Shaw Travel’s… Oman
Oman is the quiet, less developed cousin of the Middle East – but it is authentic Arabia, says Sonia Shaw of Shaw Travel. This week she shares her love of the country, which she has known since the early 1980s.
Brief CV – Sonia Shaw
As a child I travelled back and forth between India and Britain for my education –which gave me my wanderlust – so it wasn’t a surprise that I ended up in the travel industry. Early on I worked for a couple of small travel agencies in Surrey and then in the early 1980s I moved to the Middle East and worked in some private airlines, in Saudi, Kuwait and then in Oman.
My first visit to Oman was in 1982 and I was captivated. When I arrived the country had barely any infrastructure – just two or three business hotels – and it was closed to anyone that didn’t have a work permit, so no tourists were allowed to visit at all. In 2000, when I started Shaw Travel, I was one of the first people to offer trips to the country.
Oman is understated and unassuming. It is true unspoilt Arabia – authentic, exotic and charming. It is also very much a newcomer on the scene, and it has avoided the bling and the over-development of some of its neighbours. And it is clean and completely safe. Oman offers excellent winter sun and it has superb natural life, with two deserts (the Wahiba Sands and the Empty Quarter) as well as the wonderful scenery of the mountains, deserts and coastlines.
Having lived in other parts of the Middle East, I know Oman to be the unspoilt neighbour in the region, with a traditional way of life and decent, delightful people.
What kind of feedback do you get from your clients?
Shaw Travel’s typical clients are well travelled, well informed and pretty well heeled, and they’re curious about authentic places as well as being interested in up and coming destinations. They love to explore and particularly the interaction with the people – both with our diver/guides and with the Omanis they meet along the way. They say they like Oman because it is so unspoilt and yet it has so much to explore.
Expect the unexpected?
With the reputation of other countries in the Middle East, Oman often takes people by surprise for its lack of high rise and bling. Then there are the Omanis, who are extremely welcoming towards visitors. The country is also large and has so much more on offer than people expect. Activities include trips to deserts and mountains as well as the seaside, and there is excellent birdlife, fishing and scuba diving.
Because Oman is so new on the scene, quite a lot of accommodation has opened up recently and plenty is on the cards for the near future. The new Alila opens this month in Jebel Akhdar. It’s spectacular – 84 suites perched on a rise overlooking a gorge and the Hajar Mountains. Kempinski has just broken ground in Muscat, which bodes well for the future. There’s a new airport due for a couple of years’ time and golf courses and developments are appearing gradually. Even the far south, Salalah is opening up to visitors now. The Juweira, a stylish small hotel, has just opened there.
Dish to die for?
This would have to be sfhuwa, a lightly spiced lamb dish that is cooked for two days, sometimes underground. It’s usually served with rice, and everyone sits around and helps themselves out of a central bowl. Where? That would have to be the Kargeen restaurant in Muscat, where you sit on sofas under the stars in a courtyard garden.
Doing business in Oman used to be exasperating in the early days. When the country first opened up in 1990 there wasn’t even a Tourist Board and the Omanis couldn’t see the possibilities that tourism would bring. Since then though, the country has become far better organised and it is far easier to get things done. Nowadays for instance it is possible to find well trained Omani guides.
Oman is very safe and you can do your own thing, but it’s important to remember that it is a Muslim country and the people have quite conservative values. Therefore travellers should be sensitive in terms of their dress and follow certain codes. For instance you should never point a camera at a woman.
Our Mobile Family Safari itinerary gives a really good look at Oman in nine days. It starts with three days de-stressing on the beach in Muscat – in the Al Bustan hotel – though by the third day it’s getting pretty active as you head out looking for dolphins off the coast at Bandar Khiran. Then we move inland via the eastern Hajar Mountains, with a picnic en route by an oasis pool in Wadi Tayeen, where you can explore the falaj water systems and a local village. And for sunset we head out past the many fortresses into the Wahiba Sands to a desert camp for the night. Next morning, after sunrise coffee on the peak of a sand-dune and a visit to a Bedou family, we head to the date plantations and the famous souk at Nizwa, and then to another luxury desert camp in the Hajar Mountains. Here we explore the gorges before heading back to Muscat via Wadi Ban Auf, with stops at the village of Balad Sayt and crystal-clear mountain pools along the way. The last night is spent in extreme luxury at the Chedi Hotel.
If you could change any one thing about Oman…
I’ve been saying this for years – in fact tourism ministers run for cover now when they see me coming… The thing I would most love is for them to encourage small, locally-owned and run boutique hotels with true Arabian character. At the moment they’re playing the numbers game with large hotel chains, but it would add so much more character to have some riad-style hotels for people to stay in. Still, I did manage to get one off the ground – the Desert Nights resort which is in the Wahiba Sands.
Guest post courtesy of the Travelspinner Blog. See the article here.