as we did and soak up this rich and storied history yourself on a road trip.

Day 1-2: Muscat

Arrive Muscat, and assuming you are jet-lagged, check into your hotel and relax.  For dinner, get your first taste of local cuisine at Ubhar Bistro.  You can’t go wrong with shuwa (whole animal, usually goat or lamb, slow-roasted in a pit in the ground) or harees (akin to cream of wheat with chicken) – give the camel meat biryani a try if you’re feeling more adventurous.

Start your first full day in Muscat with a visit to the fish market and the Mutrah souq, where all of Oman’s tradition products are on offer, including silverware and jewelry, frankincense and other perfume oils, and various textiles and rugs.  If you’re looking for a gift for the person who has everything, may I suggest a khanjar (the traditional Omani dagger worn by men)? Be ready with a fat wallet, as these handicrafts don’t come cheap.

From there, do a little driving tour of the city, starting with the Sultan’s palace and surrounding forts.  Unfortunately, visitors can not go inside the palace, though I’ve read elsewhere you can visit the forts.  I’m not sure they are worth time since the forts are you going to see later on are pretty spectacular.  Finish with a visit to the impressive Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque, a sprawling complex boasting ornate architecture and the world’s second largest rug.

For dinner, don’t miss the burgers at B+F Roadside Diner.  Burgers, you say?  Seriously?  Yes, I am recommending that you forgo Omani cuisine in favor of a burger, and here’s why: first and foremost, the burgers are awesome.  Secondly, it’s a great way to get a taste of what local life is really like (i.e. a lot less Lawrence of Arabia and lot more like yours).  This place is seriously buzzy, and we had to wait almost an hour for a table on a Wednesday night, so make sure to book ahead.

If you just can’t bring yourself to eat a burger in foreign country, I have two recommendations: 1) get over yourself and off your high horse, or b) own your haughtiness and dine in one of Muscat’s most splendid settings: The Beach Restaurant at the Chedi.  We did not visit, but we’ve heard the food is almost as spectacular as the views, and priced accordingly.

Oman Collage #1

Day 3-4: Nizwa, Bahla, and the Jebel Akhdar

The former capital of Nizwa (6th and 7th centuries) is an easy two-hour drive from Muscat.  Strategically located at the intersection of several major trade routes, it is one of Oman’s oldest and most prominent cities and was home to one of the founders of the Ibadi school of Islam, making it a center of Islamic scholarship for many centuries.

There’s a ton to see here, starting with the spectacular Nizwa Fort – a must for kids, military history buffs, or folks that just appreciate ingenuity and trickery.  Built in the 1650’s by Imam Sultan Bin Saif Al Ya’rubi, it was the administrative seat of the imamate, the imam’s residence, and a military fortification.  The residential and administrative buildings lie at the center of the compound, which is surrounded by a wall that can accommodate up to 120 armed watchmen.  The fort’s massive tower commands 360 degree views of the area and is an obstacle course for would-be intruders, complete with secret shafts and trap doors through which the tower’s defenders would pour boiling water, oil, or date syrup on their enemies.  Burn.

Nizwa Fort was recently restored and now houses both permanent and temporary exhibits; I’d recommend hitting this first to get a primer on the history of the area before tackling nearby Bahla Fort and Jibreen Castle (our favorite of the bunch).  Other highlights of the area include the souq and the beautiful Jebel Akhdar mountains, which offer both stunning scenery and hiking, as well as ancient villages like Misfat al Abreyeen.  If possible, time your visit to the city on a Friday, as the souq’s live animal market is a cultural must-do … that is, if you are not an animal rights activist.

Day 5: Wahiba Sands

If you’ve ever dreamed of playing Aladdin and Jasmine in the Arabian desert, don’t you dare close your eyes because this is the place for you.  Named after a local Bedouin tribe, Wahiba is around 4800 square miles of shining, shimmering, splendid reddish-tan dunes that stretch as far as the eye can see.  You can come out here for the day, where the locals will take you wonder by wonder, over sideways and under on a magic four-wheeling drive, camel ride, or trek.  However, it’d be a shame to pass up the chance to spend the night at one of the amazing desert camps.  Beware that if you visit during the summer months, the odds of you being able to withstand the heat for daytime activities is slim to none.  Nights are thankfully cooler, making it possible to dine under an endless diamond sky as local Bedouins serenade you.  It’s a dazzling place I never knew … a whole new world, if you will.

Day 6: Masirah Island

Head down the coast and hop on a ferry to Masirah Island, 15 km. off the southeast coast of Oman in the Arabian Sea (be sure to check the schedule to avoid waiting around or worse, missing the ferry altogether).

There is precious little on Masirah save the main town of Hilf, plus a few small villages and abandoned boats, so we spent our time exploring the island by car and soaking up the eerie and lunar landscape.  Craggy, desolate, dry as a bone, and ringed by sparkling blue water, the island is an otherwordly place.

Masirah’s isolated sandy beaches are also nesting grounds for four species of turtles, including the largest population of Loggerhead turtles in the world, but sadly, our evening bid to observe the turtles laying eggs failed.  Even worse, no one seems to care much about protecting the habitat of these amazing creatures, as vehicles are allowed to drive all over the beach, but that’s a discussion for another day.  The island also offers kite surfing and diving if you’re so inclined.

In terms of meals, there’s … not a lot to choose from.  We had lunch at the fancy Masirah Island Resort and the food was as expected: overpriced and mediocre, but if you want something on the nicer side, this place is it.  We ended up eating dinner twice at a Turkish drive-in of sorts whose name we could not figure out, but it is located on the main drag no more than 1 km. north of the ferry landing.  The food is decent and very cheap.

Day 7-9: Salalah

Wake up early on day seven, as you’ve got a ferry ride then a long drive ahead of you … about 10 hours, to be exact.  The bad news is that the first half of it is pretty damn boring.  The good news is that the latter half is truly spectacular and will more than make up for the earlier monotony.

How can I describe this rugged section of coastline, where the dry desert mountains drop sharply into crystalline blue sea?  I imagine it looks something like Nevada would if California dropped into the Pacific.  We oohed, ahhhed, and pulled over to take pictures at least a dozen times.  If you are visiting after the monsoon season, which I highly suggest, you’ll be rewarded with lush green hills, saturated after a few months worth of rain.

We were spent after such a long day in the car, so we ordered room service, something we had never done on this trip.  It was glorious, and I regret nothing.  If you have the energy, head to the Oasis Club, which serves arguably the best food in town, or Bin Ateeq, an Omani chain offering decent local cuisine if you want one last taste before you head home.  We did not eat Indian in Oman since we needed a break after our six-week sojourn there, but Udupi is supposed to be good.  The Palm Grove at our hotel, the Hilton, wasn’t bad either, but I’ll be honest: food in Oman didn’t knock our socks off.

For your first full day in Salalah, jump back in the car and head back up the coast to Wadi Darbat, a year-round oasis that positively gushes water after the monsoon.  You can hike, picnic, or take a boat ride to see the waterfall.  Be sure to hit up a vendor for fatira, an Arabian/African cross between flatbread and a crepe.  You can get it with nutella, honey, and/or cheese (we liked plain cheese best).

Head back to Salalah, stopping along the way to check out the ruins Samahram city (near Khor Rori), which flourished between the 3rd and 5th centuries and was one of the most important cities on the Arabian peninsula thanks to the frankincense and copper trade.  There’s a small museum nearby with good background as well as some ancient objects.  Nearby Taqah fort is also interesting but relatively new (19th century) and not nearly as impressive as any of the forts in the Nizwa area.  If you’d prefer not to spend a lot of time in the car, check out the ruins of the ancient port city of Al Baleed, located in the heart of Salalah.  Al Baleed is also home to a museum dedicated to the region’s most treasured export, frankincense.

Spend your final full day exploring the coast south of Salalah, starting with a stop at the local Carrefour to pick up picnic provisions (Omanis are avid picnickers).  You can find everything from Western snacks, cheese, bread, and sandwich meats to ready-to-eat local delicacies, spreads, and nuts.  Continue on to Mughsail Beach and the nearby blowholes, an impressive display of the sea’s violent power.  Then, head down the road and up into the mountains toward the Yemeni border – be sure to have your passports for military check-points, especially if you have 4WD and wish to go close the border.  Take a left off the main road when you see the sign for Al Fazayah (approx. location: 16°51’08.2″N, 53°43’03.1″E), Oman’s best kept secret and our favorite place in the whole country.

You’ll begin your descent almost immediately, and while the road is steep and unpaved, it’s passable without 4WD as long as it’s not raining.  When we were there, the top portion of the road was shrouded in clouds, and it was about 10 minutes or so before we emerged from the fog to see the fairytale landscape that awaited us below: brilliant emerald greenery, jagged and dark coastline, and the tall, craggy mountains we had just descended from looming above.  It was straight out of Lord of the Rings and such a shock to see in the Middle East.  As we snaked along the coast, we passed stretch after stretch of empty beach, camels gorging themselves on the abundant flora, and little else.  This magical area is the ideal spot for a picnic.  If you have the gear and the inclination, consider camping for the night to enjoy near-zero light pollution and a brilliant Milky Way.

Day 10: Muscat

Fly back to Muscat.  “The empty quarter”, as Oman’s vast interior is known, is exactly that, and the drive through it is long (12+ hours) and boring as hell unless you go back along the coast the way you came, but that requires adding another day.

Oman Collage #2

Know Before You Go

Weather

Most of the guide books will advise you to go between November and March to avoid soaring temps and the monsoon.  I think this is a grave mistake, as you’ll miss the verdant and shocking paradise that is Salalah after the monsoon.  We went at the beginning of September, and, yes, it was blazing during the day.  The heat may take things like a camel trek or other desert activities off the table.  However, a/c is ubiquitous, you’ll have a car, and I think seeing Salalah post-monsoon is totally worth it.

Local Transportation

Obviously, you will need a car for a roadtrip, but, despite what you might read, you do not need to hire a driver.  There aren’t that many cars on the road, the driving is not nearly as crazy as people say it is, and a driver would cost you a fortune.

Instead, spring for a 4WD, which will open up a lot more of Oman’s best (read: unpaved) roads to you.  Just make sure it’s a true 4WD and not some sissifed SUV like the Ford Escape.  Wanderrlust recommends a: Toyota Land Cruiser, Toyota HiLux, or Land Rover Defender.  Bonus points for a winch, and it goes without saying that you should be prepared to fend for yourself if you break down in the desert (i.e. plenty of water on-hand is a huge must).

One final note on the rental car: if you’re considering forgoing it while you’re in Muscat, think again.  The city is very spread out, and a rental car will be cheaper than taking taxis everywhere; plus parking is ample and largely free.

Alcohol

The desert is not the only thing that’s dry in Oman.  Difficult to find even in Muscat, alcohol is nearly impossible to find outside of the city thanks to Oman’s very strict liquor laws.  It is not sold to individuals except non-Muslim expats holding a special permit, so your best bet is a major and fancy hotel or restaurant.  Additionally, foreigners are allowed to bring two liters of alcohol each into the country, which is exactly what we did.

Note that it is also illegal to transport alcohol in your car unless you are bringing it straight home from the airport or liquor store, and of course, have your permit with you.  Obviously, we broke this rule, but we kept it hidden in one of our bags just in case we got pulled over or searched. This is highly unlikely, but worth the precaution anyway.

Finally, be aware that alcohol-related crimes come with serious penalties, even for public intoxication.  This is not the place
to let loose, even if you see a few locals doing so.

Local Dress and Custom

Despite its reputation as progressive and forward-thinking, Oman is still a Muslim country, and, in my view, deeply conservative.  I tend to dress modestly anyway, and I was still stared at pretty much everywhere outside of Muscat, particularly by women and particularly on Masirah Island.  For ladies, stick with long pants/skirts and shirts that cover your shoulders, and always carry a shawl with you both to cover up when the staring is too much and also for the frigid a/c.  Rules of dress are, of course, much more relaxed for men.

If you need to use the facilities and are nowhere near a bathroom, which will happen when driving through the vast and empty stretches of desert, do your best to find a little something to hide behind, even for men.  A man driving past H.J. when he was peeing on the side of the road was so angry he skidded to a stop and turned around to come back and yell at him.  We saw local men relieving themselves in plain view of the road, but we are not locals … different rules for us, it seems?

Finally, Omanis are apparently very sensitive, at least according to Wikitravel, and you can be taken to court for insulting someone.  I have no idea if this is true since locals were not really interested in talking to us, but I thought it was worth mentioning anyway.  To be safe, I’d steer clear of sarcasm and channel your grandma: if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.  Write about it later online when you’re safely out of the country.

Where to Stay

Muscat, and Oman in general, is ridiculously expensive, and it’s mostly unmerited.  For example, a # 1 B&B on Trip Advisor showed us a room that had a nice, big pile of insect larvae right inside the door … for $100/night!  It was obvious that the room hadn’t been cleaned in weeks, and, needless to say, we took a pass and spent an extra $95/night to stay at the Hilton.

If $200+/night is just not in your budget, it’s important to keep your expectations in check.  $75/night should get you a private room with an en-suite bathroom, a/c, and hot water.  The room will likely be hideous, with lots of heavy fabrics, gold paint, and faux opulence and some plastic lawn chairs thrown in for good measure.  You may or may not get in-room WiFi, and if you do, odds are high that it’s going to be slow and unstable with some sites/apps blocked by the government (notably Skype and Facetime).  You also probably won’t find alcohol on the premises and maybe not even a restaurant (one you would want to eat at, anyway).

One final note: be sure to check rates online before booking directly with the hotel.  We found that most of the upscale properties were half the listed price if booked through Agoda, Booking, Expedia, etc.  This was less important at budget properties.

Muscat

  • The aptly named Ruwi Hotel is located in the business district of Ruwi and offers a lot for your money. The rooms are very nice for this price point in Oman – comfortable, clean, and well-appointed, plus there’s an onsite gym, pool, and bar in addition to room service and stable in-room WiFi.  I doubt you can do better for your money anywhere in Oman.  From $80/night for a standard double on Agoda.  
  • The Naseem Hotel is located in the heart of Mutrah, right on the conriche, and is within walking distance of the souq and fish market.  The rooms are clean, if basic, with hot water and strong a/c (but sadly, no in-room WiFi).  If you really want to be on the water and a stone’s throw from the souq, then the Naseeem is your jam.  From $55/night for a standard double with breakfast included.  
  • If I was going to splurge, I’d stay at either the Shangri-La or the Chedi – the Crowne Plaza and the Intercontinental were less than impressive, especially for the price.  That said, the pub at the Intercontinental makes for excellent people-watching if you’re bored and/or interested in what the prostitute scene is like in a Muslim country.  Pass on the food, though – $20 will get you a burger that, at best, rivals a Michelle Obama school lunch.

Nizwa

  • We went budget again and stayed at the Jibreen Hotel.  It’s not going to win any style awards (unless you love the aforementioned Arab faux-luxury), but it’s super clean with stable in-room WiFi and is well-located between Nizwa and Bahla, with easy access to the mountains.  We got upgraded to a suite, which was larger than my first apartment in DC and boasted a separate sitting room and (oddly unequipped) kitchen. The Jibreen has an on-site restaurant with a limited, mostly Indian menu – it was fine, but we much preferred the popular Turkish place across the street, a few minutes walk to the right.  From $78/night for a standard double with breakfast included.
  • There are quite a few “resorts” outside of Nizwa in the mountains.  We looked at them all but ultimately balked at the prices (“Arabian” tents with mattresses on the floor and attached outhouse-style bathrooms generally start at around $130/night, dinner and breakfast included).  We drove by quite a few of these resorts and were really glad we didn’t spend the money.

Wahiba Sands

  • There are a few desert camps in this area – we chose the Desert Nights Camp and were not disappointed.  Their “tents” are actually permanent concrete structures, which you’ll be grateful for when the afternoon wind whips through the valley.  The tents are spacious and nicely appointed, if a little corporate – I was personally hoping for more Arabian opulence and fantasy, but I’m nitpicking here.  Both dinner and breakfast are included, as is the morning camel ride around the property (we opted out after realizing the animal’s legs were tied together) and a sunset ride up the dunes with refreshments (disappointingly, water, a mountain Dew, and an orange soda plus some raw, unsalted nuts).  Meals are not great, but then there really is no other choice.  Still, it’s a cool experience.  From $195/night on Agoda, breakfast and dinner included.

Masirah Island

  • After our splurge at the Wahiba Sands, we opted to go budget on Masirah and ended up at the Danat Hotel.  How do I describe it?  It’s fine.  Nothing special, and overpriced, but this is the way things go in Oman.  You don’t have a lot of options to choose from on Masirah (seriously, there are four hotels), so this is probably the best value of the bunch.  From $78/night for a standard king with breakfast included.
  • There is also the much more expensive Masirah Island Resort, which we visited for lunch.  It was definitely nicer than the Danat and had a pristine pool, but it was a ghost town – not a single soul in sight besides a few staff members.  It is, however, the only establishment that offers alcohol on the island.  From $207/night for a deluxe standard room.

Salalah

  • Salalah is the location of the aforementioned bug-infested room, so as I said, we chose the Hilton, which offers all the things you’d expect from a mega-resort: a plethora of restaurants, a nightclub, multiple pools, a gym, tennis courts, and beachfront access.  The facilities are nice but not five-star (our room was a bit worn with a view of the parking lot), but our biggest complaint by far was the internet, which was slow and cost $18/day for a maximum of three devices per room.  I don’t know about you, but for those prices at a supposed five-star hotel that caters to businessmen, diplomats, and rich tourists, I expect to connect as many devices as I want.  From $195/night for a standard king room.

5 Responses

  1. Erika (Erika's Travels)
    | Reply

    Oman is beautiful! I visited many of the places you mentioned in 2011, but never made it to Salalah. How I wish I had! It seems like such a lush corners of such an otherwise arid region!

  2. Liennguyen
    | Reply

    It’s such an amazing travel guide about what we should do, where we should visit and stay. It’s really useful for my future trip to my dream land – Oman. Thanks for your sharing 🙂

  3. Marie Christine
    | Reply

    Hi! I checked online to rent a Land Rover Defender and couldn’t find anything. Could you help me please?

    • H.J. Derr
      | Reply

      Marie,
      I’m not sure about renting a Defender, specifically. The Toyota Land Cruiser family of vehicles seems to be the staple 4×4 in the Middle East. This link (https://goo.gl/kTlwH3) is what I came up with after a quick Google search. It looks like Budget and Eurocar rent 4x4s as well as some other outfits. This blog post (http://beyondtheroute.com/2016/04/25/renting-a-car-in-oman/) seems to have some detailed info. Hope this helps.
      -H

    • D. Michael
      | Reply

      Marie, nobody is offering a Land Rover Defender for hire, they are horrible to maintain in a fleet. If you want a well equipped 4×4 for serious off road, go for a PDO spec Land Cruiser. More details at the link H.J. Derr mentioned.

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