Where to stay in Oman
While big-name hotel players cluster around Muscat, Oman’s desert landscapes remain wide open. Harry Pearson sketches an epic adventure.
At night the silence in the Wahiba Sands is so soft and thick you feel you could cut a strip and wear it as a scarf. The velvet sky is splattered with stars, the saffron-coloured sand covered in the intricate pointillist patterns left by the feet of dozens of scarab beetles marching stolidly around the lanterns of our camp.
Earlier, I had sat watching the sun descend with what seemed like unnatural haste behind dunes heavily shaded like the robes of some rich aristocrat in a Flemish oil painting; shadow turning them from golden demerera to burnt orange. The Wahiba Sands are spotted with clumps of dark, spiky grass. The twisted forms of ziziphus trees, the sadistically barbed branches of which formed Christ’s crown of thorns, stalk the flatlands.
The ziziphus produces pale-yellow stone fruits that Omani boys sell from baskets by the side of the road. The flesh is mealy and acerbic. What it lacks in flavour, the fruit makes up for in history. This, the Arabs say, is what Adam ate when God first set him down in the Garden of Eden.
Read the whole article, by Harry Pearson of Conde Nast Traveller - here.
The previous night we had camped in Wadi Tanuf, the site of a mineral-water spring, in the mountains near Nizwa. The high cliffs magnified and sharpened every sound, turning the mild act of chopping firewood into a Wild West gunfight. In the darkness the lonely call of a Scops owl shrilled like the whistle of the Cannonball Express.
We had arrived at Wadi Tanuf after driving through Wadi Bani Awf. The route climbed dramatically, apparently defying gravity and physics, tarmac giving way to grade road and then bumpy track. Flat-topped bluffs and rocky buttes that would not appear out of place in a John Ford Western loomed above. Steel signs pointed the way to distant villages – sometimes down roads as yet unbuilt.
In what seemed like the middle of nowhere, we passed a group of footballers jogging off for a game on a stony pitch carved into the mountainside, the goalposts fashioned from branches, the crossbars made of rope. Crossing the brow of one last hill, we found ourselves looking down into the natural amphitheatre of the Sahtan Bowl, stage left of which is the tiny village of Misfat al Abryeen.
Here, a venerable watchtower stands sentinel over a cluster of ochre houses perched on ledges above a series of terraced gardens where wheat and onions grow amid banana trees. In late afternoon the village is softly hushed, the only sound the bleating of far-off goats. White-robed men are working in the fields. High overhead a black and white Egyptian vulture slowly circles.
A couple of hours’ drive west, there are more ziziphus trees in the lush and paradisiacal setting of Wadi Bani Khalid. Stands of dark-green reeds grow beside chuckling water. Succulent trees ripple in a breeze that wafts down the valley; an Indian roller bird is a sudden flash of iridescent blue among the wagging foliage.
Above, rocks the colour of an Arabian bay rise ancient and craggy until they disappear in the heat haze. A herdsman drives dark-fleeced sheep down a narrow gorge beside an irrigation ditch. Somewhere in the distance, the ululating call of the hoopoe, a crested, pink-tinged bird, mingles with the bray of a donkey.
A man in a batik dishdasha robe and turban is cutting reeds to sell for floor covering. He walks down the road balancing a sheaf of them on his head. French-blue water trucks rumble by, stirring up a small blizzard of clouded yellow butterflies that have been feasting on the sweet nectar of bougainvillaea flowers.
The water flowing over smooth grey rocks has worn away the stone to leave hollows that look like the footprints of giants. Garnet and amber dragonflies skim across the surface. Beneath it, small dark fish flit among swaying starwort. Rock martins swoop low across the tranquil surface of the deeper pools.
A large-faced Omani man leaps across the stream, his leather sandals slapping on the stone, and smiles, revealing a missing front tooth. He skips off down the path trailed by the sweet, musky smell ofbakhoor, the richly scented powder the locals burn to freshen up their clothing.
Oman is the perfume capital of Arabia. Roses and sandalwood grow across the region, myrrh is harvested in the valleys close to the Yemeni border and the world’s finest frankincense is tapped from trees in the valleys of Jabal al Qamar – the Mountains of the Moon – outside Salalah, an 80-minute flight south-west from Muscat, the capital.
A zig-zag road like something drawn by a fastidious maths teacher carries you up and down the Mountains of the Moon. In the dark, rugged landscape in which the prophet Job suffered his many torments, bright-pink desert roses blossom on leafless grey shrubs and the stubby frankincense trees ooze their precious, sticky white resin from fissures in the bark.
Frankincense is what made Oman famous. It was one of the most sought-after commodities in the ancient world – more valuable than gold. Long before the internal combustion engine and crude oil, the fragrant gum of the Boswellia tree made southern Arabia the wealthiest region on the planet. The Emperors of Persia took it as tribute, the successors of Alexander the Great traded for it. The Romans tried to get their hands on it by conquest, but the Augustan legions perished in the sands of the Empty Quarter.
‘Who is this,’ King Solomon asked ‘that cometh out of the wilderness like pillars of smoke, perfumed with myrrh and frankincense, with all powders of the merchant?’ The Old Testament doesn’t supply an answer, but it may have been the Queen of Sheba. No one knows exactly from where this wise and exotic monarch came, but Oman was part of her territory. Sumhuram, an archaeological site close to Salalah, is sometimes called The Queen of Sheba’s Palace.
The ruined city is on a headland flanked on either side by a sweet-water creek, Khor Rori, that ripples like turquoise silk. It enters the sea between craggy cliffs; at low tide a bar of yellow sand closes off the mouth. Flamingoes and spoonbills, the supermodels of the avian world, stalk about the water on stiletto legs.
A small sea gate opens onto what would once have been the busy road to the quayside. Omani sailing dhows fashioned from Malabar hardwood brought ivory from the African coast, cotton from Egypt and spices from India. They still make them north along the coast at Sur, where Indian workmen chisel the spars by hand and the air is rich with the scent of freshly planed timber.
Omani navigators, including, so local legend has it, Sinbad the Sailor, became as proficient at plotting a course on the water as they already were in the desert, using the stars to find their way to Rome, Kerala and Shanghai. They established outposts in Zanzibar, Balochistan and Tanzania.
One of the greatest of them, Ahmad Ibn Majid, reputedly provided Vasco da Gama with an Arab navigational aid, the astrolabe, and then piloted the Portuguese explorer during his first voyage to Kolkota. In return for the favour, the Portuguese attacked Muscat and briefly occupied it. One of their 16th-century forts overlooks the sea near the Sultan’s Palace.
Wadi Darbat feeds the creek at Sumhuram. Driving up it, you enter a tree-lined valley where black-and-white dairy cattle stroll across the road oblivious to the tooting of the orange-and-white Omani cabs. For nine months of the year the grass is low and dun-coloured, but the Dhofar region is in the monsoon belt and when the khareef rains hit between mid-June and September it turns instantly green.
Revivified, the landscape is so verdant that one of the British officers who fought here alongside the Omani Army against communist insurgents in the 1970s described it as looking ‘like the Yorkshire Dales’. He must have been particularly homesick, because you rarely see camels in Leyburn or Settle. Here, they are everywhere, slouching about, batting their huge eyelashes, chewing slowly and staring at passers-by with the bored insolence of taxi dancers. Occasionally, one of them breaks wind with a noise like a Vespa speeding down a Roman alleyway.
The heavy rains soften the landscape of Dhofar and the plains around Salalah, giving a tropical air. Great plantations flank the road to the airport. You can stop to buy a fresh coconut, chilled from the freezer, drink the juice and eat the rubbery flesh.
Stalls sell sugar cane, bananas no bigger than a thumb that are as sweet and fragrant as those from St Lucia, papayas the size of watermelons, fresh turmeric, jackfruit (a gigantic fibrous banana-ish thing originally from Kerala), mangoes and chikku, which has pulpy white flesh and large black seeds that suggest a missing link between passion fruit and lychee.
Oil and gas are now Oman’s biggest exports. Frankincense is no longer as valuable as it once was. You can buy a Ziploc bag of pale Hoja’i, the best-quality resin, for £10 in souks like the one we visited in Nizwa. It looks like rock candy and is jumbled up on stalls amid plastic washing-up bowls filled with dried baby shark (the Omani equivalent of salt cod), big, flat aluminium dishes of garlic and dried limes, bunches of fresh oregano, flowerpots overflowing with red chillies, squeezy bottles of date syrup, green peppers and puce aubergines, and lavender-coloured colanders stuffed with rough- skinned cucumbers, pale courgettes, bottle-green okra and creamy cauliflowers.
An elderly nut-brown man in a turban sells palm hearts ripe with pollen, not for eating but for fertilising female palms. Beside them is a basket of the hard fronds that old Omanis still use as toothbrushes. In the fish market next door, white-tiled counters display the catch: yellowfin tuna, polka-dot-flanked queenfish, slim bluefish, various species of grouper, red snapper, red-scaled Indian oil sardines, glistening anchovies and the bloody remains of what looks like a hammer-head shark.
Outside, a bearded man strides purposefully past with a bolt-action Lee-Enfield .303 rifle over his shoulder. Close by a small boy is selling Vimto bottles filled with golden honey and a selection of ferocious-looking lock-knives. Customers unscrew the caps and sniff the contents knowledgeably, or test the steel blades against their thumbs. The smell of cardamom wafts from a shop making halva, a sticky caramel-coloured dessert.
On our final day in Oman we are on the Azzura catamaran, skimming across a placid sea where earlier we watched dozens of spinner dolphins breaking the waves with a flash of white belly. I am thinking about Wadi Shab, a vast primeval gorge that looks like it might hide dinosaurs. The sandy floor is edged with palm trees. In late afternoon the buttery light from the dipping sun pours in, shimmering like ghee in the sci-fi setting of the Bimmah sinkhole; eldritch silence and water so still that in the gloom it’s impossible to tell where reflection and reality divide.
I have been to enough places in Arabia to judge that there is no other place on Earth where the gap between the topography of our imagination and that of actuality is wider. Scheherazade, Hollywood and the illustrations of Edmund Dulac and Maxfield Parrish have created a mythical Arabian landscape of intoxicating sensuality that reality often struggles to match. Oman is different: it is not like most of Arabia, it is what we imagined Arabia would be.
Hud Hud Camping
Hud Hud’s handmade Bedouin tents, containing double beds with real mattresses, offer the sort of comfort that will smooth the frowns of anyone who instinctively rebels at the notion of sleeping under canvas. Add in private bathrooms with showers, a crackling fire pit and excellent food (tiffin-tin picnics with a spicy Niçoise salad, semolina pudding with cardamom), and you have a glamorous package that will draw cheers from even the most committed tentophobe.
Salalah Marriott Resort
On the coast at the foot of the imposing Jebel Samhan, near the port of Mirbat with its 300-year- old merchant houses, fort and lively dock, this hotel looks out onto rocky islands where fishermen drop their lobster pots. It has comfortable rooms in the modern Arabian style, a frankincense spa and a huge swimming pool.
Sifawy Boutique Hotel
The Sifawy is located on the edge of the Jebel Sifah marina, 45km from the centre of Muscat. Designed by Italian architect Alfredo Freda, the hotel’s look is sleek and elegant. The excellent seafood restaurant is right on the beach, a few minutes walk from the main building. The staff can arrange day trips on theAzzura catamaran (www.oceanblueoman.com), an experience so improbably stunning that it only requires the donning of an Antony Price suit to turn it into a Duran Duran video.
Juweira Boutique Hotel
A chic and, unusually for the Arabian peninsula, stylishly understated 82-bedroom hotel in an area of white-sand beaches 20km from Salalah Airport. The balconied bedrooms have white wood, bold stripes and bathrooms so large you practically need a golf buggy to get across them.
Shaw Travel organises tailormade holidays to Oman. A seven-night trip, including two nights at the Ritz-Carlton Al Bustan Palace hotel, two nights at the Juweira Boutique Hotel, one night at the Salalah Marriott Resort on a bed-and-breakfast basis, a three-day safari with Hud Hud Travels (with all meals), a private tour of Muscat, flights and transfers costs from £3,300 per person.
+44 1635 47055; www.shawtravel.com