ANURAG MALLICK & PRIYA GANAPATHY savour a platter of experiences – from Portuguese forts and dolphin cruises, ancient petroglyphs and secret wadis – served with trademark Omani hospitality.
Oman is a country that will astonish you with its riches. The Queen of Sheba’s palace near Salalah was the epicentre of the 6000-year-old frankincense trade and it is likely that the frankincense carried by one of the Three Magi during the birth of Jesus originated here. Sinbad the Sailor is not merely a legend, but a man of flesh and blood who was born in the ancient Omani capital of Sohar.
In the 8th century, Cheraman Perumal, the Chera king of Kerala, adopted Islam (purportedly the first Indian to do so), divided his kingdom among various feudatories and sailed to Mecca; he died while returning and his tomb lies in the Omani port of Zafar. In a country where the tallest structure in any town is not a shiny skyscraper but usually the local mosque, the understated Omani hospitality is disarming.
Straddling the crossroads of three continents and four seas, Oman’s rich history was shaped by the waters that lap against its rugged shores. Hemmed by the Sea of Oman and the Arabian Sea and guarded by the Al Hajar mountains and the Rub’ al Khali desert (literally ‘Empty Quarter’), it strategically overlooks the Strait of Hormuz at the mouth of the Persian Gulf. The Persians and Ottomans vied for control over the lucrative maritime trade of the Indian Ocean.
Yet, the country’s geography was its security and even the powerful Portuguese could only occupy a few coastal areas. Expelled in 1650 AD, they left behind a slew of seaside forts. Today, Muscat’s twin forts Al Jalali and Al Mirani, besides the Muttrah souq stand proof of the short-lived Portuguese presence in the Gulf.
But Oman has a lot more to offer than Muscat. We flew to Khasab, an hour’s flight from the capital in the northern-most governorate of Musandam. One look at the Prussian blue fjords surrounded by mauve mountains from our Oman Air flight and we knew why it was called the ‘Norway of Arabia’.
Checking into the luxurious Atana Khasab Hotel, we enjoyed a lovely Arabian spread of fried hamour (fish), Zatar bread, hummus, falafel, moutabel (seasoned eggplant with olive oil) and salads perked up with zesty sumac (lemony spice). We washed it all down with laban (salty buttermilk) and date milk, before setting off on our local explorations.
Khasab Fort, built by the Portuguese on the site of an earlier fortification, has been renovated into a museum and serves as the perfect curtain raiser to the maritime nation and its well-preserved Arabian culture. Various types of traditional boats graced the courtyard as if they had magically washed ashore.
Around it were specimens of a coffee-making room, arish (summer house) and granary with thematic rooms on the upper floors – a ladies’ majlis, study room, wedding chamber, an apothecary of traditional medicine and a dazzling showcase of costumes, jewellery and ornate khanjars (Omani daggers). We drove along the scenic Coastal Road from Khasab to the fort of Bukha, set against a stunning backdrop of jagged cliffs.
Oman’s 1600km long coastline brims with adventures – from kite surfing and sportfishing to diving at The Aquarium at Damaniyat Islands, whale watching at Mirbat, bird spotting at the wetlands of Masirah Island and turtle hatching at Ras al Jinz. Back in Khasab, a traditional Omani dhow waited for us with friendly staff at our service with fruits and cool drinks as we lounged on plush carpets. The crags were studded with large flocks of nesting cormorants feeding their young while others dived and emerged to dry their wings on the rocky perches. Dolphins cleaved through clear blue waters, outpacing our dhow with graceful leaps.
We soon docked near Telegraph Island, named after the undersea telegraph system set up by the British in 1854 to send messages from Karachi to London along the Persian Gulf submarine cable. Today, its rich marine life and stunning tropical fish was a magnet for snorkelers and divers seeking hammerheads, leopard whale sharks, mink whales, mantas, eagle rays and turtles. Donning our masks and fins, we plunged into the clear waters for a sublime experience.
Oman is also home to the loftiest peak in the Arabian Peninsula – Jebel Shams, often compared to the Grand Canyon for its rugged untamed beauty. But we were headed on a winding offroad drive to the 2,087 m high Jebel Harim, or the ‘Mountain of Women’. According to legend, local women often flocked to this lofty hill to escape pirates when their husbands were away fishing, hence its name.
En route we stopped at a lookout over the stunning fjord Khor Najd, besides Bedouin cave dwellings that were inhabited till the 1940s. At Qida, intriguing petroglyphs (stone carvings) of human, animal and abstract figures indicated the presence of early man. Yet, nothing prepared us for the sight of marine fossils high up in the mountain, imprinted on rocks when the Arabian and Eurasian tectonic plates of a restless earth collided around 90 million years ago!
We flew back to glitzy Muscat, which seemed a world apart from remote Musandam. The imprint of Sultan Qaboos was everywhere with roads, grand mosques and portraits paying tribute to the dynamic sultan who had literally pulled the sultanate from the dark ages, transforming it into a modern state.
After luxuriating at the opulent Shangri-La Hotel, we drove to A’Sharqiyah or Wahiba Sands for some glamping at Desert Nights Camp. Our plush tent with stunning rugs and carpets was indeed fit for a sultan. It was a short offroad drive to catch the sunset over the dunes, which changed colour with every passing moment.
The 12,500 sq km desert tract stretched 180 km by 80 km in the Ash Sharqiyah province (literally, Eastern Region) and was earlier called Ramlat al-Wahiba, named after the predominant al-Wahiba tribe inhabiting the region. Choosing to trudge down the sandy slopes to the camp, we were greeted by the sweet strains of the oud (traditional stringed instrument) and darbouka (goblet drum) while the smoky aroma of barbecues wafted as we dined under a starlit sky. It was a lavish Arabian spread of shuwa (meats), rice, Zatar bread, labneh, date milk and camel milk.
In the morning, we enjoyed a complimentary camel ride around the resort and tried quad biking and sandboarding, before our guide Mohammad from Khimji Travels took us dune bashing. It was a quick pitstop at Al Wasil to fill air into the tyres, which had been deflated to reduce the air pressure for the desert.
Our next destination was Wadi Bani Khalid, the best-known wadi (freshwater pool) in the region, part of the eastern chain of the Al Hajar mountains that soared up to 2000 m. Till the 1970s there was no road access and people could get here only on donkeys or on foot. We trudged along the falaj or irrigation canal lined by date palms to the oasis. Serving coffee with a platter of dates is the hallmark of Omani hospitality. In the old days, the birth of a son was marked by planting a date palm! Enterprising kids deftly maneuvered wheelbarrows to ferry visitors’ luggage on the narrow cemented walkway that lined the irrigation channels.
On reaching an amphitheatre of sandstone ridges and burnished mountains shimmering with copper deposits, we spotted locals enjoying themselves at aquamarine pools. With depths ranging up to 10 meters, the pools were safe for swimming. The scent of char-grilled meats emanated from barbecues in shaded groves of palm trees; someone else burned frankincense in a majmar (charcoal brazier). It was the heady aroma of Oman.
HOW TO EXPERIENCE OMAN
One of the safest countries in the Middle East to immerse yourself in authentic Arabian culture, Oman is the perfect blend of tradition and modernity. Its long coastline, soaring dunes and rugged mountains bejeweled with idyllic wadis (fresh water pools) are filled with many adventures.
Getting there & Around
The national carrier Oman Air flies direct to Muscat International Airport, Seeb from Mumbai (2h 50m), besides Delhi, Bengaluru, Kochi and Trivandrum (3h 30m). Khasab is a 50-min domestic flight from Muscat while Sharqiya Sands is 203 km via M23 (Muscat-Sur highway) towards Bidbid, Ibra and Al Wasil. www.omanair.com
When to go
Oman is pleasant from October to April barring the scorching summer months from June to August, except Salalah in the south which is washed by the khareef (rainy) season. The annual nesting of green turtles at Ras al Jinz is between July to October.
1-month e-Visa for Oman is available for 20 OMR (Omani Rial). Those holding a valid visa for US, Canada, Australia, UK, Japan or Schengen countries can get a short-term 10-day visa for just 5 OMR. https://evisa.rop.gov.om/en/visa-eligibility
Oman’s souks brim with stalls selling frankincense, attars, oils, ornamental khanjars (daggers), antiques, besides Turkish plates and lamps. Pick up a bottle of the best perfume Amouage or choose from hundreds of varieties of dates – Khasab, Farah or Khalas (the most premium variety), besides the glutinous Omani halwa. The medwak or Arabian smoking pipe made of wood, bone, metal, marble, gold, silver or glass is a great souvenir.
Where to Stay
Shangri-La Barr al Jissah Resort & Spa
Accessible through a tunnel, the complex of two hotels Al Waha (literally Oasis) and Al Bandar (The Town) has traditional Dhofari architecture with Chi spa offering a 4-hr Serenity Ritual with a frankincense scrub www.shangri-la.com
Luxurious 158-room hotel with Omani style rooms and villas, six restaurants, three pools and a Balinese spa. www.ghmhotels.com/en/muscat/
Al Bustan Palace
Opulent Arab-Art Deco resort with luxurious rooms, majestic 38m domed atrium lobby, five pools and 1km private beach, the longest in Oman. www.ritzcarlton.com/en/hotels/oman/al-bustan
Atana Khasab is a 4-star resort offering panoramic views of the spectacular Musandam shoreline or the mountains and authentic Omani cuisine while Atana Musandam is inspired by an Omani village with 8 clusters of lowrise buildings that come with private balconies. www.atanahotels.com
Desert Nights Camp
The only luxury desert camp in Oman set in 10-acres with 39 uber-luxury Bedouin style tents and adventure activities in the desert.
Ph +968 92818388, 99477266 www.desertnightscamp.com www.omanhotels.com
1000 Nights Camp
Set amidst golden dunes and Cineraria trees, stay in a choice of luxury tents fitted with reflective glass in the east and west for the perfect view of sunrise and sunset.
Ph +968 99448158, 22060243 http://thousandnightsoman.com
Dhow cruises, offroad safaris & local excursions in Musandam
Women and bedouins are sensitive to being photographed (some believe it captures their soul), so always ask before clicking.
For more info, visit www.omantourism.gov.om
Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared in the October 2018 issue Travel + Leisure India magazine.