I was asked recently by someone who was off to Dubai for some winter sun, “what should I see?” By this, they didn’t mean a big ski slope, some very tall buildings, a huge shopping mall or a man made island. No, what they were actually talking about was culture. I’ve been to Dubai a few times for one reason or another and although it’s certainly big on a lot of things, for me culture isn’t one of them.
This then got me thinking about where to go when you don’t want to fly too far, want guaranteed sun during our winter months and would like just enough culture to tear you away from the sun lounger, at least for the odd day. With Dubai embracing modernity at every turn, there is one Middle Eastern country that remains resiliently old school and that’s Oman. As you’d expect in a nation which banned sunglasses and bicycles until the Seventies, this isn’t the kind of place the Rooney’s would splash out £30,000 on a short break…….and that adds to the attraction of Oman.
The hubby and I first travelled to Oman a few years ago. If Oman was Dubai, a few years would have seen the place go for broke with a building extravaganza and it would now be unrecognisable. However, thankfully Oman has a more leisurely approach to tourism and The Sultan, Qaboos bin Said, has kept things low key. Yes, there has been development but, the modern hasn’t trampled on the old and wonderfully luxurious hotels sit nicely alongside ancient sites and Islamic customs. Add to this the glorious mountains, spectacular deserts, medieval cities and a thousand-odd miles of seaside and you have a wonderful place for a holiday.
Muscat still feels like a real place, with a proud sense of history, gentle and charming people and a liberal society. You can easily spend a day mooching round this beautiful ‘low-built’ city where you always have views of the ocean or the rose-pink mountains. There are many forts, castles and mosques and the Cornich with its seaside promenade. We visited the Sultan’s Palace and walled city, which is guarded by the twin Portuguese forts of Jalali and Nirani, and the astonishing Grand Mosque, which can hold 20,000 people and boasts the largest chandelier in the world (eight-and-a-half tonnes of Swarovski crystals). We then tried our hand at haggling in the hassle-free Muttrah souq, which is good for pashminas, spices, frankincense and gold.
Out and about – life as it was
Through the hotel concierge we arranged for a driver to take us to the oasis city of Nizwa. The trip took about 1 and half hours each way and was well worth it to get out in to the Omani countryside. Nizwa was the capital of Oman in the 6th and 7th centuries and is dominated by an imposing fort, which comes complete with towers, battlements, turrets, secret shafts and false doors. Life goes on as normal in the town itself where locals parade their livestock for sale in a lively swirl of elegant white clothed men. There is also a bustling souk selling traditional handicrafts and its here you can find the artisan silversmiths that create some wonderful jewellery to stock up on.
What else is on offer?
We also indulged in some diving or you could break away from civilisation by camping at Wahiba Sands. Here activities include camel rides, quad biking and dune-bashing; or you could just sit on the porch of your Bedouin style tent watching the colour of the sand change as the sun sets in the distance. Alternatively, you could head out to the Musandam peninsular in the stunningly beautiful, northernmost part of the Omani coastline. Here you’ll find Zighy Bay where you can choose how to arrive at your hotel: driving down from the mountains, by speed boat or as a companion with the resident professional paraglider! This is true away from it all luxury.
So is Oman just another fly and flop location?
If that’s what you want then Oman certainly has the weather and wonderful hotels to laze around without doing much else; all with a more relaxed and less bling vibe than Dubai. But, what’s so nice about Oman is that it has just enough to do from the doorstep of your hotel to break up a week’s beach holiday and to make you feel as though you’ve actually experienced the culture and variety that the country has to offer.
How to get there
Muscat is a direct flight from London with Oman Air and from Manchester you can fly via Dubai with Emirates; there’s a quick stop at Dubai airport with just enough time to hit Duty Free and then it’s a 1 hour hop to Muscat. If you wanted to fly and flop at Zighy Bay it’s a 50 minute drive from Dubai airport.
The best time to visit
The temperatures are lovely between November and early April.
Best insider tip
If you’re visiting in October / November check to see when Ramadan falls. Invest in a good local Omani guide to take you to places off the tourist trial and don’t leave without the country’s famed silver frankincense to burn when you get home.