1. The Jebel
The journey up to the high mountains (the Jebel) of Oman is vertiginous and gasp-inducing at every turn, while it was exhilarating for me, it is perhaps not as easy for the faint of heart. Roads seem to drop off beneath you and flash rains flood wadis making crossings near impossible. It’s a road I travelled up and down many times while I was staying up on the Green Mountain, from Birkat al Mouz, near Nizwah, but the two mountains of Jebel Akhdar and Jebel Shams (3,009m altitude) are decidedly worth the long drive.
The Jebel will cater to every whim: from rock climbing to exploring ancient villages, history for those interested in the Jebel Akhdar War (you may even stumble upon some unexploded ordnance!), a plethora of delicious food, luxury hotels for those just wanting to lie on a lounger and soak up the views, rocks filled with fossils and walking routes for every level of hiker.
It’s the views that really clinched it for me. The photos cannot and don’t do them justice, but just rugged rocks for miles and miles with open sky above them. Stay in or visit the Alila or Anantara Hotels for a spot of luxury amid the rugged wildness.
2. The Sea
There’s just something about the sea, the silky feel of water on your skin, the shimmering turquoise colour, the underwater worlds that lie hidden beneath the surface. Every time I slip into its folds, I feel almost honoured to be invited to this other world.
Oman has almost 1,700km of unspoilt coastline from the Strait of Hormuz in the north to the border with Yemen in the south, overlooking three seas: the Persian Gulf, the Gulf of Oman and the Arabian Sea. The Omanis are seafaring people, in fact, according to myth, Sinbad the Sailor was born in Oman and it was from this incredible country he set off on his fantastical voyages.
If you visit Oman, make sure to set out onto the waters on a traditional Dhow boat and follow Sinbad’s example.
To me, interactions with native and wild animals really make a trip, and Oman’s coastline and waters are teeming with wildlife. From the multicoloured fish that hover and dart around the coral reefs to the green turtles, 5 varieties of which lay their eggs in Oman, to migrating whales and my most favourite, dolphins!
Euro Divers in Muttrah organise incredible tours out in small boats to see the dolphin pods and we certainly weren’t disappointed! About fifteen dolphins swam lazily around the boat for what felt like forever. Contrary to the Little Mermaid Ariel, “I want to be out in the sea, wish I could be part of that world”.
3. Al Mudhaibi Wilayat
If you’re driving through the Al Mudhaibi Wilayat and if you’re lucky you’ll stumble upon Al Fat’h village. Our Omani friend who took us here spoke no English and therefore I know nothing about this incredible old site or it’s history, and have been unable to find out anything further online sadly.
I suppose you don’t always have to know all the details, sometimes just wandering around and soaking up the beauty and the oasis-esque atmosphere is everything. Oman is absolutely filled with unexpected treasures like this that you’re bound to stumble upon.
4. Bibi Maryam’s Tomb
The Ancient City of Qalhat is now just an archeological site of mostly rubble, but it is absolutely worth a visit. Just off the main road from Muscat to Sur, a few kilometres before Tiwi, this stunning tomb stands tall, proudly looking out to sea.
Qalhat was one of the most important cities of the Kingdom of Hormuz and of the region due to its strategic location on the Indian Ocean trade routes. Many famous merchants and explorers of the day visited Qalhat including Marco Polo, Zheng He and Ibn Buttutah who described as having “fine bazaars and one of the most beautiful mosques.” The main commerce in Qalhat was for Chinese porcelain and Arabian horses, however the trade shifted to Muscat after 1507 when Qalhat was captured by Afonso de Alburquerque and the Portuguese Empire.
All that is really left is the Tomb, built by Bibi Maryam for her late husband Ayaz after he died. He was the governor of Qalhat in the late 13th Century but as he was often away, Maryam ruled in his absence. After he died, she continued to rule until 1319.
The city became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2018.
5. Wadi Shab
Probably my favourite experience in Oman was visiting Wadi al Shab. It’s easily located, off the road from Sur to Muscat near a small town called Tiwi. You can access the wadi by paying one of the boatman a small fee to row you across the mouth of the wadi to reach the path on the other side. From there starts the hike through stunning rock formations in the gorge and quite literally through dozens of water pools, some ankle deep and some you have to swim through.
I definitely recommend wearing some sort of water shoe or trainers you can get wet as well as shorts and a t-shirt over a swimsuit as you’ll be hiking through the wadi as well as swimming through it. If you have a waterproof canoe bag for your essentials that would be the best option.
Thanks to my friend MG for the below video and for being insane enough to dive from so high.
The walk is teeming with wildlife and the colour contrast of the sandy rocks, green palm trees and still turquoise pools is spectacular. If there is a heaven, I hope it’s a wadi!
Once you make it past all the shallower pools you come across a large, deep pool that requires you to swim through some secret grottos to reach the main cave. The light in these grottos is incredible and the shapes the water and silt has made on the rocks by erosion is so unusual.
A gentle waterfall which resembles more of a slide dominates a corner of the large cavern, the water has eroded the rock to make it soft and smooth. You can climb up this slide using the rope that has been attached to the top, just be careful as the footing is slippery and it requires an initial boost of upper body strength!
At the top of the slide is the final pool, and luckily for us, on the day that we went, no one else made it to the top so we had it to ourselves for hours. Laze away the afternoon swimming, jumping off the rocks to the clear water below and dozing in the sun to complete your transformation to mermaid or merman.
By the end of the day you’ll feel like a true wadi dweller and I’d be surprised if you didn’t have webbed hands and feet!
6. The Souks
Oman is teeming with fantastic Souks (bazaars/markets), my favourite being the Souk in Nizwah or the Souk at Muttrah. Nizwah takes the crown because of the fantastic backdrop of Nizwah Fort, lit up at night and the fact that it also has a goat Souk (every Friday morning from 0700)!
One of the most popular things to buy for both tourists and locals alike is the Khanjar, an Omani dagger shaped like the letter J, worn by men as part of the traditional attire but now mainly just for ceremonial occasions. It is the symbol of the Sultanate of Oman and features on the Rials. It is now considered a social taboo in Oman to pull out one’s khanjar from its scabbard without blooding it, since the only time someone would do this would be to seek vengeance or to defend oneself.
The Craftsman’s house in Nizwah features the largest Khanjar in Oman, according to the owner, which is pretty impressive in size. However there are a plethora of other interesting things you can buy from the Souks. I treated myself to a beautiful bronze horse sculpture as well as a number of spices and sweets.
7. The Food
It probably sounds like a generalisation to say that all food in the Middle East is good, but in my experience it truly is, and Oman is no different. There’s a broad mix of more Lebanese and Jordanian style food as well as a strong influence from the South Indian immigrant population. Look out for Cafe Corniche in Muttrah by the Souk for some great lemon and mint juice and chicken/meat with hummous as well as novelty falafels shaped liked hearts. Oman is abundant in fresh fruit juice so I would definitely recommend taking advantage.
My favourite food however was at a simple little restaurant in Tiwi where they had a South Indian dish called Beef Pepper Fry – made with pepper, chillies, spices and a lot of curry leaves – I shall forever be chasing that high!
Make sure to look out for the cold stone ice cream shops for a chance to cool down. The ice cream is made from fresh fruit blended and then made in front of you.
8. The Goats
My love of animals (dogs, horses, dolphins…) also extends to goats, which, in my opinion, are the dogs of the farm world. Oman is absolutely full of goats which made me incredibly happy and made my friends – both British and Omani – incredibly bemused. Especially as I made them stop the car at regular occasions so I could either take a photo of a goat or get out to stroke one.
The Jebel is one of the key locations for goat sightings, and they’re incredibly friendly and curious too, coming over to see if you have any food to offer them or just lazily accepting a nuzzled nose.
Out in the desert you’ll often find the goats standing seemingly precariously on branches of trees, high above the ground. These sure footed, mischievous creatures definitely get around! For a real goat overdose, make sure to attend the goat souk in Nizwah every Friday from 0700. You see all the local Bedouin ladies with their goats for sale and you can absolutely ask to pick up the small babies and have a cuddle.
9. Dhow boats:
If you visit the Sailing Town of Sur, make sure to stop off at the Dhow Shipyard to get a better insight into how these evocative wooden ships are made. This can be found easily with Google Maps or any other navigation mapping aid.
Sur is one of the most famous cities in the Gulf region in building wooden ships. Its historical location means it is strategically located to service both the Gulf of Oman and the Indian Ocean. Many types of ships have been built in this city, including the sambuk and ghanjah which would have journeyed as far as China, India, Zanzibar, Iraq and many other countries. These vessels were also used in pearl fishing.
You can walk around the shipyard for free and even climb up into the boats themselves. Everything is made using wood and the craftsmanship is truly exquisite and well worth a closer look.
10. The People
The people of Oman are some of the friendliest people I’ve met, wanting nothing more than for tourists and visitors to love their country and leave with good words of this magical land.
Our local friend Amur (pictured below) took us all around the local sights, to the goat market in Nizwah, the town of Al Mudhaibi, he took us camel riding at his friends camel stud and finally took us to his own garden – an oasis within the desert. In this garden he grows all sorts of fruit and vegetables for his table at home and keeps a menagerie of farm animals such as goats and sheep as well as peacocks and rare deer. It was a pleasure to spend the afternoon strolling around this kind man’s pride and joy.
11. The Horses
The wind of heaven is that which blows between a horse’s ears – Arabian Proverb
One of the things I love best about countries in the Gulf is the abundant availability of Arabian Horses and the love the people have for them. Luckily I managed to ride quite a few times in Oman, but my favourite occasion was when I was sitting having dinner at a restaurant in Nizwah and looked out across the parking lot and spotted a man on a horse. Being me, I couldn’t resist getting up from the table (a horse is the only thing that would entice me to abandon food) and run over to stroke it. Within only a few moments the owner had dismounted and asked if I wanted to ride. This would never happen in the UK, safety standards aside, people don’t just give their pureblood highly strung stallions to a total stranger who may or may not know how to ride. This was a beautiful horse, with ample power and so sensitive to the touch, it’s a real pleasure to ride a quality horse, especially when it’s so unexpected!
So thank you Oman, for being so beautiful, so wondrous, so tasty, and for handing me free horses.